RTC Summer Updates: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on August 2nd, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Mountain West correspondent, Andrew Murawa.

Reader’s Take I

Summer Storylines

  • A New Look League: In the aftermath of last summer’s conference shake-ups, the Mountain West is a slimmer volume this year than last, and will look even different next year. Last year’s regular season champion, BYU, is off to pursue football independence, with membership in the West Coast Conference for basketball and some other sports a byproduct of that decision. Secondly, Utah jumped at the opportunity to become a member of the new Pac-12 conference. In the 12 years in which the two Utah schools were a part of the MWC (okay, since its unveiling of their new logo in July, the league office wants the conference to be abbreviated as MW, rather than MWC, and we’ll try to do that from here on), they won a combined five outright regular season titles between them (BYU three, Utah two) and twice shared the regular season titles. However, the MW did not sit idly by and let its conference dissolve when the Utah schools left. It snapped up Boise State to give the Mountain West eight teams in the 2011-12 campaign, with Fresno State and Nevada due to join in 2012-13 just as TCU departs for the Big East. In the long run, the three losses are bigger than the three additions, but the newcomers are strong enough to keep the MW chugging along.
  • Coaching Shuffle: We knew heading into the offseason that there would be at least one new coach in the conference, as Wyoming pulled the trigger on firing Heath Schroyer during the middle of the conference season. In late March they announced the hiring of Larry Shyatt, an associate head coach at Florida, back for his second stint as the head man in Laramie. But when Lon Kruger announced a day later that he had accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma, arguably the most attractive job in the conference opened up at UNLV. Ten days later, UNLV announced the hiring of Dave Rice, most recently the associate head coach to Dave Rose at BYU, but previously a player and assistant coach under Jerry Tarkanian in Vegas. With Rice’s brother, Grant Rice, the head coach at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High – not coincidentally the high school of 2012 top ten recruit Shabazz Muhammad – the hiring opens further inroads for the Rebels with local recruits. To tie everything up in a nice little bundle, Schroyer was hired by Rice as one of his new assistants, along with former Rebel star Stacey Augmon and former SDSU assistant Justin Hutson.
  • Transfer Hotbed: Every year, the Mountain West seems to be the landing spot for some big transfers, guys who have struggled in their first stop in a BCS conference and who are ready to start over a rung down the ladder. UCLA as a feeder school for the conference is a well-worn path, having sent Chace Stanback to UNLV and Drew Gordon to New Mexico in recent years. This year, another former Bruin will be active in the MW, with forward Mike Moser joining Stanback in Las Vegas for the Rebels. No less than five other former-Pac-10 players will show up on MW rosters this season, with Drew Wiley (formerly of Oregon) joining Boise State, Demetrius Walker (formerly of Arizona State) joining New Mexico, and Xavier Thames (formerly of Washington State) joining San Diego State, all of whom will be eligible this season. Arizona’s Daniel Bejarano and USC’s Bryce Jones also announced transfers to Colorado State and UNLV, respectively, but neither will be eligible until the 2012-13 season. UNLV also welcomes former Marquette point Reggie Smith to compete with incumbent point guard Oscar Bellfield this season, while CSU inked former Minnesota center Colton Iverson, eligible in 2012-13. Then there’s the Aztecs, who signed Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien and St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee. While O’Brien will sit out a year, Polee, who attended Los Angeles’ Westchester High, has applied for a hardship waiver, given that his mom is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. While these waivers aren’t often granted, if it happens in this case, Polee could be a big boost for the Aztecs’ 2011-12 hopes.

Steve Fisher maxed out an experienced team in 2011, but will need former role players to step up this season. (Kent Horner/Getty Images)

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Mountain West Report Card

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 5th, 2011


Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.

