January 2011 Archives
It was billed as a "battle." As a "showdown," a "confrontation" and a "war," where the "survivor" would temporarily gain the inside track to the Mountain West Conference title and a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The reality? Wednesday night's men's basketball contest between No. 4 San Diego State and No. 9 BYU was merely a game. The victors celebrated, the vanquished dealt with defeat and the sun was in its proper place Thursday morning. No one succumbed to unbearable grief, no one was left to ponder an unfortunate fate, no lives were lost.
Only a game.
Particularly where San Diego State coach Steve Fisher and BYU coach Dave Rose are concerned.
If you care to discuss "battles," ask Rose about being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. If you need a more deeply defined definition of "survivor," ask Fisher about being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008.
This weekend, all eight of the Mountain West Conference men's basketball coaches whose teams are in action (UNLV has a bye date) will join their colleagues nationwide in donning sneakers with their suits to demonstrate their support for the American Cancer Society. Touted as "Coaches vs. Cancer® Suits and Sneakers Awareness Weekend," fans are also asked to wear sneakers to games to show their support for the American Cancer Society's vision "of a world with less cancer and more birthdays."
Care to guess how many people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have "more birthdays?" About five. That's out of a million.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 217,730 new cases of prostate cancer were expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2010, with 32,050 of those leading to death.
"We may be battling on the court night in and night out, but as coaches, we're on the same team when it comes to reminding our basketball community and our fans about taking an active role in reducing our risk of cancer and fighting back on behalf of those who face a cancer diagnosis," said UNLV head coach Lon Kruger, a Coaches vs. Cancer council member. "Suits and Sneakers Awareness Weekend is all about challenging us all to get involved in the fight for every birthday threatened by cancer in every community."
Rose's cancer was discovered in June of 2009. During a flight from California to Las Vegas with his family, he began feeling nauseated and dizzy, symptoms he had experienced a day earlier but eventually dissipated. Upon arrival, he was taken to a hospital by paramedics, where a CAT scan ultimately revealed a cancerous mass on his spleen. Rose's spleen was removed, as was part of his pancreas and six lymph nodes. In Rose's case, the cancer was identified as being a neuroendocrine tumor, a type of pancreatic cancer that is treatable but rare. He has been undergoing MRI scans every six months.
"I've been involved with (Coaches vs. Cancer) for over 20 years, and the last year and a half you could say I've been a lot more involved," Rose said. "I just can't get it out of my mind when I go to the hospital to have my blood checked, seeing the faces of the people who are suffering from this disease. I'm really fortunate to be involved with a group of (coaches) that are really passionate about trying to bring awareness to this disease and trying to find a cure. Anything that we can do in a some small way to help that cause, I'm all for it."
During a physical exam in 2006, Fisher's prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test found a level of 4.0. In the past, most doctors considered a PSA level below 4.0 as normal. In one large study, however, prostate cancer was diagnosed in 15.2 percent of men with a PSA level at or below 4.0.
In 2007, Fisher's PSA jumped to 7.4. He underwent surgery on May 17, 2008, and returned to work a week later, meeting regularly with his doctor for the next two months.
"I'm fine, but it was frightening, all-consuming for a while," Fisher said in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It was all I could think of. 'Am I going to be OK?' It was a more aggressive form than we originally thought, but it was contained. We were proactive right out of the gate. It was almost a sense of relief when they said they found something, because I had no symptoms.
"Don't put off your physicals. Make sure you have everything checked."
Coaches vs. Cancer is a collaborative initiative of the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). The Coaches vs. Cancer® Suits and Sneakers Awareness Weekend runs Friday, January 28, through Sunday, January 30.
It's over. And none too soon.
Air Force, which hadn't won an MWC game since March 3, 2008, when it beat BYU 54-40, ended a 40-game league losing streak with last week's 61-58 win over San Diego State, a team that advanced to last year's NCAA Sweet 16.
"It was phenomenal," said first-year coach Andrea Williams. "Having a monkey like that on your back can really weigh you down, but we knew it was coming. We knew we were going to beat somebody this year. That's been our mantra.
"Our senior, (guard) Raimee Beck, had been our only player up to that point who had ever won a conference game. We've talked a lot in the past few days about how it wasn't only a win for them, but also for the people who have supported the program through the years. Now we just have to keep pushing through."
