Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 1st, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences.

[Ed. Note: This was published before BYU suspended Brandon Davies for the rest of the season.]

A Look Back

With BYU’s second 13-point win of the season over San Diego State on Saturday, the Cougars have put the clamps on their first outright regular season Mountain West Championship since 2007-08. They’ve got a one-game lead now over the Aztecs, but own the tiebreaker as a result of their two head-to-head wins, so one more win clinches the #1 seed in the MWC Tournament and two more wins (in their two remaining games) sews up the conference title all for themselves. We’ll have more on the game below, but elsewhere around the conference, it is looking more and more like a three-bid league. While SDSU and UNLV can count on their Selection Sunday invitations arriving without delay, Colorado State’s hopes for its own at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament took a huge hit on Saturday when they got run out of Clune Arena by Air Force, failing to score for almost nine minutes in the second half and dropping their tenth game of the season. Barring a big late run by the Rams, which would have to include a win at San Diego State on the final Saturday of the regular season, or a surprising run by somebody else outside of the top three seeds in the MWC Tournament, the Cougars, Aztecs and Rebels will be the entirety of the MWC representatives in the Big Dance.

  • Team of the Week: BYU – In their final season as members of the MWC, the Cougars have fought through numerous hurdles on their way to all but clinching the regular season title. They’ve been able to deal with the distractions of the media circus surrounding the traveling Jimmer Fredette show (although, in all honesty, the benefits of having a guy like Fredette obviously outweigh whatever distractions his presence may bring), they’ve weathered the taunts and jeers of jilted and jealous fans across the conference, and they’ve replaced players lost due to injury or calling. And when all is said and done, they’ve put themselves in position to be in strong consideration for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’re the #1 team in the RPI, they’ve got a 27-2 record on the season, an 8-1 record against top-50 RPI teams, and, if they can take care of business in the regular season, then continue their success into the MWC Tournament, they’ve almost got to get a #1. Of course, winning the MWC Tournament is a whole other consideration, as BYU is just 6-4 in the MWC tourney since it returned to Las Vegas in 2007, with three losses to UNLV (and one to SDSU) mixed in there. While this Cougar team has made a habit of proving that it is different from previous incarnations, the prospect of either beating UNLV on its home court for the second time this season or beating SDSU for the third time this season is one challenge I’m very interested in seeing the Cougars face.
  • Player of the Week: Dairese Gary, Senior, New Mexico – Gary has been the one constant for Steve Alford this year, but this past week he took his game to another level. In a tough home loss against UNLV, Gary put up 26 points on 10-15 shooting, six assists, three steals and a couple of threes. After finding that such a contribution just wasn’t enough, Gary made sure to get the job done at TCU over the weekend, scoring 32 points on 11-14 shooting, with nine assists, another steal and three more threes. While this has not been the type of season that Lobo fans expected, their senior leader has more than lived up to expectations and he’ll be sorely missed in Albuquerque next year.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Quintrell Thomas, Sophomore, UNLV – The Kansas transfer has come on in a big way down the stretch for the Running Rebels, and when he gets minutes, he produces for Lon Kruger. Since the start of February, Thomas has gotten more than 20 minutes four times, including twice in the last week. In those four games, he has averaged 15.8 PPG and 11.5 RPG, and over four offensive rebounds in those games. This past week he posted 34 points and 20 rebounds, made 12 of his 19 shots from the field and got to the line 14 times and converted ten times. While the Rebels still have major question marks from behind the three-point lines, Thomas has helped clear up any questions about their ability in the paint.
  • Game of the Week: BYU 80, San Diego State 67 – It was, almost without a doubt, the biggest basketball game in the history of the Mountain West Conference. It may not have had a dramatic finish, but it’s the only choice as the MWC game of the week. Fredette continued his sterling season by matching his season high of nine assists, turning into the distributor rather than the scoring point guard that had taken the college basketball world by storm (and the fact that a 25-point, four three-point game is proof of Fredette backing away from his score-first persona tells you exactly how great of a scorer he is). With Steve Fisher giving Fredette several different looks defensively, from the long defenders like Billy White and Kawhi Leonard to the more traditional defender in Chase Tapley, to double-teams of all sorts, Jimmer had plenty of chances to set up his teammates for clean looks from deep, and they responded beautifully, as the Cougars knocked down 14 of their 24 shots from deep. That, coupled with the Aztecs repeatedly missing point-blank shots following offensive rebounds, explains the final score, but while BYU did everything right to earn their victory, most college basketball fans without a rooting interest in the outcome would love to see these two teams run this one back in a week and a half.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: Colorado State (18-10, 8-6) at San Diego State (27-2, 12-2), 3/5, 7pm, The Mtn. – If the Rams are going to continue to entertain any notions about a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, this is an absolute must-win. A loss here, and their only chance at a bid is running the gauntlet through Utah or New Mexico in the first round of the MWC Tournament, BYU in the semifinals and either San Diego State or UNLV in the finals. In other words, win this game. And, really, even if they win this game, they are still completely bubblicious, and would really need a semifinal victory over BYU in order to ease their worried minds a bit, but first things first: win this game. And in order for that to happen, there are a few events that need to take place. First, Andy Ogide needs to continue his strong play, and given that he has only failed to score in double figures once on the season, has only shot less than 50% from the field four times this year and has posted nine double doubles, that is a likelihood provided he can stay out of foul trouble against SDSU’s talented front line. More troubling for Tim Miles is finding somebody else on his team that can help Ogide out. Travis Franklin is the team’s second leading scorer, but he’s scored exactly 11 points over the span of the team’s three-game slide and hasn’t posted back-to-back games in double figures since January. Adam Nigon, Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green, and Greg Smith (among others) have all shown the ability to be that big second-option to Ogide, but none have proven their ability to be consistent. For all the improvement that the CSU basketball program has made in Miles’ four years on campus, now is their time to finish the deal and get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Power Rankings

1. BYU (27-2, 13-1): We’ve talked about Fredette and Jackson Emery in this space quite often. We’ve talked about the emergence of Brandon Davies (though the Cougars now have to survive without him after an honor code violation led to his suspension for the rest of the season). We probably haven’t talked about Noah Hartsock and Stephen Rogers and Charles Abouo enough, but suffice it to say, each of those guys has made significant contributions on the Cougars’ way to that gaudy record above. The guy we haven’t talked about near enough is the guy at the end of the bench, head coach Dave Rose. Rose has been nothing short of spectacular in his time in Provo. He took over a program that had just finished last in the conference with an abysmal 9-21 campaign, and since then he has never once finished lower than second place in the conference. Assuming the Cougs finish the deal this year, he will have three outright MWC titles in six years, another shared title and a couple second place finishes. All that’s impressive enough, before you even mention his biggest win of all, surviving a bout with pancreatic cancer a couple of years back. On the verge of his third MWC Coach of the Year award and more than a couple of National Coach of the Year votes, Rose is every bit as important to the success of this BYU program as is the scoring machine from Glens  Falls.

A look ahead: The Cougars get a chance to avenge their only MWC loss when they host New Mexico on Wednesday with a chance to wrap up the #1 seed in the conference tourney. On Saturday, they’ll complete the regular season by hosting Wyoming.

2. San Diego State (27-2, 12-2): In his two games this year against BYU, D.J. Gay has scored eight points, handed out seven assists and grabbed four rebounds. He’s made just two of his 14 shots from the field, has been largely invisible on the defensive end and simply has shown no signs of being the positive on-court leader that he has proven himself to be in the rest of his games this year. While what blame there is for the losses to BYU does not fall solely on Gay’s shoulders, he’ll need to play more like the type of guy who won duels with Casper Ware, Anthony Marshall and Dairese Gary earlier in the season in order for the Aztecs to live up to their March dreams.

A look ahead: The Aztecs finish up with a trip to Wyoming tonight, then senior night at Viejas Arena during which The Show will say goodbye to Gay, Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas. And, they might as well say goodbye to Kawhi Leonard while they’re at it.

3. UNLV (22-7, 10-5): The Rebels have now won eight of their last ten games (losses at BYU and home against SDSU) since Tre’Von Willis returned from missing a couple of games with a knee injury. Willis has now scored in double figures in six of the last seven games and has averaged over 16 points a game over that stretch, just a notch below the 17.2 he averaged all of last season. He’s also averaged four assists per game in those seven games, and the box scores will tell you that Willis is back. Then you watch a game. And you see Willis dragging that left knee up and down the court. Every now and then he surprises you and blows by a defender with an explosiveness that reminds you of what he was like at the top of his game last year, but for the most part, it is pretty clear that Willis is really just squeezing every last drop of goodness out of a knee that needs at the very least some rest and more likely needs some medical attention. Can the Rebels win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament with a gimpy Willis? It remains to be seen, but you can never count out a tough old veteran like him.

A look ahead: The Rebels travel to Utah on Saturday to wrap up their season before hosting the MWC Tournament at the Thomas & Mack as a #3 seed.

4. Colorado State (18-10, 8-6): This Ram team already had a couple bad losses on their scorecard: a home loss to Sam Houston State and a neutral-site loss to Hampton. This team had also lost more than one game in a stretch this season, when they lost back-to-back games at Colorado and Kansas. And yet, with all that, they were still solidly on the bubble. Then came this weekend’s loss at Air Force, their third loss in a row, during which only Ogide was even remotely effective. The rest of the CSU starting lineup went a combined 5-30 from the field. Really. 16.6%. On the final weekend of February. Coming off losses to BYU and UNLV. With an NCAA Tournament bid on the line. For the Rams to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, they now have to do something that they’ve given little reason to believe they are capable of doing: beat both San Diego State and BYU in their next four games, while at the same time taking care of their other business. They did play SDSU to the buzzer a month ago, but that was at home. To go to Montezuma Mesa and beat the Aztecs on Senior Day? That’s quite a challenge.

A look ahead: Before that SDSU game, the Rams have to get back on track at home against a rested and hot Utah team.

5. New Mexico (18-11, 6-8): The Lobos broke their four-game losing streak behind Gary’s heroics, but of bigger concern for Alford is the inability of any other Lobo to provide consistent offensive production. While the Lobos are still in the top 50 in offensive efficiency, their shooting percentages are headed downward and the confidence of guys like Philip McDonald and Kendall Williams is plummeting, with each guy thinking too much about his shot and often passing on good looks. While the Lobos are still talented enough to make things tough for a higher seed in the MWC tourney, they’re not playing anywhere near their best basketball right now.

A look ahead: The Lobos have already beaten BYU once this season, but this time around, given the visit to the Marriott Center looming, the challenge is a bit tougher. On Saturday, they’ll close out the regular season by hosting Air Force.

6. Utah (13-15, 6-8): The Utes haven’t played since we last checked in, so not much new to report on them, but it is interesting to note that the only games the Utes have won in conference are against Wyoming, New Mexico and TCU, and they’ve swept all three teams.

A look ahead: With Colorado State and UNLV looming on the Utes schedule, unless they pull off an upset, they’ll wind up being swept by the other five teams in the conference.

7. Air Force (14-13, 5-9): The Falcons broke their four game slide with the big win against CSU, and did so in convincing fashion. They effectively shot 61% from the floor and held the Rams to just a 36.4 effective field goal percentage, and even beat the Rams from the free throw line, outscoring them 24-14, a rather uncommon occurrence for the Academy. Sophomore guard Michael Lyons continued his strong breakout season, scoring in double figures for the fifth straight time and for the 18th time on the season, while the versatile senior Evan Washington, who has taken a backseat in the scoring department this season, continued to contribute in other ways, handing out eight assists and grabbing four rebounds. Washington has in many ways been the consummate Academy player, doing whatever is needed of him to help the team. Last year as the Falcons struggled through injuries to an eighth place finish, Washington was called on to score more, and he provided over ten points per game. But this year he has been asked to be more of a distributor and has racked up nearly a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this year

A look ahead: The home crowd says goodbye to Washington on Wednesday as the Falcons host TCU, then they travel to New Mexico on Saturday to wrap up the regular season.

8. Wyoming (10-18, 3-11): Fred Langley continues to get great production out of sophomore forward Amath M’Baye, who added 24 points and seven rebounds in a loss at UNLV. He has averaged 21 points per game since the dismissal of Heath Schroyer and is now averaging 12.3 points per game.

A look ahead: Wyoming hosts SDSU then travels to BYU in a nightmare end to a nightmare season.

9. TCU (10-20, 1-14): Speaking of nightmares, the Horned Frogs have now lost 16 of their last 17 games. And in doing so, they’ve been bad everywhere. They don’t shoot particularly well, and they certainly can’t keep opponents from shooting well against them. They get killed on the glass as if it were their collective life’s meaning. They never get to the line, but they send their opponents to the line regularly. They’re a very bad basketball team. And yet, somehow, junior J.R. Cadot is ranked #41 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive rating. Typically, despite an offensive rating higher than guys like Jon Leuer, Nolan Smith, Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette, Cadot only uses about 15% of all TCU possessions when he is in the game. Sure, if he was used at a higher rate, his efficiency numbers would likely drop, but given that Garlon Green is the only other Frog with an offensive rating above 100, you’d figure that Jim Christian would find a way to use him more. Cadot’s numbers had been picking up, as he averaged over 14 points a game in the four games before his one-point, two-field-goal-attempt stinker against in the loss against New Mexico, but given that there’s not a whole lot else going on in Fort Worth, you would hope that Cadot would get a chance in TCU’s remaining games.

A look ahead: Mercifully, the Frogs wrap up their regular season at Air Force on Wednesday.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2011

 
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences.

A Look Back

As we turn the corner on the non-conference portion of the college basketball season and head into conference play, we’re going to spend this week’s Mountain West check-in summing up what the teams around the conference have done so far and what we can expect from them here on out. As a whole, it has been a successful run through non-conference play for the MWC’s member institutions. San Diego State remains undefeated and is a top-10 team nationally. BYU has lost just once and remains in the top 25. UNLV had some early success before a couple of slip-ups dropped them out of the rankings for a time, but they are back in this week as our #25 team. Elsewhere around the conference, there have been ups and downs, although the ups have outweighed the downs. The schools have combined to post a 94-34 record and are the fifth rated conference in the RPI, ahead of traditional power conferences like the SEC and Pac-10.  Outside of the big three schools, a couple of other teams – New Mexico and Colorado State – have thrown their hats into the ring as potential NCAA Tournament teams, while the rest of the conference is more or less resigned to using the rest of the season to improve their teams and give their programs a jumping off point for future seasons.

