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.
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.
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.