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 February 15th, 2011

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

A Look Back

Another week in the books, and as we head down the stretch, the back half of the Mountain West schedule may as well be filler on the way to the San Diego State/BYU rematch on February 26 in San Diego. While we still have Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico playing meaningful games with an eye towards at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, the battle between the Cougars and Aztecs, in addition to being the first MWC basketball game aired on an over-the-air/non-cable network to the entire country, is also one of the most anticipated games of the season. This week both squads took care of business to maintain their exemplary records, but each team has that matchup – a game that will in all likelihood determine the MWC’s regular season champion – sitting prominently in the back of their minds.

  • Team of the Week: San Diego State – The Aztecs get the nod based on the strength of a 32-point blowout of Utah and a six-point road win over UNLV. The win over Utah was a complete domination, in which the Aztecs owned every aspect of the game, while the UNLV was a much tighter affair in which SDSU actually found itself trailing for just the second time in the game with three minutes remaining. But the Aztecs came up big down the stretch, knocking down nine of their ten free throws after relinquishing the lead and escaping from enemy territory with a very good win.
  • Player of the Week: Jackson Emery, Senior, BYU – Emery often takes a backseat to Jimmer Fredette, but he is a very important cog in the Cougar attack as well. This season Emery has broken Danny Ainge’s all-time BYU steals record, and he added another eight this week – including six against Utah on Saturday, a couple of which helped transform a tight game in the second-half to a runaway BYU victory. He also added 17 points in each game this week, both times on six-of-12 shooting, including knocking down five three-points in the Cougar win over Air Force.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – Clyburn continued his consistently strong play for the Utes this week, despite his team adding two more losses to their disappointing record. He averaged 18 points, six rebounds and knocked down three more threes this week.
  • Game of the Week: San Diego State 63, UNLV 57 – After an unimpressive first half, the Rebels ratcheted up the pressure in the second half and got back into the game little by little. They played tough, harassing defense, forcing turnovers and earning transition baskets. They got the ball into the heart of the San Diego State defense and scored over and drew fouls on the talented Aztec defense. And then, finally, they regained the lead for just the second time in the game when senior guard Tre’Von Willis scored on a layup with just over three minutes left. And then, from there, they reverted to doing all the bad things that had gotten them in trouble in early games and in the first half. Instead of continuing to attack the Aztec defense, UNLV got three-happy, shooting six threes in the final three minutes, missing all of them, and allowing the Aztecs to beat them from the line.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: UNLV (18-7, 6-5)  at Colorado State (17-7, 7-3), 2/19, 4PM PST, The Mtn. – While the battle at the top of the conference is still a week away, this matchup that will help determine third-place in the conference is an intriguing one. The Rams have a two-game lead in the loss column, but a closer look at the schedule shows that they’ve still got trips to BYU and San Diego State ahead, while the Rebels are done taking those beatings for the regular season. But in order for the Rebels to catch up with CSU, they’ll need to pay them back for the loss they were handed at the Thomas & Mack the first time around. In that game, which Willis missed, the Rebels never led and had no answer for the Rams’ talented frontcourt, as Travis Franklin and Andy Ogide combined to score 42 points and grab 16 rebounds. And, in a familiar turn of events, the Rebs struggled mightily shooting the ball, hitting just two of their 15 shots from deep. For UNLV to come out of Fort Collins with a win, they’ll need big games from their interior players like Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez, and they’ll need somebody to step up and hit some shots.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (25-1, 10-1): Chase Tapley and Tim Shelton continued to miss games following their injuries against TCU on February 5, but they are still considered day-to-day. Freshman guard Jamaal Franklin took advantage of the extra minutes to put in a bid for additional playing time when he scored 13 points and grabbed ten rebounds – both career highs – in 17 minutes against Utah. However, in his seven minutes against UNLV, he managed just one rebound and one turnover. Elsewhere, D.J. Gay averaged 17.5 PPG this week, while Kawhi Leonard averaged 13 points and 12 rebounds.

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

2. BYU (24-2, 10-1): Fredette continued his great season, he just did it in a slightly different way. Against Air Force, he was typically excellent, with 25 points, five three-pointers and five assists. But against Utah, he struggled out of the gate, missing threes, missing runners and clearly being bothered by the double and triple teams that the Utes threw at him. But, then in the middle of the second half, after a couple of steals by Emery gave the Cougars the momentum, Fredette took the reins and scored 12 straight points and 17 points in the final nine minutes. He still leads the nation in scoring with 27.3 per night. The other big factor in the Utah game was junior guard Charles Abouo, who had a career high 22 points and ten rebounds. Better yet, 17 of those points came in the first half when other Cougars were struggling to score effectively, another example of Dave Rose getting role players to step up in times of need.

A look ahead: A mid-week bye for the Cougars, then a Saturday contest with TCU, which is near enough to a bye.

3. Colorado State (17-7, 7-3): The Rams had just one game this week, but it was a big one, a middle-of-the-pack battle against a New Mexico team that had already beaten CSU earlier this season and was currently riding a four-game winning streak. However, a 17-2 run in the middle of the first half opened this game up early, and the Rams led by as many as 18 in the second half. Eventually, the Lobos did make a run late, but CSU had plenty of people there to answer it and they came away with a big six-point win that probably puts them on the good side of the NCAA bubble. However, with games at BYU and at San Diego State remaining, the Rams need to continue to take care of business.

A look ahead: A Wednesday meeting with TCU, followed by the all-important visit from the Rebels on Saturday. These are two games the Rams really need to win in order to feel comfortable about their Tournament chances.

