RTC Summer Updates: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on August 2nd, 2011

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

Reader’s Take I

Summer Storylines

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

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

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 8th, 2011

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

A Look Back

Last Wednesday, after Wyoming, in front of their home crowd, improbably stuck right with the #7 team in the nation, BYU, for 39-plus minutes, MWC fans were treated to an epic battle between two very good teams, one with its ticket all but punched for the NCAA Tournament, the other with its resume still very much in doubt. In the end, D.J. Gay’s clutch shot as the clock wound down followed by his play on Colorado State’s last-ditch effort sealed the road victory for San Diego State, just the latest in a streak of big plays at crunch time for the wily senior. The Rams, however, bounced back on Saturday with a closer-than-expected road win of their own over Wyoming. Elsewhere around the conference, New Mexico beat Air Force in Colorado Springs on Tuesday and Air Force came back with their own road win – their second in a row following 20 straight conference road losses – with their win over Utah on Saturday. If you’re not counting at home, that makes five road wins in eight conference games this week, but in the end, the teams at the top of the conference by and large keep piling up the wins, giving the MWC five times who at least have aspirations for at-large NCAA Tournament selections. With talented veteran rosters across the conference, this may be the high water mark for the conference, with stalwarts Utah and BYU (and TCU, a non-factor basketball-wise) heading to higher ground next season. And, on Monday, we got news of the firing of Wyoming’s head coach, Heath Schroyer, an announcement that was only potentially surprising because of the timing. With Utah and TCU also struggling through some recent hard times on the hard court, and with their impending departure, Jim Boylen and Jim Christian have to be looking over their shoulder as well.

Team of the Week: BYU – It’s hard to pick out one team this week, but we’ll go with the Cougars largely on the strength of their impressive handling of UNLV at the Marriott Center on Saturday. BYU built up a 12-point halftime lead, then coasted through much of the second half behind 29 points from Jimmer Fredette on his way to grabbing the mantle of the all-time leading scorer in Mountain West history, passing San Diego State’s Brandon Heath. Fredette also added seven assists and made all 16 of his free throw attempts as the Cougars prevailed in a game that was not exactly a thing of beauty. Couple that win with their surprisingly difficult win over Wyoming on Wednesday and it’s just another 2-0 week for the Cougars.

Player of the Week: Kawhi Leonard, Sophomore, San Diego State and Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Nobody in the conference came out and stole this week’s award, so I’m going to split the recognition between the two candidates for MWC Player of the Year (yes, I know Fredette’s winning this thing going away right now). At the surface, both of these guys had great weeks. Fredette scored 55 points in his two games, while Leonard had 23 points and 25 rebounds on the week. But closer examination reveals flaws for each. Leonard made just ten of his 27 shots, turned the ball over as many times as he handed out assists and missed both of his three-point attempt, while Fredette was just 13-35 from the field and 3-16 from deep, and had nine turnovers to his eight assists. And despite those flaws, these two share the Player of the Week award, in recognition not only for the things they did well this week, but also all that they’ve done well over the season.

Newcomer of the Week: Hank Thorns, Junior, TCU – It hasn’t been a fun season in Fort Worth, but Thorns has been a bright spot. The 5’9 transfer from Virginia Tech leads the conference in assists, with 6.4 dimes per game. This week he added eight more assists in a seven-point loss at San Diego State, but he’s also been adding more of a scoring punch, in the wake of the suspension of the Horned Frogs’ leading scorer, Ronnie Moss. This week Thorns had 16 points, and while TCU is in the middle of a six-game losing streak, Thorns has averaged 12 points and nine assists in the three games since Moss’ suspension.

Game of the Week: San Diego State 56, Colorado State 54 – Playing in front of an emboldened Moby Arena crowd, the Rams were out to prove that they were no pretender. And for 39 minutes and about 50 seconds, they fought the #6 team in the nation to a draw. And then D.J. Gay broke the hearts of the Rams and their 7,353 screaming fans. I linked to it above, but it is good enough to watch again. After CSU’s Travis Franklin tied the game at 54 with a strong move to the basket with 10 seconds left, Gay took the inbounds pass, calmly dribbled up court, and, in front of head coach Steve Fisher who had opted to let Gay go to work on his own rather than call a timeout, he knocked down a step-back jumper in the face of CSU’s Dorian Green. And then, not to be outdone, he got back on defense and intercepted Adam Nigon’s Hail Mary pass as time expired, reminding everyone around the conference why Gay is so important to his team.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (16-7, 4-4) at Colorado State (16-7, 6-3), 2/12, 6PM PST, The Mtn. – On a day when San Diego State visits UNLV, I’ll take this game as the more important game, the more competitive game and the more exciting game. I may have been a little slow to the party, but I’m finally on board with the Rams as a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender, and I’ve also been waiting on the Lobos to turn the corner as well. At this point, all signs point to the corner having been turned, so we could be in for a serious battle here. The possibility of a Drew Gordon-Andy Ogide battle up front should be enough to get any college hoops fan interesting, but it could be the battle between Lobo senior point Dairese Gary and Ram sophomore guard Dorian Green that could decide things. Green surprisingly got the best of Gary in the first go-round, holding the Lobo leader scoreless in 34 minutes, but it was Gordon’s 16-rebound dominance on the glass that put the Lobos over the top at The Pit. This time around, the Rams will have the home court advantage, but it is unlikely they’ll be able to shutout Gary again. The winner here sneaks ahead in the battle for the MWC’s potential fourth Tournament bid, but people around the conference have been whispering giddily about the possibility of five teams in the Big Dance.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (23-1, 8-1): While the Aztecs did come out of the week with two wins, they also got a bit of a scare on Saturday night when starting guard Chase Tapley and reserve forward Tim Shelton both left the game in the first half with injuries – Tapley’s a sprained ankle and Shelton’s a foot injury. Neither player returned to the game and both sat on the bench with protective boots on their feet in the second half, but later X-rays revealed no broken bones in either player’s case. Shelton, who has had knee injuries end two seasons in his time in San Diego, underwent an MRI on Monday to determine if there was any ligament or tendon damage.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host Utah tonight before traveling to UNLV for a big collision on Saturday.

