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Mountain West Notebook

January 6, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Notebook

by Bob Thurman

A New Year, A New Season

Ah yes, the new year is upon us, which means college basketball’s second season is starting. Obviously, what I am referring to is the start of conference play. Most conferences tipped it off this weekend, but since the Mountain West only plays fourteen league games, it has another week before things get busy in the league. Regardless, now is a good time to look back on the season so far and give you my thoughts and observations on the teams and players of the Mountain West.

Team Observations

Strongest Team: BYU (10-2)

It should be no surprise that the league’s most experienced team is also its toughest at this point in the season. The Cougars are 3 points and 7 seconds away from being undefeated, as both Cal and Utah State hit last second shots to escape with victories on their home courts. They’re getting great play from everywhere on the court: inside with Rafael Araujo, outside with Mark Bigelow and Mike Hall, and at the point with a rejuvenated Luiz Lemes. Add to that some solid team defense, and it’s clear that BYU is the team to beat in the conference.

Close Behind: UNLV (8-3)

Weakest Team: Wyoming (6-4)

It’s tough to find a “weak” team in this conference, considering none of them has a losing record. However, it’s clear that Wyoming doesn’t have the talent they are accustomed to. The Pokes have only played two road games, both of which resulted in blowout losses. Their only quality win was against a mediocre Washington squad. With a balanced offense and a solid defense, the Cowboys will still be a decent club, especially at home. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up losing every conference road game this season.

Close Behind: Air Force (7-2)

Biggest Surprise: Air Force (7-2)

A few weeks ago, the Falcons were their usual ho-hum self. However, after beating Cal and winning the Golden Bear Classic Tournament last weekend, the Academy is making a lot more noise. Considering they have only played three games at home so far this season, their 7-2 record is quite an accomplishment for such an undersized team. Even their loss to Belmont doesn’t look too bad… isn’t that right, Quin Snyder? With the nation’s top defense, the Falcons will annoy most of the teams in the MWC… and beat some of them as well.

Close Behind: UNLV (8-3)

Biggest Disappointment: Utah (9-3)

Don’t get me wrong, the Utes are a solid team and their record proves that. However, they are also a very young and inexperienced team that needs some more time to gel. This can be seen in their three losses to Connecticut, Texas Tech and LSU. When facing an experienced and athletic team, Rick Majerus’ offense becomes stagnant, makes mistakes and wilts under the pressure. They redeemed themselves with a big win at Colorado before Christmas, which bodes well for conference play. However, they still need better point guard play, a healthy Tim Frost and more touches for Andrew Bogut if they want the conference title to be theirs.

Close Behind: San Diego State (8-5)

Most Improved: New Mexico (7-3)

Other than Ruben Douglas, the Lobos were a joke last season. Things are different this year, as a number of talented newcomers are making an immediate impact and once again, making The Pit one of the most feared arenas in the country. Transfers Danny Granger, Troy DeVries and Alfred Neale have settled in nicely into the starting lineup, alongside improved returnees Javin Tindall and David Chiotti. The offense is humming, the defense is greatly improved, and the fans are excited once again. However, UNM has only played one road game this season, so don’t start buying those NCAA Tournament tickets just yet!

Close Behind: Air Force (7-2)

Most Overrated: Colorado State (7-4)

Based solely on their late season run last March, the Rams garnered a lot of preseason hype from the media. Ignored by the media was the fact that this team lost 8 in a row at one point last year. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that CSU struggled to a 4-4 record early this season. This team is very young and the graduation of solid team players, such as Brian Greene and Andy Birley, cannot be easily replaced. However, the Rams have shown improvement recently by taking two on the road before upsetting No. 21 Purdue at home (see below), so maybe their struggles are nearing the end.

Close Behind: Utah (9-3)

Most Likely to Turn it Around: San Diego State (8-5)

The Aztecs started the season strong by winning two of three in Maui. Since then, they have not played up to their potential, especially at home. Cox Arena should be a safe haven for them, but losses to Washington and Troy State have hurt. However, this team has proven that they can compete with anyone, even on the road. SDSU played well in losses to Arizona, Texas Tech and Dayton and that experience should help them in conference play. With all the newcomers this year, it’s tough to come together as a team this early. Look for that to improve as the season continues.

Close Behind: Utah (9-3)

Most Likely to Fade Away: Air Force (7-2)

Even though they have played beyond expectations so far this season, there is no denying that the Falcons are the smallest, and probably least talented team in the Mountain West. They do a great job hiding this fact by mastering the fundamentals of the game and playing with grit and determination. However, college basketball is a zero-sum game, so that means someone has to lose. Taking into account the number of quality teams in this league, it’s reasonable to think that Air Force will lose a good number of them.

Close Behind: Wyoming (6-4)

Most Impressive Win: Colorado State over Purdue, 71-69 (December 30)

After two big road wins, the Rams came home to face the #21 Purdue Boilermakers. CSU was in control during the second half until Purdue went on a frantic run to take a 69-63 lead with 10 seconds left. Two free throws and a three pointer by Michael Morris cut the lead to one with 0.7 seconds remaining and Gene Keady’s club taking the ball out of bounds. Matt Williams deflected the inbound pass to Morris, who heaved up a desperation three pointer that hit nothing but net. Winning a game they certainly should have lost could boost the Rams’ confidence going into league play.