Team of the Non-Conference Schedule:  San Diego StateIs there any other choice here? A 15-0 record, a #6 ranking in the most recent RTC poll, a school-record winning streak and the second longest winning streak in the country, behind defending champion and current #1, Duke? Of course they get the credit for the best Mountain West team in the non-conference slate. But a closer look reveals a chink or two in their armor. Last year, they were getting to the free throw line at a solid rate, but this year they have struggled to get to the line on a consistent basis. Last year, they were a dominant offensive rebounding team; this year, they are just very good. And while their three-point shooting has inched up a half-a-percent from last season, this is still a team that is capable of an 0-18 night from behind the arc, as they proved against Cal Poly. The other concern is that this team sometimes plays down to its level of competition, as they showed against San Francisco and IUPUI last week, when they were outrebounded in both games by inferior competition. They got away with that in non-conference play, but repeat performances against lower-tier MWC teams like Utah or TCU may result in losses instead of closer-than-expected wins. All that being said, when the Aztecs are going good, they are as fun as any team in the country to watch and have enough talent to make a run to Houston if everything breaks right.

Player of the Non-Conference Schedule:  Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Despite getting the attention of the opposition’s best defender (or two) every night, he’s averaging 24 points a night for the Cougars, shooting it at 47.5% from the field, while handing out a team-high 4.4 assists per game. What’s more, in close contests he’s upped his game, scoring over 28 points per night in those decided by ten points or less. And he’s done it all with a confidence and smoothness that has rubbed off on his teammates, as BYU has coasted to a 14-1 start. And with one final trip around the Mountain West, you get a feeling that he’s barely getting warmed up. With MWC guards having lived the nightmare of trying to stop Fredette in the past, you can bet coaches around the conference have spent hours over the summer trying to dream up ways to slow him down. While it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be (the odds are on “not very”), it sure will be fun to watch.

All Non-Conference Team

  • G Jimmer Fredette, BYU – 24.1 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.2 RPG
  • G Dairese Gary, New Mexico – 13.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.4 RPG
  • F Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State – 15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.6 APG
  • F Will Clyburn, Utah – 19.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG
  • F Andy Ogide, Colorado State – 15.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG

Newcomer of the Non-Conference Schedule: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – While the non-conference slate has been an up-and-down affair for the Utes (with a lot of those downs coming lately), Clyburn has been a revelation. He leads the team in points, rebounds, steals, threes, minutes played and three-point percentage, has never failed to score in double figures and has notched four double-doubles on the season. With Jim Boylen’s club struggling through injuries and inexperience, one has trouble imagining where this Ute club would be without this junior college transfer. Even as Utah fights to get healthy, expect Boylen to keep leaning heavily on the versatile Clyburn throughout conference play.

Game of the Week: Dayton 76 New Mexico 73, 2OT – Not only did the Lobos and the Flyers play a pretty darn interesting game on New Year’s Day, they also played a pretty important one. With New Mexico lacking a truly good win and Dayton in no position to scoff at the possibility of another one, these two teams battled end-to-end for 50 minutes before a winner was decided. Dayton torched the nets from deep, with 13 three-pointers on the day, but at the end of regulation it was Lobo freshman Kendall Williams who was the star, stringing together several clutch plays to force extra time. Things slowed down in the extra periods, as both teams seemed to run out of gas, and in the second overtime, New Mexico only managed two points. The game was decided, fittingly, by a Dayton three, but the Lobos had a couple of good chances to even things up go by the boards. First, Dairese Gary lost track of the shot clock following a Steve Alford timeout, then on the next possession, Williams missed a driving shot on the other end. And yet, with three seconds left and down three, the Lobos got one final chance when Williams slammed the second of two free throws off the rim, grabbed his own board and was able to step back to the three-point line for one last attempt, which fell unceremoniously short at the buzzer.

Game of the Upcoming Week: BYU @ UNLV, 1/5, 6PM PST, CBS College Sports – Conference play kicks off today, and in the coming weeks you’re going to see a lot of the names BYU, UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico here. And while any matchup between any of those teams will be games to look forward to (and pretty much required viewing for readers of this particular check-in), there aren’t going to be a whole lot of games more appealing than BYU’s final regular season visit to the Thomas & Mack for one last go-round with the Rebels. You can bet the UNLV fans will be raucous and ready to go as they send BYU off with one last tussle in Sin City (before the MWC tournament, that is). On the court, the Rebels will throw wave after wave of athletic guards at Jimmer Fredette, with Oscar Bellfield, Justin Hawkins, Anthony Marshall and Tre’Von Willis all getting their shot at slowing the All-American candidate. The Rebels will pressure the ball and try to get it out of Fredette’s hands, hoping to force turnovers and get out in transition, but in the meantime perhaps opening the way for Jackson Emery to improve upon his 36% clip from behind the arc. Vegas has also been somewhat susceptible on the glass, so they’ll need to hit the boards hard if they’re going to knock off the Cougs for the ninth straight time at the Thomas & Mack.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (15-0): The perception is that the Aztecs are golden. They’ve looked spectacular in some of their big chances at grabbing the national spotlight, posting a win over Gonzaga at the end of ESPN’s 24-Hour Hoop Marathon, and tacking on strong wins over St. Mary’s, Wichita State and Cal in their other television games. With an insanely talented frontline of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, paired with the team’s bulldog, point guard D.J. Gay, when the Aztecs are going good, they are about as impressive as anyone in the country. Throw in guard Chase Tapley (the fifth member of the starting lineup), three-point specialist James Rahon and a handful of capable bench contributors and Steve Fisher has all the makings for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. There are some cracks related to inconsistent effort, and there is the concern that maybe this Aztec team is reading its own press clippings, so no one should be surprised if the Aztecs maybe drop a couple of games in the early going in conference play (with a surprising one perhaps mixed in there somewhere). But if Fisher can get this team to compete hard night-in and night-out, it will take a special attempt to knock this team off.  

A Look Ahead: The Aztecs get started in conference play with a trip to TCU on Wednesday and a trip to Utah on Saturday. Follow that up with a return home to host UNLV before a trip to The Pit to face New Mexico and I’m going to go out on a limb and call a 2-2 conference start for the Aztecs, although I have absolutely no idea which are the two wins and which are the two losses. Those potential losses could be good for SDSU in the long run, assuming that they get the attention of this talented squad. Nevertheless, this team was the favorite to win the conference at the start of the year, and it remains the favorite with conference play closing in.

2. BYU (14-1): The Cougars added four more wins since we last talked behind a few more sparkling Jimmer Fredette performances (28 points and five threes in a six-point win over Weber State, 25 points and four threes in a 21-point win over UTEP and 34 points, four threes and six assists in a eight-point win over Buffalo). The UTEP win was particularly impressive as BYU, after trailing 17-6 almost midway through the first half, caught fire after a Fredette spark to mount a 33-9 run to close the half. It all started with a Fredette three that was followed by a three from Noah Hartsock. Follow that up with another Fredette three, throw in a Fredette dunk and then another three and the Cougs had erased an 11-point deficit in no time on the way to a blowout win. And that’s been the story of the BYU squad to this point. Fredette has led the team in scoring in all but two games and is averaging 24.4 very efficient yet still often spectacular points. Jackson Emery has struggled a bit to find his shot (although he came alive with six threes to match his six steals against UTEP), but he’s still Fredette’s main wing man. However, sophomore Brandon Davies has taken a big step forward, averaging 10.9 points and 5.2 rebounds thus far. There are plenty of other Cougars that make big contributions, however, as nine players average at least ten minutes per game. BYU looks pretty safe at this point in terms of NCAA positioning, but really wins over Utah State, Arizona and St. Mary’s are the only significant victories.  

A Look Ahead: Conference play kicks off in exciting fashion with the Cougars final regular season road-trip as a member of the MWC to the Thomas & Mack Center for a meeting with UNLV. On Saturday, the Cougars have their conference home-opener when Air Force comes calling, before the basketball edition of the Holy War tips off next Tuesday. Dave Rose’s squad remains the most likely candidate to step up into the running for the conference crown should SDSU falter.

3. UNLV (12-2): What was supposed to be a major test for the Runnin’ Rebels turned into an anticlimactic mess when Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly were suspended prior to their matchup with UNLV. The Rebels took advantage of their absence and pulled out a four-point victory in Kansas City in a game that bordered on unwatchable at times. Both teams combined to go 5-25 from deep while turning the ball over 35 times, but despite Vegas getting dominated on the glass (43-26), they got a big three by Oscar Bellfield late in the game to preserve their margin of victory. The Rebs followed that performance up by utterly taking apart Central Michigan last Thursday, forcing 24 Chippewa turnovers and holding them to 34% from the field. Lon Kruger’s club has had an up-and-down season to this point, looking quite impressive in skating to a 76 Classic championship before dropping back-to-back games against Louisville and UC Santa Barbara. The Rebels have made their way with pressure defense and balanced scoring (five players average more than nine points per game), but last year’s leader, guard Tre’Von Willis is just starting to round back into shape after missing a couple early games due to suspension. The Rebels hold wins over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech to go with the blemished K-State win, but remain a strong bet to get to the NCAA Tournament and at least contend for the MWC crown.  

A Look Ahead: The focus turns toward the visit from BYU on January 5 to get things started in conference play, with TCU due in Vegas on Saturday. The following Wednesday, the Rebels will travel to San Diego State for another big test early in the conference schedule, meaning that by the time UNLV has three conference games in the books, we’ll know a whole lot about them.

4. New Mexico (11-3): The last two weeks have been the most meaningful of the Lobo non-conference slate. With Drew Gordon getting eligible and some decent matchups in the Las Vegas Classic followed by tough two-game road trip, we’re starting to get a look at the defending champions at full strength and the early returns are of a good, not great, team. In the Las Vegas Classic, they looked strong in their semifinal win over Colorado, but then had to play from behind in the championship game against Northern Iowa and could never quite get over the hump. Then this week, UNM went to Lubbock and escaped with a one-point win against the Red Raiders before heading to Dayton  on New Year’s and losing a hard-fought double-overtime contest. Steve Alford continues to get production from all over his roster, with the main constant being senior point guard Dairese Gary, who nearly willed his team to a come-from-behind win against UNI (he scored the Lobos’ last eight points to get them within a point at 61-60, but a couple mistakes on either end of the court down the stretch sealed UNM’s fate) then kept the Lobos in it against Dayton by going for 19 points, eight assists and just one turnover in 47 minutes. To this point, the New Mexico resume is pretty light. Wins over Arizona State and Colorado are the best things on the slate, but they are still something of a work in progress, with Gordon still getting comfortable and freshmen Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk coming on fast. There has been some scary news out of Albuquerque though, as sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu has been sidelined for the last two weeks after the defibrillator in his heart registered an irregular reading. Negedu has been ruled out for the next three weeks so that a cardiologist can do more tests on Negedu, but this is definitely a bad turn of events after he was just starting to become a force on the boards in early December.  

A Look Ahead: The Lobos wrap up their non-conference slate with a quickie against CS Bakersfield on Wednesday. After that, it is all conference play with a trip to Wyoming preceding visits by Colorado State and San Diego State. With little meat on the non-conference bones, the Lobos need to add some wins over SDSU, BYU and UNLV during conference play to be in play on Selection Sunday.

5. Colorado State (10-4): Just over two weeks ago, the Rams were sitting at an unimpressive 4-3, and were having trouble getting any traction. Losses to Sam Houston State and Colorado were the most representative outcomes on the resume, and this had the look of your typical middle-of-the-pack MWC team, rather than the potential contender CSU fans had hoped for. Over Christmas week, however, the Rams gave their followers a glimpse of the team they hoped for, ripping off three straight wins in the Cancun Governor’s Cup, including solid wins over Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi. Then last week, CSU traveled to San Francisco for the Hilltop Challenge and was on their way to another successful week before Hampton’s Kwame Morgan dropped 29 points and six threes on the Rams, including one with 0.8 seconds remaining to send Todd Miles and his team back to Fort Collins with a loss. With their non-conference play done, that win over Southern Miss remains the only thing they really have going for them, with three questionable losses in the record book. While CSU should certainly continue playing once the MWC Tournament is over in one postseason tournament or another, they’ll need to take down some pretty big scalps in MWC play to have a chance at the Big Dance.  

 

A Look Ahead: Conference play opens with a visit from Wyoming tonight before they get a week off to prepare for a visit to New Mexico for a big test for the two teams hoping to separate themselves out from the rest of the field as contenders for post-season inclusion.

6. TCU (9-6): It had been a quiet 17-day stretch for the Horned Frogs, with only a win over Northwestern State, in which four Frogs scored in double figures and Ronnie Moss led the way with 22 points and five assists. In that game, point guard Hank Thorns sustained a scary knee injury and had to be carried off the court, but later tests revealed just a sprain and Thorns was able to return this week for the Frogs when they got back to work with three games in six days. Unfortunately, while the TCU football team was making noise in Pasadena, the basketball squad limped to a 1-2 record on the week and lost Moss to injury. Moss sustained a concussion during TCU’s 69-66 loss at Tulsa, then sat out their nine-point loss at Rice.  Jim Christian’s team does have some relatively good wins on their resume, knocking off USC at home, Texas Tech on the road and Bradley on a neutral court, but losses to Nebraska, Rider, Massachusetts and Northern Iowa paired with this week’s losses likely doom the Frogs’ postseason hopes. 

 

A Look Ahead: It is a brutal San Diego State/UNLV two-fer to open the MWC schedule, and in order for TCU to have a shot, they’ll likely need to have Thorns and Moss at full-strength, a scenario which seems unlikely.

7. Utah (7-7): The Utes went to Honolulu last week with a chance to test their progress against some very good teams around the country. They limped back home to Salt Lake City with an 0-3 record in a tournament that started out bad and got progressively worse. An opening round loss to Butler in a hard-fought game was not an unreasonable result, but the Utes followed that up with a lost to the tournament’s host, Hawai’i.  And then, as a capper, the Utes posted an unacceptable loss to San Diego on Christmas Day, the Torreros’ first win against a Division I opponent on the season. This past week Utah wrapped up their non-conference play with a trip to Portland. But, after a strong first half, the Pilots shot 61% from the field in the second half and outscored the Utes by 17 to take down a nine-point win. Junior Will Clyburn was again the best player on the floor for Jim Boylen these last two weeks, averaging over 18 points and eight rebounds a game, but with injuries continuing to mess with Boylen’s rotation, he didn’t get consistent help. Senior Jay Watkins’ back injury again caused him to miss a couple games, and junior center David Foster was limited at times this week as well. There was some good news on the injury front as freshman J.J. O’Brien returned from a stress fracture, playing a combined 28 minutes in the Butler and San Diego games, but sitting out the middle game in Honolulu. With Utah’s big move to the Pac-10 looming in the offseason, with a 14-17 record in the rearview mirror and with Utah’s history of having a short leash on its basketball coaches, Boylen has to regard the rest of this season as a pretty serious exam. Two years back lies a MWC championship, but the Utah athletic department can’t be pleased with the trajectory of this program.

