Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 21st, 2010

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

[ed note: this post was written prior to Tuesday night's games.]

A Look Back

Just like everywhere else, it was a sleepy week around the conference in terms of the number of games, as the student-athletes leaned more to the student side of the equation this week. TCU hasn’t even played a game since the last time we did this, and only two teams around the conference, UNLV and Wyoming, played more than one game this week. But still, there were some eventful games around the conference as, among other things, the number of undefeated teams in the conference dropped again after UCLA upset BYU at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, leaving San Diego State as the sole remaining unblemished team. The Aztecs, meanwhile, took UC Santa Barbara out behind the woodshed just days after the Gauchos handed UNLV their second loss of the year in improbable fashion. Elsewhere, New Mexico is now whole, getting junior forward Drew Gordon eligible for his first game of the year, and the four-team race for the conference title is fully joined, with SDSU remaining the favorite.

  • Team of the Week: San Diego State – There was just one game for the Aztecs this week, but they handled it with ease, as they had six players score in double figures on the way to a 26-point blowout of a UC Santa Barbara team that had just done in UNLV three days earlier. The Aztecs bounced back from their first really bad shooting night of the season against Cal Poly last Monday by shooting lights out against the Gauchos, going for a 66.7 effective field goal percentage, including 12 threes on 24 attempts – quite the turnaround from the 0-18 effort against Cal Poly. Of some concern for head coach Steve Fisher was his Aztecs were outrebounded by the Gauchos, including an 18-11 margin on the offensive glass, but that is easily glossed over when you’re shooting at such a remarkable clip. The Aztecs now sport the second-longest winning streak in the nation (behind Duke’s 20-game run), and have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the MWC teams as the favorite for the regular season conference title.
  • Player of the Week: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – 22 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four threes, including the game-winner with 11 seconds left, capping a furious second-half comeback against Boise State. Yup – That’ll earn the Player of the Week award. Clyburn continued his spectacular season this week with perhaps his most complete game of the year (although given some of the lines he’s posted, it’s a tough task to pick just one) and he continues to lead the Utes in points, rebounds, steals, threes and three-point shooting percentage.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Clyburn.
  • Game of the Week: UC Santa Barbara 68, UNLV 62 – While the Utah win over Boise State perhaps had the most exciting ending, and the BYU-UCLA game had its share of action as well, this curious loss by the Rebels at home against UCSB deserves a closer look. This was a game of widely varied statistics, with each side doing some things very well and some things very poorly on the way to this final score. For instance, in just looking at the field goal percentages, you would think that UCSB won this game by more than six points as they hit 50% of their shots while the Rebs just hit 29%. To make matters worse for UNLV, they hit just six of their 29 three-point attempts and only hit 20 of their 34 free throw attempts. But that’s only the start of the numbers explaining how UNLV stayed in this game – they got to the line twice as often as the Gauchos, and, they killed UCSB on the boards, with 24 offensive rebounds (although given their shooting percentages, there were certainly a lot of offensive rebounds to be had). UNLV used their defensive pressure to force 25 UCSB turnovers but gave too many back, spilling the milk 17 times themselves. All things considered, this Rebel team is showing all the signs of being the team we thought they were at the start of the season, a squad that doesn’t feature a lot of great shooters, but a team that is going to defend hard and try to outwork their opponents. Unfortunately for them on this night, their shooting was bad enough to overcome any good they could do on defense.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (12-0): They’re the #5 team in the nation according to the RTC poll. They’re the only remaining undefeated team in the conference. They’ve got the second-longest winning streak in college basketball, and they’ve got what appears to be a downhill slide to a 15-0 record prior to their MWC opening trip to TCU in two weeks. Darn right they’re the top team in these power rankings. They are without a doubt, the team to beat in the conference. But, despite their success so far, and despite being superior to the rest of the conference, they’re going to lose some games in conference play and they’ve got more than a couple of all-out battles looming ahead of them. So far, they’ve done what they have needed to do, but bigger tests await.

A look ahead: The Aztecs play in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic, in a field that is anything but classic. There’s a matchup with San Francisco tonight and the second neutral-site matchup with IUPUI on the season – the Aztecs won by 15 in Oxford, Ohio a month ago.

2. BYU (10-1): The Cougars traveled to Anaheim for the Wooden Classic and had some trouble with the physicality of UCLA. The Bruins did a pretty good job in corralling Jimmer Fredette (and he still had 25 – what does that tell you?), and BYU had no good answer for the frontline play of UCLA as Josh Smith, in particular, gave the Cougs’ more slender frontline players all sorts of trouble. Dave Rose and company got some good news this week, as Chris Collinsworth played for the first time in over three weeks due to an ankle injury, and led the team with seven rebounds in relief of Noah Hartsock, who was still a little groggy following a concussion that he sustained last weekend against Arizona.

A look ahead: BYU gets to stay close to home for the holidays, with an in-state trip to Weber State on Tuesday followed by a visit from UTEP on Thursday.

3. UNLV (10-2): The Rebels’ loss to UCSB is detailed above, but they got a chance to get back to winning when they beat up on Southern Utah this weekend. Despite a 22-point win in which they never trailed, the Rebels again struggled shooting the ball, hitting just three of their 16 three-point attempts in this game, putting them at just nine of 45 on the week. Carlos Lopez notched a double-double with career highs in both points (12) and rebounds (11), while sophomore guard Anthony Marshall also went for a career-high 17 points. Knocking off Southern Utah while struggling from behind the arc is one thing, but for the Rebels to have a chance against Kansas State tonight, they’ll need to regain their touch from deep.

A look ahead: Kansas State tonight then Central Michigan on December 30, and then all these preliminaries are out of the way and an incredibly appealing matchup with BYU on January 5 awaits.

4. New Mexico (9-1): The games themselves were forgettable this week, as the Lobos dispatched with Longwood and Citadel by an average of over 31 points per game, but the players were of interest. UCLA transfer Drew Gordon played his first game as a member of the team in the last of those two games and contributed 11 points in 20 minutes, while five other players scored in double figures at some point this week (none of them named Dairese Gary). Picking a key player on this squad is difficult because not only do somewhere north of ten players play on any given night, but many can contribute. It was freshman Kendall Williams with 20 points, six assists and three steals against Longwood, while junior Phillip McDonald led with 17 points, six rebounds and three threes against the Citadel, but altogether a total of six players have led the team in scoring on the season, four have led in rebounding and three have led in assists. There isn’t anything on the Lobo schedule so far that indicates a quality win, but things start to get a little more interesting over the next couple of weeks.

A look ahead: The remainder of the UNM non-conference schedule is not exactly a murderer’s row, but things do pick up a little bit, starting with a pair of games in the Las Vegas Classic, starting with a matchup with Colorado on Wednesday, followed the next night by a matchup with either Northern Iowa or Indiana.

5. Utah (7-3): We mentioned the big Utah come-from-behind win over Boise State above when we awarded our MWC Player of the Week to Will Clyburn, but he got plenty of help from his teammates in that game. Four other Utes scored in double figures and the team tallied ten total blocks on the night, including three by sophomore wing Shawn Glover who has been up and down for Jim Boylen. Glover added 12 points and nine rebounds against the Broncos, while playing a season-high 30 minutes, but has also played five games this year where he failed to garner 20 minutes. With normal starter Jay Watkins still limited due to an ongoing back injury, and with freshman J.J. O’Brien not ready after a stress fracture (he may be ready for some minutes this week), Glover has a chance at more minutes, and if he can continue to contribute like he did this week, he may earn himself more minutes as the season progresses.

