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Mountain West Notebook

March 9, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Conference Notebook

by Zach Ewing

The best basketball in the Wild West this year isn’t being played on the Pacific coast, but high up in the mountains. The MWC has a higher RPI than the Pac-10 and will likely send as many or more teams to the NCAA Tournament than the normal powerhouse to its left. With that being said, let’s delve into the ins and outs of the Mountain West with one day remaining in the regular season.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

The Mountain West is finally starting to get where it wants to be in the nation’s eyes this season, and that’s expecting multiple NCAA Tournament bids. This season, the surprise team in perhaps all of America, Air Force, leads the pack. The Falcons are 21-5 overall and 11-2 in the MWC, which should be plenty to get them in the tournament regardless of what happens today against Wyoming or next weekend at the Mountain West Tournament in Denver. The flyboys have an RPI of only 61, but a champion of a highly-rated conference is almost never left behind on the dance floor.

Meanwhile, Brigham Young probably made itself close to a lock as well with a gigantic win against Utah on Monday night. The RPI is a very respectable 34, ahead of teams like Arizona, Missouri, Michigan State and Utah State, just to name a few. With a win against UNLV today, the Cougars will have 20 wins to boot and won’t need to worry about the bubble when MWC tournament play commences.

For the Cougars’ arch-rival Utah, things are little bit stickier. The Utes have already won 20 games, but are doomed to only third place in the conference and have a borderline RPI of 50. Chances are Utah needs a win against San Diego State today and a win or two in the conference tourney to make the field of 65.

For everyone else, including UNLV, which has won four of its last five and once was in the bubble conversation, an invitation would likely take a MWC Tournament championship. But that’s not out of the realm of possibility for any team. The tourney is being held in Denver, a neutral site, instead of Las Vegas this year and all of the teams at the top of the standings are vulnerable. Yes, Air Force has the best MWC record by two full games, but the Falcons can have trouble scoring (see: 39-37 loss to Texas-Pan American) and can be beat by a team that is both patient and on a hot shooting streak. BYU has shown flashes of brilliance, like when it beat Oklahoma State, but also lost at New Mexico and San Diego State and was torched by North Carolina State. Don’t be surprised if the Rebels, Aztecs or Lobos get hot and make a run at the championship just like Colorado State did last year.

1 through 4 set; 5-7 need some work

Speaking of the MWC tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver, several teams have already clinched seeds and one match-up is set for the quarterfinals on Thursday. The top four seeds and the eighth seed already have owners: Air Force has clinched the regular season title and will play No. 8 Colorado State on Thursday. BYU will be in the second spot even if Utah is able to tie the Cougars, because BYU has beaten Air Force. That leaves the third slot to the Utes, who own all tiebreakers over UNLV, and the fourth seed to the Rebels. Spots 5 through 7, though, won’t be decided until the end of play today. Currently, New Mexico and San Diego State are tied for fifth with Wyoming a game behind in seventh. But a Wyoming victory over Air Force today would give the Cowboys all tie-breakers over both the Lobos and Aztecs. New Mexico is at Colorado State while San Diego State plays Utah.

One last chance to break that nasty streak

A New Mexico win against Colorado State would be important for seeding reasons, but it would also stop a long dry spell for UNM on the road. It has been more than two years since the Lobos last won away from the Pit. That win, ironically, was at CSU on Jan. 28, 2002. The Rams seem ripe for the picking again, having lost seven in a row, a stretch which spans all of February. New Mexico also has come close to snapping the streak a number of times this season, including at Wake Forest and Wyoming. Maybe the breakthrough will come today.

Do what I say, not what my dad said

On Feb. 15, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels had lost three games in a row, with a 94-60 blow-out at Missouri the latest of that stretch. It seemed like things were only getting worse for the Rebels a couple of days later, when coach Charlie Spoonhour stepped down with health concerns. But since that point, Spoonhour’s son Jay has stepped into the interim coaching role and done a masterful job. Jay has led UNLV to four wins in its five games since he took over, including a win at New Mexico, with the only loss coming by two to Air Force. Watch out for the Rebels in Denver.

Mountain West Player of the Week

A.J. Kuhle, Air Force – So what if he didn’t do much in Air Force’s win against San Diego State on Monday? The Falcons didn’t need him. He played good defense and scored 20 against UNLV, including the shot that gave AFA its first championship.

Mountain West Freshman/Newcomer of the Week

Danny Granger, New Mexico – Just mark him down for the newcomer of the year award. He added to his resume by averaging 21.5 points and 12 rebounds per game against SDSU and UNLV.

Around the Mountain West

Air Force Falcons (11-2 MWC, 21-5 overall)

A.J. Kuhle made what was probably the biggest play in Air Force basketball history last Saturday when he completed a three-point play with 6.3 seconds left to lift AFA to a 72-70 win against UNLV in Colorado Springs. The victory clinched a tie for Air Force’s first-ever conference championship and gave the Falcons the No. 1 seed in the MWC Tournament. The game was tied at 69 when Kuhle drove the baseline, made a reverse lay-up and was fouled to put the Falcons up 72-69. After Jerel Blassingame hit one of two free throws, Joel Gerlach missed two for AFA, but UNLV couldn’t hit a shot to win it. Kuhle led the flyboys with a season-high 20 points.

The Falcons sealed the deal on Monday when they beat San Diego State 61-49. Nick Welch led Air Force with 17 points and four players scored in double figures. The Falcons were able to slow the game’s tempo, like they always do, and shot 13-of-27 from three-point range. The win gave them the conference title outright. Want some perspective? The highest AFA had ever before finished in a conference race was sixth.

