Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 8th, 2011

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

A Look Back

Last Wednesday, after Wyoming, in front of their home crowd, improbably stuck right with the #7 team in the nation, BYU, for 39-plus minutes, MWC fans were treated to an epic battle between two very good teams, one with its ticket all but punched for the NCAA Tournament, the other with its resume still very much in doubt. In the end, D.J. Gay’s clutch shot as the clock wound down followed by his play on Colorado State’s last-ditch effort sealed the road victory for San Diego State, just the latest in a streak of big plays at crunch time for the wily senior. The Rams, however, bounced back on Saturday with a closer-than-expected road win of their own over Wyoming. Elsewhere around the conference, New Mexico beat Air Force in Colorado Springs on Tuesday and Air Force came back with their own road win – their second in a row following 20 straight conference road losses – with their win over Utah on Saturday. If you’re not counting at home, that makes five road wins in eight conference games this week, but in the end, the teams at the top of the conference by and large keep piling up the wins, giving the MWC five times who at least have aspirations for at-large NCAA Tournament selections. With talented veteran rosters across the conference, this may be the high water mark for the conference, with stalwarts Utah and BYU (and TCU, a non-factor basketball-wise) heading to higher ground next season. And, on Monday, we got news of the firing of Wyoming’s head coach, Heath Schroyer, an announcement that was only potentially surprising because of the timing. With Utah and TCU also struggling through some recent hard times on the hard court, and with their impending departure, Jim Boylen and Jim Christian have to be looking over their shoulder as well.

Team of the Week: BYU – It’s hard to pick out one team this week, but we’ll go with the Cougars largely on the strength of their impressive handling of UNLV at the Marriott Center on Saturday. BYU built up a 12-point halftime lead, then coasted through much of the second half behind 29 points from Jimmer Fredette on his way to grabbing the mantle of the all-time leading scorer in Mountain West history, passing San Diego State’s Brandon Heath. Fredette also added seven assists and made all 16 of his free throw attempts as the Cougars prevailed in a game that was not exactly a thing of beauty. Couple that win with their surprisingly difficult win over Wyoming on Wednesday and it’s just another 2-0 week for the Cougars.

Player of the Week: Kawhi Leonard, Sophomore, San Diego State and Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Nobody in the conference came out and stole this week’s award, so I’m going to split the recognition between the two candidates for MWC Player of the Year (yes, I know Fredette’s winning this thing going away right now). At the surface, both of these guys had great weeks. Fredette scored 55 points in his two games, while Leonard had 23 points and 25 rebounds on the week. But closer examination reveals flaws for each. Leonard made just ten of his 27 shots, turned the ball over as many times as he handed out assists and missed both of his three-point attempt, while Fredette was just 13-35 from the field and 3-16 from deep, and had nine turnovers to his eight assists. And despite those flaws, these two share the Player of the Week award, in recognition not only for the things they did well this week, but also all that they’ve done well over the season.

Newcomer of the Week: Hank Thorns, Junior, TCU – It hasn’t been a fun season in Fort Worth, but Thorns has been a bright spot. The 5’9 transfer from Virginia Tech leads the conference in assists, with 6.4 dimes per game. This week he added eight more assists in a seven-point loss at San Diego State, but he’s also been adding more of a scoring punch, in the wake of the suspension of the Horned Frogs’ leading scorer, Ronnie Moss. This week Thorns had 16 points, and while TCU is in the middle of a six-game losing streak, Thorns has averaged 12 points and nine assists in the three games since Moss’ suspension.

Game of the Week: San Diego State 56, Colorado State 54 – Playing in front of an emboldened Moby Arena crowd, the Rams were out to prove that they were no pretender. And for 39 minutes and about 50 seconds, they fought the #6 team in the nation to a draw. And then D.J. Gay broke the hearts of the Rams and their 7,353 screaming fans. I linked to it above, but it is good enough to watch again. After CSU’s Travis Franklin tied the game at 54 with a strong move to the basket with 10 seconds left, Gay took the inbounds pass, calmly dribbled up court, and, in front of head coach Steve Fisher who had opted to let Gay go to work on his own rather than call a timeout, he knocked down a step-back jumper in the face of CSU’s Dorian Green. And then, not to be outdone, he got back on defense and intercepted Adam Nigon’s Hail Mary pass as time expired, reminding everyone around the conference why Gay is so important to his team.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (16-7, 4-4) at Colorado State (16-7, 6-3), 2/12, 6PM PST, The Mtn. – On a day when San Diego State visits UNLV, I’ll take this game as the more important game, the more competitive game and the more exciting game. I may have been a little slow to the party, but I’m finally on board with the Rams as a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender, and I’ve also been waiting on the Lobos to turn the corner as well. At this point, all signs point to the corner having been turned, so we could be in for a serious battle here. The possibility of a Drew Gordon-Andy Ogide battle up front should be enough to get any college hoops fan interesting, but it could be the battle between Lobo senior point Dairese Gary and Ram sophomore guard Dorian Green that could decide things. Green surprisingly got the best of Gary in the first go-round, holding the Lobo leader scoreless in 34 minutes, but it was Gordon’s 16-rebound dominance on the glass that put the Lobos over the top at The Pit. This time around, the Rams will have the home court advantage, but it is unlikely they’ll be able to shutout Gary again. The winner here sneaks ahead in the battle for the MWC’s potential fourth Tournament bid, but people around the conference have been whispering giddily about the possibility of five teams in the Big Dance.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (23-1, 8-1): While the Aztecs did come out of the week with two wins, they also got a bit of a scare on Saturday night when starting guard Chase Tapley and reserve forward Tim Shelton both left the game in the first half with injuries – Tapley’s a sprained ankle and Shelton’s a foot injury. Neither player returned to the game and both sat on the bench with protective boots on their feet in the second half, but later X-rays revealed no broken bones in either player’s case. Shelton, who has had knee injuries end two seasons in his time in San Diego, underwent an MRI on Monday to determine if there was any ligament or tendon damage.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host Utah tonight before traveling to UNLV for a big collision on Saturday.

2. BYU (22-2, 8-1): In recent weeks, this space has turned into a “Cougars Who Aren’t Named Jimmer” section, and we’ll go back to that well here. While Jackson Emery continued his strong play (27 points, five threes and seven steals this week), Saturday’s win over UNLV featured a strong showing from sophomore forward Stephen Rogers, who went for 12 points, a career-high eight rebounds and two three-pointers in 21 minutes. Rogers’ chance at significant playing time came after freshman Kyle Collinsworth and junior James Anderson both left the game with injuries – Collinsworth a concussion and Anderson a separated shoulder. While Brandon Davies was a huge factor in the Cougars win over Wyoming on Wednesday, with 20 points and nine rebounds, he was limited by foul trouble on Saturday and struggled home to just four points, his only non-double-digit scoring effort since conference play began.

A look ahead: Sneaky week for the Cougars, with a trip to Air Force on Wednesday and then a visit from Utah for the final MWC edition of the basketball version of the Holy War on Saturday.

3. Colorado State (16-7, 6-3): The Rams played two games decided by five total points this week, and came away with a 1-1 split and a host of believers around the MWC. Rather unbelievably, CSU actually outrebounded the Aztecs, holding them to a mere five rebounds and a 14.3 offensive rebounding percentage. Andy Ogide led the way with 12 rebounds to go with his 18 points, but the Rams were done in by their ability to score against the suffocating SDSU defense, posting just a 38.5 effective field goal percentage. Against Wyoming on Saturday, there was a little bit of a hangover in effect, as Ogide was in foul trouble throughout and scored just 11 points, as the Ram starters combined to go 14-38 from the field. However, they were bailed out by their depth, as CSU’s bench outscored the Wyoming reserves by a 23-3 margin. Sophomore Pierce Hornung led the way with ten points and 11 rebounds, his first career double. As a whole, the bench combined to make ten of their 17 field goal attempts.

A look ahead: The Rams get a mid-week bye in advance of their battle with New Mexico on Saturday.

4. UNLV (17-6, 5-4): It’s a good thing for the Rebels that they took care of business against Utah on Wednesday, because they never had a chance against BYU on Saturday afternoon. While the Rebs were impressive on the glass against the Cougars (they grabbed almost 40% of all available offensive rebounds, and were solid on the defensive glass), their inability to hit shots on a consistent basis continues to plague them. Against BYU they posted just a 35% effective field goal percentage, and for the season they are just a shade above 50% in that category, good for 110th in the nation. Worse yet, they are shooting less than 30% from three, 318th in the nation. Their defense continues to be elite (they’re ninth in the nation in defensive efficiency), but unless they can somehow start putting the ball in the hoop, they’re a non-entity come March. Quintrell Thomas led the way against Utah with 15 points and 16 boards, while Anthony Marshall’s 16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists against BYU was the only good thing the Rebs had going that day. Chace Stanback continues to be the leading scorer on the team, and he’s scored in double figures in six straight games, but UNLV fans keep waiting for last year’s Tre’Von Willis to show up. In his four games back since a knee injury kept him out of a couple games, he has only shot 35.9% from the field and averaged 12 points per game, and his quickness and ability to challenge defenders and get to the line is a pale imitation of the Willis from ’09-’10.

A look ahead: The Rebels visit TCU on Wednesday, with a chance to build up their confidence before heading into a huge home game with the Aztecs on Saturday. If the Rebels are going to get their mojo back, it has to start on Saturday by breaking SDSU’s three-game win streak in the series.

5. New Mexico (16-7, 4-4): After a terrible 1-4 start in conference play, the Lobos have now strung together three straight wins to get back to .500. This week they went to Air Force and looked impressive in helping head coach Steve Alford to his 400th career win, before getting a weekend bye. Drew Gordon led the way with 17 points and six rebounds, Dairese Gary added eight assists and the Lobos won by 14.

A look ahead: The Lobos host Wyoming on Wednesday in what is bound to be an emotional game for the Cowboys in their first game without head coach Heath Schroyer. If the Lobos can get through that game, their battle with Colorado State on Saturday will be huge.

6. Air Force (13-9, 4-5): In the home loss against New Mexico, the Falcons were just outclassed. But on Saturday, they played a strong game at Utah and came away with a five-point win. Against the bigger and stronger Utes, the Falcons went against type and hit the glass hard and effectively, grabbing a sparkling 90.6% of all defensive rebounds and a solid 24.3% of the offensive rebounds. Sophomore Zach Bohannon impressed, posting career highs in points (12), rebounds (8) and assists (5) and the Falcons led every step of the way after ripping off a 14-2 run to break a 2-2 tie early in the game.

