Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences.
A Look Back
After a strong early start to the season for the Mountain West as a whole, the wheat has begun to separate from the chaff. Utah and Colorado State gave the first hint this week that they may be pretenders rather than contenders, while BYU and UNLV posted early-season tournament wins, proving their qualifications for being considered among the favorites in the conference. While it was BYU and San Diego State who were considered 1 and 1-A (not necessarily in that order) coming into the season, the Runnin’ Rebels have thrown their hat into the ring and it looks like, as November winds its way down, we could have tri-favorites come conference play, with New Mexico, and waiting-to-be-eligible transfer Drew Gordon, a step or two back.
On a larger scale, the biggest news in the conference this week was the announcement on Monday that TCU would be joining the Big East beginning with the 2012-13 season. While obviously a huge deal on the football side of the equation, frankly the loss of the Horned Frogs basketball program will hardly register much notice. However, for the overall health of the conference, this is a major setback. Basically the conference has traded BYU, Utah and TCU for Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada. While the three newcomers are very good collegiate sports programs, the overall strength of the conference has taken a step back since mid-summer.
Team of the Week: UNLV – It’s not that we didn’t know that the Rebels were going to be good this season, it’s just that they had some questions that needed answering first. We wondered about their three-point shooting ability and they’ve shown us that they are a more consistent three-point shooting team this season than last (despite the loss of sharp-shooter Kendall Wallace for the season to a torn ACL). We wondered about their interior play and Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas has shown, when capable of staying out of foul trouble, an ability to defend the post, rebound well on both ends of the floor, and even score with some efficient posts moves. Following a pretty impressive run through a merely average field in the 76 Classic, this Rebel team seems poised to compete for a MWC crown.
Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette (Senior), BYU – While UNLV’s Chace Stanback took down the Most Outstanding Player hardware at the 76 Classic, Fredette gets the nod in this space in part due to two game-winning plays in a couple tight games at the South Padre Invitational. On Friday night, with his Cougars deep in a double-overtime battle with South Florida, Fredette got into the lane after much effort, drawing the interest of most of the USF defense before finding Noah Hartsock for a game-winning baseline jumper. Oh, and throw in a season-high 32 points for Fredette, to go nicely with five threes, five steals and four assists. Not to be outdone, the next night the senior went for 24 points, four assists and three more steals, and this time hit the game-winner himself, a three with 11 seconds left to give the Cougars a win over St. Mary’s and a South Padre Island Invitational championship to boot.
Newcomer of the Week: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – While the Utes may have been exposed a bit this week, Clyburn certainly wasn’t. The junior college transfer has still led the Utes in scoring every night out this season, and he averaged another 18.5 points per game this week, while hitting his first double-double with a 21-point and 10-rebound outing in a loss to Oral Roberts on Saturday. Clyburn leads the Utes in scoring, rebounds, steals, and threes, and gets to the line more than any of his teammates and converts at an 88.9% clip.
Game of the Week: BYU 77, South Florida 75 (2OT) – We talked about the game winner in this game above, when we handed out our POTW award to Jimmer Fredette, but that was just the capper on an all-around great game. Early in the second half, the Cougars found themselves down ten to the Bulls, before Fredette scored ten points in under four minutes to get the Cougars back in striking distance and regaining the lead a few minutes later on a Fredette three. From there, Jackson Emery caught fire for the Cougars, scoring 14 of the next 15 points for BYU, with four three-pointers mixed in there, but they still could not shake the stubborn Bulls, needing a three from Charles Abouo with 33 seconds left and a defensive stop to send the game to the first overtime. The first OT was a back and forth affair, with Fredette and USF’s Jawanza Poland trading threes in the final minute to force a final OT and the Fredette/Noah Hartsock heroics. As if this battle wasn’t enough for Cougar fans, the next night against St. Mary’s, while requiring no overtime to settle upon a winner, was just about as exhilarating of a win.
1. San Diego State (6-0): This was a very quiet week for the Aztecs, with only a matchup on Friday against San Diego Christian (NAIA), in what was the Aztecs’ first home game of the season. After raising last year’s MWC Tournament championship banner before the game, SDSU trudged through an uninspired game that was still tied 13 minutes in. The Aztecs eventually turned it on and coasted to a 19-point win that told us little or nothing about either team.
A look ahead: The competition gets much stiffer this week, although the Aztecs won’t have to leave the cozy confines of Montezuma Mesa when they host St. Mary’s on Wednesday and Wichita State on Saturday.