Conference Recap: It was a banner year for the Mountain West despite the turbulence of the offseason that will see two of the standard-bearers of the conference (Utah and BYU) leave for arguably greener pastures this summer with TCU following them out the door the following summer. The two teams leading the conference this season, BYU and San Diego State, posted a combined 66-8 record this year and were constants in the national top ten making the Sweet 16 before bowing out in tight contests. In addition to having two of the country’s top teams the conference also had arguably the nation’s top player in BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who led the country in scoring, regularly producing eye-popping, shake-your-head-in-disbelief moments and becoming a household name in Utah and beyond. UNLV joined the conference leaders in the NCAA Tournament, but tripped up in ugly fashion before losing head coach Lon Kruger to Oklahoma over the weekend. Colorado State and New Mexico had their hopes pinned on NCAA Tournament bids, but came up a little short. Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly the biggest collection of talent in the history of this conference and likely the high water mark. While there is not a whole lot of love lost between either followers of the conference or executives in the MWC and BYU, there is little doubt that the loss of both of the Utah schools from its ranks will leave a major hole.

It was clearly the year of the Jimmer in the Mountain West

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 1st, 2011

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

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

A Look Back

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

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

Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

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

A Look Back

With the battle for the conference title just a day away, the conference race has taken its shape. Up top, of course, are national top-ten teams BYU and San Diego State, tied at 12-1 and ready to battle on Montezuma Mesa on Saturday morning. Next, UNLV has moved backed into third and seems a lock to be asked to the Big Dance, while Colorado State is still waiting in the wings, hoping to secure its own invitation in its remaining schedule after having just booted one of its last big chances. Down the ladder another rung, Utah has suddenly turned on the juice and bolted to three straight wins (although it may not be enough to save Jim Boylen’s job), while New Mexico has been the biggest disappointment in conference play, still three positive outcomes away from a .500 MWC record. At the bottom of the conference, Air Force has now lost four straight and fallen back to .500 overall for the first time since their second game, and suddenly they’ve got Wyoming nipping at their heels for the right to avoid the 8/9 game in the MWC Tournament. And finally, there’s TCU all alone at the bottom with a 1-13 record, an 11-game losing streak and a program in shambles in advance of an upcoming move to the Big East in 2012-13.

Team of the Week: UNLV – Since we last talked, the Rebels have bounced back from their disappointing result against the Aztecs and reeled off three straights wins to pop their bubble and plant themselves firmly in the NCAA field. While there has been very little pretty about their wins over Air Force (just a horribly brutal game to watch), New Mexico and Colorado State, the Rebels have gotten back to playing the type of defense they were playing in November. Against the Falcons, UNLV turned on the pressure and held Air Force scoreless for over 13 minutes in the second half, while grabbing a staggering 96.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities in securing a come-from-behind win there. Then the Rebels paired a revenge victory over Colorado State in Fort Collins with a squeaker over New Mexico in Albuquerque, two mighty impressive road wins. While offense continues to be a struggle most nights, this Running Rebel team figures to be an awful tough out in the MWC Tournament on their own home floor.

Player of the Week: Malcolm Thomas, Senior, San Diego State – On the hyper-talented Aztec frontcourt, Kawhi Leonard is the star, the go-to guy, the All-American candidate. But this guy is pretty good too, and a vital cog in what Steve Fisher wants to do. While Leonard is flashier with the ball in his hands, Thomas is nearly as good on the glass, and arguably a better interior defender. Thomas leads the Aztecs with more than two blocked shots per game (and blocks on about 8% of all opponents’ two-point field goals – good for 66th in the nation), and he racked up seven more blocks this week, to go with 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing. Given that he had been in a bit of a slump on the offensive end, averaging just over seven points per game in the prior eight games, his offensive awakening is a welcome piece of good news heading into Saturday’s big game.

Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – Despite three losses this week, part of a four-game slide for the Lobos, Gordon has to take down the honor on the basis of his 17 points and a MWC-record 23 rebounds against Utah on Saturday. Throw in 13 points and nine rebounds against SDSU and 15 points and 14 rebounds against UNLV, Gordon has become a dominant low-post force in the conference. There are still some holes in his game, but if those can get patched (or at least temporarily hidden), he could help the Lobos make some noise in the MWC Tourney.