A Look Ahead: The Utes open conference play at Air Force on 1/5 before receiving consecutive visits from the top two teams in the conference, with San Diego State and BYU on their way to the Huntsman Center, making that opener at Air Force even more important.

8. Air Force (9-4): All things considered, for a team that lost to a Division III school (Colorado College) in their second game, the Falcons have had a pretty acceptable non-conference slate. Yes, their best win is over maybe, Evansville or CS Northridge, and there are some ugly losses there, but head coach Jeff Reynolds at least has a young core of players who have been making progress and, unlike last season, mostly staying healthy. Sophomore Taylor Broekhuis did miss two of the Falcons last three games with a concussion, but he is back now and he, along with fellow sophomore Mike Lyons and Todd Fletcher have all settled into starting roles. Junior Tom Fow and seniors Evan Washington and Derek Brooks provide veteran leadership on the team, and it seems everybody has the ability and opportunity to lead this team in scoring on any given night. This team is in no position to threaten for an upper-division MWC finish, and any post-season hopes are overly optimistic, but there are at least some pieces to grow on here, and with the ever-present Academy effort, this Falcon team will sneak up on somebody up top and surprise them. It just won’t happen often. A more realistic goal for Air Force is a seventh place finish – if they can get that, consider this a successful season.

A Look Ahead: Conference play begins, and the Falcons get thrown right into the fire: Utah, at BYU, UNLV, at San Diego State. Yikes.

9. Wyoming (7-7): After a three-game winning streak a couple weeks back, the Cowboys got back on track with a six-point home loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay before Christmas, before bouncing back with a win over Kennesaw State. Desmar Jackson extended his streak of double-digit scoring output to eleven straight games, and he has been a consistent offensive weapon for head coach Heath Schroyer, despite turning the ball over too much (3.3 turnovers per game) and shooting a low percentage from deep, where he is just four of 26 on the season. Wyoming players continuing to bomb from behind the arc has been a continuing theme this season, with eight players having taken more than 18 three-pointers on the season and only one of those players having hit more than 30% from back there (Francisco Cruz, 44.7%). In fact, there are only six schools in Division I shooting a lower percentage from behind the arc than Wyoming, yet they continue to shoot a third of their shots from distance. At this point in the season, the roster needs a makeover, as does the bench. Expect the Cowboys to limp along through the rest of the season, sew up last place before we turn the calendar into March, and clean house in the offseason.

A Look Ahead: Conference play starts at Colorado State, then back home against New Mexico, and by the middle of January, the Cowboys should be well on their way to a brutal conference record.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 30th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences.

A Look Back

After a strong early start to the season for the Mountain West as a whole, the wheat has begun to separate from the chaff. Utah and Colorado State gave the first hint this week that they may be pretenders rather than contenders, while BYU and UNLV posted early-season tournament wins, proving their qualifications for being considered among the favorites in the conference. While it was BYU and San Diego State who were considered 1 and 1-A (not necessarily in that order) coming into the season, the Runnin’ Rebels have thrown their hat into the ring and it looks like, as November winds its way down, we could have tri-favorites come conference play, with New Mexico, and waiting-to-be-eligible transfer Drew Gordon, a step or two back.

On a larger scale, the biggest news in the conference this week was the announcement on Monday that TCU would be joining the Big East beginning with the 2012-13 season. While obviously a huge deal on the football side of the equation, frankly the loss of the Horned Frogs basketball program will hardly register much notice. However, for the overall health of the conference, this is a major setback. Basically the conference has traded BYU, Utah and TCU for Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada. While the three newcomers are very good collegiate sports programs, the overall strength of the conference has taken a step back since mid-summer.

Team of the Week: UNLV – It’s not that we didn’t know that the Rebels were going to be good this season, it’s just that they had some questions that needed answering first. We wondered about their three-point shooting ability and they’ve shown us that they are a more consistent three-point shooting team this season than last (despite the loss of sharp-shooter Kendall Wallace for the season to a torn ACL). We wondered about their interior play and Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas has shown, when capable of staying out of foul trouble, an ability to defend the post, rebound well on both ends of the floor, and even score with some efficient posts moves. Following a pretty impressive run through a merely average field in the 76 Classic, this Rebel team seems poised to compete for a MWC crown.

Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette (Senior), BYU – While UNLV’s Chace Stanback took down the Most Outstanding Player hardware at the 76 Classic, Fredette gets the nod in this space in part due to two game-winning plays in a couple tight games at the South Padre Invitational. On Friday night, with his Cougars deep in a double-overtime battle with South Florida, Fredette got into the lane after much effort, drawing the interest of most of the USF defense before finding Noah Hartsock for a game-winning baseline jumper. Oh, and throw in a season-high 32 points for Fredette, to go nicely with five threes, five steals and four assists. Not to be outdone, the next night the senior went for 24 points, four assists and three more steals, and this time hit the game-winner himself, a three with 11 seconds left to give the Cougars a win over St. Mary’s and a South Padre Island Invitational championship to boot.

Newcomer of the Week: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – While the Utes may have been exposed a bit this week, Clyburn certainly wasn’t. The junior college transfer has still led the Utes in scoring every night out this season, and he averaged another 18.5 points per game this week, while hitting his first double-double with a 21-point and 10-rebound outing in a loss to Oral Roberts on Saturday. Clyburn leads the Utes in scoring, rebounds, steals, and threes, and gets to the line more than any of his teammates and converts at an 88.9% clip.

Game of the Week: BYU 77, South Florida 75 (2OT) – We talked about the game winner in this game above, when we handed out our POTW award to Jimmer Fredette, but that was just the capper on an all-around great game. Early in the second half, the Cougars found themselves down ten to the Bulls, before Fredette scored ten points in under four minutes to get the Cougars back in striking distance and regaining the lead a few minutes later on a Fredette three. From there, Jackson Emery caught fire for the Cougars, scoring 14 of the next 15 points for BYU, with four three-pointers mixed in there, but they still could not shake the stubborn Bulls, needing a three from Charles Abouo with 33 seconds left and a defensive stop to send the game to the first overtime. The first OT was a back and forth affair, with Fredette and USF’s Jawanza Poland trading threes in the final minute to force a final OT and the Fredette/Noah Hartsock heroics. As if this battle wasn’t enough for Cougar fans, the next night against St. Mary’s, while requiring no overtime to settle upon a winner, was just about as exhilarating of a win.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (6-0): This was a very quiet week for the Aztecs, with only a matchup on Friday against San Diego Christian (NAIA), in what was the Aztecs’ first home game of the season. After raising last year’s MWC Tournament championship banner before the game, SDSU trudged through an uninspired game that was still tied 13 minutes in. The Aztecs eventually turned it on and coasted to a 19-point win that told us little or nothing about either team.

A look ahead: The competition gets much stiffer this week, although the Aztecs won’t have to leave the cozy confines of Montezuma Mesa when they host St. Mary’s on Wednesday and Wichita State on Saturday.

2. BYU (6-0): After destroying Mississippi Valley State in Provo in an utter mismatch, the Cougars headed to the South Padre Island Invitational, where they won both of their games by a combined total of three points over some solid competition in South Florida and St. Mary’s. However, even the most die-hard BYU homer is not going to confuse the Bulls or the Gaels with Final Four contenders. As a result, it is clear the Cougars still have some work to do to live up to their potential. While some remain givens, freshman Kyle Collinsworth has been up and down in the early going, although he did add 10 points against St. Mary’s. Up front Noah Hartsock and sophomores Brandon Davies and Chris Collinsworth have had their moments, but none have been the consistent force in the low post or on the glass that would take some of the pressure off of the Cougar backcourt. Wing Charles Abouo has done a lot of the dirty work for BYU, actually leading the team in rebounding with 6.7 per night despite his 6’4 frame, but he is a limited offensive player. For the Cougars to compete with the best in this conference, Dave Rose will need to find consistent contributors beyond Fredette and Emery.

A look ahead: This is the week of tough roadies around the conference, as BYU will be challenged with a trip to Omaha to face Creighton, followed by a supposedly neutral-site game in what will be heavily partisan Salt Lake City against Hawai’i.

3. UNLV (6-0): Sure, the Rebels walked through the competition at the 76 Classic. But a closer look shows wins over Tulsa and Murray State teams who, while good solid teams, aren’t exactly finished products or hyper-talented squads. On top of that, while the Rebs also handled a very good Virginia Tech team, the Hokies did their part in giving that game away, turning the ball over 18 times and hitting just nine of their 21 free throws. If Virginia Tech shoots a reasonable percentage from the line and turns the ball over a few less times (granted, the vast majority of those turnovers weren’t unforced errors), that is easily a game decided by a possession or two at the end. Now, none of that is meant to take anything away from Lon Kruger and his team – they’ve certainly looked awfully good in the early going – but just to add a measure of sanity to the hype surrounding the hot Rebels. They’ve certainly showed that they are capable of contending for a MWC title, but they’ll have more chances on down the line in non-conference play to show their national credentials.

A look ahead: The Rebels turn into the road warriors this week with a trip to Bloomington to face Illinois State in the opening night of the MWC/MVC Challenge, then head back to their home state to face Nevada in Reno on Saturday.

4. New Mexico (4-1): The Lobos coasted through a relatively light week, posting wins of 22 points over Northwood and 29 points over San Diego. The big news of the week was the return of junior shooting guard Phillip McDonald from a partially torn elbow ligament. Elbow injury or no, McDonald wasted no time in testing out his shooting stroke, hoisting 15 attempts from the field and ten from behind the arc in his first game back, although he connected on just five field goals and three three-pointers for 13 points, although he did at six rebounds. Sophomore point guard Jamal Fenton was the high scorer in the San Diego game, hitting four threes on the way to a career-high 16 points. In both games, the Lobos closed the first halves strongly (15-2 run to close the half against Northwood, 23-5 run against San Diego), then sailed home to easy wins.

A look ahead: Not an easy week for the Lobos, with a road trip to Carbondale to face Southern Illinois, followed by the road portion of their home-and-away matchup with in-state rival New Mexico State. These are two games the Lobos should win, but given their youth, road games of any type can be difficult, as their lone previous road trip of the year, a 25-point loss to Cal, proved.

5. TCU (4-2): Aside from TCU’s defection from the conference, they did score a couple good wins on the hardwood this week with a 16-point victory over Houston and a 12-point win over USC. Ronnie Moss led TCU in both games with 17 and 20 points respectively and has yet to fail to score in double figures on the season. With defendable losses to Rider and Bradley on the season, the Horned Frogs are right in the mix of things in the middle of the pack of the MWC with Utah and Colorado State, but even with some early season success, there are some glaring weaknesses here, namely poor defensive efficiency and an inability to get to the line offensively. While they have improved those numbers a bit from last season’s awful numbers, and while they’ve patched other holes from last year (committing too many turnovers and not forcing enough, for two), the undersized Frogs will need to improve on the defensive end in order to jump up the standings.

A look ahead: A breather with a home game against Prairie View A&M before welcoming Northern Iowa into Fort Worth for a good test.

6. Colorado State (2-1): Maybe blame it on the Rams playing just their third game of the season and first game in over a week. Maybe blame it on too much turkey. Or maybe just step back and admit that this Ram team, who some thought might push for a fifth NCAA bid from the MWC, is just not ready for prime-time. Whichever way you choose, it was easy to see that CSU was just outclassed in their own arena by Sam Houston State. Gilberto Clavell led four Bearkats in double figures with 29 points and nine rebounds on 10-14 from the field and 9-11 from the line as Sam Houston dominated the Rams 40-29 on the glass and got to the line 41 times to CSU’s meager 17. The fact is, the best team in Moby Arena on Saturday night won the game. While Tim Miles’ squad is an undersized bunch, that is no excuse for the way they were outhustled and outmanned inside, and seniors like Andy Ogide, Travis Franklin and Andre McFarland will need to improve their toughness for this Ram team to take the next step.

A look ahead: Colorado State gets to stay at home this week, welcoming Drake and Fresno State into Fort Collins. While neither of their opponents is much of a threat to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, both will provide good tests for the Rams and a good opportunity for the team to rebuild its confidence.

7. Utah (3-2): Rough week for the Utes at they got their first good look at a higher caliber of competition. First up was the always tough road trip to Logan for in-state rival Utah State, where the Aggies owned Utah on the glass and at the line, winning the rebounding battle 45-32, while outscoring the Utes 39-13 from the charity stripe. Next Oral Roberts visited the Huntsman Center, and while Utah did compete better inside, they were simply outshot this time around. Junior college transfers Will Clyburn and Josh Watkins continue to lead the Utes, with each having scored in double figures in all five Utah games, but the rest of the rotation is unsettled. Last year’s MWC defensive player of the year, David Foster, is still racking up blocks with ease – he’s averaging three blocks a game – but he’s only playing 15 minutes a night due to tendinitis in his knee. That’s not the only health-related problem the Utes have had, as freshman J.J. O’Brien suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and will be out until late December, while senior forward Jay Watkins has been working through a back injury.  

A look ahead: Utah host Fresno State on Tuesday before traveling to Peoria for a matchup with Bradley over the weekend, a couple good challenges for the team.

8. Air Force (3-1):The Falcons week consisted entirely of one of the most head-scratching wins of the year, when they knocked off Wofford, a tournament team from last season who returns most of its production. Wofford has gotten kicked in the teeth some early in the season, with losses to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and Xavier already on the books, but this loss to Air Force is truly astounding. Somehow Wofford managed to dominate on the glass to the tune of a 50-27 rebounding advantage and, more staggering still, a 24-2 edge on the offensive glass. Yet, Air Force still managed to get to the line a season high 29 times and, better yet, shoot 51% from the field while holding Wofford to under 34%. Senior Tom Fow and sophomore Mike Lyons led the Falcons with 18 each and senior Evan Washington added 14 points, six rebounds and three steals as AFA fans entertain the idea of finishing somewhere other than ninth place for the first time in three seasons.

