Assessing the Season: TCU Horned Frogs

Posted by Nate Kotisso on April 24th, 2013

Nate Kotisso is a Big 12 writer for Rush The Court. You can follow him on Twitter @natekotisso

We’re taking a look back on a team-by-team basis at the 2012-13 season. Next up: TCU.

Final Record: 11-21 (2-16)

The Expectations: What a confusing offseason it must have been for fans of TCU basketball. Granted, hoops on campus may not have had much of a fan base to begin with but the changes were intriguing. In 2011-12, the Horned Frogs enjoyed their first season above the .500 mark (18-15) since winning 21 games in 2004-05. They finished fifth in a Mountain West that sent the four teams in front of them to the NCAA Tournament. They also had the MW Freshman (Kyan Anderson) and Sixth Man of the Year (Amric Fields) coming back to school. This was easily looking like Jim Christian’s best year but sensing his time there was nearing due to his poorly performing teams before, he took the Ohio job when it was vacated by John Groce. TCU was of course entering its first year as a member of the Big 12 conference which, competition-wise, would be a step up from teams in the Mountain West. Trent Johnson, who pretty much did his best Jim Christian impression, left LSU to take the TCU job. Johnson has had experience coaching and succeeding at a private schools like TCU (see Stanford) but after losing standouts Hank Thorns Jr. and J.R. Cadot to graduation, 2012-13 was all about starting from scratch.

Trent Johnson loves the color purple. (TCU360.com)

Trent Johnson couldn’t tear himself away from the color purple. (TCU360.com)

The Actual Result: TCU won its season opener against a Cal Poly team that would steal a win at UCLA just two weeks later. After taking care of Centenary, the Horned Frogs dropped their first game of the season to Larry Brown and crosstown rival SMU. One clear problem facing the team was scoring the basketball. They lost back-to-back games to Houston and Tulsa, posting 48 and 49 points, respectively. There was also the Northwestern game where TCU lost by 24 points and only managed to put only 31 on the board. Despite this, they finished off the non-conference portion of their schedule with three straight wins to enter conference play at 9-4.

Conference play felt like one nightmare after another. In those 16 losses, TCU’s average margin of defeat was 17.9 points per game but they did have their moment in the sun. The first came against Kansas on February 6. The Jayhawks’ confidence was shaken a bit. They had been able to get by Texas and West Virginia on the road in games that were closer than they should have been, but had gotten some comeuppance after Markel Brown and Oklahoma State marched into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and left with an 85-80 win. On that Wednesday night in the Metroplex, though, Kansas started slowly and allowed TCU to control the game wire-to-wire in what I consider to be the biggest upset in the Big 12 era (dating back to 1996). It was anything but a sparkling performance for the Horned Frogs. TCU shot better as a team than KU but it made the same number of field goal attempts (18) as the Jayhawks, missed 16 free throws and lost the battle of the boards by 10. It also marked the first and likely final time the Topeka YMCA will get name-checked by Bill Self at a press conference. That will be the safest bet in the history of safe bets.

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Big 12 Team Preview #10: TCU Horned Frogs

Posted by dnspewak on October 29th, 2012

Each day for the next two weeks, we’ll bring you the obligatory team preview here at the Big 12 microsite. First up, Danny Spewak (@dspewak) breaks down the league’s newbie: TCU. The Horned Frogs were not a unanimous choice among the Big 12 microsite writers to finish last in the conference, but we’re guessing we still won’t find much argument with this selection.