4. UNLV (18-7, 6-5): A look at the Rebel KenPom page shows an awful lot of green – the color used to denote not only wins on the schedule, but good statistical numbers. You see some darker greens in the defensive efficiency category, turnovers forced, blocked shot percentage, steal percentage, and even two-point field goal percentage, both on the offensive and defensive ends. And in there amongst all the green, there’s this one little red section – red being the color to denote losses on the schedule and ugly numbers in the stats – offensive three-point percentage. The Rebels are currently shooting just 30.5% from three, good for 307th in the nation. Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback check in at around 36% for the season, with the rest of the roster clocking in at about 23%. And yet, there were the Rebels, after scraping and scratching and clawing their way back into the game against San Diego State, with the game on the line launching six straight threes in the waning moments in lieu of any other semblance of coherent offense. There are a couple of things to learn here. First, at some point, yes, the Rebels are going to need someone to knock down a three for them. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the Rebels still need to learn that this is not a team built around hoisting the three. While they don’t shoot a lot of them, they can from time to time get three-happy and just start bombing, a poor decision when they are actually an effective offensive team when they work the ball inside. With the three-headed big man of Massamba, Lopez and Thomas starting to come around, with Willis finally starting to look healthy and confident, and with the Rebels needing to finish the regular season strong in order to assure themselves of an NCAA Tournament invite, Lon Kruger needs to get the offensive ship righted, and soon.

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

5. New Mexico (17-8, 5-5): This week was the tale of two Drews. Against Wyoming, Drew Gordon was dominant. He had 16 points and 18 boards, grabbing 21.4% of all of his team’s missed shots and 27.3% of Wyoming’s missed shots. As a result, despite the Lobos cold shooting and inconsistent offense, New Mexico was able to pull through in the second half and grab a win over the Cowboys. However, on Saturday, it was a different story. Gordon grabbed just three rebounds, turned the ball over six times and committed five fouls on his way to an early exit as the Lobos were without his services for the final four and a half minutes. While Gordon was effective when he was able to find his shot (he made six of his seven field goal attempts for 12 points), too often he panicked when the Rams doubled him and he was unable to move the ball back around to an open teammate. For now, the secret is out on Gordon. If you can send a double-team at him in the post, he’ll turn the ball over, pick up an offensive foul or force up a bad shot. Until he can effectively handle the double team, he can’t be counted on as a key component in the Lobo offense.

A look ahead: The Lobos travel to San Diego State on Wednesday, then face Utah on Saturday. Given that these are two of the biggest teams in the conference, Gordon will get plenty of chances to prove that he can handle a double team.

6. Air Force (13-10, 4-6): The Falcons sole game of the week was a 38-point loss at home against BYU, from which very little was learned on either side of the ball.

A look ahead: On the heels of last week’s fiasco, the Academy travels to UNLV before hosting San Diego State.

7. Utah (10-15, 3-8): The Utes lost two games last week by an average of 22.5 points per game. Despite being the biggest team in the league, they were killed on the glass by SDSU, grabbing less than 50% of the available defensive rebounds and only 25% of the offensive ones. Against BYU, they played much better and kept the Cougars within reach for about 30 minutes, but faded late.

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

8. Wyoming (9-16, 2-9): The Fred Langley era is underway in Laramie (and frankly, probably a quarter of the way to its end), and so far so good. The Cowboys played New Mexico tight for about 35 minutes in the first game under the new head coach, then knocked off TCU on Saturday in order to wrest away sole control of eighth place in the conference. While the same old players still make up the roster, sophomore forward Amath M’Baye put together the two best games of his college career this week, setting a career-high of 19 points in the New Mexico game before breaking that one game later with 21 against TCU, while grabbing six rebounds in each game. With Heath Schroyer no longer around trying to save his job, the remainder of this season is simply about finding out who can be building blocks in this program, and early on M’Baye has thrown his hat into the ring as a contributor to the rebuilding of the once proud Wyoming basketball program.

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 (10-16, 1-10): Another week, another couple of losses. Sophomore Garlon Green averaged 12 points and 8.5 rebounds, senior Greg Hill averaged 13.5 points and Hank Thorns added another 12 assists, but despite some hard work, there just isn’t enough talent here for the Frogs to compete on a regular basis. Give credit to head coach Jim Christian for continuing to get solid effort out of his club, but his days could be numbered.

A look ahead: Home games against Colorado State and BYU mean the Horned Frogs are looking 1-12 straight in the face.

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2011

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

A Look Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Other 26: Week 11

Posted by KDoyle on January 28th, 2011

Introduction

We are just about halfway through the conference schedules and the true contenders are beginning to reveal themselves, while the pretenders are wallowing away after deceiving the country for so many weeks. Take a team like Central Florida, for instance. They looked like a legitimate top 25 team and a definite candidate for an at-large berth after breezing through the non-conference with an unblemished record, but their 1-5 record in Conference USA makes that great run in the non-conference all for naught. Conversely, take a gander at Duquesne. The Dukes went a modest 8-5 in the non-conference with losses to Robert Morris and George Mason, but have gone onto take the Atlantic 10 by storm. Suffice to say, it is hard to gauge just how good some teams are based solely on the non-conference. Some coaches will elect to challenge their team by scheduling a tough OOC schedule, while others will stockpile a bunch of cupcakes to pick up easy wins. The distinction between the pretenders and contenders will continue to be illuminated all the way up until the conference tournaments. Up until then, we sit and watch teams rise above expectations heading into conference play and watch others flounder.

The Other 26 Rankings

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2011

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

A Look Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 12th, 2011

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

A Look Back

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

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

Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2011

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

A Look Back

As we turn the corner on the non-conference portion of the college basketball season and head into conference play, we’re going to spend this week’s Mountain West check-in summing up what the teams around the conference have done so far and what we can expect from them here on out. As a whole, it has been a successful run through non-conference play for the MWC’s member institutions. San Diego State remains undefeated and is a top-10 team nationally. BYU has lost just once and remains in the top 25. UNLV had some early success before a couple of slip-ups dropped them out of the rankings for a time, but they are back in this week as our #25 team. Elsewhere around the conference, there have been ups and downs, although the ups have outweighed the downs. The schools have combined to post a 94-34 record and are the fifth rated conference in the RPI, ahead of traditional power conferences like the SEC and Pac-10.  Outside of the big three schools, a couple of other teams – New Mexico and Colorado State – have thrown their hats into the ring as potential NCAA Tournament teams, while the rest of the conference is more or less resigned to using the rest of the season to improve their teams and give their programs a jumping off point for future seasons.