Beck, who became Air Force's all-time leading scorer at the Division I level, paced the Falcons with 14 points. The Falcons (6-13, 1-5) also snapped a six-game losing streak against San Diego State.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
Annually recognized as one of the top programs in the nation, injury-ravaged New Mexico has fallen on hard times. The Lobos (6-11, 0-5), who face a daunting task at first-place TCU Wednesday night, have dropped five straight and nine of their last 10.
And coach Don Flanagan, now in his 16th season in Albuquerque, knows full well that brow-beating is not going to help put his team back on the road to success.
"There's no use in me jumping on them," Flanagan said. "Because of the success we've had over the years, they're already hearing it enough around campus and in the media. All of that is negative; there's nothing positive.
"I knew I was going to have to teach this year. When (junior guards) Sara Halasz and Nikki Nelson went down with injuries (prior to the start of the season), I knew we were going to have to teach, because we only had two players with game-time experience. We're hanging in there; we're close. I'm just not sure we're capable right now of matching up against the better teams in the league."
Cougars Take Measure of TCU
BYU (12-7, 4-4) heads into San Diego State Wednesday night knowing where it stands in the MWC. And while that position is currently second place (tied with Wyoming), the top rung of the ladder isn't far away.
Facing a road test at first-place TCU last week, the Cougars fell 61-58, but not before limiting the Horned Frogs to 29.8 percent shooting and finishing with a 45-34 advantage on the boards.
"For the most part, I thought we played pretty well," said coach Jeff Judkins. "We just didn't shoot well enough (3-of-21 from three-point range). TCU's zone is a little different than what everybody else really plays, and it took us a while to figure things out. We have some things we need to do a little bit better, but I thought we gave them a pretty good run."
Judkins was particularly pleased with the play of 6-foot-7 freshman Jennifer Hamson, who led the Cougars with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Hamson had 12 points in the second half, including four in the final two minutes, giving BYU a shot to tie at the buzzer.
Blinded by the Lights
UNLV may be below .500 overall (9-11) and 2-4 in MWC play, but Wyoming coach Joe Legerski is understandably leery of the Cowgirls matchup against the Lady Rebels in Las Vegas Wednesday night.
Over the past 10 seasons, Wyoming has lost eight times at UNLV, including a 62-56 setback last year.
"We've had our challenges playing in Las Vegas," said Legerski, whose team improved to 14-4 overall and 4-1 in league play with victories last week over Seattle and Air Force. "I think sometimes just going to Las Vegas there are so many distractions. The players are excited to go to Las Vegas. It's a different atmosphere in and of itself.
"It just all comes down to shooting the basketball. When (UNLV) shoots the three, they're a very tough out. We're going to have to get out on their shooters. You just have to hope they're not sharper shooting the ball. But we also have to be able to handle their pressure. It's going to put a lot of responsibility on our guards."
Ranks are Thin, But Rams Push On
Injuries and the decision by junior forward Chatilla van Grinsven to transfer have left Colorado State coach Kristen Holt with just eight players. Yet the Rams (10-9, 3-3) are holding fast, posting wins against UNLV and Air Force around a loss at BYU.
"I'm happy with what these kids are doing and the intensity they're playing with," Holt said. "I'm as happy with it as I've ever been. That part of our program is moving forward.
"The smoke screen is that we don't have those four or five players right now who have played major parts in the program. If that were the case, I'd have a better idea of where we stack up."
The Other Side of the Coin
A year ago, San Diego State enjoyed its best season in school history, winning the MWC Tournament and advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16.
This season, the Aztecs head into Wednesday night's game against BYU sporting a mark of 8-9 overall and 2-3 in league play, their most recent setback coming in a 61-58 loss at Air Force in which the Falcons snapped a 40-game conference losing streak.
"Our inconsistency has been a real challenge," said coach Beth Burns. "You tell me how we can have 50 rebounds in (a 56-53) win over New Mexico and three days later have 29 rebounds against Air Force. That's pretty disparate.
