Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences.
A Look Back
San Diego State and BYU continued to get separation from the rest of the pack this week, adding three more wins between them and hurtling us one week closer to an epic matchup between the two favorites in Provo on January 26. While BYU’s one game this week was a big 25-point win over intrastate rival Utah (more on that game later), the Aztecs posted the two most impressive wins of the week, getting a home win over UNLV in a slugfest before traveling to New Mexico and getting a 10-point up-tempo win in perhaps their toughest road trip of the season to date (which is saying a lot for a team who has now won 11 games away from the Viejas Arena this season).
Team of the Week: San Diego State – We’ve pointed out in this space before that sometimes this season, the Aztecs have been guilty of not giving great effort against some of the lesser teams on their schedule. They’ve been known to come out of the chutes a little slow. And while they’ve killed people on the offensive glass, they have been less than impressive on the other backboards at times. None of that was a problem this week. The Aztecs controlled the boards on both ends of the floor against UNLV on Wednesday. They fought and scrapped and harassed Rebel players from the opening jump to the final buzzer in scraping out a six-point win. Then on Saturday, used a completely different up-tempo, fast-breaking, three-point drilling style in overwhelming the Lobos in one of the toughest places to play in America. Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, and D.J Gay were all on top of their games this week, and with Duke being upset on Wednesday, the Aztecs now own the longest winning streak in the nation, with a 19-0 record.
Player of the Week: Kawhi Leonard, Sophomore, San Diego State – Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate. In a week where Jimmer Fredette posted 47 points, four rebounds, six assists, and two steals on 16-28 shooting with six threes mixed in there, I don’t for a second feel bad about handing the Player of the Week award (and all the glories that accompany it) to someone else. Especially when that someone else posted two dominant double-doubles in one of the tougher back-to-back sets of games of conference play. Leonard averaged 17 points and 16 rebounds this week, and those numbers alone are impressive enough. But throw in four assists in each game. Throw in a total of 16 trips to the line on the week. Throw in harassing defense that limited guys like Philip McDonald and Tre’Von Willis – guys listed in their rosters as guards – to a combined 4-16 from the field for 15 total points, more than eight below their combined average, and you’ll see why Leonard is right there with Fredette in the race for the MWC Player of the Year.
Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – This. No, really. Check this out. That alone had me abusing my TiVo remote’s rewind-button repeatedly on Saturday evening. In a game chock full of spectacular plays, that one was beyond the pale. Aside from the highlight reel stuff, Gordon was absolutely dominant in that game, playing his best game as a Lobo, and really, his best game as a collegiate. Against the hyper-athletic Aztec frontline, Gordon kept his Lobos in the game by drawing fouls across the SDSU frontcourt and scoring at will with a combination of feathery-soft jump hooks and athletic putbacks on his way to 23 points and 14 boards. After taking some time to get comfortable with his new squad, the UCLA transfer averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds this week, and while the Lobos are looking up at .500 in conference play, the combination of Gordon and senior point guard Dairese Gary could be a scary proposition down the stretch.
Game of the Week: San Diego State 87, New Mexico 77 – Have you checked this out yet? My goodness. Down the stretch, this game wasn’t exactly a nailbiter, but there was so much great basketball in this game that I wouldn’t mind going back and watching this one again. Aside from Gordon’s crazy dunk, there was Leonard throwing down a sick dunk on one possession, then coming back down on the very next possession and knocking down a confident three in the face of a Lobo defender, a pair of plays that had to have the NBA scouts in attendance drooling. Then there was the Gay/Gary duel, which made me realize how much I am going to miss those two bulldogs after a couple more months. Gay was outstanding, knocking down seven threes (including a runner at the half-time buzzer to cap a stellar stretch), but also getting to the line with ease and handing out a steady four assists along the way. Then there was Gary’s 23 points, seven assists and four threes as he and Gordon did everything possible to keep the Lobos within striking distance. While the game was never in doubt down the stretch, the play in the meat of the game was enthralling. Last year, the teams’ roles were pretty much reversed, with UNM off to the fast start in the front half of the season and SDSU just beginning to round into shape at the start of conference play. When they met in a classic semifinal matchup in the MWC Tournament, it was SDSU riding steady improvement through February and March who was able to rise up and grab the MWC automatic bid. Don’t be surprised if SDSU and New Mexico meet in the 1/4 matchup in this year’s MWC Semis with the Lobos needing to win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, and don’t be surprised to see another classic battle.
Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico at UNLV, 1/12, 1PM PST, Vs. – With San Diego State and Brigham Young well-established as the favorites in the conference, this is a battle between the next tier of teams. After starting out an impressive 9-0, the Rebels have now lost four of their last nine games and are in need of a confidence-boosting win. The Lobos currently sit at 1-2 in the conference and have yet to score a major win on the season – a win in Vegas on Saturday would be their first big notch on their potential NCAA Tournament resume. But beating the Rebs at home is easier said than done. They’ll need Gordon to reprise his dominating play this week and exploit a somewhat soft UNLV underbelly, while Gary will need to withstand the harassing Rebel defensive pressure on the perimeter. For the Rebels, it would help if they could find someone to knock down a couple perimeter jumpers. With so much on the line for both teams, this could be a rockfight.
1. San Diego State (19-0, 4-0): We’ve talked about Leonard and Gay above, so it’s time to check out some other Aztecs here. First, senior Malcolm Thomas has been a great frontcourt pairing with Leonard. He doesn’t need a lot of offense run for him to be effective, he’s plenty capable of converting his nearly three offensive rebounds per game into easy offense and he converts a high percentage of his shots from the field. He brings it on a consistent basis on the defensive end, getting after the defensive glass while also blocking more than two shots a game. Then there’s senior Billy White, who has been quiet of late. He blew up for 30 points and nine rebounds as the Aztecs made a name for themselves early in the season against Gonzaga, but since then he has been quiet. He has scored in double figures just twice in the last month and hasn’t grabbed more than five rebounds since before Thanksgiving. While White doesn’t need to be a big scorer or rebounder for SDSU to be effective, they do need consistent contributions out of him for them to live up to their potential. If he can get back to being an effective third option offensively (behind Leonard and Gay), SDSU’s got a deep March run to look forward to.
A look ahead: The Aztecs host Air Force on Wednesday before getting a bye this weekend in advance of next Wednesday’s colossal trip to BYU.
2. BYU (17-1, 3-0): So, yeah, there was that Fredette 47-point outburst. It was real, and it was spectacular. But it’s just Jimmer. You almost expect those kinds of performances out of him by now. 34 here, 39 there, 22 is a bit of a slow night, make up for it with 49. Ho hum. Oh, and he broke the 2000-point plateau in his career at BYU in the Utah game, and it is not out of the question that he could catch Danny Ainge for the all-time mark. Well, we’ve got 12 more regular season games worth of Fredette and you better get a glimpse of him whenever you can at this point. There are worse ways for a basketball fan to spend a couple of hours. While Fredette’s big game got all the ink, four other Cougars scored in double figures against the Utes, including Jackson Emery who went for 20 and hit a couple of milestones as well, breaking Ainge’s all-time steals record and hitting the 1000-point mark in his Cougar career. On Tuesday night, BYU notched a 26-point win over TCU in which each of their five starters scored in double figures for the second straight game.
A look ahead: After a slow week last week, BYU makes a sneaky-tough trip to Colorado State, a game in which head coach Dave Rose will need to make sure his boys aren’t looking ahead to the visit from the Aztecs.
3. UNLV (14-4, 2-2): The Rebels bounced back from their loss at SDSU with a 12-point win at Air Force. Playing without senior Tre’Von Willis, who missed the game with a knee injury, the Rebels played uninspired ball for most of the first 30 minutes and found themselves trailing by five at the under-eight timeout. But they picked things up defensively down the stretch, held the Falcons scoreless for over six minutes and knocked down their free throws in the end to earn a tough road win. Chace Stanback led the way for UNLV with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Derrick Jasper grabbed 11 more rebounds and handed out six assists.
A look ahead: The Rebels host Colorado State and New Mexico in a pretty tough one-two homestand. Willis is expected to be a game-time decision for the CSU game on Wednesday.
4. New Mexico (13-5, 1-2): While the Lobos have been unable to gather up any momentum to this point on their schedule, you can see this team is starting to get dangerous. Everybody around the conference knows how good Gary is, but now with Gordon beginning to play lights out, the Lobos have two major offensive threats, each of whom is effective on the defensive end. Freshmen wing Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk have each turned it on at times over the last couple weeks, but each is still susceptible to inconsistency. Then there’s junior Philip McDonald, who remains a bit of an enigma. Head coach Steve Alford relegated him to coming off the bench in their seven-point home win over Colorado State this week, after a series of lackluster performances. However, he responded against the Rams by posting a career-high-tying 27 points. Figuring that McDonald had taken the hint, Alford put him back in the starting lineup against SDSU and he was relatively invisible again, missing all five of his field goal attempts and posting just six points. It’s anybody’s guess where he goes from here, but he’ll need to get going for the Lobos to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.