Team of the Non-Conference Schedule:  San Diego StateIs there any other choice here? A 15-0 record, a #6 ranking in the most recent RTC poll, a school-record winning streak and the second longest winning streak in the country, behind defending champion and current #1, Duke? Of course they get the credit for the best Mountain West team in the non-conference slate. But a closer look reveals a chink or two in their armor. Last year, they were getting to the free throw line at a solid rate, but this year they have struggled to get to the line on a consistent basis. Last year, they were a dominant offensive rebounding team; this year, they are just very good. And while their three-point shooting has inched up a half-a-percent from last season, this is still a team that is capable of an 0-18 night from behind the arc, as they proved against Cal Poly. The other concern is that this team sometimes plays down to its level of competition, as they showed against San Francisco and IUPUI last week, when they were outrebounded in both games by inferior competition. They got away with that in non-conference play, but repeat performances against lower-tier MWC teams like Utah or TCU may result in losses instead of closer-than-expected wins. All that being said, when the Aztecs are going good, they are as fun as any team in the country to watch and have enough talent to make a run to Houston if everything breaks right.

Player of the Non-Conference Schedule:  Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Despite getting the attention of the opposition’s best defender (or two) every night, he’s averaging 24 points a night for the Cougars, shooting it at 47.5% from the field, while handing out a team-high 4.4 assists per game. What’s more, in close contests he’s upped his game, scoring over 28 points per night in those decided by ten points or less. And he’s done it all with a confidence and smoothness that has rubbed off on his teammates, as BYU has coasted to a 14-1 start. And with one final trip around the Mountain West, you get a feeling that he’s barely getting warmed up. With MWC guards having lived the nightmare of trying to stop Fredette in the past, you can bet coaches around the conference have spent hours over the summer trying to dream up ways to slow him down. While it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be (the odds are on “not very”), it sure will be fun to watch.

All Non-Conference Team

  • G Jimmer Fredette, BYU – 24.1 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.2 RPG
  • G Dairese Gary, New Mexico – 13.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.4 RPG
  • F Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State – 15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.6 APG
  • F Will Clyburn, Utah – 19.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG
  • F Andy Ogide, Colorado State – 15.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG

Newcomer of the Non-Conference Schedule: Will Clyburn, Junior, Utah – While the non-conference slate has been an up-and-down affair for the Utes (with a lot of those downs coming lately), Clyburn has been a revelation. He leads the team in points, rebounds, steals, threes, minutes played and three-point percentage, has never failed to score in double figures and has notched four double-doubles on the season. With Jim Boylen’s club struggling through injuries and inexperience, one has trouble imagining where this Ute club would be without this junior college transfer. Even as Utah fights to get healthy, expect Boylen to keep leaning heavily on the versatile Clyburn throughout conference play.

Game of the Week: Dayton 76 New Mexico 73, 2OT – Not only did the Lobos and the Flyers play a pretty darn interesting game on New Year’s Day, they also played a pretty important one. With New Mexico lacking a truly good win and Dayton in no position to scoff at the possibility of another one, these two teams battled end-to-end for 50 minutes before a winner was decided. Dayton torched the nets from deep, with 13 three-pointers on the day, but at the end of regulation it was Lobo freshman Kendall Williams who was the star, stringing together several clutch plays to force extra time. Things slowed down in the extra periods, as both teams seemed to run out of gas, and in the second overtime, New Mexico only managed two points. The game was decided, fittingly, by a Dayton three, but the Lobos had a couple of good chances to even things up go by the boards. First, Dairese Gary lost track of the shot clock following a Steve Alford timeout, then on the next possession, Williams missed a driving shot on the other end. And yet, with three seconds left and down three, the Lobos got one final chance when Williams slammed the second of two free throws off the rim, grabbed his own board and was able to step back to the three-point line for one last attempt, which fell unceremoniously short at the buzzer.

Game of the Upcoming Week: BYU @ UNLV, 1/5, 6PM PST, CBS College Sports – Conference play kicks off today, and in the coming weeks you’re going to see a lot of the names BYU, UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico here. And while any matchup between any of those teams will be games to look forward to (and pretty much required viewing for readers of this particular check-in), there aren’t going to be a whole lot of games more appealing than BYU’s final regular season visit to the Thomas & Mack for one last go-round with the Rebels. You can bet the UNLV fans will be raucous and ready to go as they send BYU off with one last tussle in Sin City (before the MWC tournament, that is). On the court, the Rebels will throw wave after wave of athletic guards at Jimmer Fredette, with Oscar Bellfield, Justin Hawkins, Anthony Marshall and Tre’Von Willis all getting their shot at slowing the All-American candidate. The Rebels will pressure the ball and try to get it out of Fredette’s hands, hoping to force turnovers and get out in transition, but in the meantime perhaps opening the way for Jackson Emery to improve upon his 36% clip from behind the arc. Vegas has also been somewhat susceptible on the glass, so they’ll need to hit the boards hard if they’re going to knock off the Cougs for the ninth straight time at the Thomas & Mack.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (15-0): The perception is that the Aztecs are golden. They’ve looked spectacular in some of their big chances at grabbing the national spotlight, posting a win over Gonzaga at the end of ESPN’s 24-Hour Hoop Marathon, and tacking on strong wins over St. Mary’s, Wichita State and Cal in their other television games. With an insanely talented frontline of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, paired with the team’s bulldog, point guard D.J. Gay, when the Aztecs are going good, they are about as impressive as anyone in the country. Throw in guard Chase Tapley (the fifth member of the starting lineup), three-point specialist James Rahon and a handful of capable bench contributors and Steve Fisher has all the makings for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. There are some cracks related to inconsistent effort, and there is the concern that maybe this Aztec team is reading its own press clippings, so no one should be surprised if the Aztecs maybe drop a couple of games in the early going in conference play (with a surprising one perhaps mixed in there somewhere). But if Fisher can get this team to compete hard night-in and night-out, it will take a special attempt to knock this team off.  