A look ahead: The Falcons host Cal State Northridge and Evansville, games in which, frankly, given the Wofford score, just about anything could happen.

9. Wyoming (2-4): Since we last checked in with the Cowboys, they’ve shown some little bit of progress. Sure, they lost a couple more games along the way, but they competed with #10 Missouri for a full 40 minutes before falling by ten at the Cancun Challenge, then back the next night and fought hard against a surprising 5-1 Providence team, only to be undone by Vincent Council’s 29 points and perfect 16/16 night from the line. Sure, they are still wildly undisciplined (see sophomore Desmar Jackson’s nine turnovers against Mizzou – although, certainly better players than him have turned the ball over nine times against the pressure of a Mike Anderson-coached team) and severely underperforming (I understand Afam Muojeke is not all the way back from his knee injury, but how that talented of an offensive player can score just 13 points in 47 minutes on 4/15 shooting in Cancun is beyond me), but they played both of those teams closer than they played North Florida or Northern Colorado. That’s progress, right?

A look ahead: The Cowboys play sort of a weird road game when they head to South Dakota on Wednesday, then return home for their MWC/MVC game with Indiana State on Saturday. A split this week is a good week. A 2-0 week? Keep dreaming.

 

Game of the Upcoming Week

Wichita State @ San Diego State, 12/4, 7 PM PST, The Mtn. – This week’s Mountain West schedule is chock-full of interesting games: UNLV visits Nevada for an in-state rivalry, San Diego State hosts St. Mary’s, and the MWC/MVC Challenge gets underway, with BYU at Creighton, UNLV at Illinois State and New Mexico at Southern Illinois some of the highlights. But we’ll take this battle between two teams picked prior to the season as favorites in their respective conferences. Given Wichita State’s strikeout in their battle with Connecticut in Maui, this borders on a must-win game for the Shockers’ at-large hopes, while this is the second tough test in week for Steve Fisher’s Aztecs.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the MWC and Pac-10 conferences.

A Look Back

The start of the 2010-11 season has been just about everything the Mountain West commissioner’s office could hope for after a tumultuous offseason. After almost two weeks of play, five MWC teams remain undefeated and the nine conference teams have posted a combined 25-6 record with the four biggest contenders for postseason berths a combined 13-1, a New Mexico loss at Cal the only blemish.

Team of the Week

San Diego State – The Aztecs have been busy thus far, posting an early 5-0 record including four wins in the CBE Classic. The highest profile win for Steve Fisher’s squad was a road victory over Gonzaga during the ESPN College Hoops Tipoff Marathon, when SDSU showed the rest of the college basketball world what MWC followers already knew: this team is pretty darn good. Perhaps even more impressive for the Aztecs is that their 5-0 record has come entirely on the road thus far, with their first home game scheduled for this Friday when they host San Diego Christian of the NAIA.

Player of the Week

Kawhi Leonard (Sophomore), San Diego State – It’s very likely that you’ll be seeing either Leonard or Jimmer Fredette’s name in this space most weeks this season. While Fredette’s 25.7 point per game average thus far has certainly left him deserving of this honor this time around, and while Leonard’s Aztec teammate Billy White may have had the biggest single performance of the young season, the nod goes to Kawhi here. He’s led his team in rebounding every night out, never failing to grab double digit boards thus far, he’s averaged 18.8 points per contest, and has even displayed his versatility and ever-improving skill set, pairing three steals with four three-pointers in SDSU’s win over IUPUI on Sunday.

Newcomer of the Week

Will Clyburn (Junior), Utah – Last year about this time, it was New Mexico’s junior college transfer Darington Hobson who was making a name for himself as a force to be reckoned with in the MWC. A year later, Utah has its own juco transfer making waves around the Rockies. On a Ute roster featuring eight new faces, it is Clyburn’s who has shone most brightly, leading Utah in scoring in each of their three games, averaging 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, while knocking down five of his 12 attempts behind the arc along the way. Last year’s Lobos were picked to be a middle-of-the-pack team last year before Hobson’s emergence catapulted them to a conference title. For the Utes to entertain similar aspirations, Clyburn will need to keep up his early pace.

Game of the Week

San Diego State 79, Gonzaga 76 – For only the fifth time in the 82 games in the history of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, a visiting team came in and defeated the Bulldogs on their home court. Behind a career-high 30 points from Aztec senior forward Billy White (on 14-18 shooting and paired with nine rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end), San Diego State built up a lead as high as ten before hanging on down the stretch and withstanding a similarly outstanding 35-point effort by Zag senior guard Steven Gray to wrap up a big win that will be a feather in the Aztec cap come Selection Sunday.

Game of the Upcoming Week

Utah at Utah State – The Aggies of Utah State have already given a MWC team all they could handle this season, when they went into BYU’s Marriott Center and fought the Cougars to the bitter end in an entertaining game, but this time around they get to welcome the Utes into the Smith Spectrum in Logan for another in-state battle. Utah is looking to prove that they are on the way back from last year’s disastrous collapse, but with a bevy of young and relatively untested newcomers, the trip to Logan could be daunting

Power Rankings

  1. San Diego State (5-0): Aside from the heroics of Billy White and Kawhi Leonard detailed above, the Aztecs have also gotten a big boost from a Santa Clara transfer, sophomore guard James Rahon. Rahon lived up to his reputation as a deadly three-point shooter early in his career in red and black, knocking down three straight threes in the middle of the second half of a tightly contested battle at Long Beach State to break the game open and put the Aztecs on their way to their first win of the season. On the season he is averaging a shade under ten points per night and converting three-point attempts at a sparkling 52.9% clip. Likewise, senior point guard D.J. Gay has shown his leadership abilities, time and again making big plays to spark game-deciding runs for the Aztecs. While Rahon has lived up to his rep as a three-point bomber, Gay has added his own deadly three-point shot to an already strong arsenal, having knocked down 11 of his 22 attempts thus far. If those two can maintain anywhere near that kind of pace, the Aztecs will be looking at a very favorable seed come March, as their imposing frontline has been all that was previously advertised.
  2. BYU (3-0): Coming into the season, the Cougars pretty much knew what they were going to get from their backcourt tandem of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery. So far, Emery has been off to a slow start, averaging just nine points per game and struggling to find his shooting touch, to the tune of 34.6% from the field and 27.8% from behind the arc. But head coach Dave Rose has no worries about Emery’s game coming around in due time. His concerns prior to the season were with an eye towards the rest of the team, specifically in the front court. In the early going, junior Noah Hartsock and sophomore Chris Collinsworth have done a lot to ease Rose’s mind. Hartsock stepped up immediately, exploding out of his reserve role in the opener to post a career-high 21 points, then backing that up with 15 points and four blocks against Utah State. Collinsworth, for his part, has been rock-solid, averaging seven rebounds per game and throwing in 8.3 points per game, with a high of 15 points in the Cougars blowout of Chicago State. While BYU still has some work to do figuring out all their roles, Hartsock and Collinsworth have already shown that the talent is there.
  3. UNLV (3-0): It was a rocky offseason in Sin City, with dismissals, suspensions and injuries scarring the landscape, but three games in, all those rough patches are in the past, with the Rebels having just posted one of the more impressive MWC victories in the early season, a 68-65 victory over visiting Wisconsin. Last year’s leading scorer, senior guard Tre’Von Willis, sat out the first two games of the season (easy wins over second-rate competition) as a result of offseason legal difficulties, before returning in a reserve role against Wisconsin, but it was juniors Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield who provided the biggest performances for head coach Lon Kruger in the win over the Badgers. Each player knocked down four threes, with Stanback totaling 25 points and Bellfield notching 18. UNLV’s ability to knock down the three had been a question mark in the lead up to the season, but both players have done their best to answer that query, with Bellfield having hit seven of his 12 attempts (58.3%) and Stanback six of his 15 (40%). While Willis was not a major factor in his return to action, he did hand out five assists in his 23 minutes of play.
  4. New Mexico (2-1): The Lobos have faced probably the most consistently tough lineup of games of any MWC in the young season, and perhaps not surprisingly for a young team, have looked pretty strong at home and downright awful in their one road trip. Given that the New Mexico roster is missing junior guard Phillip McDonald due to a partially torn elbow ligament (he is currently day-to-day), is waiting on the services of incoming transfer Drew Gordon (eligible December 17) and is breaking in four new freshmen (including two freshmen starters) and a sophomore transfer, Emmanuel Negedu who, you know, basically died a year ago, I’m not going to ding the Lobos too hard for their 25-point loss at Berkeley, especially considering they looked good in defeating Arizona State at The Pit a few days before  that, but Steve Alford and company are definitely having some growing pains in adjusting to life without Darington Hobson and Ramon Martinez. While some difficulty in the non-conference schedule is understandable, the Lobos have a relatively light schedule between now and the end of December when they play in the Las Vegas Classic (a matchup against Colorado and then the winner of Indiana/Northern Iowa), then travel to Texas Tech and Dayton prior to conference play. New Mexico will need to have things straightened out by then, lest they get out of non-conference play with only the Arizona State victory to point to.
  5. Colorado State (2-0): For now I’ll stick with the Rams at the number five spot, if only because their season still seems to be a week away. Thus far, the Rams have hosted Arkansas-Pine Bluff and traveled to Denver, posting workmanlike wins each time, with seniors Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin leading the way with almost identical numbers: 17 points, 6.5 rebounds, one assist, and 1.5 steals each in their first two games. The Rams host Sam Houston State on Saturday before their first big test of the season next Wednesday when they host Drake. The soft early schedule has allowed head coach Tim Miles to get a look at plenty of his roster, with 12 players having averaged at least eight minutes per game. In the early season, such a rotation is working out, but the Rams will have to prune the minutes of several players as the year progresses.
  6. Utah (3-0): With all the turnover on the Ute roster in the offseason (six players left the program with eligibility remaining, while eight newcomers joined the squad), there were bound to be plenty of questions about this team’s ability to win. Three games in, Jim Boylen’s squad has at least proven itself capable of winning games at home against teams it is supposed to beat. Along the way, Boylen has had some of his fresh blood step up and announce that they are ready to play, with Will Clyburn, our newcomer of the week, leading the way. Elsewhere, junior college transfer Josh Watkins has taken over the point guard position without skipping a beat, averaging 15.7 points and five assists per game, while holdovers Jay Watkins and Jason Washburn have been solid in the frontcourt. While it remains to be seen if this year’s cast has the talent that last year’s underachievers did, it seems clear that this will be a more consistent and hard-working bunch than last season’s neurotic cast-offs.
  7. TCU (3-2): This year’s early MWC candidate for team most in need of psychiatric treatment is the Horned Frogs. Five games in, this looks like a team capable of wild mood swings, capable of wrapping a 20-point victory over cross-town rival SMU and a six-point neutral-site win over a good Bradley team around a stinker of a 15-point loss against Rider. The Frogs are going to be exciting at times, with their mighty-mite backcourt of 6’2 Ronnie Moss and 5’9 Hank Thorns. Thorns, a transfer from Virginia Tech in his first year of eligibility in Fort Worth, has led the team in assists in four of their first five games, and in three of those four games, he dropped ten dimes. Moss, for his part, has looked excellent playing off the ball, scoring in double figures in all five TCU games, while hitting 45% from the field and 41% from deep. The frontcourt is undersized, but 6’6 wing Garlon Green and a pair of junior college transfers, 6’5 J.R. Cadot and 6’4 Sammy Yeager, have all shown a willingness to help out on the glass. They’ll need to keep that up and get some help from more traditional frontcourt players for the Frogs to contend in a tough conference.
  8. Wyoming (2-2): There had been some talk that last year’s underachieving season for the Cowboys was as much a reflection of some bad luck with injuries as it was with some inherent problems with the makeup of the team. Four games into the season, and with a pair of one-game suspensions for primary offensive weapons Afam Muojeke and Desmar Jackson already in the rearview mirror, with a starting lineup that remains in a state of flux, with a team that consistently racks up more turnovers than it does assists, and with the resultant losses to North Florida and Northern Colorado (the first time in 21 games since 1937 that Northern Colorado has beaten Wyoming) in the record books, it’s time to face the facts that this team just isn’t very good, that head coach Heath Schroyer is just not working out and that the Wyoming basketball program is in need of a reboot. Unfortunately, that reboot is still probably four months away.
  9. Air Force (2-1): As bad as the state of the Wyoming program is, they haven’t lost to a D-III school yet. The same cannot be said of the Falcons, who dropped an overtime affair with Colorado College last Wednesday. They were able to take care of Tennessee State and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, but there is simply not enough talent on this roster for this team to be competitive. Players like versatile senior Evan Washington, senior forward Tom Fow and sophomore guard Michael Lyons are good hardworking kids, but this year’s edition of the Falcons are more suited to the Big Sky level of talent than the Mountain West. Head coach Jeff Reynolds will get the most out of this roster, but for him to be comfortable as the head coach at the Academy, he’ll need to recruit a higher level of talent.

A Look Ahead

While the battle in the Beehive State may be the game of the week, Utah will follow that up with another interesting game when they host Oral Roberts on Saturday. There are also plenty of other interesting events around the conference as three other MWC teams compete in early season tournaments. UNLV plays in the most high-profile of the three when they compete in the 76 Classic (opening round game against Tulsa, either Murray State or Stanford in the next round and a potential matchup with Virginia Tech in the final), but BYU will play in the South Padre Island Invitational (against South Florida and then either St. Mary’s or Texas Tech) and Wyoming will get beat down by Missouri in the Cancun Challenge before advancing to likely lose to either Providence or La Salle.

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RTC Conference Primers: #8 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 29th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. San Diego State (13-3)
  2. BYU (12-4)
  3. New Mexico (11-5)
  4. UNLV (11-5)
  5. Colorado State (9-7)
  6. Wyoming (6-10)
  7. Utah (6-10)
  8. TCU (3-13)
  9. Air Force (1-15)

All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • G: Jimmer Fredette, Sr, BYU (22.1 PPG, 4.7 APG)
  • G: Dairese Gary, Sr, New Mexico (13.1 PPG, 3.9 APG)
  • G: Tre’Von Willis, Sr, UNLV (17.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
  • F: Afam Muojeke, Jr, Wyoming (16.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
  • F: Kawhi Leonard, Soph, San Diego State (12.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG)

6th Man

Billy White, Sr, San Diego State (11.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG)

If you aren't already, get used to seeing and hearing about Jimmer Fredette.