A look ahead: Christmas in paradise for the Utes, as they head to Honolulu for the Diamondhead Classic, but they’d better bring their A-games with them as Butler awaits as their first opponent on Wednesday night.

6. TCU (7-4): No news for the Horned Frogs, as they haven’t played in nine days due to finals.

A look ahead: TCU returns to the court tonight against Northwestern State before earning another week off.

7. Colorado State (5-3): The Rams played their first game since December 11 last night and worked through some of their rust on the way to a 14-point victory over Northern Colorado whom CSU has thoroughly owned over the course of their 75-year rivalry. Wes Eikmeier led the Rams with a career-high 17 points, and the Rams earned their margin of victory basically by outscoring the Bears 27-11 from the free throw line. It was a successful, but by no means particularly impressive, return to action, but things pick up for CSU from here.

A look ahead: Tim Miles packs his team up for a trip to Cancun for the Governor’s Cup, where they’ll face Appalachian State in the opening round before likely facing Ole Miss in round two, assuming both teams win their openers.

8. Air Force (7-2): The Falcons padded their gaudy record with an 11-point victory over 0-10 Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday behind a season-high 24 points from sophomore Michael Lyons. After falling behind in the first half, UAPB used a burst of six threes in a hurry to spark a 20-6 run to tie the game at 36 at the 14:22 mark of the second half. But Air Force responded strongly with a 14-4 run and UAPB was never really heard from again. Sophomore center Taylor Broekhuis continued his strong recent play with 11 points and eight rebounds, and he has now scored in double figures in every outing this season save his seven-point performance in a win over Wofford.

A look ahead: The Falcons travel to Flagstaff for a matchup with Northern Arizona on Wednesday for their only game of the week.

9. Wyoming (6-6): A three-game winning streak for the Cowboys! Yes, they were wins over Denver, Western State (of Division-II fame) and Centenary, who are a combined 3-30, but when you’ve got losses to North Florida, South Dakota and UC Irvine on your resume, you take those wins and don’t look back. The Cowboys were solid in these games, with four players scoring in double figures in the first two games, but those two games couldn’t have been more different. Against Denver, Wyoming shot just four three pointers the entire game, while against Western State, they boosted 29. However, the one thing the two games had in common was the Cowboys getting after the glass early and often, outrebounding Denver 32-13 and Western State 48-33. Against Centenary last night, the Cowboys were back to bombing from deep (connecting on just six of 21 attempts), but they made their hay by outscoring their opponents 20-5 from the free throw line. While the Cowboys’ performance continues to be all over the map, at least Heath Schroyer seems to have settled into a rotation.

A look ahead: The Cowboys host Wisconsin-Green Bay on Wednesday, still not playing world-beaters, but a significant upgrade in the level of competition over the last three games.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 7th, 2010

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

A Look Back

This week was about as good of a week as the Mountain West can expect to have. Not only did member institutions glide through the MWC/MVC Challenge on their way to an 8-1 victory, but of the 18 games played involving MWC teams this week, the MWC posted a 16-2 record, with only a hard-fought TCU loss to Northern Iowa and an entirely predictable embarrassing Wyoming loss to South Dakota on the negative side of the ledger. As a whole, the conference boasts three remaining undefeated teams (San Diego State, UNLV and BYU – all three ranked in our RTC top 25), three other teams with a lone loss and a composite 53-13 record.

Last year at this time, New Mexico, UNLV and BYU had earned a combined 21-1 record and had separated themselves from the rest of the conference as the teams to beat, and this season, a similar separation has occurred. But last year, after a relatively slow start to the season, San Diego State came on strong down the stretch, winning nine of their last ten games (including the MWC Championship) before bowing out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year’s version of the Aztecs, a team that is capable of improving drastically over the back end of the season could be last year’s regular season champion, New Mexico, a team who is just now starting to get some of their newcomers comfortable and who still awaits the midseason addition of transfer Drew Gordon. The rest of the conference is still sorting itself out, but while there are hiccups here and there, the conference as a whole appears stronger than last year’s very strong performance.

Team of the Week: Air Force – A couple weeks back, as the Falcons were losing to Division III’s Colorado College, I would have put the odds of Air Force ever occupying this space in 2010-11 as absurdly slim. But, these days, the Falcons are on a four-game winning streak, and while they haven’t exactly beaten up on the Dukes and Georgetowns of the world, wins over Wofford (the Falcons first road victory in almost two years), CS Northridge and Evansville (a team that already beat Butler this season) are good wins for a team that finished 9-20 a year ago. This week, the Academy got solid contributions from up and down their roster, but special attention should be paid to sophomore center Taylor Broekhuis who averaged 15.5 points per game this week and knocked down five threes as the Falcons edged Evansville on a free throw by fellow sophomore Mike Lyons in the waning moments of their game on Sunday. While not the most athletic team and prone to getting killed on the boards on both ends of the floor, Air Force has outdueled their opposition by taking care of the ball and playing great defense, limiting opposing teams to just 34.8% shooting from the field. While still not a huge threat against the upper echelon teams in the conference, head coach Jeff Reynolds has at least shown that after hitting rock bottom, this team is at least moving in the right direction again.

Player of the Week: Andy Ogide, Colorado State – Ogide posted his eighth and ninth double-doubles of his career this week in leading his Rams to a pair of wins over Drake and Fresno State, while averaging 17 points and 10.5 rebounds. CSU was in need of some serious toughness and veteran leadership after a disturbing loss to Sam Houston State on 11/27, in which they were outrebounded and outhustled throughout, and the senior responded, hitting 15 of his 22 shots and controlling the paint for the Rams, opening up the perimeter for CSU’s talented shooters to knock down 18 of their 37 three-point attempts on the week. For the Rams to compete for the post-season berth that they dream of, they’ll need Ogide to match these types of efforts the rest of the way.

Newcomer of the Week: Josh Watkins, Utah – On the heels of Utah’s Will Clyburn winning this award the first two weeks out, it is time for a little variety, in the form of another Utah junior college transfer. Watkins and Clyburn have been the dynamic duo early for the Utes this year as they have run out to a 5-2 record. Watkins, a 6’0 junior point guard, is second on the team in scoring, averaging 17 points a night, and this week, he became the first Ute besides Clyburn to lead the team in scoring for a game when he tossed in a career-high 23 points (including three three-pointers) as the Utes went to Peoria and knocked off Bradley. Watkins is the only UU player with double-digit assists on the season (he is averaged 3.5 assists a game), but he has two more turnovers on the season than assists. While Watkins has given the Utes a good scoring punch in the backcourt, he’ll need to tighten up his handle and work on dropping more dimes for his teammates than for his opponents, but for now, his contribution to his team is definitely more positive than negative.

Game of the Week: Air Force 57, Evansville 56 – The Falcons posted their fourth win in a row and wrapped up a dominating performance by the Mountain West in the MWC/MVC Challenge with this AFA win over Evansville on Sunday, but it didn’t come easy as the teams combined for just 19 points in the final ten minutes of the game. Falcon sophomore center Taylor Broekhuis put Air Force up 56-53 with his fifth three of the game, just under two minutes, but was answered immediately following an Aces timeout by sophomore Colt Ryan fifth three of the game as well, tying things back up. Following an Air Force turnover, the Falcons inability to secure a defensive rebound forced them to play defense for almost 70 seconds, but Evansville junior Denver Holmes missed an open jumper that was secured by Falcon senior Derek Brooks, who immediately turned upcourt and fired an outlet pass to sophomore Mike Lyons who raced upcourt and attacked the basket, drawing a foul at the rim. He made just the first of two free throws but that accounted for the Falcon win.