Game of the Week: Utah 62, New Mexico 60 – This game just epitomizes the type of season the Lobos are having. New Mexico controlled just about every facet of this game, except for the small little fact that they couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean from the beach, post a sub-40% effective field goal percentage. And yet, they still found themselves up one with time running down and with the Utah offense in disarray. And then Chris Hines did this. With the Lobos having lost to UNLV in overtime on Wednesday night after having a good look at the buzzer in regulation, and lost at SDSU last Wednesday after fighting back from a 14-point deficit to be right there at the end, this was just another annoyance. But couple with all the other missed opportunities in the Lobo year (a one-point loss at UNLV in which they had multiple chances to put that one away, a double-overtime loss at Dayton, and this heartbreaking loss at Wyoming), this must be just the basketball gods getting back at New Mexico for all their fortunate bounces last year.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (17-11, 5-8) at TCU (10-19, 1-13), 2/26, 5PM PST, CBS College Sports – Yes, this epic battle between the Horned Frogs and the…. Okay, just wanted to see if you all were paying attention. Clearly the game of the week (which will be played Saturday morning at 11AM PST on CBS – the first ever national non-cable television broadcast of a MWC regular season basketball game – between San Diego State (27-1, 12-1) and BYU (26-2, 12-1). And CBS knocked the ball out of the park in choosing this game to televise way back in August. When these two teams played in late January, Jimmer Fredette took the nation by storm, knocking down 43 points in increasingly improbable fashion and slowly breaking the will of the Aztec defenders. What was a close game for 30-plus minutes or so turned into a game that was not particularly in doubt after the final TV timeout. The Aztecs controlled the glass as expected, but struggled to score. In particular senior point guard D.J. Gay, who started off guarding Fredette, seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility of both guarding Fredette and being the Aztec offensive rock. I’m guessing that won’t happen again. While the Aztecs are rightly afraid of getting into a wide-open transition game with the Cougars and Fredette, they’ll need to be able to turn some of their rebounds into transition opportunities in order to get some easy offense, but most importantly, they’ll need to control Fredette. Gay was ineffective against him last time, and Steve Fisher can’t risk losing his offense this time around, so expect Chase Tapley to get the first crack at Jimmer, while Billy White and even Kawhi Leonard may get some face-time with the National Player of the Year candidate.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (27-1, 12-1): The Aztecs posted wins over Air Force and New Mexico, got Tapley and Tim Shelton back from injury, and then got to rest up in the middle of the week in preparation for Saturday’s game. This week couldn’t have gone any better. While his running mate Thomas took down the POTW award, Leonard continued his great play, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds this week. Apropos of little, you could actually piece together a pretty strong All-American team with just players from the MWC and Pac-10 this season, and only have to reach once. Gimme Leonard and Fredette paired with Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas (Fredette and Williams are dead-solid locks to be first-team All-Americans, while Leonard and Thomas should be second-team, but may lose out to players who play primarily on ESPN), and throw in Klay Thompson for good measure and I’d guess that team could probably take any other team put together out of any other two conferences around the country.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host the Cougars in the biggest game in the history of the Mountain West Conference on Saturday, after which they’ll wrap up the season with a trip to Wyoming and a visit from Colorado State.

2. BYU (26-2, 12-1): A ho-hum week for the Cougars: two more wins (a 23-point blowout at TCU and a never-particularly-close eight-point win at home against Colorado State) and 57 more points from Fredette (although in an increasingly inefficient manner – just 15 of 42 from the field in the two games). Other highlights included Kyle Collinsworth contributing eight rebounds per game off the bench and sophomore Stephen Rogers having his best game since New Year’s Day with 15 points and three threes against TCU.