"We're going to have to have some things go right against BYU. We can't get into a shooting match, because they are a lot more offensively skilled than we are. But can we win? Sure. I fully expect it to be a very competitive game. I don't think there's any great degree of separation between any of the nine teams in this league. I'm not surprised to see anybody win."
All five of the Aztecs' conference games have been decided by three or fewer points.
Looking for Signature Win
UNLV coach Kathy Olivier's Lady Rebels host Wyoming Wednesday night with an opportunity to beat the Cowgirls for the third time in the teams' last five regular-season meetings. Wyoming is currently tied for second place in the league with BYU.
"I've always told our staff that if we can get two or three consecutive wins, you never know what this team can do," said Olivier, whose squad rebounded from a loss against Colorado State to beat New Mexico at The Pit on Saturday. "I know this team believes they can beat anyone in our conference. We have the majority of our (road) games against the top teams out of the way. Now we just need to get on a roll."
UNLV plays three of its next four games at home.
A Mystery in the Making
Utah (10-10, 3-3) built a 21-15 lead against visiting TCU on Saturday, only to see it disappear when the Utes went scoreless for final 8:30 of the first half and the opening 2:21 of the second.
Utah ultimately rallied to tie the contest at 41-41 with 6:08 remaining, but fell 56-46 in a game in which the Utes were undone by 25 turnovers. Utah is averaging 16.4 turnovers per game.
"I was really happy with the way we played against New Mexico's zone (a 56-53 win) on Wednesday, but when TCU went zone against us, we struggled," said coach Anthony Levrets. "Their length really causes you problems. But not only did we not score, they scored on our turnovers.
"After our games against BYU and Wyoming, we talked about how we needed to do a better job on the boards, and we've done that ever since. But with a young team, you're always moving on to the next thing, and now we know we have to do a better job of avoiding turnovers and playing better against the zone. You just keep addressing things a piece at a time and hope all of them are curtained off by the time the tournament starts."
It's the biggest game of the season --- for now.
While Steve Fisher and Dave Rose are fully aware of the magnitude of tonight's Mountain West Conference showdown between No. 4 San Diego State and No. 9 BYU, both are also wise enough to understand that regardless of the outcome, their respective teams will still face some daunting tasks in a league that now ranks among the most competitive in the nation.
Fisher's Aztecs are 20-0, and one of only two unbeaten teams in the country. Rose's Cougars are 19-1 and have won 84 of their last 88 games in the Marriott Center, including five straight against San Diego State.
Never in the history of the conference have two top 10 teams done battle. The winner will stake claim to first place and make a convincing argument to ascend even higher in the polls. And while the loser will certainly be forced to play catch-up, the opportunity for redemption will be but a month away when BYU travels to SDSU on Feb. 26.
In the interim, neither can afford a misstep in a league teeming with trapdoors.
"We still haven't completed the first round of conference play," Fisher said. "We're the only two teams sitting there with zero (league) losses and we're both hoping to keep it that way. But regardless of who wins, they can't start to cut the nets down, because they'll still have work to do. The team that loses will still have opportunity, but the loser is still going to have work to do, too.
"For the moment, it will be the most important game in the world. But after that, the next game will be just as important."
That could hold particularly true for BYU. While the Aztecs have had a week to prepare for the Cougars and will return home to face Wyoming (8-11, 1-4) on Saturday, BYU will travel to New Mexico (13-7, 1-4). The Cougars have lost two straight at The Pit.
"That's our challenge," said Rose, "and this league is full of challenges. As a coaching staff, you try to address them all. But we've got a group of experienced guards (Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery) who have been through a lot, and we'll rely on those guys to help us out whatever the situation might be.
"It's really hard to look forward to (New Mexico) when we have such a challenge on Wednesday, but Thursday morning is going to be an interesting day. You're going to come back with a group of guys who have either just come off a big win or a disappointing loss. Either way, we're going to have to get ready to play another very good team in a very tough environment."
For those who prefer their basketball with a blend of up-tempo offense and dogged defense, this one's for you. BYU, which features a national player of the year candidate in Fredette, is averaging 85.2 points per game, tops in the conference and No. 5 in the nation. San Diego State counters with the league's No. 1-ranked defense (58.8 ppg), a figure that ranks 11th-best in the country. The Cougars boast the top rebounding offense (40.2) in the conference, while the Aztecs rank No. 1 in the league in rebounding defense (29.4).