Game of the Upcoming Week: UNLV at Louisville, 12/11, 9 AM PST, ESPNU. – There are quite a few very interesting games this week around the Mountain West, with each of the three remaining undefeated teams having one big battle on their hands at some point, but we’ll give this one the nod as perhaps the biggest challenge of the week. Not only do the Running Rebels have to travel to Louisville and their new arena, but the Cardinals will have some revenge on their mind after UNLV squeaked one out over Rick Pitino’s gang last season at the Thomas and Mack Center. To make matters worse, the Rebels will have to fly east and play this game bright and early on Saturday morning. And, given the old adage that pressing teams hate to be pressed, we’ll see which of these teams, both of whom rely on defensive pressure as a key component in their success, will wither under defensive duress.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (8-0): After spending the first two weeks of the season on the road, the Aztecs have now had a chance to spend the last two weeks at Viejas Arena, and a little home-cooking looks awful good on them. With two big tests rolling through town this week, in the form of St. Mary’s and Wichita State, and with both tests passed with flying colors, Aztec fans are starting to believe that this is a special team, loaded with tons of talent and veteran leadership. If one wasn’t aware of this already, they need look no further than a spectacular 14-0 run in the span of 67 seconds in SDSU’s win over Wichita State on Saturday, where the Aztecs forced turnovers, got out on the break and converted two three-point plays, one four-point play (following a WSU intentional foul) and a couple other field goals, in blowing the game open as part of a larger 21-3 run that turned a one-point deficit into a 17-point lead in the blink of an eye. Malcom Thomas had a big week for the Aztecs (12 PPG, 5.5 RPG and 5 BPG), but head coach Steve Fisher is getting contributions from up and down his roster, with six players presently averaging over eight points per game.

A Look Ahead: One of the last big tests in the non-conference for the Aztecs comes up on Wednesday night when they travel to Berkeley to face Cal. While Cal has famously struggled scoring the ball early this season, they did already hang a 25-point loss on SDSU’s MWC rival, New Mexico, so the Aztecs should come into that game ready. On Saturday, they’ll return home to face cross-town rival San Diego, a program that is currently a shell of its former self. In all likelihood, if the Aztecs can get through Cal, they’re looking at a 15-0 record heading into conference play in January, with only a 12/18 matchup with UC Santa Barbara even remotely scary the rest of the way in the non-conference docket.

2. UNLV (8-0): The Rebels backed up their 76 Classic victory with a couple good road wins this week, a 31-point crushing of Illinois State in the MWC/MVC Challenge, and then a 12-point win over in-state rival Nevada in Reno in Saturday night, and now boast an 8-0 record for the first time since the famed 1990-91 Running Rebel team. Junior point Oscar Bellfield led the Rebs this week with 17.5 points per night and eight total threes, but six players scored in double figures at some point this week, and this Rebels fairly coasted through a tough set of road games. In the Nevada game, UNLV didn’t allow a field goal for most of the first 11 minutes of the game and led 22-2 before the Wolfpack eventually got on the board on the way to a 46-25 halftime lead before Lon Kruger’s bunch lost some focus in the second half.

A Look Ahead: Boise State visits Vegas on Wednesday before the Rebs head to Louisville on Saturday for a tough early-morning matchup with the Cardinals.

3. BYU (8-0): Here’s how strong the top of the MWC is: the Cougars didn’t play a home game this week (technically, at least – they did play in Salt Lake City against Hawai’i which is close enough for government work), still posted a couple more wins by an average of 16.5 points, and still drop a step in my rankings. To defend that decision, I would just say that the two teams above BYU seem to have their rotation and roles more firmly set than the Cougars do, although head coach Dave Rose seems to get more and more answers each week as the season rolls on. This week alone, four different Cougars posted career-highs in points, with sophomore forward Brandon Davies going for 24 points (with a side of six rebounds to boot) and freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth adding 12 points (and ten rebounds – that a career high as well) in a 12-point win over Creighton in Omaha, before freshman Stephen Rogers went for 12 and senior forward Logan Magnusson added ten against Hawai’i. Sophomore Chris Collinsworth missed both games this week due to an ankle injury, and he remains day-to-day.

A Look Ahead: An eventful week for BYU, as they head to Glens Falls, New York to face Vermont in a homecoming game for senior guard Jimmer Fredette, before heading back to Salt Lake City for a big-league matchup with Arizona. After the hullabaloo of the trip to Glens Falls and its attendant demands on Fredette, the follow-up game with the Wildcats is even more of a test as the young and inconsistent Cougar front line will have to deal with Arizona’s All-American type forward, Derrick Williams.

4. New Mexico (6-1): A couple games, a couple wins, as the Lobos start to fold in their newcomers with the battle-tested veterans of last season’s conference champions. This week, sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu made his first major contributions for his new school with his 11-point, eight-rebound performance in a mere night minutes during UNM’s win over Southern Illinois. In doing so, he earned more minutes in the Lobos next game, 23 to be exact at New Mexico State, and while the scoring and rebounding numbers were down some, he did reject three Aggie shots. Elsewhere, Phillip McDonald is working his way back from an early-season elbow injury, and has added a presence on the glass that was absent in his first two years in Albuquerque, pulling down 19 rebounds this week, while also going for 14.5 points per night and adding five threes this week. Then there’s freshman guard Kendall Williams, who has averaged over ten points a game for Steve Alford and dropped a career-high 17 points, including three more threes (he’s now 11-19 from deep on the season) in the New Mexico State game. With senior point guard Dairese Gary still plugging along as his usual excellent self, this Lobo team has the potential to grow into a very tough out by March.

A Look Ahead: The second half of the battle of the Land of Enchantment, as the Aggies repay New Mexico with a visit into the Pit. Beyond that, it’s study hall for the Lobos.

5. Colorado State (4-1): As we mentioned above, the Rams were in major need of a bounce-back performance following a disappointing loss to Sam Houston State, and bounce back they did with two good wins over Drake and Fresno State. While we named Andy Ogide as our MWC player of the week, he got plenty of help from his teammates this week. In particular, senior Andre McFarland averaged 14.5 points per game and knocked down seven of the Rams’ 18 three-pointers on the week, while sophomore transfer Wes Eikmeier added 11 assists. But, by and large, this CSU squad has been a deep team getting production from all over, with ten players averaging at least ten minutes a game and eight players having scored in double digits this season. There isn’t a ton of big talent on this squad, so Tim Miles will need to keep his team alert to the need to rebound and defend the interior as a team, but if the Rams keep hitting from the field at a rate anywhere near what they’ve been doing so far (their 60% effective field goal percentage is good for fourth in the nation), they’ll have a bombers chance against anybody.

A Look Ahead: The Rams get a taste of life in the Big 12 this week, as they travel to Boulder for a winnable game against Colorado before they get brought back down to earth in Kansas City with a neutral-site matchup with Kansas.

6. Utah (5-2):The Utes got through a pretty tough week unscathed, knocking off Fresno State at home and following that up with an impressive road victory at Bradley. Junior college transfers Will Clyburn (20 PPG this week) and Josh Watkins (19.5 PPG this week) continue to lead the way for head coach Jim Boylen, but the Utes also got a big boost from another JuCo transfer, Chris Kupets, who had a career-high 17 points in the Fresno win. Good news on the injury front for the Utes as well as junior center David Foster started against Bradley and got his first start of the season while playing 20 minutes, and senior Jay Watkins’ back continues to improve.