A look ahead: I’m only reminding you one more time: 11AM PST Saturday morning, your local CBS affiliate. BYU at San Diego State. Watch it.

3. UNLV (21-7, 9-5): We detailed the fact that the Rebels have now won three straight games in our Team of the Week section, but it’s interesting that they’ve done it with different players leading the way in each instance. In the Air Force game, Tre’Von Willis took over and led the team with 13 points and four assists (those numbers may not sound impressive, but it is all relative in a game where the winning team scored 49 points). He continued his strong play in the other two games (eight assists against Colorado State and 25 points, five three, four assists and four steals against New Mexico), but in each case had plenty of help. In the CSU game, Oscar Bellfield led the way with 18 points, including 16 in the second half, to secure the Rebel victory, while it was Quintrell Thomas taking over the game against the Lobos with 19 points and 13 rebounds in place of the fouled-out Chace Stanback. The Rebels still don’t have a single go-to guy (although Willis has begun to look willing to take that role back over, despite his nagging knee injury that is not getting any better), and there are plenty of maddeningly inconsistent performers here (with Stanback’s yo-yo act the most egregious example), but the good news for Lon Kruger is that he is at least getting somebody to step up every night, even if it is somebody different every time out.

A look ahead: UNLV hosts Air Force on Tuesday, then travels to Colorado State on Saturday with revenge on their minds.

4. Colorado State (18-9, 8-5): The good news for the Rams is that they took care of business against TCU. The bad news is that they struck out in their chances against UNLV and BYU, falling by seven at home to the surging Rebels and by eight at Provo. With the season-ending game at San Diego State the sole remaining “up” game on their schedule, the Rams are faced with the prospect of going into Selection Sunday with a neutral-site win over Southern Miss and a win at UNLV as their sole wins against teams in the top-50 RPI. This year, that could be good enough, but a win over the Aztecs on the final day of the season or a MWC Tournament semifinal win over either BYU or SDSU would go a long ways towards helping Tim Miles sleep well on March 12.

A look ahead: The Rams travel to Air Force, then host Utah, and while a win in either of those games is not going to put them in the NCAA Tournament, a loss might keep them out. Then, on March 5, they travel to San Diego to face the Aztecs on a day when the raucous crowd at Viejas Arena will be saying goodbye to D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and likely Kawhi Leonard. Yikes. Good luck with that.

5. New Mexico (17-11, 5-8): So, three straight losses have effectively killed any prayer this Lobo team had of getting an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. And yet, I still think this team is a threat in the MWC Tournament. Why? Well, Dairese Gary is every bit the bulldog that Gay is at SDSU, the type of player who is capable of willing his team to victories down the stretch (although, admittedly, you maybe wouldn’t know that following these guys this year). Gordon has turned into a dominant rebounder and athletic presence up front (although he’s the consummate black-hole on offense – the ball goes in to the post and never comes back out). Tony Snell, Kendall Williams and Philip McDonald are athletic and skilled wing players who are each capable of catching fire from deep (although (1) Snell is a freshman who has only recently started producing, and inconsistently at that, (2) Williams, also a freshman, has tailed off some since a lightning fast start and (3) McDonald is a complete mystery who is shooting 10 percentage points lower than last year’s average from three just 33% from the field in MWC play). And then there’s a ton of tough big guys up front to pair with Gordon (none of whom have displayed any hint of desperation in grabbing a rebound, playing solid post defense or setting solid screens). See. They’re brilliant!

A look ahead: At TCU, at BYU and home against Air Force as the Lobos play out the string. None of those games mean a thing to the Lobos tournament hopes – they’ll need to win three straight games on March 10th, 11th and 12th, or they’re NIT bound.

6. Utah (13-15, 6-8): When last we checked in with the Utes, they had lost five straight games and the last two of those by an average of more than 22 points. Jim Boylen’s job was in serious jeopardy and they looked to be already in the offseason mentally. Since then, they’ve strung together three solid wins, albeit against the three teams currently below them in the standings, and by a combined total of 14 points, but you’ve got to give credit to Boylen for keeping this team playing hard. While circumstances may conspire against him in Utah, he’s given the administration some good reasons to consider giving him another chance.