The Skinny

  • 2011-12 record: 18-15 overall, 7-7 Mountain West
  • Key Contributors Lost: G Hank Thorns, G J.R. Cadot, F Craig Williams
  • Head Coach: Trent Johnson, 1st season
  • Projected Finish: 10th

Trent Johnson Takes on the Biggest Reclamation Project of His Career

Trent Johnson has problems. The team he inherits in Fort Worth finished in the lower third of Division I basketball in almost every defensive statistical category in 2011-12. He has no proven scorers, no proven shooters and only a handful of experienced upperclassmen. It will not be an easy season for the TCU Horned Frogs, but that has nothing to do with the change in conference affiliation or the mystical power of the Big 12. This squad played in a league with four NCAA Tournament teams a year ago, and it knocked off three of those teams — Colorado State, New Mexico and UNLV — on its home floor. The Horned Frogs won on a neutral floor against Virginia in November, defeated Texas Tech at home (hey, it’s a Big 12 school at least), and played a total of five power conference teams before entering Mountain West play. And remember, that league actually finished above the ACC in conference RPI rankings and sat just two slots below the Big 12. The sudden move to the Big 12 will not cause a mass panic among TCU’s players. They’ve seen good players and good teams before. They’ve played at The Pit and in front of hostile crowds. The problem is not the Big 12 — the problem is simply Trent Johnson’s lack of overall play-makers and proven leaders. He made a splash earlier this month by outbidding Bill Self, Scott Drew and Rick Barnes for Class of 2013 prep center Karviar Shepherd, but that’s the future. Before Johnson can channel the success he enjoyed at Nevada, Stanford and during the early part of his tenure at LSU, he’ll need to build this program very slowly.

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Big 12 Summer Update: TCU Horned Frogs

Posted by dnspewak on July 30th, 2012

In an effort to remind you that college basketball does in fact exist during the summer, Big 12 microsite writers Danny Spewak (@dspewak) and Jeremy Pfingsten (@jeremylp21) will roll out three summer updates per week during the next month. The goal is to compile every bit of news and information from the summer months for each team and package it into neat, easy-to-read capsules for your convenience. Next on the list — an update on TCU.

TCU Horned Frogs

2011-12 record: 18-15 overall 7-7 Mountain West

All summer long, TCU has heard the same party line from the rest of the Big 12: You can’t compete in this conference. Not after losing your top two scorers. Not with little to no basketball tradition and a 7,000 seat arena still in the preliminary stages of a much-needed renovation. Trent Johnson faces a difficult task in his first season with the Horned Frogs, but amidst all the criticism and condescending tones from fellow Big 12 contingents, he has nothing to lose in 2012-13. The roster looks bleak, sure. But before Johnson faded a bit into obscurity at middling LSU, he had built a reputation as a terrific basketball coach at Nevada and Stanford. After some initial success in Baton Rouge, he immediately went into rebuilding mode and never quite recovered. So it’s easy to forget he coached Robin and Brook Lopez at Stanford, and it’s easy to forget he reached the Sweet Sixteen at Nevada and recruited standout Nick Fazekas. This man can coach, and he’ll spend the summer tyring to prove that to his new team.

This Arena Needs a Renovation To Compete in the Big 12

Summer Orientation: So Hank Thorns and J.R. Cadot are gone after starting every game in the backcourt a year ago and leading the team in scoring by a wide margin. Big deal. Seriously, though. It is. Johnson will need overall development from his cast of returning players (more on them later), but he’ll also rely a little heavier on his newcomers. Clyde Smith and Charles Hill, a pair of 6’2’’ freshmen guards, will slide right into the roster in the backcourt. Smith, more of a scorer than a distributor, can shoot the heck out of the ball from mid-range and beyond the arc. Hill is more of a defensive stopper, the kind of clichéd, high-IQ player with an ability to play both guard spots down the road. Aaron Durley, a late signee by Johnson, certainly looks the part of a Big 12 center at 6’10’’. He originally committed to Marquette, but as a Texas native, he wanted to stay closer to home. If you watch the Little League World Series – and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? — you may remember Durley from 2005 when his fellow Little Leaguers marveled at his size. This guy’s so famous already, he has an extremely detailed Wikipedia page. Luckily for TCU fans, Durley chose to pursue basketball instead. He’s known for his jump hook, and that should work well in combination with his height against Big 12 competition. He’s not a dominant rebounder and needs to add weight, but he can run the floor very well and is said to have great hands.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 17th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.