A Look Ahead: Utah’s schedule continues to be a good match for their skill level: lots of games against middle-of-the-road competition, very few cupcakes, very few killers. This continues this week with a home game against Pepperdine and a road trip to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines. Both of these games are good tests for the Utes, with the Michigan game, in particular, a game that they’ll need to play their best to win.

7. TCU (6-3): While the Horned Frogs were the only MWC team to lose their MWC/MVC Challenge game, their loss is nothing to be particularly ashamed about. They dropped a close game to Northern Iowa, a Sweet 16 team from a year ago, after fighting the Panthers the whole way. This edition of the Frogs is a flawed team, with a tiny backcourt and a lot of youth and inexperience, but head coach Jim Christian is really doing a much better job with this team than with last year’s more talented bunch. While his team doesn’t place a lot of importance on hitting the offensive boards, they are doing a great job of cleaning the glass on the defensive end, and they are a more athletic team up and down the roster than they were last year, with 6’8 freshman Amric Fields, 6’5 junior J.R. Cadot and 6’4 junior Sammy Yeager giving the team a handful of bouncy, if undersized, frontcourt players

A Look Ahead: It’s a Big 12 road trip around the MWC, with TCU joining CSU in a little MWC/Big 12 mini-challenge. The Horned Frogs have a little bit more manageable pair of games, however, with trips to Texas Tech and Nebraska on the slate – games that, while tough, are winnable.

8. Air Force (5-1): We’ve said just about everything that needs to be said about the Falcons in our Team of the Week and Game of the Week sections above, and there are lots of good things to be said about this team right now, but let’s just remember that while this is a team that is going to play hard night in and night out throughout the season and defend like crazy, there isn’t a lot of firepower on this team. When they’re in a game with a team that isn’t going to blow them away with athleticism (see Evansville), they are capable of sticking around just through shooting and defending like crazy, and when they are in a game with a wilder team that is looser with the ball (see CS Northridge), they can take advantage and outsmart their opponents. But, as they get into conference play and start seeing a higher level of athleticism and of basketball smarts, we will likely be reminded that this is a relatively unathletic bunch without much in the way of consistent playmakers. For now though, just enjoy the ride.

A Look Ahead: A very tough roadie on Wednesday with a trip to Dayton to face Wright State. This is the type of team that should give the Falcons a lot of trouble, and as such, this will be a good litmus test to see how far Air Force has come. Luckily enough, the Falcons follow that up with a visit by North Carolina Central to Colorado Springs.

9. Wyoming (3-5): The good news: the Cowboys held up their end of the deal by knocking off Indiana State in the MWC/MVC Challenge behind five players scoring in double figures. Wyoming held the Sycamores to 29.4% shooting from the field and forced 22 turnovers while only committing eight themselves. Of course, the bad news is that three days prior, the Cowboys made a weird road trip to Vermillion, South Dakota for a matchup with the Coyotes in front of 1,768 fans in the DakotaDome and got completely outshot in the second half, hitting just 37.5% from the field while their opponent knocked down 52.2%. Desmar Jackson led the Cowboys with 15.5 points a night for a team that is just a mess right now, failing to live up to their talent on a regular basis.

A Look Ahead: A Friday trip to UC Irvine for the Cowboys, a game that should be completely winnable, but given the state of this program, is probably a coin flip at best.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2010

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

A Look Back

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

Team of the Week

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

Player of the Week

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

Newcomer of the Week

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

Game of the Week

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

Game of the Upcoming Week

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

Power Rankings

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

A Look Ahead

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

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RTC’s Halloween Tricks And Treats

Posted by jstevrtc on October 29th, 2010

Halloween, as most of us know, is and always will be one of the Four Pillars of Absolute Kid Happiness, right up there with Christmas (where celebrated), birthdays, and the moment of the announcement of a snow day. It seems like only a blink of an eye ago that we were those kids, but alas, each of us at RTC has long since put away our ghostly sheets and our Star Wars masks (we eBayed those) and — some more gradually than others — over time, evolved, kicking and screaming, into what we suppose you’d call…a grown-up. Just because the body has matured, though, doesn’t mean the mind has, because we still get jazzed for All Hallow’s. Not only is it a metaphorical “Next Exit” sign for an upcoming holiday season (which we still dig, and always will), but October 31 is a city limits line, as well. It signals that the last non-college basketball month has passed. It means that it’s been a long summer, but now we’re all back in town for another golden autumn in Hoop City.

It's Time To Hand Out Treats To Things We Like, and Tricks (Or Rocks) To Those We Don't.

What better time to reward with treats some of the recent developments or teams/players/coaches in our game we’re diggin’ on these days, and require tricks of things that we’re not. It’s time for Rush The Court’s Tricks and Treats for 2010.

Treats (no particular order):

Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger. We haven’t been this high on big men since Andre’ the Giant’s turn in The Princess Bride. We’re just as hyped to see these guys take the court as we were for Messrs. Wall, Favors, Henry, and Cousins before last season. When each of us here at RTC was 18, our worries included things like summer fast food jobs and blowing money on these things called CDs (discoid objects that played music). These guys have to worry about things like, oh, making sure Ohio State basketball doesn’t drop at all after losing the Player of the Year, and bringing North Carolina basketball — home to not exactly the most patient of fan bases — back to prominence. Plus, as they’re instant program-changers, we want to finally see these dudes play against college competition. We’ve waited long enough. And heck, let’s throw Baylor’s Perry Jones in there, too.

We're Ready For Some Sullinger. Is the Big Ten?

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RTC Conference Primers: #8 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 29th, 2010

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

Predicted Order of Finish

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

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

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

6th Man

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

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

Impact Newcomer

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

What You Need to Know

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

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Is This A Make Or Break Season For Jim Boylen?

Posted by nvr1983 on July 21st, 2010

Ever since Utah announced that it was moving to the Pac-10 it has seemed like their basketball coach Jim Boylen has been espousing the benefits of the move (please try to get by Gary Parrish’s incredibly lame headline). While we agree that the move will open more recruiting in-roads for Utah, there is one catch for Boylen. He might not be invited along for the ride. According to local media, the move to the Pac-10 also affords the school the perfect point from which to sever ties from Boylen.  Boylen has had a long track record as a successful assistant both at the college level — at Michigan State under both Jud Heathcoate and Tom Izzo – and also in the NBA — with the Houston Rockets where he won two NBA titles, the Golden State Warriors, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Utah, however, is the first head coaching position he has had at any level. Following a successful 2008-09 season that saw Boylen lead the Utes to a 24-10 record, the MWC regular season and conference tournament titles, and a NCAA appearance, Boylen was awarded a new contract that raised his annual salary to $850,000 as the Utah administration believed it had found its coach for years to come.

One of my favorite Twitter avatars

Then last season things came unraveled and the Utes finished 14-17, the team’s worst record in the past 25 years, which predates the Rick Majerus era. On top of that, Boylen struggled with the local media with the most notable example following the Utes loss to BYU, and after the season he lost several key players including highly touted guard Marshall Henderson. Since that time, Boylen has turned towards junior college players to fill the void, and, while they may have the talent, the question is how quickly will they learn to play together. For Boylen’s sake, hopefully the answer is in time to get the Utes back to the NCAA Tournament or the team may be making the jump to the Pac-10 without him.