A look ahead: The Utes are down their final two games in their MWC regular season history: at Colorado State next Wednesday and at home against UNLV next Saturday. An NCAA Tournament bid is extremely unlikely (they’d need to win the conference tourney), but if they can extend their momentum a bit longer, perhaps they’ll get back on the NIT’s radar.

7. Air Force (13-13, 4-9): Four straight losses (and an average of just over 50 points per game in those losses) and all of a sudden, what was looking like a surprisingly strong Falcon season has turned into a fight to hold on to the first-round bye in the MWC title. While Air Force got destroyed on the glass by BYU, UNLV and San Diego State in the first three of those losses, Wednesday’s night loss at Wyoming was bizarre basketball. Out of the blue, suddenly the Falcon outrebounded somebody, and at the hands of a Cowboy team that killed them on the glass in their first meeting. Just as surprising, the Falcons turned the ball over 19 times, a stunning number for a team that takes care of the ball well. And, for a third surprise, Wyoming, a team in the bottom quarter of Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, outshot the Falcons, the 22nd best team in the nation in that category. And, through all that, Wyoming snuck out a one-point win.

A look ahead: Tough games at home against Colorado State and at New Mexico surround a very winnable home game against the cellar-dwelling Horned Frogs. Win two of those three games and the Falcons are guaranteed a .500-or-better regular season record.

8. Wyoming (10-17, 3-10): Four games in and Fred Langley’s got a 2-2 record as a head coach. Given that Heath Schroyer was 1-8 when he was fired, you’d have to say that it looks like the timing to fire him was right. The biggest boost from the coaching change has undoubtedly been given to sophomore forward Amath M’Baye, who has averaged 20.3 points and 6.5 rebounds under Langley.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels Salt Lake City for a matchup with Utah, where a win could put the Cowboys in seventh place in the conference.

9. TCU (10-19, 1-13): Three more losses, and the assumption is that Jim Christian is a dead man walking; this has turned into a total collapse. With two of the four leading scorers on this team having been kicked off the team, the back-half of this conference season has been little more than tryouts for next year’s scholarships. Point guard Hank Thorns has been tough, handing out assists all over the place (he’s easily the conference’s leading assist man, with nearly seven per game), junior wing J.R. Cadot has come on strong of late (he’s had double figure scoring in four straight games and has shown a penchant for rebounding above and beyond his 6’5 frame) and Garlon Green has been a consistently solid performer all season long, but beyond that, this roster is in need of an overhaul.

A look ahead: The Horned Frogs host New Mexico, then travel to Air Force next Wednesday in a game that gives them a solid chance at their second conference win.

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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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Set Your Tivo: 11.29.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 29th, 2010

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

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Some folks may be going through college basketball withdrawal today as the Thanksgiving tournaments have ended and the action is extremely light tonight. Fear not however, great games make a comeback tomorrow. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Virginia @ #16 Minnesota – 7 pm on ESPN2 (**)

