Checking In On… the Southland Conference

Posted by rtmsf on December 16th, 2011

Zach Birdsong is the RTC correspondent for the Southland Conference. You can also find his musings online at houstionianonline.com or on Twitter @zachbird_nerd

Readers Take

 

The Week That Was:

  • LaQuentin Miles named Southland Player of the Week – On Monday, Central Arkansas guard LaQuentin Miles was named as Southland Conference Player of the Week. In the last two weeks, Miles averaged 19 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game as he helped Central Arkansas win two of their three contests. His standout game came against Henderson State, when he scored a career-high 29 points while picking up 12 rebounds, giving him his fourth double-double on the young season. Against SE Missouri, Miles added 16 points, and against Arkansas State, he scored 12. Currently, Miles leads the conference in scoring average with 19.3 points per game, and also ranks third in field goal percentage (55.4%), and is tied for sixth in rebounds per game (7.0).
  • Young Sam Houston squad continues to deal with injuries to bigs – It’s been a rough season for the Bearkats so far, and most of the struggles have come due to the team being undersized. Antuan Bootle, the team’s only returning starter from 2010, was injured after the first game of the season against Howard Payne. After a loss at Texas A&M, coach Jason Hooten frustratingly mentioned at his press conference that the team had only suited up six out of his 13 scholarship players.  Freshman Michael Holyfield has been taking the role of the team’s big man (Holyfield is dealing with an injury of his own after suffering a broken nose during a practice).
  • Lumberjacks Drop Etech Classic Finale – In the finale of the Etech Lumberjack Classic, the Lumberjacks fell just short against Florida International, losing 58-56. This was the first loss for the Lumberjacks in three years of the tournament. It looked early that it would be another tournament victory for the Lumberjacks as they were able to fight and claw their way back into the contest after trailing early. With 12 minutes to go, the Lumberjacks lead by six points. However FIU battled back and with under two minutes left to go they held on for a 58-54 win.

Central Arkansas Guard LaQuentin Miles Has Been A Conference Standout This Season (AP)

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Checking In On… the Southland Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 3rd, 2011

Zach Birdsong is the RTC correspondent for the Southland Conference. You can also find his musings online at houstonianonline.com or on Twitter @zachbird_nerd.

Readers Take:

 

The Week That Was:

  • Logging Miles: Lamar guard Anthony Miles was named Southland Conference Player of the Week for his performance last week. Miles averaged 24.5 points and six assists per game to go along with 4.5 rebounds in two road wins for the Cardinals. Game-by-game, Miles dropped 18 points against Tennesee-Martin, where he shot the ball for 63% on 7-11 shooting as Lamar won, 80-69. Then Friday against Tennessee Tech, he scored a career high 31 points and dished out eight assists. The Cardinals dominated TTU in that one, 85-65.  Collectively, he shot 15-25 from the field, 3-5 from three-point range and 16-19 from the free throw line last week.

Anthony Miles Has Been Great For Lamar So Far This Season

  • Roadrunners Get A Boost: In the 2010-11 season, Melvin Johnson, III, was a critical weapon for the Roadrunners down the stretch and helped them reach the NCAA Tournament. After serving a two-game suspension for violating team rules, Johnson returned to the floor. Before the season, Johnson was expected to be among the top conference players. With him in the lineup, the Roadrunners are 3-3 this season, defeating UTEP, Fresno State and Cameron. In his six games this season, Johnson has had limited time on the court, averaging 10 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
  • Sam Houston State Slammed By Injuries: The Colonials had a relatively young team coming into the 2011-12 season with only one returning starter, forward Antuan Bootle. After the opening game of the season, Bootle has been saddled with a foot injury. Against Notre Dame, forward Steve Werner was also injured. Since then, Werner has played limited minutes and did not suit up Tuesday when the team took on Dallas Christian. Not being able to pass the ball inside has really hurt the Bearkats, who are shooting just 38.5% from the field and 23.8% from beyond the arc. Head coach Jason Hooten is optimistic and feels if his team can battle through these injuries, they’ll be stronger in conference play.

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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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West Virginia Loses Darryl Bryant To Broken Foot

Posted by jstevrtc on March 24th, 2010

West Virginia will be without starting sophomore point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.  X-rays taken on Tuesday revealed that Bryant has fractured a bone in the fifth toe of his right foot.  It’s not exactly clear when Bryant sustained the injury, but the cited ESPN.com report above says that he had noticed increased pain in the foot during a recent practice, then today’s imaging showed the broken toe.

The Mountaineers are famous for being chock-full-o-forwards, often playing four forwards and a guard at any given time (they have no true center).  Bryant — who averages 9.3 PPG and 3.1 APG in 24.3 MPG — will most definitely be missed, but he’s not a traditional dime-dishing point guard.  He’s known more for the mental and physical toughness he brings to the table for his team, not so much for his high yield in terms of assists or forcing turnovers.  Da’Sean Butler, Kevin Jones, and Devin Ebanks — the only three Mountaineers who average more than 30 minutes per game — do most of the ball-handling, and will only see a slight increase in touches, which they probably won’t mind.

The Truck, unfortunately, has a bum wheel. (AP/Mel Evans)

WVU also has a ready replacement in Joe Mazzulla, a 6’2 junior point guard averaging 2.2 PPG and 2.3 APG.  Mazzulla redshirted last year after injuring his shoulder, but has seen steadily increasing minutes throughout the season.  Mazzulla actually played more minutes than Bryant in the Mountaineers’ second-round game against Missouri, and the two had no problem with the Tigers’ vaunted full-court press.  His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5 is higher than Bryant’s 1.5, though Mazzulla did average ten fewer minutes per game.  Any further minutes at the guard position will go to 6’4 junior Casey Mitchell (3.8 PPG, 0.4 APG in 8.3 MPG), who only played three minutes against Missouri but did contribute six points, four assists, and two steals with only one turnover in 11 minutes in WVU’s first round 77-50 win over Morgan State.

There’s been no mention of how severe Bryant’s injury is, but most fifth metatarsal fractures do not require surgery and heal on their own over time with the “conservative” therapies — ice for swelling, no weight-bearing on the foot, and immobilization with a splint or cast.

WVU chief Bob Huggins is certainly no stranger to tournament-time injuries when he’s got a team poised for big things.  Back in 2000 — another year in which the Final Four was held in Indianapolis — his #2-seed Cincinnati squad was a favorite to win it all before Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA Tournament, and the Bearcats were subsequently dispatched in the second round by Tulsa.  The next time the Final Four is in Indianapolis and Huggins has a highly rated team, don’t blame the man if he sequesters his whole team in a padded room and locks the door, opening it only for games.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on February 12th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 2/11)

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

Superlatives

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

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

Newcomer of the Week. Hobson.

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

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

League Notes

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

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

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

Team Roundups

New Mexico

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

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

BYU

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

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

UNLV

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

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

San Diego State

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

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

Colorado State

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

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

Utah

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

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

TCU

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

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

Wyoming

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

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

Air Force

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

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

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by 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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