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Morning Five: 06.21.10 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on June 20th, 2010

  1. We’re getting closer to the NCAA making a decision on how to handle the four PiGs, and Gene Smith, chairman of the NCAA D1 Basketball Committee, is already giving it a good deal of thought.  His preference is to have the lowest RPI conference champions make up the four PiGs, but he sounds open to the at-large idea as well (let’s hope so!).  He isn’t sure how the rest of the committee feels at this point.  One interesting piece of news from the article is that highly successful  play-in game holder Dayton may be on the chopping block as the site for the four games.  Indianapolis — home of the NCAA –has a substantial amount of support for the move, according to Smith.  Interesting.
  2. The Big 12 is dusting itself off and getting back to the business of running a power conference with its remaining ten member institutions.  Should the Big 12 decide to expand back to, you know, twelve teams again, Mike DeCourcy recommends adding Memphis and UNLV to its mix.  From a basketball perspective, this would undoubtedly make an already nasty conference even stronger.
  3. Utah’s Jim Boylen is doing cartwheels about the recruiting advantages that he can use now as a member of the realigned Pac-10.  There’s no question that joining the west coast league will help the Ute program in recruiting, but we’re still unsure about how successful the program will be simply by moving “up” in conference pedigree.  It’ll be interesting to watch this.
  4. Luke Winn’s report on incoming stud recruit Harrison Barnes at UNC: he “could be the smoothest scoring forward to hit college hoops since [Kevin] Durant.”  High, high praise.
  5. The Knight Commission’s report last week revealing the stratospheric rise of spending on sports per athlete (now $85k per athlete annually vs. $13k per normal student) shows quite clearly just how far down the path of big-money sports we’ve already gone.  There really is no turning back now, and recommendations such as the Commission’s to tie NCAA postseason eligibility to graduation rates (suggested: 50%) will only further cement the huge disconnect between these moneymaking programs and the academic mission of their institutions.  The only viable endgame to this situation is a complete separation of these huge dollar programs from the NCAA — it seems that there can be no other answer.  The question is when?

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Utah Invited to Join the Pac-10

Posted by rtmsf on June 16th, 2010

As expected, the Pac-10 formally extended an invitation to the University of Utah this afternoon, sending shivers of teetotaling anticipation up and down the Wasatch Range for Utah trustees to sign the deal before Texas hears a new pitch and changes its mind again.  The Board of Trustees will meet on Thursday and a press conference is scheduled to announced the move at 1 pm MT tomorrow afternoon, signifying that Utah might end up being the biggest winner in this entire conference realignment process.  The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the school earned only $1.2M in television revenue from the Mountain West last year, while the Pac-10 under its previous television deal distributed $8-$10M each to its members.  The expectation is that Utah could with this move theoretically be looking at ten times as much revenue than it was previously earning , which probably explains why fruit baskets from SLC to Austin were in rapid transit this week and also why the trustees are falling all over themselves to get this thing confirmed. 

Utah Will Do Anything to Make This Happen

This addition (remember, this was the expected move prior to all the Big 12 implosion nonsense of the past few weeks) will with Denver (#18) and Salt Lake City (#31) give the Pac-10 footprint nine of the top 31 television markets in the country starting in 2011-12, more than any other major conference.  While Commissioner Larry Scott would have mightily preferred to add the lucrative Texas markets to his conference (Dallas and Houston are both in the top ten), these two additions ensure that the new Pac-12 will dominate college athletics in both the Mountain and Pacific time zones for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of dominance, how will the addition of Utah impact Pac-10 basketball?  Unlike former Big 12 bottom-feeder Colorado, Utah actually has a strong tradition of hoops excellence that it can bring to bear in its new league.  The Utes had a phenomenal program from 1989-2004 under Rick Majerus, going to ten NCAA Tournaments and the title game in 1998, but in recent years they’ve been passed by local schools BYU and Utah State for hardwood superiority in the region.  The Beehive State, however, is generally very supportive of basketball, and with the new recruiting inroads that Pac-10 membership will afford Jim Boylen’s team, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Utah to once again surge forward as a consistently competitive basketball program in coming seasons. 

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by jstevrtc on February 26th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 2/18):

  1. New Mexico                      26-3                       12-2
  2. BYU                                        26-3                       11-2
  3. San Diego State                20-8                       9-5
  4. UNLV                                     21-7                       9-5
  5. Colorado State                  15-12                     6-7
  6. Utah                                      13-14                     6-7
  7. TCU                                        12-16                     4-9
  8. Wyoming                            9-18                       2-11
  9. Air Force                              9-17                       1-12

Superlatives:

Team of the Week. UNLV. The Rebels get the nod here (although it could just have easily been BYU) on the basis of two absolute blowout wins over lesser MWC teams. The Rebels never trailed in drilling Colorado State by 31 on Saturday, and then led TCU by as much as 31 in the 2nd half on Wednesday before calling off the hounds and prevailing by just 16. Vegas is back on track and while the regular season conference title went away a long time ago, they still get to play the conference tournament in their own gym.

Player of the Week. Jimmer Fredette, Jr, BYU. Fredette averaged 24.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.5 APG in leading his Cougars to a couple wins this week on the way to setting up the MWC game of the year with New Mexico on Saturday. Fredette has averaged over 28 PPG over the last three games and 21.7 PPG over the season and has positioned himself as the likely leader in the MWC Player of the Year race (although New Mexico’s Darington Hobson may still have something to say about that) and even deserving of mention in the national POTY discussion.

Newcomer of the Week. Marshall Henderson, Fr, Utah. Henderson has been on a tear of late, having hit double figures in his last 11 games and averaging 15.9 PPG over that stretch. This week Henderson averaged 14 PPG, had four threes in a tight loss to San Diego State and led his Utes with 16 in a win over Air Force on Wednesday.

Game of the Week. New Mexico 59 Air Force 56. On the Lobos’ way to the game of the season, they seemed to have a tidy little week ahead of them, but the Falcons disabused them of that notion right quick. Air Force shot 51% from the field (including 58% in the second half) and took a 56-55 lead on a layup by senior forward Grant Parker with 27 seconds left in the game. But, the Lobos kept their poise and were able to escape by the slimmest of margins when Hobson got a putback 10 seconds later to regain the lead, and after a strong defensive possession, junior guard Dairese Gary sealed the deal with a couple free throws to reach the final margin.

Game of the Upcoming Week. New Mexico @ BYU, Versus TV, February 27th. I suppose this one just edges out Air Force at Wyoming next Tuesday, but this might be a pretty decent game itself, as the Lobos head into Provo for the game that in all likelihood will determine the regular season champion. The first matchup in Albuquerque in late January was a fiery battle, with BYU taking their first lead of the game under three minutes on a deep Fredette three before the Lobos rallied at the finish to salvage a four-point victory.  But the Lobos will be missing a key component that was present in that victory: their home crowd. It’s quite possible that will be the difference here, because although both teams will take different approaches (BYU’s strengths lie in shooting and taking care of the ball and being very efficient on both ends of the court, while New Mexico tries to make its hay with its athleticism allowing it to pound the glass and get to the line), they do seem to be very evenly matched. My pick: BYU 76, New Mexico 70, with Fredette and Hobson leading the charge for each team.