A look ahead: Air Force’s sole game of the week is a visit from BYU on Wednesday night. They slow it down, ugly the game up and try to control Fredette in the hopes of keeping in contact as far as the under-four timeout. If they can do that much, anything can happen down the stretch.

7. Utah (10-13, 3-6): The head coach at Utah prior to Jim Boylen was Ray Giacoletti. He won a MWC championship in his first season and advanced the Utes to a Sweet 16. Two straight 6-10 years later, he was the ex-Utah coach. This is Boylen’s 4th season as the head coach in Salt Lake City. In his second year, his Utes won the MWC championship before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, they finished 7-9. But with the Utes stepping up to the Pac-10 next season, last season’s mass exodus of players not too far back in the rearview mirror, and with history saying the Utah athletic department isn’t fond of consecutive losing seasons for its basketball program, it might be a good idea for the Utes to finish this season strongly if Boylen expects to be back next year. This week’s two losses, especially the home loss against Air Force on Saturday during which the home crowd did not hesitate to show its displeasure, did not do Boylen any favors. Yes, he’s had to deal with a nearly complete roster overhaul that has been exacerbated by injuries, and he’s a well-respected man in his profession, but if the Utes don’t finish this season strongly, you can bet the athletic department will be entertaining thoughts of a new head coach.

A look ahead: Given the above, this week is absolutely brutal. A trip to San Diego State tonight, a trip to Provo to face BYU on Saturday, and in all likelihood, a 3-8 conference record come Sunday morning.

8. TCU (10-14, 1-8): Much like the Utes, the Horned Frogs have a transition to a higher level of basketball in the near future, as they’ll join the Big East in ’12-’13. With head coach Jim Christian, now in his third season, having never posted a winning record in Fort Worth, he can’t be resting all too comfortably, especially given the fact that he has just suspended his best player in Ronnie Moss, a player who in all likelihood will not wear a Horned Frog uniform again. The fact is, this roster is pretty devoid of talent, and doesn’t compare favorably with even some of the truly bad teams at the bottom of the Big East. If TCU decides that Christian isn’t the man for the future of this program, do they decide to go a different way immediately, giving the new head coach a couple years worth of recruiting before being thrown into the Big East gauntlet? Or does Christian get one more year to turn it around, with the Horned Frogs using a new head coach in 2012 to generate some type of buzz before heading into the Big East? My educated guess? Given that Christian still has four years on his contract – after receiving a two-year extension following his first season in Fort Worth – given that the basketball is clearly a distant second in importance to the TCU football program (and may even be third behind baseball), and given that the previous head coach left the program in total disarray, I suspect Christian will get another season. An added bonus: if the Horned Frogs do wind up with a new head coach in their first year in the Big East, that’s a good excuse for their inability to keep up with the big boys of college basketball.

A look ahead: UNLV visits Fort Worth on Saturday, then the Frogs visit Laramie in a spectacular preview of the 8/9 game at the MWC Tournament.

9. Wyoming (8-15, 1-8): At Wyoming, they no longer have the same decision to make that the two programs above have to make. Schroyer is gone, assistant coach Fred Langley has been promoted to interim coach and the only decision that remains to be made is who is next. The early leader is BYU associate head coach Dave Rice, but Wyoming has a nice head start on searching for a new head man. As for the Schroyer era, the final tally stands at 49-68 over the course of almost four years, but his lasting legacy may be cleaning up the academic and off-court performance of the team. Given the substandard facilities at Wyoming, Schroyer was fighting an uphill battle the whole way, but he never got any momentum going. It was somewhat surprising that he was fired in the middle of the season, as all indications were that any decisions about his future would be made after the season, but there was no real suspense as to whether he would return or not. The ironic part is, this firing came after a week in which the Cowboys played BYU down to the wire, then gave Colorado State all they could handle before coming up short.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels to New Mexico for their first game in the Langley era, then return home to host TCU on Saturday.

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BGTD: Late Afternoon Games Analysis

Posted by jstevrtc on February 5th, 2011

The afternoon games gave us a couple of squads needing and getting redemption wins, despite still having a lot of work to do on their resumes. We also saw The Jimmer get creative and show you other aspects of his game besides the leaning scissor-kick threes from the hash marks (though those are really fun to watch), and we’re preplexed by Washington’s road-o-phobia.

  • Wildcats Win a Wild One. We’ve written so much negative stuff about Kansas State this year, let’s say something good for once. Jacob Pullen used a tasty little crossover to wrong-foot his defender and get to the hoop for an easy lay-in with about two seconds left to give the Wildcats their first Big 12 road win this season, an 86-85 squeaker over Iowa State. Congrats on the nice win, but let’s keep a big-picture perspective. KSU’s next two are at Colorado (tough) and at home against Kansas. If they can win those two, then they’ll have our attention. That’d put them at 18-8 (6-5) with a late-season win over a title contender. Ironically, that KSU vs KU game is a Valentine’s Day tilt.
  • Speaking of Wildcats Needing Wins… Northwestern has a pulse, at least, having pulled out a close road win at Illinois, 71-70. We’re still scratching our collective head regarding the change over the last month in Demetri McCamey (14/4 asst). In the Illini’s first 16 games, McCamey had only one game in which he had less than five assists (three in a win vs Oakland on 12/8). At that point, they were 13-3. In their last seven games, McCamey has had only one game with more than five assists (11 in a win vs Michigan State on 1/18). The Illini have lost five of those seven games.
  • Along Came (the other) Jones.  Another team that earned a little redemption (and needed it) with a road win: the Baylor Bears. Perry Jones (27/7) deserves every bit of the hype he gets, but today it was Anthony Jones (10/8) who saved the Bears with a lay-in with 3.1 seconds remaining, giving Baylor a good solid win (76-74) over a 16th-ranked Texas A&M squad. Checking the schedule, Baylor has seven Big 12 games remaining, and we see a minimum of three wins out of those (Nebraska, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M, all at home). That would make Baylor 8-8 in the Big 12…which isn’t even as encouraging as it sounds. In the past 18 years, a .500-or-worse team has only been to the NCAA Tournament four times. The Bears still have two games against Texas ahead of them. They might need to steal one of those.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2011

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

A Look Back

The Mountain West goes national – at least for a night. On Wednesday, the much-anticipated MWC clash between BYU and San Diego State took the nation by storm, and Jimmer Fredette and the Cougars certainly did not disappoint. After a pretty standard first eight minutes, during which Fredette “only” had five points, he exploded for BYU’s final 15 points of the first half, then picked up right where he left off after the break, scoring nine of the first 12 Cougar points on his way to a total of 43 on the night. And when the final buzzer sounded on a 71-58 BYU win, the fun was just beginning. Over the next 24 hours, Fredette’s name popped up all over, and not just among the typical college basketball dorks. ESPN couldn’t get enough of him, Kevin Durant called him the “best scorer in the world,” and Fredette, with his new horribly unimaginative update of his nickname (really, adding a “The” to “Jimmer”? come on…) was just about as close to a household name as a college basketball player can be. And so, our secret is out. Tucked away in our little corner of the college hoops world, we seemingly had Fredette all to our own for the last few years. To most of the rest of the average casual college basketball fan, Fredette was just that good shooter tucked away on The Mtn. and other backwoods channels who they might get a chance to watch a time or two a year. For us, we knew there was more. We’d seen him knock down the deep threes, but we’ve also seen him power by defenders to get into the lane and finish in absolutely ridiculous ways. We’ve been calling Fredette must-see TV for most of this season, and while there is maybe a bit of bittersweetness to losing that little secret that MWC hoops fans had, we’re far more apt to be happy that the rest of the college basketball world gets it now: Fredette is as fun of a player to watch as ever comes down the pike and hoops fans should be taking advantage of every opportunity to see him play in what is now his final nine games of his college career. And, for the MWC fan who still wants to be in on a secret that the rest of the country doesn’t know about yet, there’s still Kawhi Leonard who is somewhat undervalued nationwide. There’s Jackson Emery. There’s D.J. Gay, Dairese Gary, Andy Ogide, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Tre’Von Willis. And you know what? We’ve likely got just over a month remaining in each of those players’ great college careers. MWC fans are very lucky right now.

Team of the Week: New Mexico – While BYU handing SDSU their first defeat of the season was the big national story of the week, the Lobos were the big winner this week as they got back on track in conference play. After destroying TCU on Wednesday night in the shadow of Jimmermania, the Lobos were able to perhaps take advantage of BYU’s ride back to earth and score a big nine-point win in The Pit. The Lobos are still a game below .500 in the conference, and I’ve been wrong before in saying that Steve Alford had this thing turned around, but New Mexico is now getting contributions from all over their roster. Dairese Gary has been the sure thing the last couple of years, but now there’s plenty more help. Drew Gordon is on a roll with double-figure scoring in his last six games and double-digit rebounding in five of those games. Philip McDonald has been inconsistent during his career, but he’s averaging over 14 points a game in the last six. While it looked for a while that Kendall Williams had hit the freshman wall, he’s scoring more than 12 a game over that stretch, while still adding four assists a night. And against BYU, freshman Tony Snell offered up by far his biggest contribution of the season, scoring a career-high 16, with five threes – including two big ones down the stretch – and a pretty solid performance while guarding Fredette. I’ve made the comparison before, but the Lobos have the potential to be this year’s San Diego State at the conference tournament. They’ve struggled on their way to building a cohesive team, but as the Lobos come barreling down the final stretch of highway in March, don’t be surprised if they’re playing their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time.

Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – With apologies to Andy Ogide, there is no way this can go to anyone else but Fredette this week. The loss on Saturday is a pretty major blemish on the resume, but really when we look back at the college basketball season when all is said and done, this will go down as The Week of Jimmer. When you average 37.5 points per game on 26-50 shooting and 11-17 from behind the arc, you’re very much on the short list for player of the week in any conference. When you do that in a week when your name is on the lips of sports fans across the country, when the mere mention of your name incites smiles, disbelieving head shakes and looks of wonder, when you vault yourself right up to the top of the leaderboard for potential National Player of the Year candidates, you’ve got the little old MWC POTW award in the bag.

Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – A couple weeks back when we gave Gordon this award, it was on the heels of a spectacular week. (Seriously, have you checked this out yet?) This week was perhaps a more pedestrian week, but Gordon was still incredibly effective. Over the course of the week, he went for 27 points, 23 rebounds, four blocks and 65% shooting from the field. There are still plenty of places where Gordon needs to improve his game (um, he’s averaging one assist every 111 minutes this season), but if he can keep being a ferocious rebounder and a reliable post scorer for the Lobos, he can help turn this squad into a scary matchup for teams across the conference.

Game of the Week: BYU 71, San Diego State 58 – Usually here we detail a particularly close and dramatic game. This week, while Air Force did play in a couple of games decided by a total of four points, the game of the week was obvious. While there was no real drama in the last four minutes or so, this was the MWC’s turn in the national spotlight. And it was good. Sure, the Aztec team that we’ve seen all season was a shadow of its usual self, and sure there were stretches where the defenses seemed to be significantly ahead of the offenses, but this was a completely enjoyable way to spend a weeknight hour or two. Fredette gets all the publicity (and rightly so), but Leonard was amazing as well, despite playing with the flu, notching 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Maybe next time these two teams meet in San Diego, we’ll get the down-to-the-wire, white knuckle finish we were hoping for, but just because we didn’t get that on Wednesday night doesn’t mean we watched anything short of a completely compelling spectacle.

Game of the Upcoming Week: San Diego State (21-1, 6-1) at Colorado State (15-6, 5-2), 2/2, 6PM PST, CBS College Sports – While this won’t have the national panache that the game of a week earlier had, this battle could have just as big an effect on the conference title picture. The Aztecs and Cougars are tied atop the conference with just one loss, but just a game back looms CSU, a veteran team that still has to prove that they belong in the conversation with the big boys in this league. Against BYU a couple weeks back, they kept the game close for the better part of 40 minutes before letting the game slip away at the end, but they did score a win over UNLV. Right now the Rams sit on their own mini-tier in the conference, not quite having yet posted the credentials to earn them consideration alongside the two teams above them, but surprisingly ahead of the rest of the conference. However, in their quest to prove that they are deserving of NCAA Tournament consideration, a win over the Aztecs would be a huge feather in their cap. For their part, the Aztecs still have a bad taste in their mouth after their less than stellar performance against BYU, and even a 39-point win over Wyoming on Saturday hasn’t yet washed that away; they’ll be looking to re-establish their place in the conference.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (21-1, 6-1): I’m leaving the Aztecs as my pick in the conference based on BYU’s loss to New Mexico and the fact that SDSU’s hosts the next matchup between the teams on February 26. But, beyond that, the loss on Wednesday night did reveal, or highlight, some flaws here. We’ve talked about it before, but as good as the Aztecs have been on the offensive glass all season long, they’re just average on the defensive glass. Some of that comes from their aggressiveness in trying to challenge shots on the defensive end, but a bit of it comes from the lack of effort at times. That portion of it is eminently fixable. More concerning was the complete absence of any positive effect on the game from D.J. Gay. Gay has been a rock for the Aztecs, knocking down big shots, playing solid defense and just generally willing his team to victories in tight games since the middle of last season. On Wednesday night, he was largely invisible, other than being in the frame when Fredette was knocking down jumpers. He wound up with two points on 0-7 shooting, and seemed to lose confidence as Fredette ascendance continued. For the Aztecs to live up to their potential, they’ll need Gay to be the tough-nosed bulldog that he has been over the past year.

A look ahead: The Aztecs travel to Fort Collins for our Game of the Week on Wednesday, then return home for a relative breather against TCU on Saturday.

2. BYU (20-2, 6-1): Believe it or not, there is more than one player on this Cougar team, and there are plenty of good ones. Among them, sophomore forward Brandon Davies has taken a huge leap forward this season, a very positive development for this squad, given that at the start of the year he was very much a question mark. There was no doubt about his talent, but his effort and basketball IQ were sometimes questioned, leaving him riding the pine for large portion of the Cougars first two games. However, of late he has earned a valuable spot in the rotation and has come through, scoring in double figures in the last seven games and in 13 of their last 14. While his best years are still ahead of him (I’ll put him on by 2011-12 Preseason All-MWC team right now), he’ll be a big factor for the Cougars down the stretch. Another intriguing frontcourt player is 6’10 junior James Anderson. Against the Aztecs he came out of nowhere to block five shots in the game, just one shy of his total in the other 146 minutes he’s been on the floor this year. His minutes have been up and down this year, and he’s most apt to get run only when there are injuries or foul problems up front, but he showed on Wednesday that when called upon, he’s capable of providing quality minutes.

A look ahead: The Cougars travel to Laramie for a win at Wyoming, then return home to welcome the Runnin’ Rebels as the second time around the conference begins.

3. Colorado State (15-6, 5-2): After a couple of good wins against some sneaky-tough middle-of-the-pack MWC teams this week, the Rams can look back at the first half of their conference schedule and feel good that they’ve at least beaten the teams that they should have beaten. Mix in a loss at New Mexico, a home loss to BYU and a road win at UNLV and Tim Miles has to feel pretty good about the fact that he’s got his CSU team in the conversation for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. There is still work to do, however, and as happens every year, the bubble is bound to shrink come March as teams steal bids, but the Rams are at least in a place where this is a doable thing. If senior forward Andy Ogide keeps playing the caliber of basketball that he currently is, not only will he have a spot saved for him on the first team All-MWC, but he should be able to get the Rams over the hump. In a tight win over Utah on Saturday, Ogide went for a career-high 28 points, ten rebounds and three three-pointers, the latter a jaw-dropping number given that he had made exactly four other threes in his entire collegiate career.

A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.

4. UNLV (16-5, 4-3): The Rebels just had one game this week, and given the way they played in the early-going of their game in Laramie, they seemed like that were interested in taking the whole week off. Luckily, their offense got going late in the first half and then the Rebels ripped through a 51-34 second half to ease away from the Cowboys late. Tre’Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback each went for 17 points in the game and Anthony Marshall led the team in both rebounds (11) and assists (5).

A look ahead: A tough week awaits the Rebels, with a visit from a vastly improved Utah squad preceding a visit to Provo for an attempt at paying back the Cougars for their conference-opening loss in Las Vegas.

5. New Mexico (15-7, 3-4): We talked about the Lobos above in our team of the week section, but to sum it up: Lobo fans are hoping that their team has turned the corner.

A look ahead: The Lobos have a winnable road game at Air Force tonight, but they’ll need to earn it with a good performance against an improved Falcon squad. They’ve got a bye on the weekend before beginning their second run through the conference with a visit from Wyoming next Wednesday.

6. Utah (10-11, 3-4): The Utes gave Colorado State all they could take on Saturday, but after scrapping back to tie the game late at 68, they gave up the final six points of the game and slid back below .500 in conference. Will Clyburn continued his strong play with 19 points and ten rebounds, but also turned the ball over six times, a weakness that has plagued the Utes all season long.

A look ahead: Utah wraps up the first half of conference play with a trip to Las Vegas, then start the flip side by hosting Air Force on Saturday.

7. Air Force (12-8, 3-4): The Falcons played two games they can be proud of this week; unfortunately, the record still reads 1-1 on the week. Against CSU on Wednesday, sophomore Mike Lyons did his best to bring the Academy back late, with seven points in the last 30 seconds, but every time his heroics brought the Falcons a step closer the Rams had an answer. Against TCU on Saturday, it was junior Taylor Stewart with a layup with 15 seconds left in overtime that provided the final margin in a 66-65 win.

A look ahead: The Falcons host New Mexico on Wednesday, then travel to Utah for what should be a very evenly matched game.

8. TCU (10-13, 1-7): TCU has wrapped up the first half of their conference schedule, given that they have a mid-week bye this week, and with just one win on the season, they are assured to be at least tied for last place in the conference. We knew coming in that this would be a tough year for the undersized and inexperienced Frogs, but this has been above and beyond what was expected. Aside from two additional losses last week, there was a third, big loss: the indefinite suspension of junior guard and leading scorer Ronnie Moss. Moss was suspended by head coach Jim Christian on Friday for “a failure to adhere to the standards of the program” and the feeling around Fort Worth is that he has played his last game for the team. Combined with the dismissal of junior college transfer Sammy Yeager at the beginning of this month, it has been a rough January for a program that seemed to be making some strides in the non-conference schedule. But now, the program seems to be back to square one, a proposition that has to have Christian, in his third year as the Horned Frog coach, questioning his future in Fort Worth with a move to the Big East imminent.

A look ahead: Things are going to get worse before they get better for the Frogs, with a visit to San Diego State due up on Saturday.

9. Wyoming (8-13, 1-6): While things are bad for TCU and Jim Christian, they can be thankful they are not Wyoming and Heath Schroyer. After playing UNLV pretty good for a half on Tuesday, SDSU took out their frustrations on the Cowboys in a big way on Saturday, scoring the first 14 points, 33 of the first 44 and building a 53-22 halftime lead. The only big question remaining for the Cowboy program this season is when they fire Schroyer and who they look to as a replacement.

A look ahead: Wyoming hosts BYU and Colorado State this week, at least giving the home crowd a chance to see what a good team looks like.

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Set Your Tivo: 01.26.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on January 26th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Coming off their huge win at Kansas on Saturday, Texas heads back out on the road to another tough environment and looking to avoid a letdown while the game of the year in the Mountain West takes place tonight in Provo, Utah. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#6 Texas @ Oklahoma State – 7:30 pm on ESPN (***)

Hamilton and the 'Horns Enter a Tough Environment Tonight, Even Without the Added Emotion

Emotions will be running high in Stillwater as the Cowboys take the court tonight and the Oklahoma State community honors the legacy of the ten lives lost in the plane crash that occurred ten years ago Thursday. Gallagher-Iba Arena is always a tough place to play and that will especially ring true this evening.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2011

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

A Look Back

While the top of the conference was business as usual, with BYU and San Diego State both taking care of things on their way towards Wednesday’s collision, there was quite a bit of shakeup in the middle of the conference. Colorado State handled UNLV at the Thomas & Mack with ease on Wednesday, before falling in a fairly close battle with BYU on Saturday. UNLV bounced back from their loss to squeak one out over New Mexico on Saturday, while the Lobos struggled to a two loss week and sank to the back of the pack of teams hoping to contend for upper-division finishes. The other team that got over on New Mexico this week was Utah, who built on last week’s road win at Laramie with a home win against the Lobos and another road win on Saturday, this time at TCU. With the Ute roster rounding into relative health, Jim Boylen has his team ready to be a tough out the rest of the way in conference play. But as we head into fourth week of conference play, the big story is the two teams at the top of the conference getting ready to meet in Provo on Wednesday night. With just one loss on the season between the two teams, a National Player of the Year contender in Jimmer Fredette and a couple of top ten teams, the game sets up as not only the game of the year in the Mountain West, but one of the better regular season games of the entire college basketball season.