Impact Newcomer

Drew Gordon, Jr, New Mexico – Gordon left UCLA midway through the Bruins awful season last year after never meshing with Ben Howland and his system, and as a result, he won’t be eligible for Steve Alford until after the first semester. But Gordon showed enough talent in his years in Westwood that he will be a welcome addition for what was an undersized Lobo team last season. However, Gordon did tear the meniscus in his right knee in mid-October and, although he is not expected to miss any game action, he may miss out on valuable practice time leading up to his expected December 17 debut.

What You Need to Know

  • Best In The West? Given the Mountain West’s history as a contender for the title of the top non-BCS conference in the nation, and given that the Pac-10 is at its lowest point in memory, it’s quite possible that, at least for 2010-11, the MWC may be the best conference in the West. Last season, four MWC teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament, and in just over a decade of existence, only once has the MWC failed to place more than one team to the Big Dance (2000-01). However, major changes are afoot in the conference, as Utah and BYU, both consistently strong basketball forces, will be leaving for the Pac-10 and WCC, respectively. Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada will join the conference, but while those teams are capable of putting together strong seasons (Nevada, in particular, has  recent success on the court), they’ll be hard-pressed to replace the production of the two Utah schools.
  • Familiar Faces: When you look around the conference this season, there will be a lot of veterans up and down the rosters, as 70% of the players that averaged more than five points per game last season return. Only Utah, of the nine conference teams, will look drastically different, as they lost two starters to graduation, a third starter to transfer, and five additional bench players to transfers as well. Bolstering the general experience around the league is a flood of incoming transfers: Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu at New Mexico, Quintrell Thomas at UNLV, Hank Thorns at TCU, Wes Eikemeier at Colorado State and James Rahon at San Diego State. Not only will there be a lot of recognizable players on the court, there continues to be a lot of stability on the sidelines, as for the second consecutive year, every head coach in the MWC returns.
  • Non-conference Boost: Last season seemed to mark the first year of a new era in non-conference scheduling in the MWC. After earning a reputation as a conference whose teams would play consistently tough games, they slipped out of the top 20 in non-conference strength of schedule for a stretch from the 2006-07 season through the 2008-09 season. However, last year, the MWC addressed this in several ways. First and foremost, their teams were able to go out and get games against Pac-10 and Big 12 competition, but they were also able to get their teams in some good early-season tournaments, and they began the MWC/MVC Challenge, guaranteeing every team in the conference a matchup with a team from the Missouri Valley. That MWC/MVC Challenge will continue (the two conferences signed a four-year agreement), as will the involvement of conference teams in early-season tournaments (for instance, New Mexico plays in the Las Vegas Classic, UNLV in the 76 Classic, Colorado State in the Cancun Governor’s Cup, BYU in the South Padre Island Classic, Utah in the Diamondhead Classic, Wyoming in the Cancun Classic and San Diego State in the CBE Classic – and yes, the people that run these tournaments need to consult a thesaurus for an alternative to “Classic”). Additionally, the tougher non-conference scheduling continues, with conference schools making trips to places like Spokane, Berkeley, Logan, Ann Arbor, El Paso, Dayton, Tulsa, Louisville and Kansas City over the course of the non-conference slate.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on February 12th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 2/11)

  1. New Mexico                      22-3                       8-2
  2. BYU                                        22-3                       7-2
  3. UNLV                                     19-5                       7-3
  4. San Diego State                17-7                       6-4
  5. Colorado State                  15-9                       6-4
  6. Utah                                      11-12                     4-5
  7. TCU                                        11-14                     3-7
  8. Wyoming                            9-15                       2-8
  9. Air Force                              9-14                       1-9

Superlatives

Team of the Week. New Mexico. Huge week for the Lobos, getting a couple hard-fought wins, including a home overtime win over San Diego State and an impressive road win at UNLV. Those wins, coupled with UNLV’s win over BYU, leave the Lobos sitting alone atop the MWC standings, having now won their last eight games after starting conference play 0-2.

Player of the Week. Darington Hobson, Jr, New Mexico. Hobson was our player of the week after the first two weeks of the regular season, but struggled a little the first time around the conference, especially with his shot and too many turnovers. This week, for the first time since 2009, that Hobson we fell in love with early in the season was back. The JuCo transfer averaged 22.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, five assists, and three threes, plus threw in a half-court shot at the first-half buzzer and hit the two game-winning free throws with 2.7 seconds left against San Diego State on Saturday. When Hobson’s jumper is falling like it is right now, he’s the best player in the conference, simply because he can do so many other things with ease as well. If the Lobos hope to make a splash nationally in March, they’ll need Hobson to bring his A game.

Newcomer of the Week. Hobson.

Game of the Week. New Mexico 88, San Diego State 86 (OT). This game tipped off just as UNLV’s defeat of BYU in Vegas went final, giving the Lobos a chance to create a three-way tie at the top of the conference. Likewise, if the Aztecs had won this, there would have been a two-way tie at the top with SDSU and New Mexico tied a game back. With such a logjam at the top of the conference, it was no wonder that this game would be a wild one as well. While the level of play in the game was stellar across the board, this game really came down to a battle between Hobson and Aztec junior guard D.J. Gay. Hobson tossed in a half-court shot at the end of a back-and-forth first half to put the Lobos up five at the break, and the Lobos extended their lead as high as ten early in the second half, and after some back and forth, the lead was still ten with just two minutes remaining. But Gay went off for 11 points on his own in the last two minutes, knocking down three (increasingly improbable) threes before getting fouled on another three-attempt with his Aztecs down two with just one second left. He made two of his three attempts to send the game to OT. But Hobson was not to be denied, scoring eight points in overtime, including his two game-winning free throws with 2.7 seconds left. Gay finished with a career-high 25 points while playing every minute of the game. Hobson, meanwhile, did take a couple minutes off, playing just 43 minutes, but still wound up with an amazing line of 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, four threes, and three steals.

Game of the Upcoming Week. UNLV @ San Diego State, 2/13/10, 1pm PST, Versus. The Rebels hope to maintain their position near the top of the MWC standings, while the Aztecs still believe they have a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. While that bid for the Aztecs looks unlikely at this point (their loss to Wyoming early in the MWC season was a killer, especially coupled with the lack of big non-conference wins), they still sport a strong 17-7 overall record and an RPI in the mid-40s. And, most importantly, they still have opportunities, with this home game and a trip to Provo in a couple of weeks. The roadmap to an Aztec at-large berth begins with a win over the Rebels  on Saturday, an upset of the Cougars in Provo and a run to the MWC final in March, all while taking care of business with the teams at the lower end of the conference. It is a tough road to be sure, but one this team is capable of getting done.

League Notes

We’re only a week into the second go-round in the MWC, but things have really started to clear up. New Mexico, BYU and UNLV are all more-or-less locked into NCAA bids; it would take quite a collapse for one of those teams to not be invited to dance.

The regular season championship will likely be decided February 27th when New Mexico visits BYU. New Mexico should coast from here to that game, likely riding a 12-game winning streak at that point. BYU will have to take care of a tough San Diego State team on the Wednesday before that game, but it is likely those teams will be tied atop the conference when they meet.

That leaves the Aztecs. Let’s assume they beat UNLV at home this weekend. And, let’s say they beat TCU, Utah, Colorado State and Air Force. That right there would put them at 22-7, 11-4 in conference. They win in the first round of the MWC tournament, then face the regular season champ in the semis and win that matchup too before losing in the MWC championship. Put them at 24-8 at that point with wins over New Mexico, UNLV and whoever the MWC regular season champ is, with their next best win over Arizona. Throw in a bad loss to Wyoming. RPI would likely be somewhere around 40. Is that good enough? I don’t think it is. But, what if they also get the win at BYU on February 24th? I think if they get that, they can make a good case at 25-8 with wins over every other MWC team that will make the tourney.

Team Roundups

New Mexico

Looking back: Two big games, two big wins, and now all alone in first place (albeit still tied in the loss column with BYU). After a week in which New Mexico got back all of the mojo it had at the start of the season, the Lobos are a shoo-in to go dancing in March. After the overtime thriller with San Diego State on Saturday, New Mexico took control from the opening tip in Vegas on Wednesday. All four of their big offensive threats (Hobson, senior forward Roman Martinez, junior guard Dairese Gary and sophomore guard Philip McDonald) scored in double figures and the Lobos absolutely destroyed the Rebels on the glass all night long, finishing with a 45-23 advantage. The Lobos also shot 52% from three and knocked down 13 of their 14 free throw attempts and, despite a late Rebel run, held on for a convincing ten-point win.

Looking ahead: In the middle of February, it can be very easy to lose your focus, especially coming off a week in which you’ve knocked off two of your biggest competitors. The Lobos travel to Utah on Saturday night, and while this is by no means a strong Ute team, they are capable of rising up and biting the ankles of some of the teams ahead of them. Just ask UNLV. After the Utah trip, the Lobos return to the Pit to host Wyoming and Air Force.

BYU

Looking back: The Cougs are itching to get back on the court. They played only once this week, and before the matinee Vegas crowd had even opened their peanuts, BYU was on their way to getting blown out. The Rebels outscored BYU 56-34 in the first half, shooting 65% from the field and 70% from three and the Cougars were never able to scrap back into the game, dropping their second conference game of the season. Junior guard Jimmer Fredette wound up with 21 points (plus seven rebounds and six assists), but shot just four of 15 from the field. Freshman forward Brandon Davies missed the UNLV game with an emergency appendectomy and is expected to miss the next two weeks.

Looking ahead: The Cougars will have had a week to chew on that loss to UNLV by the time they host Air Force on Saturday, and that can’t be good news for the outmanned Falcon squad. BYU will then travel to Colorado State on Wednesday.

UNLV

Looking back: After putting a whooping on BYU on Saturday to move into a first-place tie, the follow-up game with New Mexico on Wednesday had to be a tough one for the Rebels. They came out of the gates flat, struggling along to a 12-point halftime deficit and, despite making a run late in the game, never seemed to fire on all cylinders. The most unforgivable sin was their lack of effort on the glass as they got outrebounded by 22, allowing the Lobos to score repeatedly on the offensive glass. The Rebels remain squarely in the thick of things near the top of the MWC leaderboard, but their loss to New Mexico relegated them to a team that needs multiple things to happen in order to win the regular season title.

Looking ahead: UNLV’s last major challenge of the regular season comes Saturday with a trip to Montezuma Mesa to face San Diego State. After that, the Rebels just need to remain focused and take care of business against the lower tier of MWC teams, beginning with a trip to Utah on Wednesday for some revenge.

San Diego State

Looking back: While the Aztecs did take New Mexico to overtime on Saturday, the dirty little secret there is that they were really outplayed rather significantly by the Lobos, right up until the time when New Mexico got a little too conservative and Gay went nuts. But, give credit to Steve Fisher’s squad for bouncing back on Wednesday with a dominating performance in knocking off reeling Wyoming. Freshman forward Kawhi Leonard went for a career-high 26 points (on 10/14 shooting) plus added eight rebounds and three steals as the Aztecs led by as many as 37 in the second half on the way to a 88-57 win.

Looking ahead: Huge Saturday for the Aztecs as they host UNLV before traveling to Fort Worth to face TCU on Wednesday.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams are officially tops in the second tier of the Mountain West. While they don’t have the horses to play with the big boys above, they have been consistent enough to edge their way up to this fifth spot. This week, Colorado State took care of business, sprinting past Wyoming on Saturday and then edging Air Force on Tuesday, and have set themselves up nicely to potentially gain an NIT berth. Junior forward Travis Franklin was the star against Wyoming, scoring 18 of his 20 points in the second half. Against Air Force, it was more of a collective effort, with junior forward Andy Ogide scoring 12 and both freshman guard Dorian Green and freshman forward Greg Smith adding ten.

Looking ahead: The Rams have a week to prepare for their chance to host BYU on Wednesday and a chance to see if they have taken any steps forward since the Cougars crushed them early and often in a 91-47 game a month ago.

Utah

Looking back: The Utes began the second half of their conference schedule in much the same way they started the first half, with a solid victory over TCU. Freshman wing Marshall Henderson lit up the Frogs for 24 points on five threes and added six rebounds; junior guard Carlon Brown added 12 points. But the Utes still needed Henderson and senior guard Luka Drca to combine to go 10/10 from the free throw line in the last two minutes (both teams combined to shoot 30/33 from the line) to seal the win.

Looking ahead: Utah gets a chance to make a huge impact on the MWC race this week as they will host both New Mexico (on Saturday) and UNLV (on Wednesday). Expect them to pull off one upset this week, while they lose the other by 25 while shooting somewhere south of 30% from the field.

TCU

Looking back: If it hadn’t happened already, it definitely happened this week. Head coach Jim Christian has turned the page and started to look towards next year. With Zvonko Buljan and Edvinas Ruzgas in the middle of disappointing senior seasons (their play in conference has been especially depressing), it looks like the Horned Frogs are starting to see what type of pieces they have to build around for next season. Sophomore point Tuffy Moss is a given. While he has showed some inconsistency, commits too many turnovers at times and is all too likely to fall in love with his jumper, he is a talented player on both ends of the court. Junior guard Greg Hill has been getting more attention offensively of late, and while he too can be wild at times, he is a capable shooter, knocking down seven threes on his way to 23 points in a win over Air Force on Saturday. And freshman forward Nick Cerina has shown flashes of brilliance this season, despite some inconsistency. He had 17 in the loss to Utah on Wednesday. Sophomore forward Kevin Butler and freshman guard Garlon Green have also proven themselves to be pieces who can be valuable for the Horned Frogs in the future.

Looking ahead: The Frogs travel to Wyoming on Saturday then return home to host San Diego State on Tuesday.

Wyoming

Looking back: At the start of the season there was a lot of optimism around Laramie, with a fast-paced offense, some pressure defense, a budding star in sophomore Afam Muojeke, exciting incoming transfer JayDee Luster and a handful of interesting parts, there were even some Cowboy fans who whispered a bit about postseason tournaments. Some three months later, head coach Heath Schroyer is the one MWC coach squirming on the hot seat, Muojeke is lost for the season, and the Cowboy roster is in disarray. This week, sophomore guard A.J. Davis announced he was leaving the program; Davis was still the team’s third leading scorer, despite having seen his minutes drop drastically in conference play. Schroyer has now had six of his recruits leave the program in his three seasons in Laramie (Davis was the second this season – junior guard Thomas Manzano left the program in December) and in the Cowboys’ losses this week (by 16 to Colorado State and by 31 to San Diego State), they only dressed ten players, only nine of whom were on scholarship.