2. BYU (22-2, 8-1): In recent weeks, this space has turned into a “Cougars Who Aren’t Named Jimmer” section, and we’ll go back to that well here. While Jackson Emery continued his strong play (27 points, five threes and seven steals this week), Saturday’s win over UNLV featured a strong showing from sophomore forward Stephen Rogers, who went for 12 points, a career-high eight rebounds and two three-pointers in 21 minutes. Rogers’ chance at significant playing time came after freshman Kyle Collinsworth and junior James Anderson both left the game with injuries – Collinsworth a concussion and Anderson a separated shoulder. While Brandon Davies was a huge factor in the Cougars win over Wyoming on Wednesday, with 20 points and nine rebounds, he was limited by foul trouble on Saturday and struggled home to just four points, his only non-double-digit scoring effort since conference play began.

A look ahead: Sneaky week for the Cougars, with a trip to Air Force on Wednesday and then a visit from Utah for the final MWC edition of the basketball version of the Holy War on Saturday.

3. Colorado State (16-7, 6-3): The Rams played two games decided by five total points this week, and came away with a 1-1 split and a host of believers around the MWC. Rather unbelievably, CSU actually outrebounded the Aztecs, holding them to a mere five rebounds and a 14.3 offensive rebounding percentage. Andy Ogide led the way with 12 rebounds to go with his 18 points, but the Rams were done in by their ability to score against the suffocating SDSU defense, posting just a 38.5 effective field goal percentage. Against Wyoming on Saturday, there was a little bit of a hangover in effect, as Ogide was in foul trouble throughout and scored just 11 points, as the Ram starters combined to go 14-38 from the field. However, they were bailed out by their depth, as CSU’s bench outscored the Wyoming reserves by a 23-3 margin. Sophomore Pierce Hornung led the way with ten points and 11 rebounds, his first career double. As a whole, the bench combined to make ten of their 17 field goal attempts.

A look ahead: The Rams get a mid-week bye in advance of their battle with New Mexico on Saturday.

4. UNLV (17-6, 5-4): It’s a good thing for the Rebels that they took care of business against Utah on Wednesday, because they never had a chance against BYU on Saturday afternoon. While the Rebs were impressive on the glass against the Cougars (they grabbed almost 40% of all available offensive rebounds, and were solid on the defensive glass), their inability to hit shots on a consistent basis continues to plague them. Against BYU they posted just a 35% effective field goal percentage, and for the season they are just a shade above 50% in that category, good for 110th in the nation. Worse yet, they are shooting less than 30% from three, 318th in the nation. Their defense continues to be elite (they’re ninth in the nation in defensive efficiency), but unless they can somehow start putting the ball in the hoop, they’re a non-entity come March. Quintrell Thomas led the way against Utah with 15 points and 16 boards, while Anthony Marshall’s 16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists against BYU was the only good thing the Rebs had going that day. Chace Stanback continues to be the leading scorer on the team, and he’s scored in double figures in six straight games, but UNLV fans keep waiting for last year’s Tre’Von Willis to show up. In his four games back since a knee injury kept him out of a couple games, he has only shot 35.9% from the field and averaged 12 points per game, and his quickness and ability to challenge defenders and get to the line is a pale imitation of the Willis from ’09-’10.

A look ahead: The Rebels visit TCU on Wednesday, with a chance to build up their confidence before heading into a huge home game with the Aztecs on Saturday. If the Rebels are going to get their mojo back, it has to start on Saturday by breaking SDSU’s three-game win streak in the series.

5. New Mexico (16-7, 4-4): After a terrible 1-4 start in conference play, the Lobos have now strung together three straight wins to get back to .500. This week they went to Air Force and looked impressive in helping head coach Steve Alford to his 400th career win, before getting a weekend bye. Drew Gordon led the way with 17 points and six rebounds, Dairese Gary added eight assists and the Lobos won by 14.