Team of the Week: Utah – In the middle of last week, the Utes were mired in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, with a loss to San Diego – one of the worst teams in Division I – mixed in with more explainable losses to teams like Butler, Portland, San Diego State and BYU. Now, they’re riding a three-game winning streak and are right in the conversation with a bunch of teams in the middle of the conference behind the front-runners. Junior center David Foster has come back strong from injury problems in the early season to average 8.7 rebounds and four blocks per game over the course of the winning streak, providing the Utes with a big dominant force in the middle. While junior Josh Watkins has struggled with turnovers all season, he has provided a scoring punch from the backcourt for the Utes, and he has averaged 17.3 PPG over the last three games. Junior Will Clyburn had his first game of the season in which he did not score in double figures when he was limited to 27 minutes (yes, limited – he averages over 36 minutes per game) against New Mexico, but he surrounded that game with a 24-point, 12-rebound monster at Wyoming and a 22-point, nine-rebound effort at TCU. In addition, freshman J.J. O’Brien and sophomore Shawn Glover have both stepped up as excellent role players. This isn’t going to magically turn into a classic Utah team overnight, but assuming everyone stays healthy, seeing Utah on the schedule means a tough game again.

Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Last week, when Fredette scored 47 against Utah, I instead gave the Player of the Week to Kawhi Leonard, and deservedly so. This week, Fredette went for a quiet 21 against TCU before exploding again for 42 at Colorado State. I hear ya, Jimmer, I hear ya. In the CSU game, Fredette was unstoppably aggressive, getting to the line easily for 17 attempts (making 16), but also knocking down the typical deep Fredette threes. In the past week, he has seemingly extended his range, knocking down a couple of threes from about 30 feet out, both times within the normal flow and context of the game. Oh, there’s Jimmer dropping in a pull-up 30-foot three with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. Ho hum. He’s just ridiculous, guys. Once again, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that we’ve only 11 more opportunities in the regular season to watch Fredette play. Every one of those games is available on television. If you’re not taking advantage of the chance to get to watch this guy play every time out, you’re the one missing out.

Newcomer of the Week: Wes Eikmeier, Sophomore, Colorado State – The transfer from Iowa State came to Fort Collins with the reputation of being “just a shooter,” capable of knocking down the three, but not likely to be counted on for much else. While he’s lived up to the shooting expectations (having knocked down 33 threes at a 38% clip), he’s shown as a Ram that he’s also pretty good with the dribble, capable of creating shots for himself or teammates with a shot fake and a move. This past week he handed out nine assists in the Rams’ two games, while still very much making teams pay for leaving him free from deep, hitting seven of his 13 three-point attempts. Against BYU he went for a career-high 25 points, hitting five threes, handing out five assists and even grabbing five boards. As the Rams fight for NCAA Tournament consideration, Eikmeier is a key cog in their machine.

Game of the Week: UNLV 63, New Mexico 62 – Both teams came into this battle in Las Vegas off of underachieving losses. But while this was by no means a pretty game, it was a hard-fought battle to the finish. The Rebels seemingly had things in control with just under six minutes left, after seven straight points from Carlos Lopez put them up 56-50. But after a three by freshman Tony Snell, the Lobos held a 61-60 lead with 38 seconds left. From there, Tre’Von Willis, playing in his first game back from a knee injury, came up with a steal leading to a breakaway and Lobo senior guard Dairese Gary got called for a questionable intentional foul in trying to separate Willis from the ball. Willis made both shots, and after UNLV got possession back, Oscar Bellfield was fouled and made one of his shots, putting UNLV up 63-61. After Lobo freshman Kendall Williams turned the ball over on a bad pass, he almost made up for his mistake by coming up with a big steal on the Rebel inbound pass, drawing a foul and getting sent to the line with a chance to tie the game. But, after making the first of two, his second shot was long and the Rebels escaped with a much-needed victory while the Lobos were sent back to Albuquerque with a 1-4 record in conference play.

Game of the Upcoming Week: San Diego State (20-0, 5-0) at BYU (19-1, 5-0), 1/26, 7PM PST, CBS College Sports – The game of the year in the MWC, at least until February 26 when they do it all over in San Diego, should be a classic. With a combined 39 wins between these two teams, there is not even a doubt that these are the best two teams in the conference. There are plenty of interesting matchups here to talk about, but taking a look at the sole BYU loss (to UCLA a week before Christmas) may give us some insight as to what might happen. In that game, UCLA’s big and physical frontline gave the Cougars’ frontcourt all sorts of trouble, outscoring them 60-30 and controlling the boards. Given that SDSU’s frontline is among the best in the nation, BYU will again have their hands full. But the big question is what the Aztecs will do defensively to slow Fredette. In the UCLA game, it was long and athletic Malcolm Lee who slowed Fredette. The Aztecs don’t really have that type of player, but  D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley will each get their shots at guarding him. What this curious fan wants to see is if Steve Fisher maybe pegs Kawhi Leonard to take a couple runs at Fredette.  Leonard has taken on guards like Tre’Von Willis and Dairese Gary at times during his college career, and while he may not have the quickness of Fredette, his strength and length may be enough to give Fredette problems. In the end, whichever team wins the battle of the tempo (BYU wants to play fast, SDSU wouldn’t mind getting into a slugfest) may come out on top, but SDSU’s offensive rebounding prowess (they snatch 37.6% of all available offensive rebounds) and struggles from the free throw line (they shoot just 67.1% from the line) may be two competing areas to keep an eye on. If I had to guess, I’d take the Aztecs, 70-65.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (20-0, 5-0): The Aztecs had just one game this week, as they were fortunate enough to have a bye built into their schedule prior to each of their games with BYU this season. On the court, they needed a late run against Air Force to finally put the Falcons away. Leonard had ten points and ten rebounds for the 30th double-double of his career, while Gay followed up his career-high 30 against New Mexico last Saturday with 20 more, including six threes. He now has 13 three-pointers in his last two appearances. But it was Billy White who stepped up to finally put the game away, scoring ten of his 12 points in the middle of an 13-3 SDSU run down the stretch to expand what had been a four-point contest into a 14-point Aztec win.

A look ahead: At BYU on Wednesday night. And if the schedule-makers weren’t to be thanked enough already for the byes before the BYU game on the schedule, they certainly deserve one for scheduling Wyoming after the Cougar game.

2. BYU (19-1, 5-0): We’ve talked plenty about Fredette in these posts this year, and with good reason, but there are plenty of other big contributors to the BYU cause on this roster. Fellow senior Jackson Emery just passed Danny Ainge as the all-time leader in steals at the school and has been a perfect complement to Fredette in the backcourt. He’s knocked down 22 three-pointers in 44 attempts during conference play (after a slightly cool stretch during non-conference play) and his ability to get in passing lanes or pick the pockets of opposing players often fuels BYU’s dynamic transition game. Up front, sophomore Brandon Davies has turned into a consistent offensive threat, since earning Dave Rose’s trust early in the season. After scoring just two points in 15 minutes in the first two games of the season, Davies has scored in double figures in 14 of the last 18 games. In the Cougars wins over TCU and Colorado State this week, he averaged 12.5 points and nine rebounds per game. Then there’s freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth who is just now starting to look comfortable for the Cougs. In the past three games, he’s averaged 12.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and four assists and has turned into a solid offensive option for BYU.

A look ahead: While SDSU gets a feathery-soft landing following the big clash on Wednesday night, BYU has to follow up the game that everyone has been pointing to with a trip to Albuquerque to face an angry Lobo squad on Saturday.

3. Colorado State (13-6, 3-2): The Rams have the third-best record in the conference and they just got done beating UNLV at the Thomas & Mack. My eyes keep telling me that this CSU team isn’t any better than the fifth-best team in the conference; I’m going to an ophthalmologist this week. The Rams followed up their 15-point win at UNLV by keeping BYU within shouting distance for most of the game on Saturday, before finally succumbing, but there were plenty of good signs this week for Tim Miles’ and company. Senior Travis Franklin finally shook off a stretch of down-games following his success in Cancun, by going for 22.5 PPG this week and adding six rebounds a night. Fellow senior Andy Ogide was just as good, racking up 18-point and nine-rebound averages over the week. When those two guys are going strong, they open up a lot of good looks for perimeter players like Eikmeier and sophomore Dorian Green.

A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.

4. UNLV (15-5, 3-3): Rebel fans are in need of something of a wake-up call. Since looking great over Thanksgiving weekend en route to a 76 Classic championship, Vegas has looked very ordinary. Defensively, they are stellar. They force turnovers, they harass opposing ballhandlers, they clog up the lane – they are very hard to score against. The problem is on the other end. Sure, if those turnovers they force can get them out in transition, they have some good athletes who excel in the open court (I’m looking at you, Anthony Marshall). But in the halfcourt, there is no one really capable of breaking down a defender and getting his own shot, there is no one whose three-point ability really scares opposing teams, and there is no great offensive rebounder. In short, this is a very ordinary offensive team. And while Reb fans may hold out hope that Willis’ knee problems will disappear just in time for a big NCAA Tournament run, it is looking more and more likely that the Willis we see now is the Willis we’ll see come March. But even if a 09-10 Willis shows back up, is that really enough to turn this Rebel offense into anything more than ordinary? I’m not buying it.

A look ahead: The Rebels travel to Wyoming tonight, then get the weekend off to patch their bones.