2. BYU (6-0): After destroying Mississippi Valley State in Provo in an utter mismatch, the Cougars headed to the South Padre Island Invitational, where they won both of their games by a combined total of three points over some solid competition in South Florida and St. Mary’s. However, even the most die-hard BYU homer is not going to confuse the Bulls or the Gaels with Final Four contenders. As a result, it is clear the Cougars still have some work to do to live up to their potential. While some remain givens, freshman Kyle Collinsworth has been up and down in the early going, although he did add 10 points against St. Mary’s. Up front Noah Hartsock and sophomores Brandon Davies and Chris Collinsworth have had their moments, but none have been the consistent force in the low post or on the glass that would take some of the pressure off of the Cougar backcourt. Wing Charles Abouo has done a lot of the dirty work for BYU, actually leading the team in rebounding with 6.7 per night despite his 6’4 frame, but he is a limited offensive player. For the Cougars to compete with the best in this conference, Dave Rose will need to find consistent contributors beyond Fredette and Emery.
A look ahead: This is the week of tough roadies around the conference, as BYU will be challenged with a trip to Omaha to face Creighton, followed by a supposedly neutral-site game in what will be heavily partisan Salt Lake City against Hawai’i.
3. UNLV (6-0): Sure, the Rebels walked through the competition at the 76 Classic. But a closer look shows wins over Tulsa and Murray State teams who, while good solid teams, aren’t exactly finished products or hyper-talented squads. On top of that, while the Rebs also handled a very good Virginia Tech team, the Hokies did their part in giving that game away, turning the ball over 18 times and hitting just nine of their 21 free throws. If Virginia Tech shoots a reasonable percentage from the line and turns the ball over a few less times (granted, the vast majority of those turnovers weren’t unforced errors), that is easily a game decided by a possession or two at the end. Now, none of that is meant to take anything away from Lon Kruger and his team – they’ve certainly looked awfully good in the early going – but just to add a measure of sanity to the hype surrounding the hot Rebels. They’ve certainly showed that they are capable of contending for a MWC title, but they’ll have more chances on down the line in non-conference play to show their national credentials.
A look ahead: The Rebels turn into the road warriors this week with a trip to Bloomington to face Illinois State in the opening night of the MWC/MVC Challenge, then head back to their home state to face Nevada in Reno on Saturday.
4. New Mexico (4-1): The Lobos coasted through a relatively light week, posting wins of 22 points over Northwood and 29 points over San Diego. The big news of the week was the return of junior shooting guard Phillip McDonald from a partially torn elbow ligament. Elbow injury or no, McDonald wasted no time in testing out his shooting stroke, hoisting 15 attempts from the field and ten from behind the arc in his first game back, although he connected on just five field goals and three three-pointers for 13 points, although he did at six rebounds. Sophomore point guard Jamal Fenton was the high scorer in the San Diego game, hitting four threes on the way to a career-high 16 points. In both games, the Lobos closed the first halves strongly (15-2 run to close the half against Northwood, 23-5 run against San Diego), then sailed home to easy wins.
A look ahead: Not an easy week for the Lobos, with a road trip to Carbondale to face Southern Illinois, followed by the road portion of their home-and-away matchup with in-state rival New Mexico State. These are two games the Lobos should win, but given their youth, road games of any type can be difficult, as their lone previous road trip of the year, a 25-point loss to Cal, proved.
5. TCU (4-2): Aside from TCU’s defection from the conference, they did score a couple good wins on the hardwood this week with a 16-point victory over Houston and a 12-point win over USC. Ronnie Moss led TCU in both games with 17 and 20 points respectively and has yet to fail to score in double figures on the season. With defendable losses to Rider and Bradley on the season, the Horned Frogs are right in the mix of things in the middle of the pack of the MWC with Utah and Colorado State, but even with some early season success, there are some glaring weaknesses here, namely poor defensive efficiency and an inability to get to the line offensively. While they have improved those numbers a bit from last season’s awful numbers, and while they’ve patched other holes from last year (committing too many turnovers and not forcing enough, for two), the undersized Frogs will need to improve on the defensive end in order to jump up the standings.
A look ahead: A breather with a home game against Prairie View A&M before welcoming Northern Iowa into Fort Worth for a good test.