The nation's leading scorer at 26.7 points per game, Fredette, who twice this season has exceeded the 40-point mark, has 13 career 30-point games. With 2,064 career points, he is the most prolific BYU player since Danny Ainge (1977-81), the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,467 points. In a 104-79 win over Utah on Jan. 11, Fredette poured in 47 points, 32 of which came in the opening 20 minutes. The point total was two shy of his career high of 49, set against Arizona last season.
Paced by last season's MWC Freshman of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, 13 of San Diego State's 20 wins have been by double digits. Leonard, who already has 30 career double-doubles, five of them coming in his last six games, is averaging 15.6 points and a league-best 10.3 rebounds per game. Joining Fredette as one of 30 players selected to the John R. Wooden Award 2010-11 midseason list, Leonard is the fourth-leading scorer in the MWC.
"In big games like that, the biggest key to me is rebounding," said Utah coach Jim Boylen, whose team has faced both BYU and SDSU. "They obviously know each other, so they're going to try and take away the first option and make each other go to their second and third options, because they're both very good defensive teams.
"To me, it's going to come down to who can win on the boards and the effort on loose-ball plays. That's what has always defined those kind of games from my experience. You also have the best two spurt teams in the league. They can put together 8-, 10-, 12-point spurts, and that kind of humbles you. I think this game comes down to who can end those spurts quicker and who can have more of them."
And which team will take a giant step towards capturing the MWC regular-season title while also building on an already impressive resume for the NCAA selection committee.
One of seven games this week featuring ranked foes and the only one between Top-10 opponents, San Diego State and BYU have combined for more wins than any other two-team combination in any other conference. A nationally-televised contest available on CBS College Sports, and one expected to serve as a magnet for dozens of NBA scouts, this will be the ninth game this season featuring two teams ranked in the top 10 of the Coaches' poll. Of the previous eight meetings between Top-10 teams, the higher-ranked team won the first four.
Defending MWC Tournament champion San Diego State, the first team in the nation to reach the 20-win plateau and owner of the NCAA's second-longest active win streak, improved to 5-0 in league play for the first time since 1967 with a 68-55 victory over Air Force last Wednesday. Ranked for the first time in program history, the Aztecs have won 10 straight games against MWC opponents, regardless of location.
BYU, meanwhile, has won nine straight overall and is 8‑0 at home this season, winning by an average margin of 26.9 points. Ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 1980-81, the Cougars' No. 9 listing is their highest since 1987-88. At 19-1, BYU has tied the best 20-game record in program history with last season's squad and the 1987-88 team.
The stakes are high, but they may be even higher a month from now.
"We'll approach (San Diego State) the same way we approach every league game," Rose said. "These are very important league games and every one of them is valued the same. The hype around this game will be totally different, but once the ball is thrown up it'll settle into being San Diego State against BYU and being another Mountain West Conference game."
To follow the hype of this Mountain West match-up, and see two of the best teams in the nation, tune into CBS College Sports Network tonight at 8 p.m. MT. It's a can't-miss game early in the race for the Conference title.
Falcons Making Impression
While Air Force may be 2-3 in league play (11-7 overall), it's certainly getting the attention of its opponents.
In last week's 68-55 loss at then No. 6-ranked San Diego State, the Falcons trailed by just four (34-30) at the half and repeatedly frustrated an Aztecs team that is one of only two unbeatens in the nation.
"They don't quit playing," said SDSU coach Steve Fisher. "They deserved to be ahead at halftime. This is the best Air Force team they have had since I was (in Colorado Springs) when they beat us (in 2005) and cut the nets down. They are a very good team that can beat any team in our league."
The Falcons rebounded with a 72-51 win over Wyoming on Saturday.
"I think we are more competitive and I've said all along that we're better," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "But I also know that the league is better. Whether that means we'll get more wins wins in conference play, we're just going to take it one game at a time and see what happens."
Think Before Taking Next Step
Two-time defending regular season conference champion New Mexico (13-7, 1-4) has lost three straight, and coach Steve Alford has a pretty good idea why --- far too many mental mistakes.