  • The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.

Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)

  • Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.

Team of the Week

  • San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 10th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

One of the unpleasant side effects of the recent spate of conference realignment maneuverings was this year’s MW being left with just eight teams, meaning a 14-game conference schedule is all that is required to complete a full home-and-away round-robin. Meaning that while conferences like the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, all of whom play 18-game conference schedules, have been going at it for two weeks now, the MW is just now gearing up to kick off conference play this weekend. And, in the meantime, the last two weeks have yielded some absolutely horrendous matchups for MW teams as their schedule-makers had a hard time finding quality opponents at this time of the year.

So, in lieu of looking back to a week in which a four-point TCU win over Rice and a six-point Wyoming win over Utah Valley are the “highlights,” let’s take a look back at a pretty impressive non-conference performance for the Mountain West. Overall the conference has posted a 94-26 record on the season thus far, good for a .783 winning percentage and a conference RPI of six. UNLV leads the way for the conference, currently ranking 13th in the RPI with their big win over then-#1 North Carolina highlighting their tournament resume. Colorado State is, quite surprisingly, the second highest RPI team in the conference, checking in at #27, but the Rams have nothing on their schedule that would qualify as a marquee win, although their one-point win over Colorado is looking better by the day. The other two teams that have their eyes set on a possible NCAA Tournament bid are San Diego State (RPI #45) and New Mexico (RPI #64). The Aztecs sport wins over California, Arizona, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, but haven’t played anybody of interest in more than a month. The Lobos struggled out of the gate with two pretty unattractive losses in their first four games, but have now won 12 straight, with wins over Saint Louis, Missouri State and Oklahoma State mixed in there.

Team of the Non-Conference

Moser Has Been Outstanding in a UNLV Uniform (LV Sun/S. Morris)

UNLV – It is hard to argue with UNLV here. They’ve got the single best win – their November 26 upset of North Carolina – out of any of the MW teams, the highest RPI, and they head into conference action ranked 12th in the latest RTC top 25. Throw in wins over California, Illinois and 13 other teams, with the only losses coming at Wichita State and at Wisconsin and the Rebels have put themselves in a position where they would need to somehow take an unprecedented dive in conference play in order to miss the NCAA Tournament. And, given the fact that they’ve done all this while breaking in a first-time head coach in Dave Rice, this has been an excellent first half of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels.

Player of the Non-Conference

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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on December 27th, 2011

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

It’s been a relatively quiet week around the Mountain West as teams took a bit of a break to celebrate the holidays. However, despite just eight games in the past week, we’ve had three fairly significant injuries. Boise State was the team hardest hit, as it lost freshman wing Igor Hadziomerovic to a broken foot and will likely play the rest of the season without him, while fellow freshman Anthony Drmic, the team’s leading scorer, missed the Broncos’ visit to Iowa with a sprained ankle. Meanwhile, Air Force lost is leading scorer, Michael Lyons, early in its visit to Spokane to face Gonzaga to a sprained ankle of his own. He never returned to a game in which the Falcons possibly could have challenged the Bulldogs, and the worst-case scenario for Lyons is not a good one. Since he sustained a high-ankle sprain, he could miss as many as six weeks, but a lot depends on how he reacts. It is possible he could be back as soon as this weekend, but ideally he would be back by January 14 when the Falcons travel to Boise State to open the conference season.

Another prominent MW player missed a game this week for a different reason, however, as New Mexico’s Kendall Williams sat out the Lobos’ Thursday game against UMKC as punishment from head coach Steve Alford for a poor academic fall semester. Williams is not in any way academically ineligible, and certainly the Lobos did just fine without him against middling competition, but give credit to Alford for laying down the law.