A Look Ahead: The Aztecs get started in conference play with a trip to TCU on Wednesday and a trip to Utah on Saturday. Follow that up with a return home to host UNLV before a trip to The Pit to face New Mexico and I’m going to go out on a limb and call a 2-2 conference start for the Aztecs, although I have absolutely no idea which are the two wins and which are the two losses. Those potential losses could be good for SDSU in the long run, assuming that they get the attention of this talented squad. Nevertheless, this team was the favorite to win the conference at the start of the year, and it remains the favorite with conference play closing in.

2. BYU (14-1): The Cougars added four more wins since we last talked behind a few more sparkling Jimmer Fredette performances (28 points and five threes in a six-point win over Weber State, 25 points and four threes in a 21-point win over UTEP and 34 points, four threes and six assists in a eight-point win over Buffalo). The UTEP win was particularly impressive as BYU, after trailing 17-6 almost midway through the first half, caught fire after a Fredette spark to mount a 33-9 run to close the half. It all started with a Fredette three that was followed by a three from Noah Hartsock. Follow that up with another Fredette three, throw in a Fredette dunk and then another three and the Cougs had erased an 11-point deficit in no time on the way to a blowout win. And that’s been the story of the BYU squad to this point. Fredette has led the team in scoring in all but two games and is averaging 24.4 very efficient yet still often spectacular points. Jackson Emery has struggled a bit to find his shot (although he came alive with six threes to match his six steals against UTEP), but he’s still Fredette’s main wing man. However, sophomore Brandon Davies has taken a big step forward, averaging 10.9 points and 5.2 rebounds thus far. There are plenty of other Cougars that make big contributions, however, as nine players average at least ten minutes per game. BYU looks pretty safe at this point in terms of NCAA positioning, but really wins over Utah State, Arizona and St. Mary’s are the only significant victories.  

A Look Ahead: Conference play kicks off in exciting fashion with the Cougars final regular season road-trip as a member of the MWC to the Thomas & Mack Center for a meeting with UNLV. On Saturday, the Cougars have their conference home-opener when Air Force comes calling, before the basketball edition of the Holy War tips off next Tuesday. Dave Rose’s squad remains the most likely candidate to step up into the running for the conference crown should SDSU falter.

3. UNLV (12-2): What was supposed to be a major test for the Runnin’ Rebels turned into an anticlimactic mess when Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly were suspended prior to their matchup with UNLV. The Rebels took advantage of their absence and pulled out a four-point victory in Kansas City in a game that bordered on unwatchable at times. Both teams combined to go 5-25 from deep while turning the ball over 35 times, but despite Vegas getting dominated on the glass (43-26), they got a big three by Oscar Bellfield late in the game to preserve their margin of victory. The Rebs followed that performance up by utterly taking apart Central Michigan last Thursday, forcing 24 Chippewa turnovers and holding them to 34% from the field. Lon Kruger’s club has had an up-and-down season to this point, looking quite impressive in skating to a 76 Classic championship before dropping back-to-back games against Louisville and UC Santa Barbara. The Rebels have made their way with pressure defense and balanced scoring (five players average more than nine points per game), but last year’s leader, guard Tre’Von Willis is just starting to round back into shape after missing a couple early games due to suspension. The Rebels hold wins over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech to go with the blemished K-State win, but remain a strong bet to get to the NCAA Tournament and at least contend for the MWC crown.  

A Look Ahead: The focus turns toward the visit from BYU on January 5 to get things started in conference play, with TCU due in Vegas on Saturday. The following Wednesday, the Rebels will travel to San Diego State for another big test early in the conference schedule, meaning that by the time UNLV has three conference games in the books, we’ll know a whole lot about them.

4. New Mexico (11-3): The last two weeks have been the most meaningful of the Lobo non-conference slate. With Drew Gordon getting eligible and some decent matchups in the Las Vegas Classic followed by tough two-game road trip, we’re starting to get a look at the defending champions at full strength and the early returns are of a good, not great, team. In the Las Vegas Classic, they looked strong in their semifinal win over Colorado, but then had to play from behind in the championship game against Northern Iowa and could never quite get over the hump. Then this week, UNM went to Lubbock and escaped with a one-point win against the Red Raiders before heading to Dayton  on New Year’s and losing a hard-fought double-overtime contest. Steve Alford continues to get production from all over his roster, with the main constant being senior point guard Dairese Gary, who nearly willed his team to a come-from-behind win against UNI (he scored the Lobos’ last eight points to get them within a point at 61-60, but a couple mistakes on either end of the court down the stretch sealed UNM’s fate) then kept the Lobos in it against Dayton by going for 19 points, eight assists and just one turnover in 47 minutes. To this point, the New Mexico resume is pretty light. Wins over Arizona State and Colorado are the best things on the slate, but they are still something of a work in progress, with Gordon still getting comfortable and freshmen Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk coming on fast. There has been some scary news out of Albuquerque though, as sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu has been sidelined for the last two weeks after the defibrillator in his heart registered an irregular reading. Negedu has been ruled out for the next three weeks so that a cardiologist can do more tests on Negedu, but this is definitely a bad turn of events after he was just starting to become a force on the boards in early December.  

A Look Ahead: The Lobos wrap up their non-conference slate with a quickie against CS Bakersfield on Wednesday. After that, it is all conference play with a trip to Wyoming preceding visits by Colorado State and San Diego State. With little meat on the non-conference bones, the Lobos need to add some wins over SDSU, BYU and UNLV during conference play to be in play on Selection Sunday.