A look ahead: The Lobos host Wyoming on Wednesday in what is bound to be an emotional game for the Cowboys in their first game without head coach Heath Schroyer. If the Lobos can get through that game, their battle with Colorado State on Saturday will be huge.

6. Air Force (13-9, 4-5): In the home loss against New Mexico, the Falcons were just outclassed. But on Saturday, they played a strong game at Utah and came away with a five-point win. Against the bigger and stronger Utes, the Falcons went against type and hit the glass hard and effectively, grabbing a sparkling 90.6% of all defensive rebounds and a solid 24.3% of the offensive rebounds. Sophomore Zach Bohannon impressed, posting career highs in points (12), rebounds (8) and assists (5) and the Falcons led every step of the way after ripping off a 14-2 run to break a 2-2 tie early in the game.

A look ahead: Air Force’s sole game of the week is a visit from BYU on Wednesday night. They slow it down, ugly the game up and try to control Fredette in the hopes of keeping in contact as far as the under-four timeout. If they can do that much, anything can happen down the stretch.

7. Utah (10-13, 3-6): The head coach at Utah prior to Jim Boylen was Ray Giacoletti. He won a MWC championship in his first season and advanced the Utes to a Sweet 16. Two straight 6-10 years later, he was the ex-Utah coach. This is Boylen’s 4th season as the head coach in Salt Lake City. In his second year, his Utes won the MWC championship before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, they finished 7-9. But with the Utes stepping up to the Pac-10 next season, last season’s mass exodus of players not too far back in the rearview mirror, and with history saying the Utah athletic department isn’t fond of consecutive losing seasons for its basketball program, it might be a good idea for the Utes to finish this season strongly if Boylen expects to be back next year. This week’s two losses, especially the home loss against Air Force on Saturday during which the home crowd did not hesitate to show its displeasure, did not do Boylen any favors. Yes, he’s had to deal with a nearly complete roster overhaul that has been exacerbated by injuries, and he’s a well-respected man in his profession, but if the Utes don’t finish this season strongly, you can bet the athletic department will be entertaining thoughts of a new head coach.

A look ahead: Given the above, this week is absolutely brutal. A trip to San Diego State tonight, a trip to Provo to face BYU on Saturday, and in all likelihood, a 3-8 conference record come Sunday morning.

8. TCU (10-14, 1-8): Much like the Utes, the Horned Frogs have a transition to a higher level of basketball in the near future, as they’ll join the Big East in ’12-’13. With head coach Jim Christian, now in his third season, having never posted a winning record in Fort Worth, he can’t be resting all too comfortably, especially given the fact that he has just suspended his best player in Ronnie Moss, a player who in all likelihood will not wear a Horned Frog uniform again. The fact is, this roster is pretty devoid of talent, and doesn’t compare favorably with even some of the truly bad teams at the bottom of the Big East. If TCU decides that Christian isn’t the man for the future of this program, do they decide to go a different way immediately, giving the new head coach a couple years worth of recruiting before being thrown into the Big East gauntlet? Or does Christian get one more year to turn it around, with the Horned Frogs using a new head coach in 2012 to generate some type of buzz before heading into the Big East? My educated guess? Given that Christian still has four years on his contract – after receiving a two-year extension following his first season in Fort Worth – given that the basketball is clearly a distant second in importance to the TCU football program (and may even be third behind baseball), and given that the previous head coach left the program in total disarray, I suspect Christian will get another season. An added bonus: if the Horned Frogs do wind up with a new head coach in their first year in the Big East, that’s a good excuse for their inability to keep up with the big boys of college basketball.

A look ahead: UNLV visits Fort Worth on Saturday, then the Frogs visit Laramie in a spectacular preview of the 8/9 game at the MWC Tournament.

9. Wyoming (8-15, 1-8): At Wyoming, they no longer have the same decision to make that the two programs above have to make. Schroyer is gone, assistant coach Fred Langley has been promoted to interim coach and the only decision that remains to be made is who is next. The early leader is BYU associate head coach Dave Rice, but Wyoming has a nice head start on searching for a new head man. As for the Schroyer era, the final tally stands at 49-68 over the course of almost four years, but his lasting legacy may be cleaning up the academic and off-court performance of the team. Given the substandard facilities at Wyoming, Schroyer was fighting an uphill battle the whole way, but he never got any momentum going. It was somewhat surprising that he was fired in the middle of the season, as all indications were that any decisions about his future would be made after the season, but there was no real suspense as to whether he would return or not. The ironic part is, this firing came after a week in which the Cowboys played BYU down to the wire, then gave Colorado State all they could handle before coming up short.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels to New Mexico for their first game in the Langley era, then return home to host TCU on Saturday.

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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 jstevrtc on January 1st, 2010

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

Standings (as of 12/30):

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

Superlatives:

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

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

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

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

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

League Notes:

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

Team Roundups:

New Mexico

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

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

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

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

BYU

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

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

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

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

UNLV

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

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

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

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

San Diego State

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

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

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

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

Colorado State

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

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

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

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

Air Force

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

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

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

TCU

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

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

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

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

Wyoming

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

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

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

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

Utah

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

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

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

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

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