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Mountain West Notebook

February 17, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Notebook

by Bob Thurman

Where Are We?

With a little over half the conference season over, it’s a good time to take a look at how the teams have fared, what they need to do in these last three weeks, and what to expect from each of them. Here we go!

Utah (19-4, 7-1)

No team in the league has played better than the Utes this season. With only four returning players from a year ago, things looked bleak in Salt Lake City. However, the newcomers have exceeded expectations and helped alleviate pressure from the few veterans on this team. Coach Rick Majerus deserves most of the credit for molding this team into such a coherent unit in this short of time, and should be rewarded as conference coach of the year. The Utes are on top of the standings due to their incredible team defense. They still need to improve offensively, but they make it up by rebounding, taking care of the ball, and taking good shots.

The Utes are sitting pretty with only two road games left, and those are against Air Force and New Mexico. The only obstacle is their rematch with BYU, which the Cougars need to win if they have any hope of winning the title. Even if the Utes lose that game, I believe they still should win the conference title. They’re too strong to slip up at this point in the season. Also, look for them to (finally) crack the Top 25 and stay there the rest of the season.

BYU (17-6, 6-2)

The Cougars have played well all season, with only minor hiccups along the way (see San Francisco). They are a dangerous team, with many weapons. Leading the way have been wings Travis Hansen and Mark Bigelow. Both are extremely athletic, good shooters and scrappy defenders, who are difficult matchups for most teams. Down low, the Cougars are huge. Big men Rafael Aruajo, Jared Jensen and Jake Shoff are a load for most teams, whose only hope is to try and get them into foul trouble. The only weakness on this team is at point guard, where duties are shared by Terry Nashif and Kevin Woodberry. Woodberry is more athletic, but also inconsistent. Nashif is steady, but not much of an offensive threat. When one or the other is on, BYU usually wins.

The Cougars, who have played much better on the road this season, plays three more road games. Two of those are at Air Force and at New Mexico, but it’s the one at Utah that may decide if the Cougars can capture the league title. Regardless, BYU will make the NCAA Tournament and should be a challenging opponent.

Wyoming (17-6, 5-3)

Despite numerous injuries, the Cowboys have enjoyed a successful season to this point. However, there is a feeling amongst some that they have been a disappointment. Hogwash! The loss of team leader Marcus Bailey should have decimated this team, but instead brought them closer as a unit. Their team defense has been solid and senior Donta Richardson has picked up the scoring slack. They are the defending conference champs and are still to be reckoned with.

Despite its success this season, the reality of the situation is that this team is tired. Wyoming’s bench is very weak and the starters are logging a lot of minutes. They just stopped a three game skid, and will return home to play three straight at home. However, the schedule makers were unkind to them by ending the season at Utah and at BYU. The Cowboys don’t have a high enough RPI to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so they may need to win the conference tournament to get in. If they don’t, the NIT will be waiting.

UNLV (15-7, 4-4)

The league’s biggest disappointment of the season has been the Rebels. Despite having the league’s most talent, including two future NBA draft picks, the passion, intensity and teamwork have been missing from several games this season. After a promising 11-2 start, the Rebels started conference play losing four of their first five games and looked in total disarray. Since then, Charlie Spoonhour has gone with a bigger lineup and has won three of their last four to break even in conference play.

The Rebels have an easier remaining schedule than most teams, but must play both Utah and Wyoming on the road, which could prevent them from capturing the third seed in the conference tournament. Of course, the Rebels host the conference tournament, which gives them an edge in capturing the league’s automatic bid. Unless they come on strong these last three weeks, winning the conference tournament may be their only shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament.

Colorado State (14-9, 3-5)

The Rams have already surpassed their win total for all of last season, so it’s been much happier in Fort Collins this season. However, things have been returning to normal the past few weeks as they have lost four in a row and are out of title contention. It doesn’t get any better for Colorado State, as they play four of their last six on the road. The reality of the situation is, the Rams are only playing for an NIT bid now.

San Diego State (12-9, 3-5)

The most infuriating team of the conference has to be the Aztecs. Here’s a team that can lose to Portland, but then play mighty Arizona to a draw (almost). They can upset the Utes, then lose to New Mexico a week later. The talent is here, along with some quality role players, but the Aztecs tend to have too many defensive lapses and are usually careless with the ball. Like Colorado State, they must play four out of six on the road and will struggle to break even in conference play. However, as we saw last season, this team is capable of winning three straight in the conference tournament and steal the automatic bid. Unfortunately, Randy Holcomb and Al Faux have graduated, so the best they will do this season is reach the NIT.

Air Force (11-10, 2-6)

The Falcons have been a pleasant surprise so far this season, as they too have already surpassed last season’s win total. The team plays some of the best defense in the country, despite being outrebounded most of the time. However, their offense is pitiful, to say the least. If the three pointers aren’t falling, the team usually loses. With four of its last six at home, Air Force has a shot to end the season .500 or better. That won’t get them into the postseason, but it would be a giant step for Joe Scott’s program.

New Mexico (8-13, 2-6)

Quite simply, this is the worst team in the conference. Besides the heroic performances of Ruben Douglas, there are not too many positive things to say about the Lobos this season. Despite not playing a lick of defense, Douglas has made up for it by lighting up the score board with 30-some points a night, occasionally 40. When he graduates, this program will sink further into obscurity. Until they hire a real coach, this program will not see postseason play for years to come. It’s a shame that a storied program such as this should be allowed to sink this far, this fast.

This Week’s MWC Heat-Miser Award

Tim Keller and Antoine Hood, Air Force

56 points, 16-21 shooting, 18-22 free throws, 4 steals versus Colorado State

The Falcons usually don’t score this many points as a team. On this afternoon, their starting backcourt was on fire against a stunned Ram team. Freshman Antoine Hood only got the start due to an injury to senior Vernard Jenkins. Now the question is…will Jenkins ever get his old job back?


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