6. Colorado State (2-1): Maybe blame it on the Rams playing just their third game of the season and first game in over a week. Maybe blame it on too much turkey. Or maybe just step back and admit that this Ram team, who some thought might push for a fifth NCAA bid from the MWC, is just not ready for prime-time. Whichever way you choose, it was easy to see that CSU was just outclassed in their own arena by Sam Houston State. Gilberto Clavell led four Bearkats in double figures with 29 points and nine rebounds on 10-14 from the field and 9-11 from the line as Sam Houston dominated the Rams 40-29 on the glass and got to the line 41 times to CSU’s meager 17. The fact is, the best team in Moby Arena on Saturday night won the game. While Tim Miles’ squad is an undersized bunch, that is no excuse for the way they were outhustled and outmanned inside, and seniors like Andy Ogide, Travis Franklin and Andre McFarland will need to improve their toughness for this Ram team to take the next step.
A look ahead: Colorado State gets to stay at home this week, welcoming Drake and Fresno State into Fort Collins. While neither of their opponents is much of a threat to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, both will provide good tests for the Rams and a good opportunity for the team to rebuild its confidence.
7. Utah (3-2): Rough week for the Utes at they got their first good look at a higher caliber of competition. First up was the always tough road trip to Logan for in-state rival Utah State, where the Aggies owned Utah on the glass and at the line, winning the rebounding battle 45-32, while outscoring the Utes 39-13 from the charity stripe. Next Oral Roberts visited the Huntsman Center, and while Utah did compete better inside, they were simply outshot this time around. Junior college transfers Will Clyburn and Josh Watkins continue to lead the Utes, with each having scored in double figures in all five Utah games, but the rest of the rotation is unsettled. Last year’s MWC defensive player of the year, David Foster, is still racking up blocks with ease – he’s averaging three blocks a game – but he’s only playing 15 minutes a night due to tendinitis in his knee. That’s not the only health-related problem the Utes have had, as freshman J.J. O’Brien suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and will be out until late December, while senior forward Jay Watkins has been working through a back injury.
A look ahead: Utah host Fresno State on Tuesday before traveling to Peoria for a matchup with Bradley over the weekend, a couple good challenges for the team.
8. Air Force (3-1):The Falcons week consisted entirely of one of the most head-scratching wins of the year, when they knocked off Wofford, a tournament team from last season who returns most of its production. Wofford has gotten kicked in the teeth some early in the season, with losses to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and Xavier already on the books, but this loss to Air Force is truly astounding. Somehow Wofford managed to dominate on the glass to the tune of a 50-27 rebounding advantage and, more staggering still, a 24-2 edge on the offensive glass. Yet, Air Force still managed to get to the line a season high 29 times and, better yet, shoot 51% from the field while holding Wofford to under 34%. Senior Tom Fow and sophomore Mike Lyons led the Falcons with 18 each and senior Evan Washington added 14 points, six rebounds and three steals as AFA fans entertain the idea of finishing somewhere other than ninth place for the first time in three seasons.
A look ahead: The Falcons host Cal State Northridge and Evansville, games in which, frankly, given the Wofford score, just about anything could happen.
9. Wyoming (2-4): Since we last checked in with the Cowboys, they’ve shown some little bit of progress. Sure, they lost a couple more games along the way, but they competed with #10 Missouri for a full 40 minutes before falling by ten at the Cancun Challenge, then back the next night and fought hard against a surprising 5-1 Providence team, only to be undone by Vincent Council’s 29 points and perfect 16/16 night from the line. Sure, they are still wildly undisciplined (see sophomore Desmar Jackson’s nine turnovers against Mizzou – although, certainly better players than him have turned the ball over nine times against the pressure of a Mike Anderson-coached team) and severely underperforming (I understand Afam Muojeke is not all the way back from his knee injury, but how that talented of an offensive player can score just 13 points in 47 minutes on 4/15 shooting in Cancun is beyond me), but they played both of those teams closer than they played North Florida or Northern Colorado. That’s progress, right?
A look ahead: The Cowboys play sort of a weird road game when they head to South Dakota on Wednesday, then return home for their MWC/MVC game with Indiana State on Saturday. A split this week is a good week. A 2-0 week? Keep dreaming.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Wichita State @ San Diego State, 12/4, 7 PM PST, The Mtn. – This week’s Mountain West schedule is chock-full of interesting games: UNLV visits Nevada for an in-state rivalry, San Diego State hosts St. Mary’s, and the MWC/MVC Challenge gets underway, with BYU at Creighton, UNLV at Illinois State and New Mexico at Southern Illinois some of the highlights. But we’ll take this battle between two teams picked prior to the season as favorites in their respective conferences. Given Wichita State’s strikeout in their battle with Connecticut in Maui, this borders on a must-win game for the Shockers’ at-large hopes, while this is the second tough test in week for Steve Fisher’s Aztecs.