League Notes:

By this point in the season, just about everything is squared away. The BYU/New Mexico game on Saturday will decide the regular season champion (so long as both teams can take care of business on the hind end of their schedule).  San Diego State and UNLV seem poised to take third and fourth place, respectively, and each has a legitimate claim on an at-large NCAA berth (although admittedly SDSU’s claim is much more tenuous).  Utah and Colorado State have claimed the middle ground as their own and both teams are capable of springing an upset in the MWC tournament, with TCU, Wyoming and Air Force playing out the schedule with varying degrees of effort — Air Force is still plugging along, Wyoming is more or less already a month into the offseason, and TCU is still managing to show up once in a while.

Now the MWC Tournament looms, and it will be very interesting, especially if all four favorites advance to the semifinal round. The Aztecs will be the team that needs the conference’s automatic bid the most to solidify their tournament hopes, but the competition will be fierce with the two top seeds and veritable home team, the Rebels.

Team Roundups:

New Mexico

Looking back: What looked like a bit of a quiet week for New Mexico produced a couple of down-to-the-wire nailbiters for the conference leader. First, they needed an offensive rebound from Hobson with less than 20 seconds left to put away last-place Air Force. Then, they got all they could handle at Moby Arena against Colorado State, but were able to dodge junior guard Adam Nigon’s six threes and sneak away with a six-point win. Once again, it was New Mexico’s ability to control the glass (the Lobos outrebounded CSU 44-32 – senior forward Roman Martinez had 12 boards and Hobson added 10 more) and to get to the free throw line (UNM was 18/23 from the FT line in the second half alone) that was the difference in giving Steve Alford’s squad their twelfth straight conference victory, tying a MWC record.

Looking ahead: This is it for the Lobo regular season. After the big game in Provo on Saturday, the Lobos return to the Pit to host TCU and to say goodbye to Martinez, their lone scholarship senior.

BYU

Looking back: BYU did their part to set up the battle for the title this week by visiting Laramie and controlling the reeling Cowboys from start to finish. The Cougars never trailed, forced 12 turnovers and outrebounded Wyoming by 12 as they coasted to a 22-point win. The next game was a bit tougher as they returned home to host San Diego State, but behind a 9-0 run near the end of the first half and a 14-2 run in the middle of the second half, they were able to take control of the game and pull away. Perhaps the key to the game for BYU was their ability to hit the glass, and they outrebounded the conference’s best rebounding team (albeit with freshman forward Kawhi Leonard – the MWC’s leading rebounder – diminished by illness). The Cougars were also able to force 16 Aztec turnovers, and those turnovers coupled with BYU’s 7/15 shooting from three contributed greatly to both big BYU runs.

Looking ahead: After the Lobo game this weekend, BYU has a tough bounce-back game on Wednesday at Utah, a team that has gelled into a solid team in recent weeks.

San Diego State

Looking back: The Aztecs had a lot riding on their game Wednesday night at BYU. While they have a strong RPI and a solid record, they really only have a pair of home wins over New Mexico and UNLV to show for it. A win at Provo probably would have been the big win to put them over the top. They still have an outside chance at an at-large at this point, and could add a neutral-site win over BYU or New Mexico in the MWC Semifinals which would be an excellent win, but to be on the safe side, the Aztecs are now in a position where winning the MWC tourney would be their best bet. The Leonard illness came at a most inopportune time for the Aztecs, as he was severely limited on Wednesday night. Before even the first TV timeout, he was having trouble breathing and just wasn’t his normal explosive self, and was held to just three points and five rebounds, one of the major reasons SDSU was outrebounded.

The Aztecs did add another victory earlier this week when junior forward Malcolm Thomas’ career-high 28 points and Leonard’s 14 points and 15 boards helped them pull out a tough one at home against Utah.

Looking ahead: The Aztecs host Colorado State on Wednesday, then wrap up the season with a trip to Air Force next Saturday.

UNLV

Looking back: The Rebels got back in the swing of things in a big way this week, breaking a three-game losing streak with back-to-back home routs. At this point, you have to figure the Rebels are safe for an at-large on the strengths of wins over Louisville, BYU, San Diego State and at New Mexico, but its probably not as sure of a thing as some are claiming. While Utah is coming around, those two losses don’t look especially great.

But the Rebels have started to get some production out of players not named Tre’Von Willis. Junior forward Chace Stanback averaged 14 PPG this week, sophomore center Brice Massamba had five blocks against CSU and nine rebounds against TCU, and freshman guard Anthony Marshall had 12 points and ten rebounds against the Rams. The Rebels also still hope to get junior wing Derrick Jasper back from a sprained MCL suffered at the end of January, but he may not even be ready until the MWC tournament.

Looking ahead: Just a trip to Air Force for the Rebels on Saturday, then a week off before they host Wyoming the following Saturday, both games the Rebels are more than capable of winning.

Colorado State

Looking back: After a 31-point loss at UNLV on Saturday seemed to again prove that the Rams weren’t capable of staying on the court with the top teams in the MWC, they turned around and gave New Mexico a good run on Tuesday. Nigon poured in his career high 23 points, but he also got help from junior forward Andy Ogide (12 points and six rebounds) and freshman guard Dorian Green (11 points and six assists). The Rams have now lost three straight, and will need to finish their remaining schedule with a couple of wins in order to improve their chances of an NIT bid.

Looking ahead: The Rams still have one very tough remaining game, when they travel to San Diego State next Wednesday, but have very winnable games sandwiched around that: at TCU on Saturday and home against Utah (in what will likely be the battle for 5th place in the conference) on the final Saturday of the season.

Utah

Looking back: The Utes gave San Diego State a good run on Saturday, outrebounding the conference’s best rebounding team (seven Utes had at least four rebounds) and keeping things tight up to the end, although a lot of the credit for that can be given to the Aztecs and their inability to hit free throws down the stretch.  In the end, they were done in by another night of poor shooting (39% from field) and ballhandling (15 turnovers), giving Utah their fifth loss in seven games. Utah got things back on track on Wednesday, however, when they held Air Force to a season-low 43 points and just 2/17 shooting from three. Utah again controlled the glass, 30-18, and this time shot well from the field — 50% both from the field and from behind the arc.

Looking ahead: The Utes host Wyoming and then BYU this week, and are lucky enough to catch the Cougars after the New Mexico game, a trap-game of which Jim Boylen hopes his club can take advantage.

TCU

Looking back: Take a quick glance at the box score for the Horned Frogs this week and you see some things you expected to see all season, like a 21 and an 11 next to senior forward Zvonko Buljan’s name and a 25 next to sophomore guard Ronnie Moss’ name. But then you get to the turnover column and see twos, threes, and fours next to everybody’s name on the entire roster, and you get why TCU was down by as many as 31 in the second half at UNLV. In the end, the Frogs wound up with 21 turnovers, and despite those gaudy numbers in Moss and Buljan’s scoring columns, they were never really in this game.

Looking ahead: The Frogs host Colorado State on Saturday, then travel to New Mexico on Wednesday.

Wyoming

Looking back: You gotta give the Cowboys this much credit: when you saw BYU looming on the schedule a week or so ago, you probably figured the final margin would have been higher than 22. But freshman guard Desmar Jackson is still fighting and he poured in a career-high 26 points highlighted by four threes in his attempt to keep his team in the game. Jackson has been one of the very few bright spots in Laramie this season. He has averaged 12.2 PPG in conference play thus far and led the Cowboys in scoring in four out of the nine games since sophomore forward Afam Muojeke went down for the season with a knee injury.

Looking ahead: Wyoming travels to Utah on Saturday, then hosts Air Force in a battle for eighth place on Tuesday.