Team of the Week

UNLV – The Runnin’ Rebels take this honor down for the second straight week on the strength of its demolition of California on Friday. UNLV used a 31-12 run to close the first half to build a 20-point halftime lead, then led by as many as 27 in the second half before coasting home to a 17-point win. Anthony Marshall led the way in style with 22 points, nine rebounds, and three steals, while Oscar Bellfield handed out 11 assists and the Rebels dominated every facet of the game. UNLV still has to travel to Hawaii and Cal State Bakersfield in their non-conference (along with hosting Central Arkansas), but if everything holds up, they should enter conference play with a 16-2 record, including wins over North Carolina, Illinois and California and a good shot at a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Dorian Green, Colorado State

Dorian Green Had A Career Game For CSU Against Northern Colorado, Knocking Down Eight Threes (photo credit: Sam Noblett, The Rocky Mountain Collegian)

Player of the Week

Dorian Green, Jr, Colorado State – Green caught absolute fire Thursday night for the Rams, hitting eight-of-ten three-pointers and 11-of-16 from the field while exploding for a career-high 36 points in a win over Northern Colorado. After an excellent freshman season in Fort Collins, Green took a step back last season, seeing his scoring and shooting numbers take a healthy dip. But in his third season, Green has been rock-solid shooting the ball, hitting 58.7% of his three-point attempts this year. He’s also picked up his rebounding numbers for the third year running, (even adding his first-career double-digit rebounding game against Duke a couple weeks back) while helping out with the ballhandling duties and providing an explosive offensive threat in a Ram backcourt made up of multiple excellent shooters.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by AMurawa on December 13th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

This week marked the start of a relatively quiet time in the Mountain West schedule. With the MW/MVC Challenge and early season tournaments a thing of the past, and with the combination of finals, holidays and a late start to conference play, we’re treated to almost a month worth of sleepy matchups. We’ve still got a handful of interesting games, however, like the UNLV-Wisconsin matchup this past week, or the upcoming Rebels’ matchups with Illinois and Cal (other games of note include New Mexico-Oklahoma State and Boise State-Iowa). But for every one of those types of games, we’ve got a UC Riverside-San Diego State or Sioux Falls-Wyoming snoozefest to keep us in check. Despite the fact that the Mountain West currently ranks fourth among all conferences in RPI, you can expect that the anticipated dive in strength of schedule over the next month will hurt the conference’s member institutions when it comes to selection and seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

Team of the Week

Michael Lyons, Air Force

Air Force, Led By Michael Lyons, Won Both Their Games This Week By An Average Of 16 Points (Julie Jacobson/AP)

  • Air Force – The Falcons are my team of the week, almost by default. They are the only team in the conference to win two games this week, and they did so in convincing fashion, knocking off Wright State by 21, then taking care of Arkansas-Pine Bluff by 12. The Falcons used suffocating defense to limit WSU to just 9-of-46 shooting from the field and coasted enough to allow a whopping 17 players to get playing time in the game. Senior guard Michael Lyons led the way in both games, and is now averaging 19 points (best in the conference) and 5.4 rebounds per game (#11 in the conference), while Mike Fitzgerald busted out with six threes on his way to a career-high 19 against UAPB. The Academy is now 5-2 on the season, with the two losses (to Colorado and Drake) coming by a combined total of just five points.

Player of the Week

  • DeShawn Stephens, Jr, San Diego State – In a week where there was no runaway winner, we’re going to take this opportunity to recognize Stephens, a junior college transfer in his first year on Montezuma Mesa. With the Aztecs woefully thin up front to begin with, more minutes opened up for Stephens when senior big man Tim Shelton was limited to just seven minutes by yet another knee injury in their game against cross-town foe San Diego. Stephens, a quick learner who didn’t play basketball in high school, responded with 16 points and nine rebounds in the Aztecs win, and should be in line for more minutes from here on out, as he is already arguably the best SDSU big man.

Newcomer of the Week

  • Stephens – The 6″8″, 215-pound Los Angeles native is also converted 7-of-8 shots in the victory over San Diego.
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RTC Conference Primers: #7 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences; he is also a staffer on the Pac-12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.