5. New Mexico (13-7, 1-4): I’m going to keep holding on to the idea that this Lobo team is a talented squad that is just about ready to turn the corner and cause problems. They’ve got to be, right? Led by senior point guard/bulldog Dairese Gary and with players like Drew Gordon, Philip McDonald, A.J Hardeman and the talented freshman class of Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell, isn’t this team too good to be 1-4 in the MWC? Apparently not. Williams has come back to earth a bit after his fiery start, McDonald remains an up-and-down enigma and Gordon has yet to really establish himself as a post-man who demands the ball when things are going good. There is talent here, but it is up to Steve Alford and his senior point to fold the newcomers in with the returning talent, and to this point, that just hasn’t happened.

A look ahead: The Lobos are badly in need of some home cooking, and they’ll get it this week, welcoming TCU to The Pit on Wednesday, then entertaining BYU on Saturday. The Lobos had better handle the Frogs midweek or the home folks will be howling, while the Saturday game sets up pretty nicely for New Mexico.

6. Utah (10-10, 3-3): Back to .500 on the season and in the conference, the Utes are our MWC Team of the Week (see above).

A look ahead: Utah hosts Colorado State on Saturday, following a mid-week bye.

7. Air Force (11-7, 2-3): The Falcons actually gave San Diego State a good run for their money on Wednesday, pulling within 48-44 on consecutive threes by seniors Tom Fow and Derek Brooks. But from there, the Air Force offense went cold and SDSU went to the spurs, using a 13-3 run to propel them to a 13-point win. On Saturday, the Falcons bounced back nicely, however, using 17 first-half points by sophomore Mike Lyons to build up a big early lead and using balanced scoring on the way to an eventual 21-point win over Wyoming.

A look ahead: The Falcons are on the road this week, with trips to Colorado State and TCU ahead.

8. TCU (10-11, 1-5): There aren’t a ton of positives around the TCU basketball program, but we’ve found a couple worth mentioning. First, as Luke Winn points out, junior guard Ronnie Moss was actually incredibly effective against Fredette in the Frogs’ 16-point loss at Provo on Tuesday. Fredette wound up with 21 points, but aside from one of Fredette’s insane 30-foot threes, Moss held him to 0-of-8 shooting in the first half, and allowed just one layup-plus-foul in the second half. Throw in the fact that Moss had 27 points and six rebounds of his own, and that’s not a bad day at the office. Elsewhere on the TCU squad, I’ve just got to mention Hank Thorns this week. The guy is listed at 5’9, which means he’s maybe 5’7. Maybe. And yet he led the Frogs in rebounding in both of their games this week, grabbing a total of 13 boards on the week. He’s also had 40 assists in the past five games, but back to the rebounding thing. Now, TCU is not a massive team across the front line, but their starting frontcourt in their last game went 6’7, 6’9, 6’9. All told, those three guys (Garlon Green, Amric Fields and Nikola Cerina) grabbed 21 rebounds in their last 159 minutes of game time. And the 5’9 Thorns grabbed 13 by himself last week. Good on Thorns, but with that frontcourt production, the 1-5 record is not surprising.

A look ahead: The Frogs travel to New Mexico on Wednesday, and then host Air Force on Saturday.

9. Wyoming (8-11, 1-4): A 21-point loss to Air Force. Sure, the Falcons are an improved team this year, and the Cowboys have lost some players to injuries. But against TCU and Air Force, the two teams with whom the Cowboys could reasonably expect to compete, they have lost by an average of 19.5 points per contest. Now Heath Schroyer and company do get a chance to reprise those matchups in front of a home crowd later in the season, but things are not good in the Wyoming basketball program right now.

A look ahead: And as bad as things have been in Laramie, a visit from UNLV and then a trip to San Diego to face the Aztecs are not exactly the kinds of medicine you prescribe to an injured patient. Hello, 1-6.

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The Other 26: Week 10

Posted by KDoyle on January 21st, 2011

Kevin Doyle is an RTC contributor.

Introduction

The week is here, long at last. Going into the season, BYU and San Diego State were projected to be strong, but this strong? Just to give you an idea of where these two juggernauts stood before the season, the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll had San Diego State receiving 73 votes and BYU 55 votes in the top 25 poll. In Zach Hayes’ Bracketology—a bracket that, in my mind, is very accurate for his latest edition—he had SDSU as a six seed and BYU a seven. Clearly, each team has exceeded many of the critics and so called experts expectations. Who would have thought that the teams would combine to have a 38-1 record at this stage of the season? Not even Steve Fisher or Dave Rose would have thought that.

In the grand scheme of things, the tilt in Provo, Utah, next week will not have an impact on whether or not either team will make the NCAA Tournament—it is a foregone conclusion that both are in—but this may be San Diego State’s biggest roadblock between them having an undefeated regular season or not. Can the magic carpet ride that San Diego State has been flying on continue, or will Jimmer Fredette and Co. take the air right out from under them? It will all go down on Wednesday evening in Provo.

The Other 26 Rankings

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 19th, 2011

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

A Look Back

  • San Diego State and BYU continued to get separation from the rest of the pack this week, adding three more wins between them and hurtling us one week closer to an epic matchup between the two favorites in Provo on January 26. While BYU’s one game this week was a big 25-point win over intrastate rival Utah (more on that game later), the Aztecs posted the two most impressive wins of the week, getting a home win over UNLV in a slugfest before traveling to New Mexico and getting a 10-point up-tempo win in perhaps their toughest road trip of the season to date (which is saying a lot for a team who has now won 11 games away from the Viejas Arena this season).
  • Team of the Week: San Diego State – We’ve pointed out in this space before that sometimes this season, the Aztecs have been guilty of not giving great effort against some of the lesser teams on their schedule. They’ve been known to come out of the chutes a little slow. And while they’ve killed people on the offensive glass, they have been less than impressive on the other backboards at times. None of that was a problem this week. The Aztecs controlled the boards on both ends of the floor against UNLV on Wednesday. They fought and scrapped and harassed Rebel players from the opening jump to the final buzzer in scraping out a six-point win. Then on Saturday, used a completely different up-tempo, fast-breaking, three-point drilling style in overwhelming the Lobos in one of the toughest places to play in America. Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, and D.J Gay were all on top of their games this week, and with Duke being upset on Wednesday, the Aztecs now own the longest winning streak in the nation, with a 19-0 record.
  • Player of the Week: Kawhi Leonard, Sophomore, San Diego State – Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate. In a week where Jimmer Fredette posted 47 points, four rebounds, six assists, and two steals on 16-28 shooting with six threes mixed in there, I don’t for a second feel bad about handing the Player of the Week award (and all the glories that accompany it) to someone else. Especially when that someone else posted two dominant double-doubles in one of the tougher back-to-back sets of games of conference play. Leonard averaged 17 points and 16 rebounds this week, and those numbers alone are impressive enough. But throw in four assists in each game. Throw in a total of 16 trips to the line on the week. Throw in harassing defense that limited guys like Philip McDonald and Tre’Von Willis – guys listed in their rosters as guards – to a combined 4-16 from the field for 15 total points, more than eight below their combined average, and you’ll see why Leonard is right there with Fredette in the race for the MWC Player of the Year.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – This. No, really. Check this out. That alone had me abusing my TiVo remote’s rewind-button repeatedly on Saturday evening. In a game chock full of spectacular plays, that one was beyond the pale. Aside from the highlight reel stuff, Gordon was absolutely dominant in that game, playing his best game as a Lobo, and really, his best game as a collegiate. Against the hyper-athletic Aztec frontline, Gordon kept his Lobos in the game by drawing fouls across the SDSU frontcourt and scoring at will with a combination of feathery-soft jump hooks and athletic putbacks on his way to 23 points and 14 boards. After taking some time to get comfortable with his new squad, the UCLA transfer averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds this week, and while the Lobos are looking up at .500 in conference play, the combination of Gordon and senior point guard Dairese Gary could be a scary proposition down the stretch.
  • Game of the Week: San Diego State 87, New Mexico 77 – Have you checked this out yet? My goodness. Down the stretch, this game wasn’t exactly a nailbiter, but there was so much great basketball in this game that I wouldn’t mind going back and watching this one again. Aside from Gordon’s crazy dunk, there was Leonard throwing down a sick dunk on one possession, then coming back down on the very next possession and knocking down a confident three in the face of a Lobo defender, a pair of plays that had to have the NBA scouts in attendance drooling. Then there was the Gay/Gary duel, which made me realize how much I am going to miss those two bulldogs after a couple more months. Gay was outstanding, knocking down seven threes (including a runner at the half-time buzzer to cap a stellar stretch), but also getting to the line with ease and handing out a steady four assists along the way. Then there was Gary’s 23 points, seven assists and four threes as he and Gordon did everything possible to keep the Lobos within striking distance. While the game was never in doubt down the stretch, the play in the meat of the game was enthralling. Last year, the teams’ roles were pretty much reversed, with UNM off to the fast start in the front half of the season and SDSU just beginning to round into shape at the start of conference play. When they met in a classic semifinal matchup in the MWC Tournament, it was SDSU riding steady improvement through February and March who was able to rise up and grab the MWC automatic bid. Don’t be surprised if SDSU and New Mexico meet in the 1/4 matchup in this year’s MWC Semis with the Lobos needing to win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, and don’t be surprised to see another classic battle.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico at UNLV, 1/12, 1PM PST, Vs. – With San Diego State and Brigham Young well-established as the favorites in the conference, this is a battle between the next tier of teams. After starting out an impressive 9-0, the Rebels have now lost four of their last nine games and are in need of a confidence-boosting win. The Lobos currently sit at 1-2 in the conference and have yet to score a major win on the season – a win in Vegas on Saturday would be their first big notch on their potential NCAA Tournament resume. But beating the Rebs at home is easier said than done. They’ll need Gordon to reprise his dominating play this week and exploit a somewhat soft UNLV underbelly, while Gary will need to withstand the harassing Rebel defensive pressure on the perimeter. For the Rebels, it would help if they could find someone to knock down a couple perimeter jumpers. With so much on the line for both teams, this could be a rockfight.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (19-0, 4-0): We’ve talked about Leonard and Gay above, so it’s time to check out some other Aztecs here. First, senior Malcolm Thomas has been a great frontcourt pairing with Leonard. He doesn’t need a lot of offense run for him to be effective, he’s plenty capable of converting his nearly three offensive rebounds per game into easy offense and he converts a high percentage of his shots from the field. He brings it on a consistent basis on the defensive end, getting after the defensive glass while also blocking more than two shots a game. Then there’s senior Billy White, who has been quiet of late. He blew up for 30 points and nine rebounds as the Aztecs made a name for themselves early in the season against Gonzaga, but since then he has been quiet. He has scored in double figures just twice in the last month and hasn’t grabbed more than five rebounds since before Thanksgiving. While White doesn’t need to be a big scorer or rebounder for SDSU to be effective, they do need consistent contributions out of him for them to live up to their potential. If he can get back to being an effective third option offensively (behind Leonard and Gay), SDSU’s got a deep March run to look forward to.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host Air Force on Wednesday before getting a bye this weekend in advance of next Wednesday’s colossal trip to BYU.