Looking ahead: Playing out the string, the Cowboys host TCU on Saturday, then travel to New Mexico on Wednesday.

Air Force

Looking back: Just a couple weeks back the Falcons had broken their 22-game conference losing streak, their players were starting to get healthy and optimism surrounded the program. Now, the Falcons have started a new losing streak (up to three games now), senior forward Grant Parker continues to sustain injuries (dislocated shoulder most recently, although he is still playing through it) and it seems like the same old story in Colorado Springs. The Falcons did play Colorado State strong on Wednesday, even having a possible game-tying three by junior Evan Washington with five second left, but in the end this goes in the books as another two-loss week for Air Force.

Looking ahead: This will definitely not be a two-loss week for Air Force, as they play only once, traveling to BYU on Saturday. So, it will just be a one-loss week.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on February 5th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 2/4)

  1. BYU                                        22-2                       7-1
  2. New Mexico                      20-3                       6-2
  3. UNLV                                     18-4                       6-2
  4. San Diego State                16-6                       5-3
  5. Colorado State                  13-9                       4-4
  6. Utah                                      10-12                     3-5
  7. TCU                                        10-13                     2-6
  8. Wyoming                            9-13                       2-6
  9. Air Force                              9-12                       1-7

Superlatives

  • Team of the Week. BYU. Of the big three in the MWC, the Cougars were the only ones to play twice this week. They won both impressively over teams from the bottom half of the conference, but the biggest reason Dave Rose’s club gets this spot is they lead the conference at the turn. Everybody has played everybody once, and while there is another go-round to be had, the Cougs are halfway to the regular season conference championship.
  • Player of the Week. Jimmer Fredette, BYU. Much like his Cougars are halfway to a conference championship, Fredette is halfway to a conference player of the year award, and he did nothing to hurt his chances this week. The BYU point guard averaged 31 points and knocked down four threes in each game. Over the course of the season, Fredette has averaged 21.5 points per game (1st in the MWC), 4.9 assists per game (2nd), has racked up 32 steals (6th) and 50 three-pointers (4th), while hitting 49.5% of his threes (1st), 90.1% of his free throws (1st) and 47.4% of all field goals attempts (7th).
  • Newcomer of the Week. Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State. Leonard has been a monster in the paint for the Aztecs in the first half of the season, combining with junior Billy White and junior transfer Malcolm Thomas to form likely the best frontcourt in the conference. Leonard averaged 14.5ppg and 9.5 rpg this week, a little more than his 12/10 that he has averaged for the season. While the freshman still steps outside of the offense from time to time and takes a head-scratcher of a three or a wild driving charge, his talent is unquestioned.
  • Game of the Week. Air Force 70, Wyoming 63. It was an ugly, ugly week in the MWC. The closest game of the week was this seven-point battle between the two worst teams in the conference, in which Air Force broke its 22-game conference losing streak. Beyond this game, all other contests were decided by an average of 18 points with the only “upset” of the week coming when Utah out-uglied Colorado State on its way to another loss in one of the worst college basketball games anyone could ever imagine.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week. BYU @ UNLV, February 6th, Versus. While this past week made for some barely watchable games around the conference, this upcoming week has plenty of intriguing games, the best of which is this Saturday afternoon rematch of a classic from a month ago. This is BYU’s last really challenging road game of the season (they traveled to New Mexico and San Diego State in the first half of the schedule), so a Cougar win here could go a long way towards inching them closer to breaking the tape at the finish line.

League Notes

So, one lap down, one lap to go, time to hand out some midseason awards?

  • Player of the Year: Fredette, BYU. Perhaps the only other player to consider here would be UNLV’s junior guard Tre’Von Willis, but that’s really just for show. Fredette is clearly the best player in the conference, and the fact that he’s leading the best team in the conference is just icing.
  • Coach of the Year: Rose, BYU. Even if this guy didn’t beat pancreatic cancer (knock on wood a hundred times over) in the offseason, he would be the pick here, getting contributions from players up and down his roster even in the short illness-related absence of our POY, folding a pre-season all-conference selection back into a role-player without so much as a hiccup, and pushing his team out to a 22-2 record in early February? He’s golden, and we’re all glad he’s around to pick this one up.
  • Newcomer of the Year: Darington Hobson, New Mexico. While Leonard has been the best freshman in the conference, Hobson takes our Newcomer award as a triple-threat, averaging 15 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 4.2 apg while leading the Lobos into the national spotlight.

All-MWC Team

  • Jimmer Fredette, BYU
  • Tre’Von Willis, UNLV
  • Darington Hobson, New Mexico
  • Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
  • Jackson Emery, BYU

Team Roundups

BYU

Looking back: The big game of the week for the Cougars was their battle with in-state rival Utah in the First Deseret Duel, or the Holy War. While the Utes are down this year, they battled the Cougs hard and BYU responded well, committing just six turnovers on the night and shooting 46% from the field and 50% from three on the night. Jimmer Fredette was on fire and finished with 36 points and Jackson Emery wound up with six steals to go along with seven rebounds and four assists. BYU followed that win up by scoring the first ten points against TCU and then coasting the rest of the way to an uneventful 20-point win during which the Cougars controlled just about every portion of the game, including outrebounding TCU 45-36, hitting 11 of their 25 threes (while limiting TCU to just 3/16 shooting) and dishing out 19 assists compared to just eight turnovers.

Looking ahead: Just one game for the Cougars as they kick off round two of the MWC schedule, but it is a big one. A win at UNLV will go a long way towards putting BYU on the #1 line in Vegas in March.

New Mexico

Looking back: The Lobos wrapped up a solid first half of their conference schedule with a ho-hum road win over a floundering TCU team. New Mexico got balanced scoring, with Darington Hobson re-emerging from a bit of a recent slump with a spectacular 19 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals. Sophomore guard Philip McDonald added 18 and senior forward Roman Martinez added 16, each with three threes along the way. While the Lobos lets the Horned Frogs stick around for awhile, they pulled away in the second half mostly on the strength of 27 free throw attempts with 20 makes while holding TCU to only nine attempts and a woeful two makes.

Looking ahead: The Lobos remain a game back of BYU, but face a brutal week in the MWC with a trip to Vegas on Wednesday following a home game against San Diego State on Saturday.

UNLV

Looking back: The Rebels had a week to prepare for their trip to Laramie on Wednesday, and it showed. They outplayed the Cowboys in every facet of the game, shooting 53% from the field (including 61% in the second half) while holding Wyoming to just 29% on the way to a 28-point victory. Senior forward Matt Shaw tied a career-high with 16 points, Willis added 15 and Chace Stanback chipped in 12 as Vegas kept pace with New Mexico a game back of first behind BYU.

Looking ahead: The Rebs have what may be the biggest two-fer of games in the entire conference schedule this week, hosting BYU on Saturday then turning around and hosting New Mexico on Wednesday. The outcome of these two games will go a long way towards clearing up the MWC regular season championship picture.

San Diego State

Looking back: The Aztecs had a standard, run-of-the-mill, two-win week, including a road win in Fort Collins in which Kawhi Leonard put up a double-double in the first half on the way to “just” 14 points and 12 rebounds. The Aztec defense really stole the show in that game as they held CSU to just 37% shooting, forced 19 turnovers, controlled the glass (40-33) and held the Rams to just 2/15 shooting from behind the arc. SDSU then returned home to host Air Force on Tuesday and controlled the game from start to finish against the outmanned Falcons. The Aztecs only hit five of their first 20 field goal attempts and still led 12-0 over nine minutes into the game. From there, Steve Fisher’s squad was nearly flawless, turning the ball over only six times while forcing 15 Air Force turnovers and even outscoring the Falcons 17-1 from the free throw line.

Looking ahead: The Aztecs travel to New Mexico on Saturday before returning home to host Wyoming on Wednesday.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams wrapped up the final week of the first half of the season in much the same way the rest of the first half of the season went: a split featuring a win over a team they should have beaten and a loss to a team that they should have lost to. The win was a 15-point victory in an ugly affair with Utah and the loss may have been just as ugly as they fell by 18 at home against New Mexico. One of the key problems for the Rams, the lack of a playmaking guard, was exposed this week as CSU accounted for a grand total of 13 assists on their 40 field goals this week. While freshman guard Dorian Green has earned a reputation as a fearless scrapper in his first college season, he’ll need to improve his passing in order to help this Ram team take the next step up from a middle-of-the-pack team.

Looking ahead: The schedule lightens up a bit for the Rams: they host Wyoming on Saturday and travel to Air Force on Tuesday.

Utah

Looking back: In what has been an up-and-down season for the Utes, this was without a doubt an out-and-out down week. The week started out with a hard-fought and scrappy effort against BYU on Saturday, which nevertheless ended in a loss, but things got really ugly when they invited Colorado State into the Huntsman Center on Wednesday night. The Utes clocked in late and clocked out early, failing to score in either the first five minutes of the game or the last five, and in the process dropped to 3-5 in the conference.

Looking ahead: Utah gets a chance to patch their bones a little this week before truckin’ on to Fort Worth on Wednesday to face TCU.

TCU

Looking back: The season began with some optimism for the Horned Frogs. They had a preseason all-conference player in senior forward Zvonko Buljan and two complimentary players they were really excited about in senior swing Edvinas Ruzgas and sophomore point Ronnie Moss and head coach Jim Christian seemed confident about his team’s chances to at least compete with the big boys in the conference. This week wrapped up a very disappointing first half of the season with the clear conclusion that such confidence has not been lived up to. TCU lost to New Mexico and BYU by a combined 36 points and thus far have only beaten the two teams below them in the standings in conference play. The trio has been solid enough, averaging a combined 39 ppg (up from 32 ppg last season), but the Frogs have never had anyone else step up to replace the 14 ppg they lost when Kevin Langford graduated last year. However, there is more talent on this team than its meager conference record would suggest and things do look slightly better in the back half of their schedule as they will get to host Utah and Colorado State.

Looking ahead: The Frogs travel to Air Force before returning home for that Utah game. While a two-win week is within reach for TCU, that Air Force game could be sneaky.

Wyoming

Looking back: The Cowboys wrapped up a pretty dreadful first half of the conference schedule with two more losses, allowing Air Force their first conference win in more than a year and then getting drilled at home by UNLV. Last week at this time, we were handing out MWC POTW honors to sophomore center Adam Waddell. However, he missed the Air Force game with a sprained ankle, and although he returned against UNLV, was completely ineffective, accounting for just three points and a rebound.

Looking ahead: The Cowboys hit the trail this week with visits to Colorado State and San Diego State.

Air Force

Looking back: The Falcons are starting to get healthy again and their win column reflects that, as for the first time in two seasons the number is something other than zero. Air Force got a career-high 23 points (to go along with seven assists) from junior guard Evan Washington, returning hero senior forward Grant Parker got 12 points and five rebounds and freshman guard Mike Lyons, a recipient of some of the extra minutes floating around in the wake of the Falcons’ early season rash of injuries, added 16 points and three three-pointers as the Falcons broke their 22-game conference losing streak by knocking off Wyoming last Saturday. While Parker is still not all the way back (as evidenced by his weak two-rebound performance against San Diego State on Tuesday), we’re starting to get a glimpse of the real Air Force team, still not great but an improving squad.

Looking ahead: Air Force hosts both TCU and Colorado State this week, two games that are not out of reach for the Falcons now. Asking for a sweep might be getting greedy, but Falcons fans have to look at this week as possible split.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by jstevrtc on January 29th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 1/28):

  1. BYU                                        20-2                       5-1
  2. New Mexico                      19-3                       5-2
  3. UNLV                                     17-4                       5-2
  4. San Diego State                14-6                       3-3
  5. Colorado State                  12-8                       3-3
  6. Utah                                      10-10                     3-3
  7. TCU                                        10-11                     2-4
  8. Wyoming                            9-11                       2-4
  9. Air Force                              8-11                       0-6

Superlatives:

Team of the Week. New Mexico. For the second week in a row, it’s the Lobos who win this prize, with this week’s biggest scalp that of the number 12 team in the country, BYU. The Lobos have now won five games in a row and put themselves back in the thick of things in the MWC race, just a game back in the loss column, despite their recent shooting woes.

Player of the Week. Adam Waddell, Soph, Wyoming. There was plenty of competition here this week: Dairese Gary averaged 21 points and 4.5 assists in leading the team of the week to a win over previously-unbeaten-in-conference BYU, Tre’Von Willis went for 30 in a tough road win for UNLV, and Jimmer Fredette continued to be outstanding, averaging 30 PPG this week. But Waddell gets the nod, thanks to his big numbers on Wednesday night: 22 rebounds (a MWC record) while putting in 12 points, all despite leaving midway through the second half with a badly sprained ankle which may keep him out of the Cowboys’ next game.

Newcomer of the Week. Desmar Jackson, Fr, Wyoming. Jackson stepped up in the absence of Wyoming’s leading scorer, sophomore forward Afam Muojeke, who underwent season-ending surgery for a torn patellar tendon in his left knee this week. The freshman from Warren, Ohio scored 21 points in just 20 minutes, continuing what is becoming a bit of a trend for Jackson, stepping up when Muojeke can’t go, as Jackson had 22 points in Muojeke’s first game out after bruising the same knee in late November.

Game of the Week. New Mexico 76, BYU 72. It’s likely that the BYU/San Diego State game from Saturday was the better game. It featured long runs by both teams, and really came down to the last possession, but this game had a little something extra throughout which that one didn’t: atmosphere. While the Aztecs played with fire throughout their loss to the Cougars and proved themselves quite capable of being mentioned along with the other elites at the top of the conference, the Lobos were able to finish out in front of a wild and raucous Pit crowd. After the Lobos led for 20 straight minutes, the Cougs came back to tie the game at 46 early in the second half, but they weren’t able to grab the lead back until around the three-minute mark on a deep (26-feet or so) three by Fredette. Then, sophomore guard Philip McDonald hit a tough runner with the shot-clock running out, got fouled, and knocked down the free throw. Sophomore forward A.J. Hardeman followed that up with an offensive stick-back. Gary added a 45-foot drive in the halfcourt that led to a finger roll, then proceeded to knock down multiple clutch free throws down the stretch as the Lobos handed BYU their first conference loss.