Reader’s Take I

 

Top Storylines

  • Tectonic Shifts in the MW: As the landscape of college sports continues to shift, the Mountain West continues to change. This year, the conference is without BYU and Utah for the first time in its history. Aside from the fact that the state of Utah was sort of the center of the conference for many years, the impact on the basketball side of things cannot be overstated. In the 12 years that the two schools were a part of the conference, they won five outright regular season titles between them and twice shared the regular season title. TCU will join the two Utah schools as ex-MW members after this year when it joins the Big 12.
  • Temporary Fixes? As old schools depart, new schools come in. Boise State joins the conference this season, although there are already rumors that its stay may be short-lived, as other conferences including the Big 12 and the Big East, woo the Broncos. Fresno State and Nevada are due to join the conference in 2012-13, but as the ground continues to move under the feet of college athletics, one never knows what changes will come next.
  • Scheduling: With just eight conference teams this year, each team will play just 14 conference games. So while the Pac-12 and Big Ten and other major conferences are kicking off games against their conference rivals on or before New Year’s, MW schools will wait until the middle of January to get into conference play, filling the interim with games against schools like Johnson & Wales, Texas-Pan American, Nebraska-Omaha, Houston Baptist, San Diego Christian and Utah Valley. This is not a good thing for a conference, not a good thing for the fans, and not a good thing for college basketball.
  • Changes On The Sidelines: Aside from having a new team in the conference, we’ve got a couple returning teams with new coaches. The most high profile coaching change comes at UNLV with Lon Kruger gone for Oklahoma, and Dave Rice, the former associate head coach under Dave Rose at BYU, returning to Vegas where he played and served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian. The other coaching change is at Wyoming, where Larry Shyatt returns to town after spending the last several years as the associate head coach at Florida.

Drew Gordon Looks to Lead New Mexico to a Mountain West Title

  • New Favorites. Last year, it was more or less a two-horse race for the conference title between BYU and San Diego State. This year, there is no BYU and SDSU has graduated its four most important players. As a result, it looks to be two new horses who head the pack in search of a conference title with UNLV and New Mexico far and away the favorites. In the MW preseason basketball poll, the Lobos got 22 of the 26 first place votes from the media, with the Rebels snagging the other four. Those two schools also dominated the all-conference team selections, each putting two players on the list.
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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 Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

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

A Look Back

With the battle for the conference title just a day away, the conference race has taken its shape. Up top, of course, are national top-ten teams BYU and San Diego State, tied at 12-1 and ready to battle on Montezuma Mesa on Saturday morning. Next, UNLV has moved backed into third and seems a lock to be asked to the Big Dance, while Colorado State is still waiting in the wings, hoping to secure its own invitation in its remaining schedule after having just booted one of its last big chances. Down the ladder another rung, Utah has suddenly turned on the juice and bolted to three straight wins (although it may not be enough to save Jim Boylen’s job), while New Mexico has been the biggest disappointment in conference play, still three positive outcomes away from a .500 MWC record. At the bottom of the conference, Air Force has now lost four straight and fallen back to .500 overall for the first time since their second game, and suddenly they’ve got Wyoming nipping at their heels for the right to avoid the 8/9 game in the MWC Tournament. And finally, there’s TCU all alone at the bottom with a 1-13 record, an 11-game losing streak and a program in shambles in advance of an upcoming move to the Big East in 2012-13.

Team of the Week: UNLV – Since we last talked, the Rebels have bounced back from their disappointing result against the Aztecs and reeled off three straights wins to pop their bubble and plant themselves firmly in the NCAA field. While there has been very little pretty about their wins over Air Force (just a horribly brutal game to watch), New Mexico and Colorado State, the Rebels have gotten back to playing the type of defense they were playing in November. Against the Falcons, UNLV turned on the pressure and held Air Force scoreless for over 13 minutes in the second half, while grabbing a staggering 96.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities in securing a come-from-behind win there. Then the Rebels paired a revenge victory over Colorado State in Fort Collins with a squeaker over New Mexico in Albuquerque, two mighty impressive road wins. While offense continues to be a struggle most nights, this Running Rebel team figures to be an awful tough out in the MWC Tournament on their own home floor.