2. BYU (17-1, 3-0): So, yeah, there was that Fredette 47-point outburst. It was real, and it was spectacular. But it’s just Jimmer. You almost expect those kinds of performances out of him by now. 34 here, 39 there, 22 is a bit of a slow night, make up for it with 49. Ho hum. Oh, and he broke the 2000-point plateau in his career at BYU in the Utah game, and it is not out of the question that he could catch Danny Ainge for the all-time mark. Well, we’ve got 12 more regular season games worth of Fredette and you better get a glimpse of him whenever you can at this point. There are worse ways for a basketball fan to spend a couple of hours. While Fredette’s big game got all the ink, four other Cougars scored in double figures against the Utes, including Jackson Emery who went for 20 and hit a couple of milestones as well, breaking Ainge’s all-time steals record and hitting the 1000-point mark in his Cougar career. On Tuesday night, BYU notched a 26-point win over TCU in which each of their five starters scored in double figures for the second straight game.

A look ahead: After a slow week last week, BYU makes a sneaky-tough trip to Colorado State, a game in which head coach Dave Rose will need to make sure his boys aren’t looking ahead to the visit from the Aztecs.

3. UNLV (14-4, 2-2): The Rebels bounced back from their loss at SDSU with a 12-point win at Air Force. Playing without senior Tre’Von Willis, who missed the game with a knee injury, the Rebels played uninspired ball for most of the first 30 minutes and found themselves trailing by five at the under-eight timeout. But they picked things up defensively down the stretch, held the Falcons scoreless for over six minutes and knocked down their free throws in the end to earn a tough road win. Chace Stanback led the way for UNLV with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Derrick Jasper grabbed 11 more rebounds and handed out six assists.

A look ahead: The Rebels host Colorado State and New Mexico in a pretty tough one-two homestand. Willis is expected to be a game-time decision for the CSU game on Wednesday.

4. New Mexico (13-5, 1-2): While the Lobos have been unable to gather up any momentum to this point on their schedule, you can see this team is starting to get dangerous. Everybody around the conference knows how good Gary is, but now with Gordon beginning to play lights out, the Lobos have two major offensive threats, each of whom is effective on the defensive end. Freshmen wing Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk have each turned it on at times over the last couple weeks, but each is still susceptible to inconsistency. Then there’s junior Philip McDonald, who remains a bit of an enigma. Head coach Steve Alford relegated him to coming off the bench in their seven-point home win over Colorado State this week, after a series of lackluster performances. However, he responded against the Rams by posting a career-high-tying 27 points. Figuring that McDonald had taken the hint, Alford put him back in the starting lineup against SDSU and he was relatively invisible again, missing all five of his field goal attempts and posting just six points. It’s anybody’s guess where he goes from here, but he’ll need to get going for the Lobos to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.

A look ahead: Road trips to Utah and UNLV loom; a road sweep is a dream scenario, a split is perfectly acceptable (although at some point, they’ll need to win some road games against quality competition), and an 0-2 week dooms the Lobos to NIT contention.

5. Colorado State (12-5, 2-1): After dropping the game at The Pit, the Rams returned home and took care of TCU in a solid game. Sophomore point guard Dorian Green (15 PPG) and senior forward Andy Ogide (13.5 PPG, 8 RPG) were the big names this week, but the head coach Tim Miles has to be wondering what happened to Travis Franklin. Since the senior scored 67 points in three games in Hawai’i during the Diamond Head Classic, he has only scored a total of 51 points in the last six games and he has only attempted five field goals per game over that span. He picked things up in the TCU game, going for 14 points on five-of-nine shooting, but the Rams could sure use a more longer-term contribution from Franklin.

A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.

6. Air Force (10-6, 1-2): After taking the middle of the week off, the Falcons hosted UNLV on Saturday and were golden for about 32 minutes. Unfortunately, over the next seven minutes they were, well, the opposite of golden. They failed to score for 6:35, gave up a 13-0 Rebel run over that span, and never recovered. While there were any number of factors that contributed to their loss (beyond, you know, not scoring for 6:35), the Falcons struggled most in two areas: rebounding and free throw shooting. While their inability to rebound effectively was not a surprise, their 12/25 shooting from the line was glaring, given their 71% clip prior to the UNLV game.

A look ahead: The Falcons travel to San Diego State on Wednesday for an interesting one. Air Force will likely get killed on the glass, because Air Force always gets killed on the glass and SDSU always kills people on the glass. But, the Falcons will ugly the game up, keep the numbers of possessions to a minimum, and if they can make their shots, could hang around for 30 minutes or so. Or they could lose by 40. Who knows? After that they return back home to host Wyoming in a game that even the most die-hard MWC fan could be excused for missing.

7. Utah (8-10, 1-3): Here’s the thing: a 25-point home loss to the hated in-state rival is never a good thing. Letting the hated in-state rival’s stud guard go for 47? Worse yet, all that happening in the last matchup as conference foes? Pretty disastrous. But, underneath all of that, there were little signs of good things around the Ute program this week. Jim Boylen’s club bounced back from that loss to whip Wyoming on the road. Junior center David Foster, last year’s MWC Defensive Player of the Year, has now played 25 or more minutes for three straight games, something that had only happened one other time all season, and in the process he blocked eight shots and grabbed 23 rebounds. And junior wing Will Clyburn continued his strong season with 47 points, 16 rebounds and six threes on the week. But, turnovers continued to haunt the Utes, most obviously in the BYU game when they turned the ball over 22 times and forced just five. While the problems with the Utah program extend beyond the point guard play, that position is a pretty good microcosm for their struggles: between juniors Josh Watkins and Chris Kupets, there are three more turnovers than assists on the season.

A look ahead: Utah hosts New Mexico, then travels to TCU on Saturday.

8. TCU (10-9, 1-3): The Horned Frogs won at home and lost on the road last week, knocking off Wyoming and losing to Colorado State. The line of the week definitely came from Ronnie Moss, posting 27 points, ten rebounds (not bad for a 6-2 guard), four steals and six threes against Wyoming. Point guard Hank Thorns also made a splash, totaling 19 assists on the week, while freshman forward Amric Fields contributed 14.5 points per contest. The Frogs followed the ten-point loss at Colorado State with a rough road trip to BYU to start this week and headed back to Fort Worth with a 26-point loss for their effort. Moss did go for 27 points again and Thorns had ten more assists, but the game was never competitive.

A look ahead: The Frogs welcome Utah into the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum on Saturday in a game which should help clear up the bottom of the MWC standings.

9. Wyoming (8-10, 1-3): I like to be positive around here. Sure, there are always some negative stories around college basketball, but college hoops fans generally don’t like to dwell on those things. We want to take about kids maturing into good players, coaches getting the most out of their student-athletes and the fun and excitement surrounding the sport we love. In that spirit, I’d like to take you back a couple of weeks ago when Francisco Cruz hit a buzzer-beater for an upset win over New Mexico that lifted the spirits of an entire program, albeit briefly. We can get to this week’s two losses by an average of 17.5 points and the news that junior Afam Muojeke – the team’s leading scorer from last season – will miss the remainder of this year with a ruptured patellar tendon, at some later date.

A look ahead: Wyoming gets the middle of the week off, then travels to Colorado Spring for a meeting with Air Force on Saturday.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 12th, 2011

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

A Look Back

With the first week of conference play in the books, we’ve already had a big battle between a couple of the favorites, an upset of a team hoping to make its case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field and quite a few other interesting battles around the conference. The big statement of the week was BYU’s trip to UNLV on Wednesday night, where the Cougars came away with their first win in their last nine games against UNLV in the Thomas & Mack behind a sparkling 39-point performance by Jimmer Fredette, who has now officially thrown his hat into the ring as a National Player of the Year candidate. Fredette threw in seven increasingly improbable threes in getting the big Running Rebels off of BYU’s collective back, with backcourt mate Jackson Emery adding six more for good measure, as BYU pulled away in the second half and then withstood a too-late UNLV run to hold on for the big win. Given BYU’s struggles at the Thomas & Mack, that win was something of a surprise, but Wyoming defending their homecourt and knocking off New Mexico on Saturday may be the big take-away from the weekend. The Cowboys limped through their non-conference schedule, but were able to deliver a big early blow to the Lobos at-large hopes when junior Francisco Cruz hit the buzzer-beating game winner following the Cowboys’ second offensive rebound of their final possession. Elsewhere, form more or less held true.

