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.
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.