Air Force

Looking back: As we said in this space last week, while other teams at the back of the pack are now phoning it in, the Falcons are going down fighting. While their deliberate style and pack-it-in defense certainly allows them to keep games close, they almost stole a game they had no business being in against New Mexico on Saturday. They followed that up by fighting it out against Utah, but their inability to hit shots (just 2/17 from three) killed them.

Looking ahead: The Falcons could get out of the cellar (or at least get some company in the cellar) with a win at Wyoming on Wednesday, but they’ll also have a another chance at one of the big boys when they host UNLV on Saturday.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on February 19th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 2/18)

  1. New Mexico                      24-3                       10-2
  2. BYU                                        24-3                       9-2
  3. San Diego State                19-7                       8-4
  4. UNLV                                     19-7                       7-5
  5. Colorado State                  15-10                     6-5
  6. Utah                                      12-13                     5-6
  7. TCU                                        12-15                     4-8
  8. Wyoming                            9-17                       2-10
  9. Air Force                              9-15                       1-10

Superlatives

Team of the Week. San Diego State. While New Mexico and BYU took care of business to keep themselves in line for a showdown on February 27th for the regular season title, it was the Aztecs who made the biggest waves this week, knocking off UNLV on Saturday and getting a win in Fort Worth on Tuesday to vault ahead of Vegas in the conference standings. In the process, for the first time this season, there is some question as to who would be the next team in line for an at-large NCAA bid after the two teams at the top of the leaderboard. The Aztecs still have a chance for another big win when they travel to Provo on Wednesday, and they may need that one to solidify their NCAA chances.

Player of the Week. Billy White, Jr, San Diego State. It was a wide open contest for this honor this week, with the usual suspects all turning in one excellent game and one lesser game. So, this is a perfect week to honor someone else, a guy who put together two very good games in leading his team to the TotW honors and third place in the conference. White averaged 18 points and seven rebounds this week and had some high-flying highlights in leading the Aztecs to an important win over UNLV. White has not had the kind of statistical improvement that many in the Aztec program expected this year, although he is averaging 11 points and five rebounds per game, perhaps in part due to his running mates in the SDSU front line, freshman Kawhi Leonard and junior transfer Malcolm Thomas. But, for the Aztecs to live up to their potential, they need White to be slashing to the basket, playing above the rim and defending athletic frontcourt players, exactly what he did this week.

Newcomer of the Week. Kawhi Leonard, Fr, San Diego State. Leonard wins this one on the strength of his play against the Rebels. Leonard scored 13 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the Aztecs win on Saturday, but did so many other things to help his team win. He often brought the ball up against UNLV pressure and he spent much of the day hounding UNLV’s best player, junior guard Tre’Von Willis, into five-for-15 shooting. While New Mexico’s junior Darington Hobson is undoubtedly the MWC’s most versatile player, Leonard is growing into a legitimate threat to usurp that title.

Game of the Week. New Mexico 68, Utah 65 (OT). For much of New Mexico’s win over Utah on Saturday, it seemed like the Lobos were on the verge of pulling away. They led by as many as eight a couple times in the first half, only to have the Utes reel them back in. In the second half, the same pattern held: New Mexico jumping ahead, Utah slowly scraping back. In fact, between the 17 minute mark in the first half and the three minute mark in overtime, Utah never led, but the Utes did get back to even with under two minutes in regulation with six straight free throws, but still needed a corner three from junior guard Carlon Brown with two seconds left to send the game to overtime. Utah got the first points of the OT, about two minutes in on Brown layup, but a big three by senior forward Roman Martinez gave the Lobos back the lead for good, although they did have to survive a couple potentially game-tying threes in the waning moments by Brown and freshman guard Marshall Henderson.

Game of the Upcoming Week. San Diego State @ BYU, February 24th, CBS College Sports. Both teams have a lot to gain and a lot to lose in this matchup. If the Aztecs hope to feel somewhat comfortable with their at-large chances headed into the MWC tournament, they need to win this game (along with running the table against the rest of the lower-level MWC teams they face). If BYU wants to have a chance at winning the MWC regular season championship outright, they’ll need to win this game. While the Cougars will certainly be the favorite playing in front of a partisan Marriott Center crowd, the Aztecs have been hot lately and have enough athleticism to give BYU fits, as they showed a month ago in a close loss in front of SDSU’s home crowd.

League Notes

UNLV has now lost three games in a row and while those three games were all tough MWC battles (a loss at home to New Mexico, and road losses to San Diego State and Utah), it may be time to re-examine the Rebels’ tournament credentials. Currently sitting at 19-7 with an RPI of 44, the Rebels remaining regular season games are games that they absolutely must win:  home games against Colorado State, TCU and Wyoming wrapped around a road trip to Air Force. None of those wins is going to do a whole lot to help the UNLV resume, but a loss anywhere would kill them. Their best wins on the season are a win at New Mexico (RPI #10), home against BYU (19), Louisville (30) San Diego State (39), Nevada (68) and a road win at Arizona (89). There are no particularly bad non-conference losses (a neutral site loss to USC, RPI 82, being the worst), but the two conference losses to Utah are unhelpful, to say the least.

The good news for the Rebels is they get to play their conference tournament at home in the Thomas & Mack, giving them a nice little nudge towards capturing the MWC’s automatic bid, but assuming they don’t win the title, what do they need to do to give themselves the best chance at an at-large bid? Four more conference wins will put them at 23-7 with an RPI still somewhere in the mid-to-low 40s. In the first round of the MWC tourney, they’ll likely play either Colorado State or Utah, and a loss in that first round will have them scouting Manhattan hotel rates for a potential NIT run. Assume they win and advance to the semis, and they’ll have either New Mexico or BYU waiting for them, where a win would be very good and a loss would not be horrific. Lose in those semis and they sit at 24-8; win there and lose in the finals and 25-8, plus the additional good win might be enough. Just enough. Especially considering the eventuality that the bubble will likely tighten up if teams like Butler or Old Dominion or maybe UTEP have missteps in their own conference tournaments.

Long story short, the Rebels still have a pretty strong resume, but they would certainly love to have a redo in those Utah games.

Team Roundups

New Mexico

Looking back: After last week’s two big wins, it would have been understandable if not entirely acceptable for the Lobos to be a little flat for their trip to underachieving Utah on Saturday. And while Steve Alford’s club was not as sharp as it had been the week prior, they were good enough to control the game and escape with a three-point overtime win against an improving Ute team. On Wednesday, the Lobos returned to Albuquerque for some home cooking and along the way they scored a big 22-point victory over a reeling Wyoming team. The win was Alford’s 300th Division I win in his career and was highlighted by another terrific Hobson performance: 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Martinez was also strong for the Lobos, filling the stat sheet with 13 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, three steals and three threes.

Looking ahead: New Mexico host Air Force on Saturday, then has a tricky roadie to Fort Collins to face Colorado State. Win both and the Lobos likely set up a one-game playoff for the MWC regular season championship against BYU in Provo on the final Saturday of February.

BYU

Looking back: BYU had a week to stew over their loss in Vegas, and when they finally got a chance to take their frustrations out on someone wearing a different jersey, it was Air Force on the receiving end. The Cougars were on fire early, shooting 67% from the field in the first half while knocking down 10 of their 14 three-point attempts and they built up a 53-20 first half lead before cruising to a 43-point victory. Senior forward Jonathan Tavernari led the team with five threes and 19 points, with junior guard Jackson Emery just behind him with four threes and 18 points.