5. Colorado State (10-4): Just over two weeks ago, the Rams were sitting at an unimpressive 4-3, and were having trouble getting any traction. Losses to Sam Houston State and Colorado were the most representative outcomes on the resume, and this had the look of your typical middle-of-the-pack MWC team, rather than the potential contender CSU fans had hoped for. Over Christmas week, however, the Rams gave their followers a glimpse of the team they hoped for, ripping off three straight wins in the Cancun Governor’s Cup, including solid wins over Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi. Then last week, CSU traveled to San Francisco for the Hilltop Challenge and was on their way to another successful week before Hampton’s Kwame Morgan dropped 29 points and six threes on the Rams, including one with 0.8 seconds remaining to send Todd Miles and his team back to Fort Collins with a loss. With their non-conference play done, that win over Southern Miss remains the only thing they really have going for them, with three questionable losses in the record book. While CSU should certainly continue playing once the MWC Tournament is over in one postseason tournament or another, they’ll need to take down some pretty big scalps in MWC play to have a chance at the Big Dance.  

 

A Look Ahead: Conference play opens with a visit from Wyoming tonight before they get a week off to prepare for a visit to New Mexico for a big test for the two teams hoping to separate themselves out from the rest of the field as contenders for post-season inclusion.

6. TCU (9-6): It had been a quiet 17-day stretch for the Horned Frogs, with only a win over Northwestern State, in which four Frogs scored in double figures and Ronnie Moss led the way with 22 points and five assists. In that game, point guard Hank Thorns sustained a scary knee injury and had to be carried off the court, but later tests revealed just a sprain and Thorns was able to return this week for the Frogs when they got back to work with three games in six days. Unfortunately, while the TCU football team was making noise in Pasadena, the basketball squad limped to a 1-2 record on the week and lost Moss to injury. Moss sustained a concussion during TCU’s 69-66 loss at Tulsa, then sat out their nine-point loss at Rice.  Jim Christian’s team does have some relatively good wins on their resume, knocking off USC at home, Texas Tech on the road and Bradley on a neutral court, but losses to Nebraska, Rider, Massachusetts and Northern Iowa paired with this week’s losses likely doom the Frogs’ postseason hopes. 

 

A Look Ahead: It is a brutal San Diego State/UNLV two-fer to open the MWC schedule, and in order for TCU to have a shot, they’ll likely need to have Thorns and Moss at full-strength, a scenario which seems unlikely.

7. Utah (7-7): The Utes went to Honolulu last week with a chance to test their progress against some very good teams around the country. They limped back home to Salt Lake City with an 0-3 record in a tournament that started out bad and got progressively worse. An opening round loss to Butler in a hard-fought game was not an unreasonable result, but the Utes followed that up with a lost to the tournament’s host, Hawai’i.  And then, as a capper, the Utes posted an unacceptable loss to San Diego on Christmas Day, the Torreros’ first win against a Division I opponent on the season. This past week Utah wrapped up their non-conference play with a trip to Portland. But, after a strong first half, the Pilots shot 61% from the field in the second half and outscored the Utes by 17 to take down a nine-point win. Junior Will Clyburn was again the best player on the floor for Jim Boylen these last two weeks, averaging over 18 points and eight rebounds a game, but with injuries continuing to mess with Boylen’s rotation, he didn’t get consistent help. Senior Jay Watkins’ back injury again caused him to miss a couple games, and junior center David Foster was limited at times this week as well. There was some good news on the injury front as freshman J.J. O’Brien returned from a stress fracture, playing a combined 28 minutes in the Butler and San Diego games, but sitting out the middle game in Honolulu. With Utah’s big move to the Pac-10 looming in the offseason, with a 14-17 record in the rearview mirror and with Utah’s history of having a short leash on its basketball coaches, Boylen has to regard the rest of this season as a pretty serious exam. Two years back lies a MWC championship, but the Utah athletic department can’t be pleased with the trajectory of this program.

A Look Ahead: The Utes open conference play at Air Force on 1/5 before receiving consecutive visits from the top two teams in the conference, with San Diego State and BYU on their way to the Huntsman Center, making that opener at Air Force even more important.

8. Air Force (9-4): All things considered, for a team that lost to a Division III school (Colorado College) in their second game, the Falcons have had a pretty acceptable non-conference slate. Yes, their best win is over maybe, Evansville or CS Northridge, and there are some ugly losses there, but head coach Jeff Reynolds at least has a young core of players who have been making progress and, unlike last season, mostly staying healthy. Sophomore Taylor Broekhuis did miss two of the Falcons last three games with a concussion, but he is back now and he, along with fellow sophomore Mike Lyons and Todd Fletcher have all settled into starting roles. Junior Tom Fow and seniors Evan Washington and Derek Brooks provide veteran leadership on the team, and it seems everybody has the ability and opportunity to lead this team in scoring on any given night. This team is in no position to threaten for an upper-division MWC finish, and any post-season hopes are overly optimistic, but there are at least some pieces to grow on here, and with the ever-present Academy effort, this Falcon team will sneak up on somebody up top and surprise them. It just won’t happen often. A more realistic goal for Air Force is a seventh place finish – if they can get that, consider this a successful season.

A Look Ahead: Conference play begins, and the Falcons get thrown right into the fire: Utah, at BYU, UNLV, at San Diego State. Yikes.

9. Wyoming (7-7): After a three-game winning streak a couple weeks back, the Cowboys got back on track with a six-point home loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay before Christmas, before bouncing back with a win over Kennesaw State. Desmar Jackson extended his streak of double-digit scoring output to eleven straight games, and he has been a consistent offensive weapon for head coach Heath Schroyer, despite turning the ball over too much (3.3 turnovers per game) and shooting a low percentage from deep, where he is just four of 26 on the season. Wyoming players continuing to bomb from behind the arc has been a continuing theme this season, with eight players having taken more than 18 three-pointers on the season and only one of those players having hit more than 30% from back there (Francisco Cruz, 44.7%). In fact, there are only six schools in Division I shooting a lower percentage from behind the arc than Wyoming, yet they continue to shoot a third of their shots from distance. At this point in the season, the roster needs a makeover, as does the bench. Expect the Cowboys to limp along through the rest of the season, sew up last place before we turn the calendar into March, and clean house in the offseason.