Games of the Upcoming Week. Utah @ BYU, Saturday January 30th, The MTN. The MWC quiets down slightly this week, as both New Mexico and UNLV only play once, but the Marriott Center will be jumping on Saturday night for the Holy War. While the Utes probably don’t have the firepower or the consistency to be able to take down the Cougars, especially coming off their first loss, you can bet there will be plenty of intensity on display as they attempt it.

League Notes:

Next week at this time, the first half of the conference season will be in the books and the teams will turn the corner and start looking towards the conference tournament and postseason play. While BYU and New Mexico appear to be locks to get into the NCAA tournament (RPIs of 19 and 12, respectively and KenPom ratings of 4 and 41), and UNLV has positioned themselves well to get a third MWC bid (RPI 35, KenPom 53), San Diego State (RPI 43, KenPom 65) will need to make a run in the second half of their year, and likely add another quality win or two (over either BYU, New Mexico or UNLV) to be strongly considered.  Even if they achieve that, it could be at the expense of UNLV. The Aztecs’ best non-conference win was over Arizona, and although they added a win over New Mexico in the MWC opener, their tight loss to BYU at the Viejas Center on Saturday night may come back to haunt them on Selection Sunday.

Team Roundups:

BYU

Looking back: The Cougars went on the road this week for a couple of tough conference games, and while they came away with their first conference loss, they probably feel okay about the week’s outcomes. The roadtrip started with a visit to San Diego State on Saturday, and the Cougars came out hot, building up a 22-10 lead early before the Aztecs came storming back. BYU responded with a 15-0 run midway through the second half to seemingly put the game away before the Aztecs came back again. But in the end, Fredette hit a great swooping scoop shot in the lane near the end of the shotclock with under 30 seconds to play, and sophomore swing Charles Abouo got a big block on the defensive end to seal the game for the Cougars. While things didn’t turn out that way in Albuquerque on Wednesday (detailed in the Game of the Week section above), the Cougars fought hard in likely the toughest environment they will encounter this season and were right there within three in the last minute. The youngest Cougs didn’t play very well against New Mexico (freshman Tyler Haws, for instance, was just three of eight from the field), and junior guard Jackson Emery remains mired in a slump (4-19 from the field and just 1-13 from behind the arc this week), but while a trip to Vegas looms on the not-too-distant horizon, the back-half of the conference schedule is a bit easier than the front.

Looking ahead: BYU hosts Utah and TCU this week before heading to UNLV on February 6th.

New Mexico

Looking back: The win against BYU was the big story of the week, but it wouldn’t have meant much had the Lobos slipped up against Colorado State last Saturday. Coach Steve Alford made sure his team didn’t look past the Rams, and the Lobos dominated on the glass (48-30), then went on a big 16-1 run before the end of the first half to get the Lobos most of the way to their 82-64 victory. The Lobos have had several players step up from week to week to take the reigns for this squad this year.  It was McDonald in the first couple games, then junior swing Darington Hobson made his presence known; senior forward Roman Martinez led the team in scoring four straight games in early December, and Hardeman turned it on at the start of conference play.  But this week was all Gary, not only leading the team in scoring and assists, but knocking down clutch free throws all over the place, hitting 22 of his whopping 27 free throw attempts this week, and harassing BYU’s Fredette and Haws into just 11-29 shooting.

Looking ahead: The Lobos wrap up their MWC front nine (er, um… eight?) with a visit to TCU on Saturday, then get a week to prepare for San Diego State on February 6th.

UNLV

Looking back: The Rebels’ duo of Willis and Chace Stanback continue to lead the way, Willis contributing 21.5 PPG and Stanback averaging 15.5 PPG this week in wins at TCU and at home against Air Force. But the big news of the week was junior swing Derrick Jasper spraining his left MCL in the Air Force win, an injury likely to sideline Jasper all of February, pushing his return right up against the start of the MWC tournament. The Rebels responded well to the Jasper injury, outscoring the Falcons 39-26 in the second half on their way to a 10-point come-from-behind victory, sparked by junior guard Kendall Wallace hitting his first four threes of the second half. With the BYU loss on Wednesday, the Rebels move within a game (in the loss column) of first place.

Looking ahead: Short week for the Rebs, but a long trip to Wyoming awaits. Then they return home to host BYU in what figures to be a fight for first place.

San Diego State

Looking back: It was only a one-game week, but it was a tough one for the Aztecs. In an up-again, down-again battle against BYU on Saturday, the buzzer went off with the Aztecs on the down-again side. While the Aztecs dominated BYU inside (40-18 margin in points-in-the-paint), they were unable to get to the line — in fact, both teams combined for only 18 free throws, a stat that made for a very fun game to watch — and were unable to control Fredette, who went for 33 points on 11-19 shooting and 5-8 from behind the arc. While SDSU has gotten tons of production out of its front line, their backcourt play has been inconsistent. They haven’t had a guard notch more than five assists this month, junior point D.J. Gay is shooting just 37% from the field this season, and has only a 1.6-to-1 assist to turnover ratio thus far. While it seems certain that head coach Steve Fisher will stick with Gay at the point, freshman Chase Tapley may be the better option. Tapley shoots 48% from the field, has a 2.1 A/TO ratio, defends better, rebounds better, and has significantly better offensive efficiency numbers than Gay. If the Aztecs hope to make a serious run at the NCAA tournament, moving to Tapley as their primary point guard seems to be a necessary move. But don’t hold your breath waiting on that move.

Looking ahead: SDSU travels to Colorado State on Saturday before returning to the Mesa to host Air Force on Tuesday.

Colorado State

Looking back: This was the type of week that the Rams can expect most of the rest of the way. Face a team like New Mexico, expect a loss; face a team like TCU, gut out a win. Coach Tim Miles has done an excellent job of getting the most out of his group of players, a somewhat limited bunch. So, this week, after the Rams were shut down offensively and destroyed on the glass by a more talented and athletic New Mexico team, they rededicated themselves to working on the glass and getting some easy hoops against TCU. The results? Junior forward Andy Ogide grabbed ten boards to go with 14 points, junior forward Travis Franklin added nine boards and freshman forward Greg Smith got six more to go with a career-high 15 points as CSU controlled the game inside, outscoring TCU in the paint 32-14 and scoring 16 points off TCU turnovers.

Looking ahead: The Rams host San Diego State on Saturday, then travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utes on Wednesday.

Utah

Looking back: Yup. We said it here last week, just like we said it here a month or so back. Utah is as capable of beating a top-notch team (as they did when they beat UNLV on the road on January 16th) as they were of losing to a bottom-feeder. Well, they lost to their bottom feeder, losing to Wyoming on Wednesday, even though it was in Laramie. What’s more, they lost to Wyoming while the Cowboys’ best player watched with a knee injury. More and more, it looks like the Utes’ main problem (and clearly their problems are plural) is at the point. While they are not a great shooting team, they have players that can score (witness junior Carlon Brown’s 31 – including a strong 22 in the second half – against Wyoming, and freshman Marshall Henderson’s 22 earlier in the week in a win over Air Force), but they just don’t have a guy who is a born distributor. Brown and senior Luka Drca have made the effort, but they just aren’t capable of running the point at this level. Unfortunately for coach Jim Boylen, there isn’t a ready point who is going to walk through the door this season, so the Utes will have to make do with what they have.

Looking ahead: The Utes travel down the road to Provo for the basketball version of the Holy War on Saturday night, then return home to host Colorado State on Wednesday.

TCU

Looking back: The Horned Frogs opened their week by hosting UNLV on Saturday, and they gave the favored Rebels a bit of a scare. With just over a minute to play, senior forward Zvonko Buljan converted a three-point play to bring TCU within a bucket at 72-70. Unfortunately for the Frogs, UNLV scored the last seven points of the game (all on free throws) to seal the win. While TCU stayed in the game on the strength of their three-point shooting (11-27 from three), they were unable to stop the Rebels inside of the arc, allowing UNLV to shoot an amazing 74% on two-point field goals. Jim Christian’s squad then traveled from Fort Worth to Fort Collins to face CSU on Wednesday, but Buljan failed to make the trip due to “personal reasons.” TCU could have used him as they fell by six to the Rams and shot just 35% from the field along the way. Sophomore point guard Ronnie Moss had 21 in a losing cause, but only two of those 21 came in the second half.

Looking ahead: TCU hosts New Mexico on Saturday, and Buljan remains questionable to play in that game, although coach Christian reports that he is healthy. The Frogs will then wrap up a rough week with a road trip to BYU on Wednesday.

Wyoming

Looking back: Last week at this time, the extent of the injury was not known. Now, however, with Muojeke out for the season, it is time for the Cowboys to see who is going to step up and carry the team down the stretch as coach Heath Schroyer tries to find some players to build around for the future. Waddell and Jackson were the first to throw their hats in the ring, but junior forward Djibril Thiam (16 points), sophomore guard A.J. Davis (10 points) and sophomore guard JayDee Luster (five assists) all contributed strong games in Wyoming’s win over Utah on Wednesday. With only one senior on the team (forward Ryan Dermody), the Cowboys will have a chance to get some much needed experience for players up and down the roster in the second half of the conference season.

Looking ahead: Wyoming faces Air Force on Saturday before traveling to UNLV on Wednesday.

Air Force

Looking back: After six long weeks watching, senior forward and leading scorer and rebounder Grant Parker finally returned from injury for the Falcons this week, and his impact was immediately felt. While Parker only played 15 minutes in a loss to Utah on Saturday, he returned to play 31 minutes at UNLV on Tuesday. Parker has not yet returned to form he showed early in the season, but he did contribute 11 points and seven rebounds in the what was the Falcons’ best performance of the conference season, a ten-point loss to UNLV. No one expects Parker’s presence to spark the Falcons to a wild second-half run to the .500 mark, but it will be interesting to see what this Falcon team looks like when healthy. The combination of Parker and junior guard Evan Washington was solid early in the season, and the addition of some now more seasoned younger players who got some run in Parker’s stead (such as freshman Mike Fitzgerald, junior Derek Brooks and junior Tom Fow) could give Air Force a chance to trip up some of the middle-of-the-pack teams.

Looking ahead: The Falcons get to test out that theory right-quick, as they host Wyoming on Saturday, before traveling to San Diego State on Tuedsay.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by jstevrtc on January 1st, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 12/30):

  1. New Mexico 13-1
  2. BYU 13-1
  3. UNLV 12-2
  4. San Diego State 10-3
  5. Colorado State 8-5
  6. Air Force 7-5
  7. TCU 6-7
  8. Wyoming 6-7
  9. Utah 6-7

Superlatives:

Team of the WeekNew Mexico – Hard to pick one given the slim pickings this time of year, but we’ll give the nod to New Mexico (rather than BYU for destroying Arizona in epic fashion on Monday) for handling a solid Texas Tech team in impressive fashion.  The Lobos had five players score in double figures, led by junior Darington Hobson who had 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.  They led by 12 at the half, and following a brief Red Raider run to start the second half, coasted to a 15 point victory at the Pit.  Freshman wing Curtis Dennis also provided a spark with strong defense, hustle plays and 16 points along the way.

Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Jr, BYU —  Fredette got going early and often against Arizona on Tuesday night, pouring in 49 points (on 16-23 shooting, including 9-13 from three), while adding seven rebounds and nine assists for one of the most complete games that anybody across the country has put up this season.  Fredette’s explosion was the most points scored in BYU history, and the most points scored in the history of the McKale Center.

Newcomer of the Week: Darington Hobson, Jr, New Mexico – Hobson takes home his third NOTW award from this space with his performance against Texas Tech detailed above.  He has been simply amazing at times this year, an incredibly versatile force who can grab a strong rebound at one end of the floor, weave his way up court and either find an open Lobo for an easy finish, complete the play himself with either a gliding finger-roll or a pull-up three or settle back in to run the half court offense.  If you haven’t had a chance to see Hobson yet this season, look him up when you get a chance, as all but one Lobo game the rest of the season will be televised somewhere, mostly on The MTN.

Game of the Week: Air Force 77 Niagara 71 – Okay, it was a slow week, and between some big blowout wins by MWC powers and some ugly losses, there weren’t a whole lot of contenders for this title.  We’ll give the nod here to the Falcons, who had five players score in double figures on the way to building up to a lead as big as 10.  But the Purple Eagles came strong down the stretch, pulling to within one with under a minute to play, but Air Force was able to maintain its lead by knocking down its free throws in the end.  Junior guard Evan Washington continued his strong play for the Falcons, racking up 19 points and eight boards, while junior forward Tom Fow added 17.

Games of the Upcoming Week: UNLV @ BYU, January 6th – While the MWC season opens a day earlier in San Diego, this will give us a good look at two of the contenders for the MWC crown.  Both teams feature strong perimeter games and tough defenses, but it may come down to who can control the paint and the glass with guys like BYU’s Noah Hartsock, Chris Miles and James Anderson battling it out with UNLV’s Matt Shaw, Darris Santee and Chace Stanback for interior control.

League Notes:

It’s been a slow week around the Mountain West, with only Air Force playing more than once, and with the non-conference slate wrapping up and the conference games set to begin, it is time to look at how the teams have positioned themselves with an eye towards the NCAA tournament.  The conference as a whole took a step forward with respect to their strength of the non-conference schedule, which helps the teams at the top of the conference continue to build their resumes through the conference season, but has left the bottom of the conference likely already out of the chase for even the lesser postseason tournaments.  Despite the much-talked-about weakness of the Pac-10 this season, the MWC still only ranks as the seventh strongest conference in the nation (just ahead of the A-10 and C-USA, according to KenPom, through December 29), having compiled a 81-38 (through Wednesday) record thus far this season, but having fallen to 10-11 against BCS conference schools.

Team Roundups:

New Mexico

Looking back: New Mexico’s difficult non-conference schedule continued this week as they handed Texas Tech their second loss of the season, detailed above.

While there is still one more big hurdle in their non-conference play, Steve Alford’s squad has already notched victories over Louisiana Tech, Cal, Texas A&M, Creighton and Texas Tech and done more than enough to consider their pre-conference play a rousing success.  Hobson has emerged as a dominant force in the conference, and there is enough talent surrounding him to make New Mexico a legitimate national threat.

Looking ahead: The Lobos host Dayton on New Year’s Day for another shot at a quality non-conference victory before beginning their conference schedule on Tuesday at San Diego State.