The Cougs second game of the week was slightly more competitive, BYU winning by only 22 over Colorado State, but while the scoring was balanced against Air Force, the CSU game was a Jimmer Fredette special. The junior guard had 36 points, with six threes and six assists for good measure. Once again the Cougars were on fire from the field, shooting 52% from the field and hitting 12 of their 25 attempts from behind the arc. Sophomore forward Noah Hartsock added his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds and he spearheaded a strong Cougar effort on the glass.

Looking ahead: One more tune-up for the Cougs when they travel to Laramie to face the Cowboys on Saturday, then into the fray with home games against San Diego State, a monster game against New Mexico and their trip to Salt Lake to face rival Utah.

San Diego State

Looking back: When the Aztecs hosted UNLV on Saturday, they knew it was a must-win game and they played like it. They outhustled the Rebels, played better defense, got contributions from up and down the roster and did it all with a calmness and confidence that belied their relative youth. They beat the Rebels on the glass (39-30), racked up all sorts of defensive gems (nine blocks, nine steals) and actually made their free throws (23/31 from the line, a vast improvement over their 60% season average. White led the team with 19 points, Leonard added his 13 points and 14 boards, but even those who didn’t rack up big numbers made contributions. Thomas had four blocks and four assists, freshman guard Chase Tapley had three steals to go along with 11 points and senior guard Kelvin Davis added a couple of threes, and in the end the Aztecs walked away with a 10-point victory. The Aztecs followed up that big win with a workmanlike effort against TCU by dominating the Horned Frogs inside. SDSU outrebounded TCU 34-24, and scored 59 of their 68 points either in the paint or at the free throw line. In the process, the Aztecs shot 61% from the field.

Looking ahead: At this point, they are all big games for the Aztecs. They host Utah on Saturday then travel to BYU on Wednesday. While the BYU game is certainly a very difficult game for SDSU, the Utes have been playing well lately, and if they get caught looking ahead to the Provo trip, the Aztecs could slip up at home.

UNLV

Looking back: A week ago at this time, the Rebels had just been whooped by New Mexico and were facing a fairly difficult week ahead with visits to San Diego and Salt Lake City. Everyone knew it would be a tough week, but not many suspected that at the end of it, the Rebs would be riding a three-game losing streak. Against the Aztecs, Vegas was exposed a bit compared to SDSU’s length and athleticism. While their quick guards like Willis and freshman Anthony Marshall kept them in it for awhile, UNLV couldn’t get a lot of good looks and wound up shooting just 35% from the field and only three of 17 from deep. The Rebels didn’t get a lot of time to recuperate from that loss before making the tough trip to the Huntsman Center on Wednesday. Once again, for the third game in a row, UNLV not only lost but was outplayed from start to finish. The Rebels never even led on Wednesday night, and beyond Willis’ 32 points, didn’t get much in the way of positive offensive contributions. UNLV stayed in the game by forcing 16 turnovers, which they converted to 22 points, but in the end Willis missed a tough challenged layup on a fast break and then a three with a guy in his face a possession later, and UNLV lost by five.

Looking ahead: The Rebels host Colorado State and TCU this week and need to get back on track immediately.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams played just once this week, and their 22-point home loss to BYU reaffirmed their position in the MWC pecking order: nowhere close to the top of the pack, but better than the dregs. In their two matchups with BYU this season, they have now lost by an average of 33, and have lost by over 20 points per game in their five matchups with the teams above them in the MWC standings. Junior forward Travis Franklin did have a nice performance against the Cougars, leading the team in points, rebounds and assists (14/7/5), and CSU did have five players score in double figures, but the Rams showed no ability to stop BYU and their struggles from behind the arc (4/17) doomed them to another blowout loss.

Looking ahead: The MWC gauntlet continues for the Rams: a roadie at an angry Vegas team on Saturday, then a chance to host New Mexico on Wednesday night.

Utah

Looking back: It has been a frustrating season for Jim Boylen and his Utes. This squad has struggled shooting the ball (just 43% from the field on the year), has yet to find a legitimate point guard (335 turnovers on the season, just 303 assists), and have had little injuries and other personnel issues bug them throughout the year. And yet, here in the middle of February, the Utes are playing their best ball of the season and have turned into a team that can rise up and bite the teams above them. UNLV has learned that lesson quite well, but even New Mexico had to consider itself fortunate to escape SLC with a win this week. Brown has struggled living up to the expectations of him as an offensive go-to guy, but this week he scored 18 points in each game and was the man down the stretch in both games. Henderson has also stepped up his game of late, averaging 15.5ppg this week, and with sophomore center David Foster able to clog up the middle defensively (he had seven blocks against a stubborn New Mexico team), the Utes are coming together on both ends of the court.

Looking ahead: Utah hits the road this week: first stop San Diego on Saturday, followed by a visit to the Air Force Academy on Wednesday.

TCU

Looking back: It’s the dog days of the season for the Horned Frogs. They’ve no chance at any type of post-season play, their coaches have started looking towards next season and their seniors only show up once a week at best (hey, sounds like my senior year… and my junior year… and… ). TCU was good enough to beat Wyoming in Laramie on Saturday. They got 21 points and seven rebounds from freshman forward Nick Cerina and senior swing Edvinas Ruzgas and junior guard Greg Hill both hit big threes down the stretch to tidy things up, but then got beat up and down the court by San Diego State on Tuesday in the most one-sided 17-point game you’d ever want to see.

Looking ahead: Just one loss for TCU this week, as they head to UNLV to get torched on Wednesday night.

Wyoming

Looking back: See above and increase exponentially. Players defecting from the program, the best player watching after knee surgery, the coach rapidly burning bridges. Good times in Laramie. This week saw the Cowboys drop to 2-10 in the conference (and just looking at that record reminds me that somehow this team beat San Diego State), and highlights for this team are few and far between. Freshman guard Desmar Jackson had 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in the loss to TCU, but followed that up with six turnovers and little else in the New Mexico loss. And junior forward Djibril Thiam had another solid week, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds this week, and has had a decent season, averaging 10 points and five rebounds over the year.

Looking ahead: BYU comes to town on Saturday. Oh boy!

Air Force

Looking back: Just another miserable team at the bottom of the standings, although you get the feeling this one might still be playing hard. Which is not necessarily good news considering they just lost by 43 in their only game this week,at BYU on Saturday. But the Falcons just couldn’t do much right in that game (22 turnovers), and BYU was rested, inspired and on fire. Freshman wing Mike Fitzgerald led the Falcons with 13 points and four threes.

Looking ahead: Things don’t get a whole lot easier for Jeff Reynolds and his team as they head to New Mexico before returning home to host Utah.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by jstevrtc on January 29th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 1/28):

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

Superlatives:

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

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

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

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

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

League Notes:

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

Team Roundups:

BYU

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

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

New Mexico

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

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

UNLV

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

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

San Diego State

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

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

Colorado State

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

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

Utah

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

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

TCU

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

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

Wyoming

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

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

Air Force

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

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

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by jstevrtc on January 1st, 2010

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

Standings (as of 12/30):

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

Superlatives:

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

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

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

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

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

League Notes:

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

Team Roundups:

New Mexico

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

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

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

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

BYU

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

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

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

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

UNLV

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

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

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

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

San Diego State

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

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

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

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

Colorado State

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

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

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

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

Air Force

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

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

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

TCU

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

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

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

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

Wyoming

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

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

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

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

Utah

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

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

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

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

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