A Look Ahead: Conference play starts at Colorado State, then back home against New Mexico, and by the middle of January, the Cowboys should be well on their way to a brutal conference record.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.21.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 21st, 2010

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

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

An intriguing matchup in Knoxville and a clash in KC highlight tonight’s schedule. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

USC @ #17 Tennessee – 7 pm on ESPN3.com/ESPN FullCourt (***)

UT Has Something to Prove Tonight After Last Week (AP/M. Terrill)

All of a sudden this has become a really interesting basketball game. Each team is headed in the opposite direction with USC coming in confident after a close loss at Kansas which saw the debut of Jio Fontan while Tennessee has lost two straight after starting 7-0. Fontan played well for the Trojans but five turnovers did not help the cause in his first game since transferring from Fordham. USC will look to slow down the pace of this game on the road against the up-tempo Volunteers. The Trojans are rated #283 in tempo and should have an edge rebounding wise with Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic up front. Stepheson is a key player in this game. Coming off a season-high 18-point performance at Kansas, Kevin O’Neill needs his big man to be a presence inside against Tennessee’s Brian Williams. Stepheson is more talented offensively but he’ll have to work hard to get off quality shots against Williams. The rebounding battle is a huge factor in this game with USC coming in at #13 in defensive rebounding and Tennessee #16 in offensive rebounding. USC has to control the glass in order to win and can’t afford careless turnovers, giving the Vols extra possessions. Another area to watch is free throws. Tennessee’s stellar free throw rate has fallen in recent games but it still ranks #6 in the country. The problem is they foul a lot and put their opponent on the line at a pretty good clip as well. USC has a decent defensive free throw rate so keeping Tennessee off the line will give them a much better chance to win. Bruce Pearl now has 6’6 wing Jeronne Maymon eligible, a transfer from Marquette. He’ll add depth to the Volunteer rotation but the key player that has to get going is Scotty Hopson, just 6-19 from the floor in the Charlotte loss. When Hopson is on, Tennessee is awfully tough to beat. With Hopson playing well, teams can’t back off him and must spread the floor defensively, opening up holes where other players can take advantage. Another big player for Tennessee is freshman Tobias Harris. Going up against the taller USC defenders inside, Harris may look more towards his mid-range game in this contest. The Trojans won’t be intimidated after playing so well at Allen Fieldhouse. They’ve been up and down however, having knocked off Texas but losing to the likes of TCU and Bradley among others. Tennessee is a seven point favorite and should win, but this game is basically unpredictable after what we’ve seen from these two teams over this past week.

UNLV vs. #14 Kansas State (in Kansas City) – 9 pm on ESPN2 (****)

This is a huge game for both teams as the loser will pick up their third loss of the season. Each team has seen their offense falter recently. UNLV’s effective field goal percentage dropped quite a bit over their last two games while Kansas State’s offense did essentially nothing in a loss to Florida on Saturday. The Wildcats put up just 44 points after taking a 20-8 lead to start the game and missing 19 of 20 shots at one point. In fact, Kansas State hasn’t cracked 70 points in three of their last four games. One thing the Wildcats do very well is defend and rebound, ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency and offensive rebounding percentage. Kansas State has to get a consistent third option on offense. Curtis Kelly can be that guy but he was ineffective in only 19 minutes against Florida. As for UNLV, the Rebels do a great job inside the arc and that’s where they need to take advantage of Kansas State tonight. Lon Kruger’s team is #8 in two point offense and #22 in two point defense. They get 57% of their points from two point range led by Chace Stanback. Though he’s struggled a bit in UNLV’s recent games, Stanback can also take his game outside where he’s a 38% three point shooter. Kansas State has to do a good job defending the interior in order to win, otherwise UNLV will run rampant inside. With a capable point guard in Oscar Bellfield and three other solid starters, Kruger has a balanced team that can put up points in a hurry when they’re clicking. For Kansas State, Jacob Pullen has simply got to play better. He looks nothing like the All-American candidate he was hyped up to be though he still leads the team in scoring by a wide margin. He’s scored 19 points in each of the last two games but has shot just 11-34 (32%). When he’s off, the opponent can lock up Rodney McGruder making Kansas State incredibly weak on offense. One area to watch in this game is turnovers, specifically how well UNLV does in forcing K-State to give the ball away. The Rebels rank #15 in defensive turnover percentage while Kansas State is #209 in offensive turnover percentage. Should they turn it over often the Wildcats can make up for it on the glass where they should hold an advantage, turning rebounds into extra offensive opportunities. As everyone knows with Kansas State, should this game be close towards the end the Wildcats are an awful free throw shooting team. Playing in front of what should be a partisan crowd, Kansas State should win this game. However, another weak performance on the offensive end will keep UNLV in this right until the very end. The Rebels are talented and have what it takes to win this game. We predict this one will go down to the wire with free throws deciding the outcome.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.10-12.12

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 10th, 2010

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

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Friday’s schedule is barren but Saturday has a bunch of terrific matchups. Two ACC conference games highlight a soft Sunday to close out the weekend. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#13 UNLV @ Louisville – 12 pm Saturday on ESPNU (****)

Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are a surprising 7-0 but when you really look at their schedule you realize they haven’t played top teams. Louisville’s best win is over Butler, a team clearly not even near the level it was last year. Including Butler, Louisville’s opponents have an aggregate record of just 25-31. That changes on Saturday when 9-0 UNLV heads to the KFC Yum! Center. The Rebels have already played five games away from home so they’ll be ready for a tough environment. UNLV is a strong team on both sides of the ball but they’ve really piled up the numbers on offense. They’re in the top ten in effective field goal percentage behind Chace Stanback and his 59% shooting. Stanback is a 6’8 wing/forward type player who can cause a lot of problems for the opponent matching up with him. His game extends to the three point arc as well, hitting 41% of his treys this year. It’ll be interesting to see if Pitino puts Rakeem Buckles (10/9) or Terrence Jennings (56% FG) on Stanback. Buckles is the better rebounder so Louisville may not want him drifting away from the basket trying to defend UNLV’s leading scorer. Buckles has made significant strides in his sophomore season, a theme seen throughout Louisville’s starting lineup. Pitino’s top five scorers have increased their scoring by a total of 31 PPG, making up for a lot of what they lost from last year’s team. We recall Pitino saying he’d have a bunch of guys averaging 8-15 PPG and that’s exactly what he has so far. Louisville is a strong defensive club, rated eighth in defensive efficiency. UNLV gets a lot of points from two point range (#5 in two point %) so Louisville will have to live up to their defensive billing in order to win. The Cardinals rank in the top ten in three point defense and effective field goal percentage against so UNLV point guard Oscar Bellfield (53% from three) has to have a good game controlling the ball and getting quality shots for himself and his teammates. Louisville will look to use their pressure defense to push the pace and create turnovers. Pitino said he’s been using a 24-second shot clock in practice so expect Louisville to really get up and down the floor looking for extra possessions. The Cardinals like to shoot a lot of three’s but they aren’t very good at it (32%). Mike Marra should hoist the most, averaging nine three point attempts per game while converting just 30% of the time. With Tre’Von Willis back in the fold, Lon Kruger can go nine-deep if he so chooses. Fresh legs will be needed against Louisville and could play a role late in the second half. UNLV should look to get to the free throw line to stop the flow of the game and take advantage of a Louisville team rated just #252 in opponents’ free throw attempts per field goal attempts. The Cardinals should have an edge on the boards (42 RPG) as UNLV struggles to keep opponents off the offensive glass. This is going to be a really good game, one that may come down to the very end. Louisville will probably be favored to win at home but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Runnin’ Rebels pick up a key road victory, either.

Wisconsin @ Marquette – 2:30 pm Saturday on ESPN2 (****)

This annual rivalry is one of the most underrated in the country. Wisconsin holds a 63-53 edge but there’s an added twist this season. Marquette freshman Vander Blue originally committed to Wisconsin before signing with Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles giving Marquette a valuable piece for the future. Each team has a star player going at it in this one, Marquette’s Jimmy Butler and Wisconsin’s Jon Leuer. They’re similar, but Leuer is taller and has a better three point game. The UW big man shoots 48% from deep and is the key man in Bo Ryan’s deliberate offensive system. With Marquette giving up 39% shooting from three on average, expect Leuer and his Badger teammates to have a big game from long range. Wisconsin’s tempo is one of the slowest in the country but they run their offense well and take terrific care of the basketball with Jordan Taylor running the show at the point guard position. Taylor has a stunning 3.92 assist to turnover ratio and teams with Leuer to provide Wisconsin with just under half of their points. Taylor is also a strong defender who will look to disrupt Marquette’s offensive flow. With Dwight Buycks questionable for this game (he did not play Tuesday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), Buzz Williams will turn to the inexperienced Junior Cadougan who missed most of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Wisconsin is solid just about everywhere but they’re vulnerable on the three point line. Unfortunately for Marquette, they shoot just 31% as a team from three and that’s where Darius Johnson-Odom comes in. When hot, the dynamic junior can be one of the best shooters you’ll see. He broke out against Milwaukee on November 27 (29 points, 5-7 from three) but struggled in the two games since. For the year DJO is shooting just 29% from three, down almost 20% from last season’s 47% mark. He can get it going at any time though and that’s what makes this game unpredictable. If Johnson-Odom is on, Marquette has an even better chance to pick up a home win over their rival. Tuesday night’s Marquette game saw Vander Blue break out, scoring 21 points on 9-13 shooting. However it also included the loss of Joseph Fulce, an important glue guy for Marquette. The 6’7 Fulce went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, the same knee that had been giving him problems before. How Marquette responds to the loss of one of their emotional leaders will be important in this game. Don’t expect Wisconsin to get to the foul line much at all so they’ll have to make up for that disadvantage with strong defense and efficient offensive sets. Marquette is third in the country in keeping opponents off the line while Wisconsin is near the bottom of D1 in getting there. The Badgers are a very good rebounding team and they should hold an edge there against smaller Marquette. Though inexperienced, Cadougan is a talented player who’s capable of replacing Buycks at the point if necessary. Look for Marquette to use Butler and fellow forward Jae Crowder inside the arc, trying to penetrate the stout Wisconsin defense. Rivalry games are usually close and this one figures to be no exception. There are a lot of unknowns on the Marquette side in this game but it would be a very big resume-building win if they can get it in front of the home folks at the Bradley Center.

SEC/Big East Invitational: #11 Tennessee @ #3 Pittsburgh (CONSOL Energy Center) – 3:15 pm Saturday on ESPN (*****)

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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: 11.28.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 28th, 2010

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

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Sunday is the last day of all hoops, all the time. We have some good championship games and a great in-state battle later this evening but it’s back to reality tomorrow. Rankings as per the latest RTC Top 25. All times eastern.