Player of the Week: Malcolm Thomas, Senior, San Diego State – On the hyper-talented Aztec frontcourt, Kawhi Leonard is the star, the go-to guy, the All-American candidate. But this guy is pretty good too, and a vital cog in what Steve Fisher wants to do. While Leonard is flashier with the ball in his hands, Thomas is nearly as good on the glass, and arguably a better interior defender. Thomas leads the Aztecs with more than two blocked shots per game (and blocks on about 8% of all opponents’ two-point field goals – good for 66th in the nation), and he racked up seven more blocks this week, to go with 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing. Given that he had been in a bit of a slump on the offensive end, averaging just over seven points per game in the prior eight games, his offensive awakening is a welcome piece of good news heading into Saturday’s big game.

Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – Despite three losses this week, part of a four-game slide for the Lobos, Gordon has to take down the honor on the basis of his 17 points and a MWC-record 23 rebounds against Utah on Saturday. Throw in 13 points and nine rebounds against SDSU and 15 points and 14 rebounds against UNLV, Gordon has become a dominant low-post force in the conference. There are still some holes in his game, but if those can get patched (or at least temporarily hidden), he could help the Lobos make some noise in the MWC Tourney.

Game of the Week: Utah 62, New Mexico 60 – This game just epitomizes the type of season the Lobos are having. New Mexico controlled just about every facet of this game, except for the small little fact that they couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean from the beach, post a sub-40% effective field goal percentage. And yet, they still found themselves up one with time running down and with the Utah offense in disarray. And then Chris Hines did this. With the Lobos having lost to UNLV in overtime on Wednesday night after having a good look at the buzzer in regulation, and lost at SDSU last Wednesday after fighting back from a 14-point deficit to be right there at the end, this was just another annoyance. But couple with all the other missed opportunities in the Lobo year (a one-point loss at UNLV in which they had multiple chances to put that one away, a double-overtime loss at Dayton, and this heartbreaking loss at Wyoming), this must be just the basketball gods getting back at New Mexico for all their fortunate bounces last year.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (17-11, 5-8) at TCU (10-19, 1-13), 2/26, 5PM PST, CBS College Sports – Yes, this epic battle between the Horned Frogs and the…. Okay, just wanted to see if you all were paying attention. Clearly the game of the week (which will be played Saturday morning at 11AM PST on CBS – the first ever national non-cable television broadcast of a MWC regular season basketball game – between San Diego State (27-1, 12-1) and BYU (26-2, 12-1). And CBS knocked the ball out of the park in choosing this game to televise way back in August. When these two teams played in late January, Jimmer Fredette took the nation by storm, knocking down 43 points in increasingly improbable fashion and slowly breaking the will of the Aztec defenders. What was a close game for 30-plus minutes or so turned into a game that was not particularly in doubt after the final TV timeout. The Aztecs controlled the glass as expected, but struggled to score. In particular senior point guard D.J. Gay, who started off guarding Fredette, seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility of both guarding Fredette and being the Aztec offensive rock. I’m guessing that won’t happen again. While the Aztecs are rightly afraid of getting into a wide-open transition game with the Cougars and Fredette, they’ll need to be able to turn some of their rebounds into transition opportunities in order to get some easy offense, but most importantly, they’ll need to control Fredette. Gay was ineffective against him last time, and Steve Fisher can’t risk losing his offense this time around, so expect Chase Tapley to get the first crack at Jimmer, while Billy White and even Kawhi Leonard may get some face-time with the National Player of the Year candidate.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (27-1, 12-1): The Aztecs posted wins over Air Force and New Mexico, got Tapley and Tim Shelton back from injury, and then got to rest up in the middle of the week in preparation for Saturday’s game. This week couldn’t have gone any better. While his running mate Thomas took down the POTW award, Leonard continued his great play, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds this week. Apropos of little, you could actually piece together a pretty strong All-American team with just players from the MWC and Pac-10 this season, and only have to reach once. Gimme Leonard and Fredette paired with Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas (Fredette and Williams are dead-solid locks to be first-team All-Americans, while Leonard and Thomas should be second-team, but may lose out to players who play primarily on ESPN), and throw in Klay Thompson for good measure and I’d guess that team could probably take any other team put together out of any other two conferences around the country.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host the Cougars in the biggest game in the history of the Mountain West Conference on Saturday, after which they’ll wrap up the season with a trip to Wyoming and a visit from Colorado State.

