Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences
A Look Back
- As we hit that December downhill slide into conference play, we’re seeing the number of undefeated teams around the country decline. The Mountain West is no different, as their population of teams with unblemished records fell from three to two when UNLV got tripped up by a trip back east for an early-morning battle with Louisville. San Diego State and BYU remain undefeated, with each getting a win over a Pac-10 foe this week, and they’re gaining more and more national exposure as both teams inch up the rankings. Downstream from the big boys at the top of the conference sits New Mexico, firmly entrenched in its own tier behind the top three teams and ahead of the rest of the conference, capable of taking a step forward and contending for a NCAA tournament bid. The next tier down is made up of some middle-of-the-road teams (Utah, TCU, Colorado State, Air Force) who won’t pose much of a threat to the top tier teams in conference play. And, Wyoming makes up the bottom tier all by itself – that is a bad, bad team.
- Team of the Week: BYU – There were a couple of big tests for top-tier MWC teams this week, and while the Runnin’ Rebels got caught, the Cougars played their best game of the season in knocking off Arizona in front of a neutral-in-name-only crowd in Salt Lake City. Senior Jimmer Fredette was unstoppable for BYU (and we’ll get to his exploits in a just a little bit) while a mish-mash of Cougar frontline players combined to slow the Wildcats’ Derrick Williams, limiting him to just 13 points on nine field goal attempts. While BYU looked good in their previous nine wins, that Arizona win was the first time on the season where they looked like a team that was as good as, if not better than, last year’s vintage.
- Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – The week started for Fredette with a homecoming game, as the Cougars traveled to Glens Falls, New York, to face Vermont in the Hometown Classic, a return to Fredette’s old stomping grounds. There had to be a ton of pressure on Fredette, playing in front of a sold-out Glen Falls Civic Center, with everybody hoping to see the All-American candidate at his best. While lesser players may have shrunk under the watching eyes, or worse yet, forced up bad shots and played out of control, Fredette delivered the goods, going for a game-high 26 points while still playing within the offense and handing out five assists along the way for good measure. For an encore, back in front of a newer era of Fredette fans in Salt Lake City, he didn’t quite reprise last year’s 49 against Arizona, but he still went for a season-high 33 points and a new career-high nine rebounds. While Jimmer is a strong candidate to be mentioned in this space every single week, on this particular week, he was an absolute no-brainer.
- Newcomer of the Week: Sammy Yeager, Jr, TCU – In four weeks, we’ve now had three different players take down this award (Utah’s Will Clyburn is our only two-time winner), and all three of them have been junior-college transfers. And, coming on the heels of New Mexico’s Darington Hobson taking a similar route to the MWC Player of the Year last season, this juco-transfer-turned-impact-player story has become a familiar one around the conference. Yeager earned this week’s mention with six three-pointers over the Horned Frogs’ two games, including his career-high 22 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and three threes in TCU’s win over Texas Tech. While Yeager has been up and down over the course of the season (witness his 17 and 19-point performances in wins over SMU and Bradley wrapped around an 0-5 night in a loss to Rider), he has shown that he is a key performer for the Frogs. In their three losses, Yeager is a combined 5-23, while shooting at a 50% clip in their seven wins.
- Game of the Week: Louisville 77, UNLV 69 – The Rebels’ loss at the Yum! Center is the game from which we learned the most this week. While part of the UNLV can be attributed to the trip east and the early-morning game time, there were some question marks exposed for Lon Kruger’s team. First and foremost, while the balanced scoring and shared leadership on the team has been mentioned, even in this space, as a strength for UNLV, when things started going south on Saturday, there was no one player who the rest of the team looked to for guidance. You would expect that player would be senior guard Tre’Von Willis, a first-team All-MWC selection after last season, or maybe junior forward Chace Stanback, the Rebs’ leading scorer thus far this season. But instead, as Louisville pulled away late in the second half, the ball was just as likely to be in the hands of Anthony Marshall or Derrick Jasper – fine players both, but neither with a history of being the go-to guy on this team. While sharing the load equally is all fine and good in December, the Rebels will need to identify a guy, or a couple of guys, who are ready to step up and take the reins when others seem unsure.
- Game of the Upcoming Week: BYU vs. UCLA in Anaheim, 12/18, 2:30 PM PST, FSN – Finals week, and non-conference doldrums, set in this week. Beyond this game, the most attractive games are UC Santa Barbara’s sampling of the best the MWC has to offer (UCSB at UNLV on Wednesday and then at San Diego State on Saturday), but this game, part of the Wooden Classic, could be interesting. Jimmer Fredette will give the Bruin guards quite a test, but again the Cougar frontcourt should be tested. While the Bruins don’t have anyone quite the caliber of Derrick Williams (who the Cougars handled last Saturday), they do have a trio of capable frontcourt players who should challenge BYU’s depth and versatility along the front line.