This week: today at Wyoming, Thursday vs. Colorado State in Denver, Friday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

Brigham Young Cougars (9-4, 19-7)

The Cougars only played one game this week, but they certainly made it count. It was senior day for Mark Bigelow and Rafael Araujo, the game was very significant for BYU’s NCAA Tournament aspirations and it was for second place in the conference. And oh yeah, it was against the hated Utah Utes. Bigelow and Araujo didn’t disappoint, combining for 35 points, and the Cougars beat off the Utes 70-57. Mike Hall added 21 points as BYU used a 19-2 run to end the first half to take the lead and an 8-0 run to go up 34-23. Nearly 23,000 strong saw the big win.

This week: today at UNLV, Thursday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

Colorado State Rams (3-10, 11-15)

The last win for the Rams came on Jan. 31 at home against Wyoming, and the losing streak extended to seven when Wyoming returned the favor at home last Saturday. Matt Williams scored 15 points to lead CSU as it got out to a 50-44 lead with eight minutes left in the second half, but it wouldn’t last. David Rottinghaus scored 12 of his 18 points in a 19-8 run for the Cowboys that left Colorado State behind 63-58 with less than two minutes to play. The final score was 67-61, and CSU finished 0-7 in MWC road games. The last chance for the Rams to break the losing streak before the tournament is today against New Mexico. Something’s got to give: CSU’s losing streak or UNM’s road futility.

This week: today vs. New Mexico, Thursday vs. Air Force in Denver, Friday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

New Mexico Lobos (5-8, 14-12)

It’s been a good at home, bad on the road story for New Mexico all year long, but that didn’t exactly hold true last weekend. Transfer Danny Granger got the Lobos going last Saturday, scoring 20 points and 15 rebounds in a 72-60 home victory over San Diego State, but on Monday, New Mexico let a game against UNLV get away from it, losing 68-65 in the Pit.

Point guard Javin Tindall scored 16 points against SDSU, including 9 in a 16-2 first-half run that made the score 32-25 Lobos. Granger dominated the rest of the game, and the Aztecs never got close in the second half once UNM extended the lead to 44-29.

It was a different story Monday when UNLV came calling. The Lobos had won 12 of their last 13 games in the Pit, but the Rebels were able to keep the game close throughout and won 78-75. Granger had another huge game with 23 points and 9 rebounds, but Odartey Blankson trumped him, scoring 28. Tindall also finished with 17 points and 5 steals, but it didn’t matter. Now the Lobos can win in Ft. Collins, or wait until next season to break their road losing streak.

This week: today at Colorado State, Thursday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

San Diego State Aztecs (5-8, 14-14)

Not a good week for the Aztecs, who went from having a shot at the fourth or even the third Mountain West seed but lost at both New Mexico and Air Force in two games that were never really in doubt. Against UNM, the Aztecs were led by Wesley Stokes with 15 points, but all of the game’s seven lead changes occurred in the first 12 minutes. New Mexico was up 36-29 at halftime and then SDSU fell cold, going six and a half minutes without scoring to open the second half. San Diego State lost 72-60, but I feel worse for the New Mexico fans, who don’t sit until both teams score in each half.

Monday at Air Force, it didn’t get much better for the Aztecs, who lost 61-49. Brandon Heath and Chris Walton came into the game averaging more than 23 points per game, but were held to just 2 by AFA’s stifling and confusing defense. Air Force hit two threes to open the second half ahead 31-20, and the rest was history.

This week: today vs. Utah, Thursday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (7-6, 15-10)

The Air Force- New Mexico road trip, which in years’ past has been fairly easy, is very tough this year, with those teams a combined 12-2 at home in MWC play. UNLV, though, nearly pulled off the sweep last weekend. Air Force held off the Rebels 72-70. UNLV stayed close, as neither team led by more than four points in the second half, but never led after AFA took a 60-59 lead with 4:13 left. Jerel Blassingame scored 28 points and carried UNLV to a 69-69 tie, but A.J. Kuhle’s three-point play doomed Jay Spoonhour to his first loss as interim head coach.

The Rebels used the same strategy they employed at the Academy to beat New Mexico 68-65 on Monday. This time, however, UNLV came out on top. Javin Tindall’s three-pointer brought UNM to within 76-75, but Demetrius Hunter made two free throws and the Lobos couldn’t tie the game with three tries in the final seconds. The Rebels got another 28-point effort, this time from Odartey Blankson, who also had 12 rebounds.

This week: Monday vs. BYU, Thursday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

Utah Utes (8-5, 20-8)

Utah will only be the No. 3 seed in the Mountain West Tournament and are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, in part due to a lack of inside production in a 70-57 loss at BYU on Monday. The Cougars out-scored the Utes 36-14 in the paint, as Rafael Araujo had 19 points. Nick Jacobsen had 16 points and 7 rebounds and Andrew Bogut had 14 points but shot only 4-of-14. Utah pulled within six points several times in the second half but could get no closer after an initial BYU run made the score 50-39. The Utes’ game in San Diego, which is not an easy place to play, is a must-win.

This week: Saturday at San Diego State, Thursday-Saturday at MWC Tournament

Wyoming Cowboys (4-9, 11-15)

Wyoming isn’t having the season fans have become accustomed to in Laramie, but it could have been even worse if it weren’t for David Rottinghaus’ contribution off the bench. Rottinghaus scored 18 points in the Cowboys’ 67-61 win against Colorado State last Saturday. Of Rottinghaus’ 18, 12 came in a decisive 19-8 Wyoming spurt that put the game in Cowboy hands. The reserve finished shooting 3-of-4 from three-point range and 9-of-13 from the free-throw line, but he was the only Cowboy in double figures. If Wyoming could get some of its starters going, they could make a run in the conference tournament. If not, forget it.

This week: Monday vs. Air Force, Thursda-Saturday at MWC Tournament


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