Blake Hoffarber Has Been Up/Down This Season

Minnesota is still riding high after their tournament win in Puerto Rico as they open the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against the Virginia Cavaliers this evening. The Golden Gophers are dealing with some injuries tonight as starting point guard Al Nolen (foot) and Rodney Williams (ankle) are unlikely to play. Coach Tubby Smith still has plenty of weapons to turn to and may get Devoe Joseph back from suspension tonight. Smith has said he’s undecided but there’s a chance that Joseph could make his first appearance of the season against Virginia. The Cavaliers went 1-2 in Maui, defeating Oklahoma while losing to Washington and Wichita State. They’re 3-3 overall and are expected to finish near the bottom of the ACC this season. Tony Bennett’s team has been, well, unlike a typical Tony Bennett team so far. Virginia has struggled on the defensive end, ranking #135 in efficiency. They’ve given up an average of 70 PPG and are #330 in defensive effective FG%. UVA doesn’t force turnovers due to Bennett’s deliberate, slow pace and have been terrible at defending the three. Virginia is almost dead last in defensive three point percentage, allowing opponents to shoot 47% from behind the arc. As you might expect, Virginia’s opponents get the largest percentage of their points from the three point line, #1 in the nation. To put this in perspective, Bennett’s last team at Washington State (2008-09) finished #6 in the country in defensive efficiency. Minnesota will look to take advantage of this weakness with Blake Hoffarber, who broke out of his early slump with 24 points on 10-16 shooting against North Dakota State on Wednesday. With Nolen out and the status of Joseph still up in the air, Hoffarber is more than capable of running the offense (2.82 assist/turnover ratio). The Gophers should dominate this game in the low post with plenty of scoring and good rebounding behind Trevor Mbakwe (14/9, 69% FG) and Ralph Sampson III (13/7, 3 blocks), but Virginia has a star of its own in 6’8 Mike Scott. The senior forward is averaging 17/9, Virginia’s only player in double figures so far this season. He’ll have his hands full with Minnesota’s stellar frontcourt but the Cavaliers are counting on him to keep them competitive tonight. 6’9 Will Sherrill can stretch the defense and he’ll need to do a lot of that by pulling Mbakwe and Colton Iverson away from the basket where they can’t get into a comfort zone. Minnesota may struggle a bit to start the game with the uncertainty of their rotation but expect a steady diet of Hoffarber from deep along with dishes to Mbakwe and Sampson III. That will allow Minnesota to pull away and win this one comfortably.

USC @ TCU – 8 pm on The Mtn. (**)

This clash between Pac-10 and Mountain West schools features a USC team coming off a bad loss at Nebraska on Saturday and a TCU club playing second fiddle to the school’s football team in the hunt for a BCS national championship. Expect this to be a low scoring game as both teams struggle offensively, each ranking outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency. The Trojans are a much better defensive club, though you wouldn’t know it based on their performance against Nebraska (50% FG for the Cornhuskers). USC still ranks #29 in defensive efficiency and #7 in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage, essentially controlling the defensive glass. Kevin O’Neill has two totally different players leading the team with his 5’7 point guard Maurice Jones (13/4/4) and 6’10 F/C Nikola Vucevic (16/11), each having a great start to the season. As you might imagine, Jones struggles shooting the trey due to his height. He still finds a way to score and get others involved making the freshman a nice piece to build around in the coming years. Vucevic is an experienced junior who teams with Alex Stepheson to create a better than average frontcourt. Stepheson, a transfer from North Carolina, had 14/9 against Nebraska and is shooting 56% from the floor this year. The Horned Frogs of TCU are led by another small point guard, 5’9 Hank Thorns. He’s averaging seven assists per game while grabbing four rebounds, pretty good for a guard of his height. TCU’s leading scorer is Ronnie Moss (16 PPG), a threat from behind the arc against a Trojan defense that ranks #237 against the trey. It’s been a struggle for TCU when it comes to rebounding the basketball as they’re really undersized. They’ve been outrebounded in all but two of their games, averaging only 31 RPG. TCU is #300 in offensive rebound percentage and #293 in two point percentage defense. Put those two stats together and you have a recipe ripe for putbacks for scores off missed shots. USC will look to take advantage of that behind Stepheson and Vucevic. The Trojans should get the ball inside early and often to utilize their size and rebounding strength in this matchup. The Trojans must get to the free throw line more often as they rank poorly in that area and only attempted two free throws against Nebraska. A more aggressive style would cure this problem but with a very slow tempo (#262), don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Well played games from Moss, Thorns or J.R. Cadot will keep TCU in this game to the end. USC is the better team but the Horned Frogs are at home so we see this as a toss-up game that may come down to the last few possessions.

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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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