  • Team of the Week: BYU – It cannot be overstated how big of a win the Cougars pulled off against UNLV last Wednesday. In terms of this year’s regular season conference race, the win over the Running Rebels clearly establishes BYU as the “1-A” to San Diego State’s “1”. But on a bigger scale, it is a large mental hurdle that has been cleared by Dave Rose and his squad. Not only is it the first win by any player on this roster over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center, it is also the first win of its kind of the Rose era at BYU. Including last year’s crushing 70-66 loss in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals and two other losses to UNLV in MWC Tournament finals, BYU had lost at UNLV eight times in the last five seasons. And those losses came in all manner of ways, from the 75-74 battle in 2009 to the 70-41 shellacking in 2008. The Cougars found all sorts of different ways to leave Vegas on a losing skid – a feeling I’m sure plenty of us can relate to. But now, with a 16-1 record and a convincing win over their nemesis, perhaps BYU can leave their doubts behind in Vegas and use that win as a springboard for the rest of the season.
  • Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Just a typical week for Fredette: 61 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, ten three-pointers in 21 attempts and a whole host of wow-inducing, TiVo-rewinding, and soul-crushing (for his defenders, at least) buckets. At this point, he’s taken down this award four times, and with his nearly 25 points per night, you can expect to see his name pop up here a few more times in his final couple months as one of the most exciting college basketball players in the land. And, if you’re not planning on doing so already, make it a point to watch this guy play at least once a week for the rest of the season. Every remaining BYU game is televised somewhere, and believe me, this guy is as close to must-see-TV as it gets in college hoops this season.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Francisco Cruz, Junior, Wyoming – There hasn’t been much to write home about coming out of Wyoming basketball these last couple years. On the heels of last year’s 10-21 eight-place finish, the Cowboys struggled to a .500 record in non-conference play this year. But in their home conference opener on Saturday night, “Paco” hit the game-winning shot that, at least temporarily, put smiles on the faces of concerned Wyoming players, coaches, and fans. His overall numbers this week won’t blow you away (10.5 PPG, 3-11 from three), but the JuCo transfer from Nogales, Mexico has thus far been the sole consistent shooter on a Cowboy team limited by injuries and inexperience, knocking down 42% of his three-pointers and 89% of his free throws. He won’t amaze you with his athleticism, but if you give this dead-eye shooter a clean look from deep – or even a contested look off a scramble for a loose rebound in the closing seconds, as in the case of the New Mexico game – odds are he’ll make you pay.
  • Game of the Week: Wyoming 67, New Mexico 66 – Let’s start here with just over a minute left, with the Cowboys up 64-61and New Mexico, who had been carried by senior point guard Dairese Gary all day long, coming out of a timeout. With everybody in the place thinking Gary would be the guy called on to make a play, the Lobos found freshman forward Alex Kirk popping out to the three-point line and stroking the jumper to tie the game. On the next possession, Cowboy sophomore Desmar Jackson drove wildly to the hoop and missed an out-of-control runner, but in shades of things to come, the Lobos were unable to secure the ball, allowed Jackson to retrieve it and draw a foul to get to the line, where he made one of two to give Wyoming the lead back. New Mexico came back, however, this time behind Gary, who drew a foul of his own and made both buckets to regain the lead for the Lobos, setting up Wyoming’s final possession. With about ten seconds left, Cruz launched a three from the corner, which bounced harmlessly away, but the Lobos, without the services of big men A.J. Hardeman and Drew Gordon who had both previously fouled out, were again unable to secure the rebound. Wyoming’s Daylen Harrison found the ball and put up his own attempt at a game winner, which again clanged off the rim. This time the ball found its way back to Cruz, who threw up an off-balance, desperation prayer at the buzzer which dropped in and wound up as the game-winner for the Cowboys.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: UNLV @ San Diego State, 1/12, 7PM PST, CBS College Sports – A week ago, it was UNLV and BYU kicking off conference play, but this time around San Diego State gets the first of its two big tests this week, when the Running Rebels come calling to Viejas Arena for what is likely the Aztecs biggest test of the season so far. With Lon Kruger’s squad having already dropped a game at home, they’ll look to steal a road game against the conference favorite to get back into the mix of teams at the top of the conference. Two keys to this game will be rebounding and three-point shooting, a couple areas where both teams can struggle at times. While SDSU is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, grabbing 37.8% of their own misses, they have struggled at times this season cleaning their defensive glass. UNLV hasn’t been particularly good rebounding at either end, so the Aztecs’ big and athletic frontline could have a chance to gain a significant advantage on the glass. From behind the arc, both teams rank lower than 200th in the nation in three-point percentage, but each team has a player who can hit from deep as SDSU’s James Rahon and UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield are both shooting at a greater than 40% clip from three. In the end, if either team can establish significant advantages in either of those areas, that could be the difference in the game.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (17-0, 2-0): At this point, the Aztecs are going to get everybody’s best shot – and they might as well get used to it, so long as that unblemished record and lofty national ranking continues. This week, both TCU and Utah gave SDSU at least one good half, before fading a bit coming out of the locker room. But once again, the Aztecs struggled a bit on the glass. While they dominated on the offensive boards, grabbing 35% of all available offensive rebounds, they allowed their opponents to grab over 30% of their own offensive rebounds. Another running theme for Steve Fisher’s club is their inability to get to the line consistently. Against TCU, they only earned six free throw attempts, before getting there 18 times against Utah. To be fair, given the way the Aztecs shot against Utah (they made just eight of their 18 attempts), perhaps it is understandable that they avoid the charity stripe, but with their size and athleticism, this SDSU team should be earning drastically more free-throw attempts than they currently are. Yes, the undefeated streak continues, and yes, this team is right there with the most talented teams in the country, but if the Aztecs don’t do a better job controlling the glass and getting to the free throw line, that goose egg on the right side of their record is going to disappear very soon.

A look ahead: After hosting the Running Rebels on Wednesday, the Aztecs head to Albuquerque for one of the tougher road trips in the MWC. Two wins this week would be a mighty impressive result, while two losses is not an impossibility.

2. BYU (16-1, 2-0): After knocking off UNLV in the conference opener, the Cougars were riding high. So it came as no particular surprise that BYU, while remaining in control throughout, looked uninspired and workmanlike in beating Air Force by ten on Saturday. Fredette followed up his 39-point performance in Vegas with a quiet 22-point effort, while junior scrapper Noah Hartsock double-doubled and added a couple three-pointers for good measure. Sophomore forward Brandon Davies completed a strong week as well, averaging 12.5 points and eight rebounds in the two wins.

A look ahead: The Cougars head to Salt Lake for their big intrastate battle with Utah before enjoying a bye on Saturday. San Diego State’s visit to the Marriott Center looms in the minds of MWC fans, but that matchup is still two weeks away.

3. UNLV (13-3, 1-1): The BYU loss is a bit concerning, but could be easily swept aside by Rebel fans with an under-the-breath muttering of “Fredette” and an eye-roll, but in reality, for about 20 minutes in the middle of that game, UNLV was getting whooped up and down the court by a significantly better team. Their vaunted defense did little to slow BYU’s guards during that run (the Cougars wound up with only one more turnover on the game than the Rebels) and their offense sputtered when they had to rely on their half-court offense. UNLV did bounce back to thrash TCU on Saturday, forcing 23 turnovers and getting plenty of easy looks in transition, but they’ll need to be able to do that against teams like BYU and SDSU in order to prove that they can be a threat come March.

A look ahead: Living on the road this week, with the big battle against SDSU on Wednesday preceding a sneaky matchup with Air Force on Saturday. If the Rebels can keep free and clean in these two, they’ll be right back in the conversation with SDSU and BYU at the top of the conference.

4. New Mexico (12-4, 0-1): Weird week for the Lobos. While all the rest of their MWC brethren were kicking off conference play on Tuesday and Wednesday, New Mexico was knocking CS Bakersfield around to the tune of a 40-point blowout. Alex Kirk broke Kenny Thomas’ New Mexico record for points scored in a game by a freshman with a 31-point explosion and Drew Gordon double-doubled, but given the overmatched opposition, the game meant little. When they did get around to opening conference play, they stumbled against Wyoming, turning the ball over 19 times. Dairese Gary kept the Lobos in the game with 24 points, and Chad Adams helped out by hitting all three of his three-point attempts, but aside from those two, the rest of the New Mexico players combined to make just 13 of their 34 field goal attempts. In the end, it is just one bad loss, eerily familiar to Wyoming’s upset of San Diego State at the start of conference play last season. The lesson here for Steve Alford to preach is that this is a loss that can be overcome, much like SDSU did last year, and you can never, ever, overlook anyone in conference play.

A look ahead: With the loss to Wyoming in their rearview mirror, the Lobos have a chance to make a big splash in the MWC this week, with Colorado State and San Diego State both visiting the Pit where New Mexico has gone 15-1 the last two seasons.

5. Colorado State (11-4, 1-0): At this point, the Rams have to be considered right there with New Mexico in a mini-tier of teams below the top three in the conference, teams who still have a ways to go before they can feel like they’ve made their case for at-large inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. While UNM has the loss to Wyoming under their belts, CSU started off conference play with a 13-point home win against those very same Cowboys. Senior Adam Nigon led the way in the opener with seven three-pointers for his 21 points and sophomore Pierce Hornung grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds as they bounced back from a 13-point first half deficit to run away in the second half. For the Rams to have any prayer at an at-large bid, they’ll need to continue to beat the teams at the bottom half of this conference while sneaking up on a couple teams above them. 

A look ahead: The road trip to New Mexico is a good chance for the Rams to separate themselves from the Lobos, with a TCU visit to Fort Collins following on Saturday.

6. Air Force (10-5, 1-1): The Falcons start out conference play with a brutal stretch, with BYU, UNLV and San Diego State the opponents in successive games. That stretch made their opener with Utah all the more important, and the Falcons responded well, keeping things close throughout and then making big plays down the stretch. After a well-fought game, it looked like Air Force was on the verge of letting the Utes get away with a road victory, when junior Will Clyburn hit two straight threes to give Utah a 67-66 lead with under three minutes to play. But, sophomore guard Mike Lyons converted a three-point play opportunity –  perhaps the most important points of his game and career-high 26 – with just under two minutes left to give the Falcons a lead which they never again relinquished. The next time down the floor, senior Derek Brooks hit a three and the Falcons made their free-throws down the stretch and when the buzzer sounded, they had an eight-point win to start conference play. In their ten-point loss to BYU on Saturday, Lyons again led the way with 14 points, but despite a valiant effort, Air Force was simply outclassed by the Cougars.

A look ahead: Home against UNLV, then a road trip to San Diego State. The good news about this run of games is that once they get through these, they’ll have a series of far-more-manageable opponents.

7. TCU (9-8, 0-2): It’s a brutal start to conference play for the Horned Frogs, as they faced the conference favorite Aztecs to open and an angry UNLV team in game two. TCU hung around with SDSU for a half, trailing by just a 29-26 margin at the break, but a 13-0 Aztec run in the second half broke that game open. Their trip to Vegas went down the chutes much more quickly, however, as 14 first half turnovers doomed the Frogs to a 49-28 halftime deficit. All in all, it was a terrible week for junior guard Ronnie Moss, who had 16 turnovers this week – including ten in the UNLV game alone – and hit just seven of his 23 field goal attempts. Sophomore Garlon Green led TCU in scoring this week, averaging 12 points per game.

A look ahead: This week’s slate looks much more manageable, with a visit by Wyoming to the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum backed up by their trip to Colorado State on Saturday.