2. BYU (26-2, 12-1): A ho-hum week for the Cougars: two more wins (a 23-point blowout at TCU and a never-particularly-close eight-point win at home against Colorado State) and 57 more points from Fredette (although in an increasingly inefficient manner – just 15 of 42 from the field in the two games). Other highlights included Kyle Collinsworth contributing eight rebounds per game off the bench and sophomore Stephen Rogers having his best game since New Year’s Day with 15 points and three threes against TCU.

A look ahead: I’m only reminding you one more time: 11AM PST Saturday morning, your local CBS affiliate. BYU at San Diego State. Watch it.

3. UNLV (21-7, 9-5): We detailed the fact that the Rebels have now won three straight games in our Team of the Week section, but it’s interesting that they’ve done it with different players leading the way in each instance. In the Air Force game, Tre’Von Willis took over and led the team with 13 points and four assists (those numbers may not sound impressive, but it is all relative in a game where the winning team scored 49 points). He continued his strong play in the other two games (eight assists against Colorado State and 25 points, five three, four assists and four steals against New Mexico), but in each case had plenty of help. In the CSU game, Oscar Bellfield led the way with 18 points, including 16 in the second half, to secure the Rebel victory, while it was Quintrell Thomas taking over the game against the Lobos with 19 points and 13 rebounds in place of the fouled-out Chace Stanback. The Rebels still don’t have a single go-to guy (although Willis has begun to look willing to take that role back over, despite his nagging knee injury that is not getting any better), and there are plenty of maddeningly inconsistent performers here (with Stanback’s yo-yo act the most egregious example), but the good news for Lon Kruger is that he is at least getting somebody to step up every night, even if it is somebody different every time out.

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

4. Colorado State (18-9, 8-5): The good news for the Rams is that they took care of business against TCU. The bad news is that they struck out in their chances against UNLV and BYU, falling by seven at home to the surging Rebels and by eight at Provo. With the season-ending game at San Diego State the sole remaining “up” game on their schedule, the Rams are faced with the prospect of going into Selection Sunday with a neutral-site win over Southern Miss and a win at UNLV as their sole wins against teams in the top-50 RPI. This year, that could be good enough, but a win over the Aztecs on the final day of the season or a MWC Tournament semifinal win over either BYU or SDSU would go a long ways towards helping Tim Miles sleep well on March 12.

A look ahead: The Rams travel to Air Force, then host Utah, and while a win in either of those games is not going to put them in the NCAA Tournament, a loss might keep them out. Then, on March 5, they travel to San Diego to face the Aztecs on a day when the raucous crowd at Viejas Arena will be saying goodbye to D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and likely Kawhi Leonard. Yikes. Good luck with that.

5. New Mexico (17-11, 5-8): So, three straight losses have effectively killed any prayer this Lobo team had of getting an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. And yet, I still think this team is a threat in the MWC Tournament. Why? Well, Dairese Gary is every bit the bulldog that Gay is at SDSU, the type of player who is capable of willing his team to victories down the stretch (although, admittedly, you maybe wouldn’t know that following these guys this year). Gordon has turned into a dominant rebounder and athletic presence up front (although he’s the consummate black-hole on offense – the ball goes in to the post and never comes back out). Tony Snell, Kendall Williams and Philip McDonald are athletic and skilled wing players who are each capable of catching fire from deep (although (1) Snell is a freshman who has only recently started producing, and inconsistently at that, (2) Williams, also a freshman, has tailed off some since a lightning fast start and (3) McDonald is a complete mystery who is shooting 10 percentage points lower than last year’s average from three just 33% from the field in MWC play). And then there’s a ton of tough big guys up front to pair with Gordon (none of whom have displayed any hint of desperation in grabbing a rebound, playing solid post defense or setting solid screens). See. They’re brilliant!