The Lobos had 20 turnovers in Saturday's 63-62 loss at UNLV, four of which came in the final 1:14 after they had taken a 61-58 lead on Tony Snell's 3-pointer with 1:52 remaining.
"It's something we've got to continue to emphasize, whether it's in film or in practice or anything else," Alford said. "We've been fortunate to have a very high basketball IQ here the last couple of years; everyone understood how to play. This team is just trying to figure a lot of those things out right now."
Home is Where the Hurt Is
Though it has battled inconsistency, TCU (10-11, 1-5) had been consistently successful at home this season, posting a mark of 8-2 at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum prior to Saturday's visit from Utah. The Horned Frogs' 75-62 loss dropped them below .500 for the first time this season.
"We didn't play hard enough, we didn't play smart enough and you have to give Utah credit," said coach Jim Christian. "But that was a game we had to have to help turn our season around. The kids our disappointed and they're upset, which is the way anybody would be after you've lost three in a row and you're not playing the way you're capable of playing. We've got to find a way to fight our way out of it. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you."
Coming of Age
Football coaches will tell you that you can't teach speed. Neither can you coach maturity or experience, a drawback that often hampered Utah (10-10, 3-3) earlier this season before its current three-game win streak.
"We all try to accelerate maturity and experience, but I feel like there's a comfort level now in the system," said coach Jim Boylen. "It's also helped that (junior center) David Foster is healthy now, that (sophomore center) Jason Washburn has embraced that backup role and that (freshman guard) J.J. O'Brien has given us another ball-handler and a decision-maker who is a tough guy.
"We're growing. You can't dwell on the negative things or dwell on the losses. You have to keep teaching your guys that the wins will come, and I'm very proud of the way our staff has done that. You have to stay with it."
Big Win at Crucial Time
With San Diego State and BYU both sitting at 5-0 in conference play, UNLV (15-5, 3-3) could ill afford a fourth league loss when it hosted New Mexico on Saturday.
"It was a game we needed very badly from a confidence standpoint," said coach Lon Kruger, whose team held on to win 63-62. "Losing by one or winning by one can have a big impact on the confidence of your team. We could have very easily lost that ballgame. When one more shot goes down or one more free throw goes down, it can make all this difference in the world."
Alive on Arrival
Colorado State's Wes Eikmeier is making his presence felt. Having sat out last season per NCAA rules after transferring from Iowa State, the sophomore guard is averaging double figures (10.6 pgg) and ranks second on the team in assists. Eikmeier hit 5-of-9 three-pointers in finishing with a career-high 25 points in Saturday's 94-85 loss to No. 9 BYU. He also contributed five assists.
"Early in the season, he was in all the right spots, but he was missing wide-open shots," said Rams coach Tim Miles. "We just kept telling him to hang in there, and I thought as we got closer to Christmas that he was playing better and better. He was really terrific against BYU."
Searching for Firepower
Devastated by injuries, Wyoming (8-11, 1-4) was able to dress only eight players for Saturday's game at Air Force. The outcome was hardly surprising, as the Cowboys dropped their third straight, 72-51. In doing so, Wyoming scored 26 or fewer points in a half for the fifth time this season in conference play.
"We're executing in a lot of ways, we just haven't been able to capitalize a lot, especially on the offensive end," coach Heath Schroyer told the Casper Star-Tribune. "We've had good looks, we just haven't been able to finish."
A Milestone and a Major Statement
While a substantial portion of the conference schedule remains, TCU coach Jeff Mittie's 400th career win might also prove to be one of the biggest of the season.
Facing a road game at Wyoming last week that featured a battle of conference unbeatens, the Horned Frogs rolled to a 68-47 win by shooting 50 percent from the floor, including an eye-popping 69 percent from three-point range.
TCU followed the victory with a 66-40 rout of Colorado State, a game in which it forced 31 turnovers.
"That (Wyoming) game was a total team effort for us, particularly considering our top two scorers (Emily Carter and Helena Sverrisdottir) were a combined 0-for-12 from three-point range," Mittie said. "Early in the season, I don't think we could have won a game like that. But virtually everyone who came into the game gave us something positive."
The Frogs (12-6, 4-0), who face another first-place showdown at home Wednesday night against BYU (11-6, 3-0), got 24 points from their bench against the Cowgirls.