1. San Diego State (10-0) – With the Aztecs’ win over Cal last Wednesday, Steve Fisher has posted his best start to a season in his 20 years as a head coach and SDSU has posted its best start in the 90 years of Aztec basketball. Along with the fast start comes plenty of accolades, as they’re ranked #9 in RTC’s top 25. However, despite all the success, there are still some concerns for this team. Last season, they were outrebounded very rarely; this season, they have been far less dominant on the glass. In the Cal game for instance, the Bears won the battle of the boards 38-28. Elsewhere, the Aztecs simply aren’t getting to the line very often – perhaps a blessing in disguise for a team that shoots in the mid-60s from the line – but it is a symptom of the team relying on the outside shot more this year than last. The fact that the Aztecs are shooting 36.7% from behind the arc (quite an improvement from last year’s 31.8%) makes it understandable, but it will be interesting to see how the Aztecs respond if the three-ball goes cold. A good first look at that occurred on Monday night when, with starters Kawhi Leonard and Chase Tapley out due to flu-like symptoms, the Aztecs combined to go 0/18 from deep. Senior point guard D.J. Gay was particularly awful (0-7 from three), but he still was able to make plays by penetrating, drawing fouls and getting to the line, where he made all eight of this free throws.
A look ahead: A slow week everywhere, and no exception for the Aztecs as they only host UC Santa Barbara on Saturday
2. BYU (8-0) – Just about everything that needed saying about the Cougar week is detailed above, but an injury report is also in order. Sophomore Chris Collinsworth still remains day-to-day with an ankle injury, although at this point he hasn’t played since November 23. Noah Hartsock took a blow to the chin in the Arizona game and suffered a concussion and lacerations in his mouth, and he too should be regarded as day-to-day.
A look ahead: The trip to the Wooden Classic for a matchup with UCLA is the only action of the week for the Cougars.
3. UNLV (9-1) – We detailed the Rebels’ loss to Louisville above, but they also had another somewhat tight game earlier in the week against Boise State. Despite leading by 16 with just over three minutes left, the Rebels had to hang on for dear life, escaping with just a three-point win in a game in which they turned the ball over 22 times (they turned it over 40 total times in their two games this week) and were outrebounded 34-30 by the Broncos.
A look ahead: Some home-cooking should do UNLV much good, as they host UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday and Southern Utah on Saturday.
4. New Mexico (7-1) – While that one-loss record looks awful pretty, closer inspection shows very little in terms of quality wins, and the one loss to Cal seems iffier following the Bears’ subsequent struggles putting the ball in the hoop. But, the Lobos are healthy now, their freshmen have gotten some games under their belts and Drew Gordon is ready to get his first action of the season this week. Now, Steve Alford to this point has been quite generous handing out minutes – 11 players average ten or more minutes a game thus far – and that rotation will have to be tightened up a bit with conference play approaching, but by the time January rolls around, this should be a team that is coming up in the rearview mirrors of SDSU, BYU and UNLV very quickly.
A look ahead: New Mexico hosts Longwood and the Citadel as part of the Las Vegas Classic, with the latter being Gordon’s first game.
5. TCU (7-3) – The Horned Frogs had their little impromptu Big 12 invitational this week, traveling to Lubbock and Lincoln and coming away with an acceptable split. Against Texas Tech, this tiny TCU team dominated on the boards, outrebounding the Red Raiders 48-34 (including grabbing an amazing 23 on the offensive end) on the way to a win. On Saturday, though, the tables were turned as the Cornhuskers won the battle of the boards 38-26 and TCU only got to the line five times all night (making just one) as Nebraska pulled away with an 18-3 run midway through the second half.
A look ahead: A week off in Fort Worth before returning to the court 12/21 against Northwestern State.
6. Colorado State (4-3) – The Rams knew this was going to be a tough week as they also battled a pair of Big 12 teams, with games against Colorado and Kansas. CSU hung tough with Colorado on Wednesday and even forced overtime, but lost in the end after turning the ball over more than twice as often as the Buffaloes and being outscored by 21 from the free throw line. Against the Jayhawks on Saturday, CSU kept it close through the first half, despite several times where KU seemed on the verge of running away, but Tim Miles’ bunch was able to at least put off the eventual blowout to the second half, eventually falling by 21.
A look ahead: Nothing until next Monday’s game against Northern Colorado.
7. Utah (6-3) – The Utes earned a perfectly acceptable split this week, knocking off Pepperdine at home before losing to Michigan in Ann Arbor on Friday night. Will Clyburn continued his strong play with 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game (and throw in seven steals in the Pepperdine game), but Utah never really figured out the Wolverines defense, turned the ball over 16 times in a relatively slow-paced game and never recovered after digging themselves a 17-point halftime deficit.
A look ahead: Boise State comes to town on Friday night for a preview of the two school’s matchup in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 22.
8. Air Force (6-2) – The Falcons had a sneaky tough trip to Dayton to face Wright State on Wednesday, and the Raiders more or less had their way with the Academy, forcing 20 turnovers, winning the battle on the glass and producing from deep. After having to deal with the weather on their way back home, the Falcons were able to bounce back in their win over North Carolina Central on Saturday, jumping out to a 40-20 halftime lead before coasting down the back stretch with four players scoring in double figures on the game.
A look ahead: A Saturday game with Arkansas-Pine Bluff is the only appointment on the docket this week.
9. Wyoming (3-6) – Just one game this week for the Cowboys, a Friday trip to UC Irvine for the first ever matchup between the two schools, but head coach Heath Schroyer had to be questioning the scheduling of this road game on the flight back home after UCI just took apart Wyoming, hitting 58.3% of their shots, including ten three-pointers. Five Anteaters scored between 12 and 15 points and the Cowboys lost their latest in what is becoming a long line of embarrassing games.
A look ahead: Denver on Tuesday and Western State on Friday. You know Cowboy fans who were looking ahead at the schedule back in October were penciling in a couple of wins here. I say they get one, and should be quite thankful with that.