Old Spice Classic Fifth Place Game: #24 Temple vs. Texas A&M – 11 am on ESPNU (***)

Neither team has to be happy with their position in this tournament. Texas A&M probably feels they should have beaten Boston College in the first round and would have been playing for third at worst. On the other hand Temple, the co-favorite along with Wisconsin in this field, has been very disappointing. The Owls suffered an inexplicable loss to rebuilding California on Thursday but did get by Georgia in their second outing. The story for Temple has been the struggle of point guard Juan Fernandez. He is shooting just 5-23 (22%) overall and 1-12 (8%) from three in this tournament. Moreover, Fernandez is averaging only 2.5 assists here and has a 0.71 assist to turnover ratio for these two games. This is a guy who shot 43% last year and had an A/T ratio of 1.85. Fernandez is such a play maker that when you lock him up, Temple goes south. The action in this game centers on the forwards, Lavoy Allen for Temple and Khris Middleton for A&M. Middleton has averaged 19.5 in two games at Disney while Allen is a steady low block presence for the Owls. The Aggies average more rebounds than Temple but Fran Dunphy’s team does a nice job on the defensive glass. Texas A&M is #2 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage so this area will be one to watch. It’s an early start so expect a little rust offensively in a close game that should be in the 50’s or low 60’s.

Old Spice Classic Championship Game: #25 Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame – 7 pm on ESPN2 (***)

This is your classic battle between two teams that play almost completely opposite styles. Wisconsin emphasizes discipline and efficiency on offense and plays strong defense under Bo Ryan. Notre Dame likes to shoot the three and capitalize offensively, not paying as much attention to the other facet of basketball. Both teams rank in the top 15 in offensive efficiency but the real contrast is on defense. The Irish, #87 in defensive efficiency, gave up 155 points in the two games prior to a strong defensive effort against California in the semifinals, holding the Bears to an astounding five first half points and 44 for the game. Offense has been at a premium in this tournament and you’d figure that trend will continue in this game today. Jon Leuer has been rock solid for Wisconsin however, leading the Badgers at 18 PPG on the season and 17 per game at the Old Spice. Wisconsin did break out of their mini-shooting slump against BC, hitting 26-57 (46%) from the floor. Neither team forces many turnovers and both take good care of the ball so this figures to be a clean, well played game. Notre Dame could use a good rebounding effort from Tyrone Nash and Tim Abromaitis, while freshman point guard Eric Atkins has to hold his own against Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. This is going to be a good game and should be close throughout. Wisconsin has to be favored though and should take home the Old Spice title.

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Set Your Tivo: 11.26.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 26th, 2010

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

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

There are lots of good games today, most with implications are from tournaments. Rankings as per the latest RTC Top 25. All times eastern.

Old Spice Classic Semifinal: #25 Wisconsin vs. Boston College — 12 pm on ESPN (***)

Wisconsin enters today’s game coming off a brutal to watch 50-35 win over Manhattan in the opening round yesterday at Disney. Jon Leuer led the Badgers with 16/13 in a game that had the same halftime score (17-10) as the Patriots/Lions NFL game. Boston College scored a thrilling 67-65 win over Texas A&M as Dash Harris’ coast-to-coast layup try fell off the rim as time expired. Reggie Jackson scored 21 points on 8-12 shooting to pace an Eagles team that shot 47% overall from the floor. BC held off a second half charge from the Aggies and overcame a 29-14 shellacking on the boards to pull out the win. Wisconsin is rated eighth in offensive efficiency but has struggled shooting the ball recently. They’ve shot under 40% in their last two games but have made up for it on the defensive end, especially yesterday. Bo Ryan’s stingy defense held Manhattan under 50 FG attempts and 28.6% shooting. Wisconsin is strong on the boards as well, ranking #1 in offensive rebounding percentage and #7 in the same statistic on the defensive side meaning they clean the defensive glass very well. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin has out-rebounded every opponent it has faced this season. That’s going to be a problem for Boston College, a team that ranks #267 in offensive rebounding and had a rough time against the Aggies yesterday. The Eagles shot it well from three for the first time all year against A&M and that’s something Steve Donahue may want to take advantage of again today. Wisconsin ranks #298 against the three, the one thing they don’t do well defensively. BC isn’t much better however, ranking #293. Expect a well played game at an average to below-average speed as Boston College protects the ball very well and Wisconsin doesn’t force many steals and turnovers due to their deliberate style of play. The Badgers have assisted on 63% of their made shots this year, a sign of a disciplined offensive system led by Jordan Taylor. We expect this to be a close game but Wisconsin has the edge in most areas and that should be good enough to advance to the finals of this tournament.

76 Classic Semifinal: Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State — 2:30 pm on ESPN (**)

Oklahoma State got by a pesky DePaul team in the first round on the back of Marshall Moses’ 27/9 on 11-14 FG while Virginia Tech rolled over Cal State Northridge. This game features a lot of statistical contrasts and most would seem to favor the Hokies. The most glaring of which has to be turnovers. Virginia Tech does turn the ball over too much but they also force a bunch due to their style of play. Oklahoma State turned it over 25 times against an up-tempo DePaul team while Virginia Tech forced the same number against Northridge. That doesn’t bode well for today’s matchup if you’re a Cowboy fan. The Hokies get to the line extremely well and that should give them a big advantage in this game. The Pokes of OSU foul a lot, ranking #321 in FTA/FGA, a measure of how often your opponent gets to the line. Virginia Tech doesn’t take advantage as much as they should, averaging 69% from the stripe. Malcolm Delaney is the creator and best player for Seth Greenberg while Jeff Allen has had a nice start to his senior season in the post (11.5/9/4). He’ll play a key role defending Moses if he chooses to enter the paint. Virginia Tech blocks a lot of shots, ranked #16 in blocked shot percentage. Oklahoma State is even better at #12 so expect a war in the paint. Neither team shoots or defends the three very well so a lot of the action should be confined to be inside the arc with guard penetration and dishing to guys like Allen and Darrell Williams for OSU. The Hokies have an edge in talent and Travis Ford still isn’t too sure about what to expect from his club in a transitional year. Virginia Tech is a solid favorite here and should advance. For Oklahoma State to win, they’ll need to do a great job controlling the ball and getting rebounds in order to limit opportunities for the Hokies.

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