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Mountain West Notebook

March 19, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Notebook

by Bob Thurman

A Wild Week Out West

The week started with the Mountain West conference hoping to secure a third NCAA Tournament bid. Utah and BYU were locks, but there were a few teams that still had a shot at the elusive third bid. Would UNLV and Wyoming play well enough to impress the selection committee and snare an at-large bid? Would San Diego State make another run through the tournament and capture the automatic bid? In the end, the MWC got its third bid. However, it was a team that nobody outside Colorado would have believed could make such an amazing run!

The Mountain West conference tournament started out just as I predicted. BYU, Colorado State, Utah and UNLV all won their first round games. I was looking like a genius. However, things started to get a little more interesting after that! In the only game I would predict correctly afterwards, UNLV finally beat Utah. However, the 23-point blowout was quite a surprise. The Utes, minus Britton Johnsen, struggled to contain the athletic Rebels, who scorched the nets by shooting 65 percent for the game against the Utes vaunted defense. It was Utah’s worst loss of the season.

In the other semifinal, I felt pretty comfortable with BYU against Colorado State. The Cougars handled the Rams fairly easily in their two previous meetings and were playing well down the stretch. However, the Rams used a 22-1 run to take command early in the second half. BYU came storming back to force the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Rams won it at the free throw line, making 12 of 14 shots. The Rams were led by their stellar frontline of Matt Nelson and Brian Greene, who combined for 48 points.

In the conference championship game, the Rebels were feeling confident against the Cinderella Rams. A televised game, in front of their home crowd, against a team they whipped by 33 points earlier in the season. The NCAA bid was theirs to take! It certainly looked that way with UNLV up by 10 points with four minutes to play. However, the Rams kept chipping away at the lead, while the Rebels crumbled under the pressure. Brian Greene’s jumper with five seconds to go put the Rams ahead for good, 62-61. The win capped one of the most amazing runs in Mountain West history, and put Colorado State into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990.

NCAA First Round Matchups

It’s a good thing Colorado State won the MWC Tournament because it was obvious that the selection committee would not have given out a third bid. BYU as a twelve seed? Yet UNC Wilmington gets an eleventh seed! No offense to the Seahawks, who are an excellent team from a decent conference, but do they really deserve a higher seed than BYU? The Cougars tied for first place in the sixth best conference in the country and were in the RPI’s top 20 all season long. There is simply no comparison. To make matters worse, if BYU reaches the Sweet Sixteen, they will be in a bracket that plays Friday/Sunday games. It is against school policy for the Cougars to play on Sunday. Wow! That’s got to be one of the biggest screw-ups in selection history! In fact, overall I think the committee did a really poor job of seeding the teams this year. Of course, leaving out Boston College in favor of Auburn is simply a joke, but I won’t dwell on that. Instead, I’ll preview each of the first round games involving the MWC.

BYU versus Connecticut:

Both teams aren’t happy with the seeds in this one, but at least BYU doesn’t have to travel all the way across country to play it. The Huskies are a hot and cold team, so you will never know which one will show up. On the other hand, you can always count on Emeka Okafor causing havoc underneath the basket. It will be interesting to see if Rafael Araujo can get position down low to be effective against the big shot blocker. Either way, this game will be determined not by the frontcourt, but by the guards. Connecticut’s Ben Gordon, who has struggled lately, needs to get it going early and knock down a few jump shots, while BYU’s Kevin Woodberry needs to get into the lane and draw the defense away from the Cougar’s dangerous wings. Overall, I think the Cougars will do a better job defensively and pull the upset. This will make the selection committee squirm a little!

Colorado State versus Duke

Not many people will predict an upset here! I won’t either, but that doesn’t mean this game won’t be challenging. Despite all the good press, Duke isn’t very good this season. Chris Duhon has regressed, the freshmen have been (surprise) inconsistent, and their team defense isn’t what is was just a year ago. They also seem to struggle against bigger teams, so Matt Nelson and Brian Greene need to have big games if the Rams have any shot at beating the Blue Devils. Even if that does happen, Colorado State must take better care of the ball. If they get sloppy with it, Duke will take advantage and put this game out of reach early. Unfortunately, that probably will happen. Look for Duke to move on to the second round.

Utah versus Oregon

Two different styles of play will clash in this interesting first round matchup. The Utes are coming off a horrible conference tournament performance without Britton Johnsen and need him to be fully recovered if they want a shot at advancing. Their offense has been impotent lately, which won’t cut it against a high scoring team like the Ducks. They will need to score points, regardless of how well they play defensively. Oregon doesn’t play the greatest team defense in the world, so this is the Utes shot to get back on track. If they can hit some threes early in the game, that could open up the inside game and make them tough to beat. However, that’s a lot of ifs for a team that lost by 23 to UNLV, and Oregon is a much better team than the Rebels. Look for the Ducks to move on and stifle any thoughts of a Utah/Kentucky rematch.

More Invites To The Other Tournament

For those college basketball junkies like myself, there’s more tournament action this week at the NIT, where three more teams from the Mountain West were selected to participate. Bubble teams UNLV and Wyoming, along with San Diego State will try to extend their season long enough to make it to Madison Square Garden.

However the teams from the Mountain West perform during the postseason, the conference should be proud of the strength and quality of play this season. Besides being one of the top conferences on paper, the league has some of the most exciting teams and players in the country, including the country’s leading scorer in Ruben Douglas. In addition, most conference can’t say that 75 percent of the teams in the league received invitations to play in the postseason tournaments. Not too shabby! Overall, this may go down as the most successful season in the young conference’s short history. Congratulations to all involved!

This Week’s Heat-Miser Award

Matt Nelson, Colorado State

28 points, 10-14 shooting, 4 rebounds versus BYU

The sophomore center wins the award for a second straight week by helping to pull the upset that would eventually propel the Rams into the NCAA Tournament. Imagine how good this guy will be when he’s healthy!

This Week’s Snow-Miser Award

Jason Straight, Wyoming

6 points, 0-9 shooting, 3 turnovers versus Colorado State

Without Marcus Bailey, the Cowboys have always needed the sophomore point guard to step up and be their third scoring option. Against the Rams, Jason barely hit iron in a loss that ended any hope for an NCAA bid.


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