New Mexico has established itself as a co-favorite (along with BYU) to win the MWC regular season title and has laid the groundwork for an almost certain NCAA bid.  They have enough versatile parts (four different players in the rotation that can run the point, a host of talented wings, athletic defenders) to cause matchup problems for bigger teams, but may be a little thin in the paint, with only sophomores Will Brown and A.J. Hardeman providing legitimate interior presences.  And, perhaps more than anything else, this is an incredibly young team, with only one senior (wing Roman Martinez) seven freshmen and sophomores in their rotation, leaving some questions as to how this team will be able to fare under the pressure of March.

BYU

Looking back: Just one game for the Cougars this week, but they made sure to supply plenty of excitement to tide the fans over until conference play begins with a 99-69 win over Arizona at the McKale Center, the largest loss an Arizona team had experienced in the history of that venue.  But that wasn’t the only record set that night as junior guard Jimmer Fredette went off for 49 points (detailed above).

While New Mexico got most of the press in the MWC due to their extended undefeated run, BYU has slipped under the radar a bit on their way to currently being ranked number five in the most recent KenPom rankings, with their biggest win over Arizona State and their only loss on the road at Utah State.

Looking ahead: The Cougars have a cupcake against Eastern New Mexico before opening their conference season at home against UNLV (1/6).  They’ll then travel to UTEP (1/9) for their final non-conference game of the season in a game that may be their biggest test of the season so far.

BYU has been among the most efficient teams on both ends of the floor thus far this season, and while Fredette deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, junior guard Jackson Emery has been a revelation thus far this season as well, thus far ranking second in the nation in both Effective Field Goal Percentage (73%) and True Shooting Percentage (74.9%).  While it may be too soon to tell if he can keep up that kind of pace, BYU seems like a sure thing. They should compete for a conference title, and still have plenty of leeway to capture an at-large bid should they come up a bit short.

UNLV

Looking back: UNLV’s last game in the non-conference schedule was the championship game of the inaugural Diamond Head Classic against USC on Christmas Day, and the Rebels had some of their weaknesses exposed as USC proved to be the more physical team.  The Trojans were able to slow the pace of the game down and held Vegas to 34% shooting from the field including a paltry 5/22 from three-point.

When all is said and done, the Rebels come out of the non-conference portion of their schedule with a nice looking 12-2 record, but deeper examination shows only a win over Louisville as the best win on the schedule for the Rebs.  While there is nothing that could be considered a bad loss, the Rebels will have to have a strong conference performance to improve their potential at-large resume.

Looking ahead: The Rebels will find out at lot about themselves at the start of their Mountain West schedule, as they will travel to face BYU (1/6) and New Mexico (1/9) in their first two conference games before returning home to host San Diego State (1/13) and Utah (1/16).

While the half-court offense for the Rebels is definitely a question mark, there is no doubt that this is a very good defensive team, and this is a team that will likely make its stand by forcing turnovers defensively while controlling the ball offensively; Vegas is not a team that is going to give a lot of games away.  Further, this is a team that should improve over the season as their newcomers (two transfers and two freshmen among their rotation) get used to their new teammates and system.  The Rebels may not have the horses to compete with New Mexico and BYU for the conference title, but they should be a tournament-contender all season long.

San Diego State

Looking back: San Diego State’s lone game of the week was a closer-than-should-have-been squeaker over UC Riverside.  The Aztecs led by as many as 10 in the second half, but Riverside got back within a point on a Kyle Austin jumper with 44 seconds left.  Austin had a game-tying three-point attempt blocked by junior Malcolm Thomas blocked in the waning moments and SDSU escaped with a five-point win.

The Aztecs have one more cupcake remaining in their non-conference schedule and seem poised to take an 11-3 record into the conference schedule, but have no real impressive wins under their belt yet.  Wins over teams like Arizona and Fresno State were impressive, hard-fought wins, but the two best teams that the Aztecs faced, Saint Mary’s and Arizona State, handed them two of their three losses.

Looking ahead: SDSU will face Pomona-Pitzer on New Year’s Eve to complete their non-conference schedule, then will host New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference opener on Tuesday.

Like other teams around the conference, the Aztecs have a lot of new faces this year in the form of freshmen, transfers and even returning players taking on new roles.  As the season has progressed, players have settled into their roles and the team has improved steadily from week to week, and has turned into a very strong team on the glass, especially on the offensive end.  While they will take a strong record into conference play, they still have plenty of work to do to shore up their postseason resume, and will likely need a strong third-place MWC finish combined with a win or two over opponents like BYU, New Mexico or UNLV in order to make their odds of an at-large tournament bid more realistic.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams traveled to Fresno on Monday, and, as unlikely as it may seem, the plane trip to Fresno may have been the highlight of the week.  Because once the ball was in the air, the Rams were largely absent.  They made just five of 28 field goal attempts in the first half, missed all ten of their threes and were down 36-13 after 20 minutes of play.  If that weren’t bad enough, they slept through the opening few minutes of the second half, allowing the Bulldogs to score the first 11 of the half, and found themselves down 34 points on the way to a 23-point embarrassment.

While the Rams built up a little confidence in early December with a four game winning streak, they have now lost two straight and find themselves a game away from conference play with an exciting win over Colorado as their high point.

Looking ahead: CSU hosts Yale on New Year’s Eve before opening conference play with a trip to Wyoming (1/6) and a home game against Air Force (1/9).  If the Rams hope to make any splash in MWC play this year, those first two games against teams that they can beat are musts.

The Rams have some upside, with three freshmen (guard Dorian Green and forwards Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung) that they are excited about, but seem destined for a lower division MWC finish.  They simply don’t have the athletes or consistency to play with the premier teams in the conference, but with a little luck could make a run at a CBI or one of the other seven (I believe) post-season college basketball tournaments.

Air Force

Looking back: It’s possible Air Force had the most interesting week of all the MWC teams, as they competed in the final non-conference tournament of the season, the Sun Bowl Invitational at El Paso.  The Falcons showed well for themselves, knocking off a tough Niagara team in the semifinal round before losing to host UTEP in the championship. Once again, the Falcons played without leading scorer and rebounder Grant Parker, who has now missed the last five games with a groin injury.  Sophomore center Sammy Schafer has also now missed nine straight games with complications from a concussion.  No firm return date is set for either player at this point.

Looking ahead: The Falcons host Texas-Pan American on Saturday then kick off their MWC play at TCU on Wednesday.  If all goes well, Parker and Schafer could possibly return for the MWC opener.

While the current 7-5 record may not look all that pretty, you have to give credit to the Falcons for mostly beating the teams that they were supposed to beat (with the exception of Northern Arizona) and even sneaking in an upset.  While the majority of the Falcons’ wins so far have been over the weak-sisters of Division I (and even lesser divisions) like UC Davis, Prairie View A&M and Dickinson State, they snuck in a win on a neutral court over a good Niagara team this past week.  While coach Jeff Reynolds should harbor no illusions about being a NCAA tournament contender (barring an unlikely run through the MWC tournament), the Falcons have improved from last season.  They’ll need to finish near .500 in a tough MWC, however, in order to have any chance for a non-NCAA tournament postseason bid.

TCU

Looking back: The Horned Frogs became the third MWC team to lose to Northern Colorado, as they fell to the Bears on Wednesday night by 11.  After a close first half, a 14-4 run gave Northern Colorado a comfortable working margin and the Frogs were never within a possession of the lead the rest of the game.

For a fairly talented team that looked like a solid middle-of-the-pack MWC at the beginning of the year, the month of December has been tough for the Frogs as they have only posted one win over a Division I school in five tries, adding a win over an NAIA school along the way.  While fairly effective offensively and featuring several very skilled players, they have been absolutely abysmal defensively, ranking near the bottom of Division I in a variety of statistics, and their only wins on the season have come against the dregs of D-I.  The Horned Frogs have played a very difficult schedule in the early season (KenPom ranks it the 36th toughest schedule in the nation), but have thus far shown an inability to hang with good teams.

Looking ahead: TCU hosts Rice in their final non-conference game on Saturday, then hosts Air Force on Wednesday in their conference opener.

With a 6-7 record at this point, TCU would have to play their conference schedule above .500 to have postseason hopes.  Given their defensive struggles to this point, that seems increasingly unlikely.  While they feature an very good offensive point in sophomore Ronnie Moss, an excellent shooter in senior Edvinas Ruzgas, a skilled big man in senior Zvonko Buljan and a hustling glue-guy in sophomore Kevin Butler, they lack the athleticism to guard effective offensive teams well enough to compete with the elite MWC teams.

Wyoming

Looking back: Wyoming’s home court advantage at 7000-plus feet of elevation didn’t seem so scary Wednesday night as Akron was the team to finish strong, posting a 16-7 run in the final four minutes to finish off the Cowboys.  Wyoming played without freshman point guard JayDee Luster who sat out with an injured shoulder, and Akron’s tiny point Humpty Hitchens got off for 16 points and three three-pointers to lead the Zips.

While Wyoming plays at one of the highest tempos in the nation, their offense has been horribly inefficient, averaging significantly less than a point per offensive possession.  While some key injuries (to Luster, who has yet to be healthy this season, and sophomore leading scorer Afam Muojeke, who missed four games with a knee injury) and the overall youth of the team (eight sophomores and freshmen among the 10-man rotation) are to blame for some of it, this just isn’t a very talented Wyoming team.

Looking ahead: Wyoming hosts Adams State on Saturday to round out their conference schedule and likely get them back to .500 for the season before hosting Colorado State in their MWC opener on Wednesday.

The Cowboys are another in a line of teams at the bottom of the MWC conference who have dug themselves a hole in their non-conference play.  They’ll need to compile a .500 or better record against a tough conference to give themselves a chance at any type of postseason play (the NCAAs are out of the question), and given their inability to get quality possessions offensively, there is no reason to suspect that the Cowboys are capable of playing .500 ball the rest of the way.  Likely, the rest of this season will be dedicated to finding out who they have that they can build upon next year, especially with Luster and fellow freshman guard Desmar Jackson.

Utah

Looking back: The Utes got things headed back in the right direction by hanging one on a solid Texas-San Antonio team Tuesday night.  Sophomore center David Foster returned from a turned ankle to block six shots, while senior Luka Drca added 19 points and the Utes held UTSA to 33% shooting and only three assists on their 16 field goals en route to a 22 point Utah win.

It’s been a disappointing early season for the Utes, still fighting to get back to .500 after a recent three-game skid and some bad losses (Idaho, Seattle, Pepperdine) throughout the schedule.  The Utes have been terribly inefficient offensively, have struggled shooting the ball (especially from deep) and have even struggled on the glass, which is completely unacceptable for one of the tallest teams in the country.  And yet, the Utes have shown that they are talented enough to play with some good teams, having defeated Utah State and Michigan at home and Illinois on a neutral court.

Looking ahead: The Utes wrap up non-conference play with a trip to Baton Rouge on Saturday for a battle of underperforming teams.  Conference play starts with a home game against TCU on the following Saturday, backed up by a trip to the Pit to face the Lobos on January 13th.

About the only thing to be sure of for the rest of the Ute season is inconsistency.  Coach Jim Boylen is an excellent teacher, so the Utes are sure to get improvement out of its younger players, but the lack of consistent outside shooting up and down the roster seems destined to doom this Utah basketball squad to mediocrity.  There is enough talent and size here to be sure that the Utes will probably knock off teams like BYU, New Mexico and UNLV at some point this season, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see wins like that followed with losses to teams like Air Force, Colorado State and Wyoming.  And yet, if this team gets hot at the right moment in March, they could certainly win three games in three days and find themselves dancing.  But don’t hold your breath.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2009

checkinginon

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 12/4)

  1. New Mexico    7-0
  2. UNLV    6-0
  3. BYU     5-1
  4. San Diego State   5-2
  5. TCU    5-3
  6. Air Force    3-2
  7. Colorado State    4-3
  8. Utah      3-4
  9. Wyoming     3-4

Superlatives

Team of the Week. UNLV The Running Rebels had the toughest week of any Mountain West team, playing two down-to-the-wire games against two major national programs in Louisville and Arizona, and came through with their perfect record intact.

Player of the Week. Darrington Hobson, Jr, New Mexico – The nod goes to Hobson for the second week running, after he turned in a monstrous 22 points and 15 rebounds against Cal Wednesday night. Coupled with a 21/10/5 asst game in the Lobos visit to Hawaii, Hobson looks to have a lock on the MWC Player of the Week.

Newcomer of the Week. Hobson. Again.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on November 27th, 2009

checkinginon

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 11/26)

  1. New Mexico   (5-0)
  2. BYU     (4-0)
  3. UNLV    ( 4-0)
  4. Air Force     (2-1)
  5. TCU     (4-2)
  6. Colorado State   (3-2)
  7. San Diego State     (3-2)
  8. Utah     (2-2)
  9. Wyoming    (2-2)

Superlatives

Team of the week.  New Mexico – this could have been UNLV or BYU in this spot, but the nod goes to the Lobos for their sheer volume, hoisting five wins before Thanksgiving, including the win over their in-state rival, four impressive wins over mid-to-low major programs and a Basketball Traveler’s World Vision Classic title.

Player of the week.  Darrington Hobson, Jr, New Mexico – Hobson has been a versatile wonder for Steve Alford so far this season. The 6-7 JuCo transfer from the College of Eastern Utah has done a little bit of everything for the Lobos. Just check out these stuffed stat lines: 16 pts/7 rebs/6 asts vs. UC Riverside; 17 pts/7 rebs/5 asts vs. New Mexico State; 14 pts vs. Nicholls State; 30 pts/10rebs/3 3s vs. Louisiana Tech; and 11 pts/6 rebs/5 asts vs. Miami (OH). With numbers like those, it is no wonder that Hobson won the MVP award at the World Vision Classic and the player-of-the-week award from the MWC.

Newcomer of the week.  Hobson.

Game of the week.  Utah vs. Utah State: A classic in-state matchup between two strong programs came right down to the wire as the Utes dodged 27 points and a potentially game-tying three from Aggie senior point guard Jared Quayle in the waning moments of a 68-67 Utah victory. Carlon Brown led the Utes with 22 points (on 8/19 shooting), and Luka Drca kicked in 11 points and six assists.  RTC Live was there in case you missed it.

Game of the upcoming week. Louisville @ UNLV: The Rebels have looked strong so far, especially in the backcourt, but they will need to get some strong contributions from their frontcourt talent in order to give the Cardinals a run for their money. The backcourt battles between the Rebels young stable of talent and Louisville guards such as seniors Edgar Sosa, Preston Knowles,  Jerry Smith and Reginald Delk and freshman Peyton Siva should be quite fun.

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