Close Behind: Air Force over Cal, 49-44 (December 28)

Player Observations

Top Player: Rafael Araujo, BYU

The Cougars’ center attended Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp this past summer, and it has obviously paid huge dividends. Besides playing smarter (by staying out of foul trouble), Araujo has improved his foot speed and his shooting range to become the league’s most dominant player. He’s averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game, and has posted a double-double in 8 of the last 10 games.

Close Behind: Odartey Blankson, UNLV

Top Stiff: Tim Drisdom, Utah

After super-sub Marc Jackson transferred from Utah, the point guard controversy should have been resolved. Unfortunately, Drisdom, the once-promising sophomore, has decided to re-ignite this controversy with his awful play so far this season. Besides being a poor shooter (38% FG, 25% 3-pt, 63% FT), Drisdom has hindered Utah’s offense by committing way too many turnovers and not delivering the ball when needed, as shown by his poor assist/turnover ratio (1.2). He has played well his last two games (14 assists, 3 turnovers), but he must consistently perform this way if the Utes want to contend. Otherwise, the point guard duties will fall to true freshman Josh Olsen, which is something Coach Majerus didn’t have in mind.

Close Behind: Ryan Ashcraft, New Mexico

Most Exciting: Wesley Stokes, San Diego State

He may have toned down the hair, but the transfer from Missouri hasn’t changed his style: fast, aggressive and confident. Despite his sometimes questionable decision making, he’s still able to consistently deliver the ball to his teammates, as seen by his league leading 6 assists per game. When he’s not dishing off for easy baskets, he’s blowing by his defender and either floating jumpers over the opponent’s big men or scooping lay-ups underneath them. Oh, and did I mention his in-your-face defense?

Close Behind: Danny Granger, New Mexico

Biggest Disappointment: Tim Frost, Utah

The savvy senior has been slowed by back problems this season, so it’s understandable that his stats are down from last season. However, what’s missing is the fire that he brings down low on both the offensive and defensive ends. He’s getting slammed on the boards, plays passive on defense, and seems tentative on offense. It’s not a good sign for a player who could have been all-conference this season.

Close Behind: Jared Jensen, BYU

Most Improved: Mory Correa, Wyoming

After receiving minimal playing time behind Nsonwu-Amadi last season, the 6-9 senior is developing into a solid post player for the Cowboys. Originally from France, Correa has long arms and good leaping ability, which has translated into a league leading 3 blocks per game. He’s also dramatically improved his offensive game, pumping in 10 points and hauling down 6 boards per game. His athleticism is a refreshing change from the sluggishness exhibited by quite a few big men in the Mountain West.

Close Behind: Luiz Lemes, BYU

Most Overrated: Matt Nelson, Colorado State

In a conference that doesn’t get much pub, it’s hard to single out anyone for being overrated. However, the junior center gets the nod due to his sub-par play so far this season, especially compared to the second half of last season when he started to make a name for himself. The 7-0 Nelson does have great hands and a sweet touch, but plays too passive on defense and doesn’t hit the glass hard enough. His 5 rebounds per game are only third best on his team! Enough said.

Close Behind: Demetrius Hunter, UNLV

Most Underrated: Aerick Sanders, San Diego State

After highlighting Sanders in my previous article, ESPN suddenly heralds the athletic big man as one of the country’s most underrated players. Coincidence? Hmmm. Regardless of the new found publicity, the senior is still not even widely known within the MWC. He’s improving game-by-game and has raised his scoring average to 16.7, while continuing to battle BYU’s Araujo as the league’s top rebounder with 10.8 boards per game.

Close Behind: Javin Tindall, New Mexico

Freshman with Biggest Impact: Andrew Bogut, Utah

The overhyped Australian hasn’t disappointed anyone since landing in Salt Lake City. With Frost’s injury problems and little production from the bench, Bogut has been forced to carry the Utes frontline most of this season. He’s been a monster on the boards, averaging 10.5 per game, including 3 on the offensive glass. Meanwhile, his 12 points per game could be much more if he improves his free throw shooting (52%) and gets more than his average of 8 shots per game. Look for that to happen soon.

Close Behind: Brandon Heath, San Diego State

Junior College Player with Biggest Impact: Mike Hall, BYU

After attending four colleges the past two years, you would think the 6-3 swingman would need some time to adjust at BYU. Think again! Hall has stepped into Travis Hansen’s shoes nicely, scoring 14 points and grabbing 4 rebounds per game. More importantly, he’s their best one-on-one defender and gives BYU some needed athleticism.

Close Behind: Jerel Blassingame, UNLV

Transfer with Biggest Impact: Odartey Blankson, UNLV

The former Marquette Warrior has quickly made the Rebels his team without the “me” attitude that this program has been plagued with recently. After being a role player his first two seasons, he’s accepted greater responsibility as a scorer, rebounder and leader of a team that has welcomed many new faces. He’s averaging 17.5 points per game at a 55% shooting clip, along with 10.6 rebounds per game. In addition, he’s second on the team in assists and steals, showing what a great all-around player he has become this season.

Close Behind: Danny Granger, New Mexico


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