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.
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.