A look ahead: At TCU, at BYU and home against Air Force as the Lobos play out the string. None of those games mean a thing to the Lobos tournament hopes – they’ll need to win three straight games on March 10th, 11th and 12th, or they’re NIT bound.

6. Utah (13-15, 6-8): When last we checked in with the Utes, they had lost five straight games and the last two of those by an average of more than 22 points. Jim Boylen’s job was in serious jeopardy and they looked to be already in the offseason mentally. Since then, they’ve strung together three solid wins, albeit against the three teams currently below them in the standings, and by a combined total of 14 points, but you’ve got to give credit to Boylen for keeping this team playing hard. While circumstances may conspire against him in Utah, he’s given the administration some good reasons to consider giving him another chance.

A look ahead: The Utes are down their final two games in their MWC regular season history: at Colorado State next Wednesday and at home against UNLV next Saturday. An NCAA Tournament bid is extremely unlikely (they’d need to win the conference tourney), but if they can extend their momentum a bit longer, perhaps they’ll get back on the NIT’s radar.

7. Air Force (13-13, 4-9): Four straight losses (and an average of just over 50 points per game in those losses) and all of a sudden, what was looking like a surprisingly strong Falcon season has turned into a fight to hold on to the first-round bye in the MWC title. While Air Force got destroyed on the glass by BYU, UNLV and San Diego State in the first three of those losses, Wednesday’s night loss at Wyoming was bizarre basketball. Out of the blue, suddenly the Falcon outrebounded somebody, and at the hands of a Cowboy team that killed them on the glass in their first meeting. Just as surprising, the Falcons turned the ball over 19 times, a stunning number for a team that takes care of the ball well. And, for a third surprise, Wyoming, a team in the bottom quarter of Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, outshot the Falcons, the 22nd best team in the nation in that category. And, through all that, Wyoming snuck out a one-point win.

A look ahead: Tough games at home against Colorado State and at New Mexico surround a very winnable home game against the cellar-dwelling Horned Frogs. Win two of those three games and the Falcons are guaranteed a .500-or-better regular season record.

8. Wyoming (10-17, 3-10): Four games in and Fred Langley’s got a 2-2 record as a head coach. Given that Heath Schroyer was 1-8 when he was fired, you’d have to say that it looks like the timing to fire him was right. The biggest boost from the coaching change has undoubtedly been given to sophomore forward Amath M’Baye, who has averaged 20.3 points and 6.5 rebounds under Langley.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels Salt Lake City for a matchup with Utah, where a win could put the Cowboys in seventh place in the conference.

9. TCU (10-19, 1-13): Three more losses, and the assumption is that Jim Christian is a dead man walking; this has turned into a total collapse. With two of the four leading scorers on this team having been kicked off the team, the back-half of this conference season has been little more than tryouts for next year’s scholarships. Point guard Hank Thorns has been tough, handing out assists all over the place (he’s easily the conference’s leading assist man, with nearly seven per game), junior wing J.R. Cadot has come on strong of late (he’s had double figure scoring in four straight games and has shown a penchant for rebounding above and beyond his 6’5 frame) and Garlon Green has been a consistently solid performer all season long, but beyond that, this roster is in need of an overhaul.

A look ahead: The Horned Frogs host New Mexico, then travel to Air Force next Wednesday in a game that gives them a solid chance at their second conference win.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 15th, 2011

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

A Look Back

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

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

Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look ahead: Wyoming travels Salt Lake City for a matchup with Utah, where a win could put the Cowboys in seventh place in the conference.

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

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

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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on 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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