A look ahead: Road trips to Utah and UNLV loom; a road sweep is a dream scenario, a split is perfectly acceptable (although at some point, they’ll need to win some road games against quality competition), and an 0-2 week dooms the Lobos to NIT contention.
5. Colorado State (12-5, 2-1): After dropping the game at The Pit, the Rams returned home and took care of TCU in a solid game. Sophomore point guard Dorian Green (15 PPG) and senior forward Andy Ogide (13.5 PPG, 8 RPG) were the big names this week, but the head coach Tim Miles has to be wondering what happened to Travis Franklin. Since the senior scored 67 points in three games in Hawai’i during the Diamond Head Classic, he has only scored a total of 51 points in the last six games and he has only attempted five field goals per game over that span. He picked things up in the TCU game, going for 14 points on five-of-nine shooting, but the Rams could sure use a more longer-term contribution from Franklin.
A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.
6. Air Force (10-6, 1-2): After taking the middle of the week off, the Falcons hosted UNLV on Saturday and were golden for about 32 minutes. Unfortunately, over the next seven minutes they were, well, the opposite of golden. They failed to score for 6:35, gave up a 13-0 Rebel run over that span, and never recovered. While there were any number of factors that contributed to their loss (beyond, you know, not scoring for 6:35), the Falcons struggled most in two areas: rebounding and free throw shooting. While their inability to rebound effectively was not a surprise, their 12/25 shooting from the line was glaring, given their 71% clip prior to the UNLV game.
A look ahead: The Falcons travel to San Diego State on Wednesday for an interesting one. Air Force will likely get killed on the glass, because Air Force always gets killed on the glass and SDSU always kills people on the glass. But, the Falcons will ugly the game up, keep the numbers of possessions to a minimum, and if they can make their shots, could hang around for 30 minutes or so. Or they could lose by 40. Who knows? After that they return back home to host Wyoming in a game that even the most die-hard MWC fan could be excused for missing.
7. Utah (8-10, 1-3): Here’s the thing: a 25-point home loss to the hated in-state rival is never a good thing. Letting the hated in-state rival’s stud guard go for 47? Worse yet, all that happening in the last matchup as conference foes? Pretty disastrous. But, underneath all of that, there were little signs of good things around the Ute program this week. Jim Boylen’s club bounced back from that loss to whip Wyoming on the road. Junior center David Foster, last year’s MWC Defensive Player of the Year, has now played 25 or more minutes for three straight games, something that had only happened one other time all season, and in the process he blocked eight shots and grabbed 23 rebounds. And junior wing Will Clyburn continued his strong season with 47 points, 16 rebounds and six threes on the week. But, turnovers continued to haunt the Utes, most obviously in the BYU game when they turned the ball over 22 times and forced just five. While the problems with the Utah program extend beyond the point guard play, that position is a pretty good microcosm for their struggles: between juniors Josh Watkins and Chris Kupets, there are three more turnovers than assists on the season.
A look ahead: Utah hosts New Mexico, then travels to TCU on Saturday.
8. TCU (10-9, 1-3): The Horned Frogs won at home and lost on the road last week, knocking off Wyoming and losing to Colorado State. The line of the week definitely came from Ronnie Moss, posting 27 points, ten rebounds (not bad for a 6-2 guard), four steals and six threes against Wyoming. Point guard Hank Thorns also made a splash, totaling 19 assists on the week, while freshman forward Amric Fields contributed 14.5 points per contest. The Frogs followed the ten-point loss at Colorado State with a rough road trip to BYU to start this week and headed back to Fort Worth with a 26-point loss for their effort. Moss did go for 27 points again and Thorns had ten more assists, but the game was never competitive.
A look ahead: The Frogs welcome Utah into the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum on Saturday in a game which should help clear up the bottom of the MWC standings.
9. Wyoming (8-10, 1-3): I like to be positive around here. Sure, there are always some negative stories around college basketball, but college hoops fans generally don’t like to dwell on those things. We want to take about kids maturing into good players, coaches getting the most out of their student-athletes and the fun and excitement surrounding the sport we love. In that spirit, I’d like to take you back a couple of weeks ago when Francisco Cruz hit a buzzer-beater for an upset win over New Mexico that lifted the spirits of an entire program, albeit briefly. We can get to this week’s two losses by an average of 17.5 points and the news that junior Afam Muojeke – the team’s leading scorer from last season – will miss the remainder of this year with a ruptured patellar tendon, at some later date.
A look ahead: Wyoming gets the middle of the week off, then travels to Colorado Spring for a meeting with Air Force on Saturday.