8. Utah (7-9, 0-2): Following the tough loss to Air Force, the Utes came out and battled the #6 team in the country, San Diego State, to a standstill for much of their meeting. At the half, Utah led 34-33, but four second-half threes by SDSU’s D.J. Gay – each part of a larger Aztec run – led to the Utes coming up nine-points short of an upset. While there is no such thing as a moral victory at this level of competition, head coach Jim Boylen had to be pleased with the way his team played. Junior center David Foster got just his third start of the season and freshman J.J. O’Brien his sixth after each has battle injuries in the early going, and they provided size up front to allow the Utes to compete with SDSU’s frontline. But it was juniors Josh Watkins and Will Clyburn who led the way on the stat sheet, with Watkins going for a game-high 24 points and Clyburn adding 17 points and ten rebounds in the loss.

A look ahead: The Utes host BYU in their last go-round at the Huntsman Center as conference foes on Wednesday night. On Saturday, they battle Wyoming for the right to be listed as the eight-best team in the conference in this space next week.

9.  Wyoming (8-8, 1-1): The win over New Mexico was such a good thing for this program that even Lobo fans had to smile for a split second at the celebration following the Cruz buzzer-beater. Given the depths to which this program has sunk over the course of last season and this year’s non-conference schedule, given the injuries to vital players, given the roster defections, you could almost see the weight lift off the shoulders of head coach Heath Schroyer as the shot fell through the net. And, aside from the win, there was more good news that Cowboy fans were able to take away from the game on Saturday, as junior center Adam Waddell, who has struggled with tendinitis in his Achilles’ Heel over this winter, had his most effective game of the season, playing 23 minutes (his second-highest total of the season), scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds (both season highs). It remains to be seen if this is the first step on his way back to regular action, or if this was an island of health in a sea of injury, but for now, Cowboy fans can have some hope for Waddell’s future. The same cannot be said for junior Afam Muojeke, who missed Saturday’s game with continued complications from his patellar tendon injury at the end of last season. Muojeke has played in ten of Wyoming’s 16 games, but has never been near 100% this season and his status going forward remains to be seen.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels to TCU, then returns home to host Utah in a couple of games that should show us where these teams near the bottom of the standings are in relation to one another.

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The Other 26: Week 8

Posted by KDoyle on January 7th, 2011

Kevin Doyle is an RTC contributor.

Introduction

With the non-conference portion of many schedules coming to an end, it is time for schools that comprise some of the smaller Other 26 conferences to retreat to their small gyms and compete against teams on their own level. In a sense, for many of these smaller conference teams, the non-conference schedule is a mere preamble for league play. The leagues I am referring to—NEC, America East, MEAC, Patriot, etc.—are all destined for just one bid to the NCAA Tournament. In most years, there are usually about a dozen conferences that receive multiple bids, thus leaving 20 conferences with just the auto.

Being a keen fan, follower, and observer of Patriot League basketball, I have come to the unfortunate realization that this league—like many others—is destined for one bid to the Dance every year. What irks me more than anything, however, is when I hear the phrase: “Three games in March.” This expression may vary depending upon the league, but it is the one that is used when describing the Patriot League tournament. Because the PL is comprised of eight teams, in order to win the championship and attain the automatic bid a team must win those “three games in March.”

I do not necessarily disagree with this expression—it is the reality of the Patriot League and many other leagues alike—but it is very bothersome when this becomes a mentality for the fanbases of the teams. It becomes acceptable to lose a non-conference game or a regular season game within the league because these games “don’t matter.” Of course, this is not a universal belief, but it is something I have observed within Patriot League fan circles. I will always recall Herman Edwards’ press conference as the head coach of the New York Jets when he repeatedly said in a stern voice: “You play, to win, the GAME!” It is Herm’s mentality, not the “three games in March” business, that I am a fan of.

The Other 26 Rankings

Tidbits from the Rankings

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Set Your Tivo: 01.05.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on January 5th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

An important in-state rivalry game and a heavyweight clash in the Mountain West headline tonight’s college basketball schedule. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Memphis @ Tennessee – 9 pm on ESPN2 (***)

Each team has faced some turmoil this season but in vastly different ways. Memphis has barely skated by a host of inferior opponents on their way to an 11-2 record while Tennessee has lost four of six after starting 7-0. This is Bruce Pearl’s final game before his eight game suspension begins this Saturday at Arkansas. The Volunteers have struggled defensively during this lackluster stretch of games and allowed Charleston to shoot 58% in the Cougars’ win last week. Tennessee’s defense simply must get better, and that starts with Melvin Goins. Pearl’s senior point guard has a reputation as a great on-ball defender and he’ll need to bring it against a guard-heavy Memphis squad.

After This Rivalry Game, Pearl Will Sit For a While

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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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Set Your Tivo: Weekend Review

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 17th, 2010

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

This is the last major weekend before conference play begins in earnest and it features a bunch of solid games but none that really jump out at you as must-watch. All in all it’s a pretty good set of games. Don’t forget about the two games in the Bahamas on Saturday (Richmond vs. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech vs. Mississippi State). They’re not on television but are meaningful, especially the latter. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Texas vs. North Carolina (Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC) – 4 pm Saturday on CBS (****)

A Smaller Venue in Greenboro, But Still a Great Game

You may never see a game between two unranked teams have this much talent on the court as this one. Yes the Longhorns are ranked in both the AP and Coaches polls but they aren’t in our own top 25. Texas has played better this year on the strength of defense and better chemistry though a loss at USC was cause for concern. Still, Texas has a ton of talent and has the ability to turn this season into a successful one. Leading scorer Jordan Hamilton still has a so-so shot selection but he’s connecting on 41% of his treys, a positive sign for Rick Barnes. Freshman Tristan Thompson has also been a plus for the Longhorns, giving them an athletic post presence who can score and defend very well. When you look at this matchup with North Carolina however, Tyler Zeller (16/8) is going to have a significant height advantage inside. You may see Barnes turn to Matt Hill for a bigger defensive presence in the paint in an attempt to control UNC’s big man. Each team has had some issues at the point guard, especially North Carolina. The Tar Heels have seen better play from Larry Drew II (2:1 A/T ratio) but questions remain with the team averaging 15 turnovers per contest. With a talented freshman in waiting, Roy Williams has to make a decision on who should see the majority of time at the point as they head into ACC play. For Texas, Dogus Balbay has seen his minutes drop in favor of freshman Cory Joseph, a move that’s understandable from an offensive standpoint but questionable in the eyes of some who see the experienced Balbay as a team leader and an effective distributor, not to mention an outstanding defender. Texas is not a particularly great shooting team as a whole so the transition to Joseph could be more about transition opportunities and easy buckets plus Joseph is a much better shooter. As for North Carolina, getting Harrison Barnes going could be the key between middling outside the top 25 and being a consistently ranked team and #2 in the ACC. Barnes is still in a slump, shooting just 33% overall over his last five games including a dismal 5-24 (21%) from three. He’s still averaging double figures and has done a nice job rebounding but the Tar Heels need more out of their star freshman. To become a really good team, UNC needs John Henson to become a consistent third option. He rebounds very well but he’s in double figures one night and single digits the next. He may have a hard time with Thompson inside but Henson is able to stretch his game out a bit and that may open things up inside for the Tar Heels. This figures to be another close game, far different from last year’s Texas blowout. This time North Carolina has the crowd to their advantage and may come out on top by a few points. It’s a huge game for UNC, their last non-conference opportunity for a quality win. Texas still has games with Michigan State and Connecticut but this is a big game for them too in a quasi-road environment. We wouldn’t be surprised either way but a slight edge has to go to UNC in this game.

#5 Kansas State vs. Florida (BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise, FL) – 3:30 pm Saturday on FSN (****)

This is the first of two key games for Kansas State, the second coming on Tuesday against UNLV. Winning one or both will certainly help the Wildcats grab a better seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. Against Florida, K-State will have to contend with the Gators’ trapping pressure defense, something that could be a problem given their propensity for turnovers and some point guard issues. Jacob Pullen has been the main distributor at four assists per game but he turns it over more than three times per game, the most on a team that averages 16 turnovers as a unit. Florida’s back court pressure could cause a lot of problems for Kansas State and plenty of extra possessions for the Gators. Pullen doing a lot of ball handling could also be a factor in his overall struggle relative to last season. He’s never been a great shooter, 40% overall from the floor for his career, but his three point shooting is down over six percent to 33% this season. It is true that other teams are trying to lock him up like Duke did, but Pullen has to work through this and become a better player in order to lift Kansas State to the next level where they can compete for a national championship. Frank Martin may go with Will Spradling at the point in order to take some pressure off Pullen. As for Florida, expect them to fire up three’s as usual (17 per game) even though the Gators shoot just 32% as a team. Billy Donovan loves the trey, yet another Rick Pitino protégé who sticks to the system no matter the personnel he has. Erving Walker has improved dramatically but Kenny Boynton still can’t find the range for Florida. Walker shoots 20% better than Boynton from deep yet Boynton has 15 more attempts this season. Kansas State should look to isolate Walker and aggressively defend him, keeping the ball out of his hands. Pullen and Rodney McGruder may have to match Walker’s deep shooting but Martin will be content with Boynton chucking shots up and hitting once in a while, requiring Kansas State to clear the boards well. Both teams rank high in offensive rebounding percentage so the Wildcats must put an emphasis on keeping Florida off the glass as that will lead to easy Gator put backs. Florida is #15 in two point percentage, largely a result of offensive rebounds and the play of Vernon Macklin inside. Macklin against Curtis Kelly will be a key matchup to watch in the low post as each player finishes well and can rebound the basketball effectively. Kansas State should not bank on outscoring Florida from the line considering their awful free throw shooting (55%) and Florida’s ability to keep opponents off the line, second in the nation in defensive free throw rate. Only three players on K-State’s roster shoot over 70% from the line and Pullen is the only one of those three who gets there often. Martin’s depth will take a hit if Wally Judge is out, dealing with personal issues, but we don’t think that will have a major impact on the game. Kansas State is still a very deep team, able to go eight or nine deep if necessary. This should be a terrific game that may come down to the very end. Ken Pomeroy predicts a two-point Florida win so this game is essentially a toss-up. We see it that way as well.

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