"I think everyone on our team understands and embraces their roles so much better than they did a month ago," said Mittie, whose team has won six straight. "We're playing much better at the defensive end of the floor and we have better balance offensively."
Utah Facing Battle on Boards
What goes up must come down, but too often lately it's come down in the hands of the opponent.
Utah (9-9, 2-2), which dropped a pair of games last week to BYU and Wyoming, yielded a combined 34 offensive rebounds in the two contests. As such, BYU finished with 19 second-chance points while Wyoming tallied 14.
"What's disappointing to me is that we played great defense, but then we didn't finish," said coach Anthony Levrets. "If (BYU and Wyoming) get seven or eight offensive rebounds as opposed to 15 and 19, those games are completely different. Whether we win or lose, I don't know, but, ultimately, in both of those games, we gave them second chances. We can't guard for 26-27 seconds, get our opponent to miss, then give them a second chance and have to guard again. Over the course of a game, that just wears you down."
Freshman Michelle Plouffe, who is tied for the conference lead in double-doubles, posted her sixth of the season (20 points, 11 rebounds) against BYU.
Lobos' Fast Finishes Belie Slow Starts
New Mexico has proven a formidable foe this season in the second half. It's getting out of the gate that has proven troublesome.
The Lobos (6-9, 0-3) once again rallied at San Diego State on Saturday, only to fall 56-53 when they were unable to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit.
"We've emphasized not giving up and maintaining a strong effort no matter what the score is, but getting off to a fast start builds confidence, and as the season goes along, confidence is probably more important than anything else," said coach Don Flanagan. "If you can have a lead, or at least be even, at halftime, you're going to have a lot more confidence than if you're down by 10 or 12. If not, you're always going to be facing a battle in the second half."
Freshman Jasmine Patterson scored in double figures against both Colorado State (a 71-60 loss) and San Diego State last week, while senior Jessica Kielpinski had a career-high 11 rebounds against the Aztecs.
Mestdagh Nears Milestone
Colorado State junior Kim Mestdagh needed 18 points against UNLV Tuesday night to reach the 1,000-point plateau for her career and got 25. She entered the contest ranked fourth in the MWC in scoring with an average of 16.4 points per game.
"When you think of where our program has been, what she's done is even more phenomenal because she's a player that teams target each and every night," said Rams coach Kristin Holt, whose team sits at 9-8 overall and 2-2 in league play after splitting a pair of games last week with New Mexico and TCU, and beating UNLV on Tuesday night. "She continues to find ways to score, but when Kim is at her best, she's getting rebounds and setting screens, playing great defense and running the floor. Those things free her up. If she's only focusing on getting open in the offense, sometimes she can get discouraged and isn't as good."
After Tuesday night's game, Mestdagh has reached double figures in 14 of the Rams' 17 games this season and has scored 20 or more points five times.
SDSU Hopeful Slow, Steady Wins Race
Defending MWC Tournament champion San Diego State, which swept a pair of games against UNLV and New Mexico last week, is back at .500 for the first time since Dec. 30.
The Aztecs (8-8, 2-2) play at Air Force Wednesday night.
"When you start the season 1-4, 8-8 has a whole different look to it," said coach Beth Burns. "This game (against Air Force) is really big in giving us any kind of a puncher's chance to stay in the hunt."
SDSU, which had been out-rebounded in every game save one since Dec. 28, held a 50-26 advantage in that department in Saturday's 56-53 win over New Mexico.
"Rebounding is the only way we can have a winning season," Burns said. "We've continued to improve in every other area, but we've been focusing on rebounding more than I ever have at this time of year."
Wyoming Tough at Tough Venues
With its 55-48 win over Utah on Saturday, Wyoming (12-4, 3-1) won a game in Salt Lake City for just the third time in the program's history.
The Cowgirls' 63-53 win against New Mexico on Jan. 8 marked the team's first win at The Pit since 1995.
"What it shows is our senior leadership," said coach Joe Legerski. "We've been through so many games with Aubrey (Vandiver), Hillary (Carlson), Jade (Kennedy) and Randi (Richardson). It's very difficult to find breakthroughs on the road. You look at any conference in the country and it's the same scenario. Wins at Utah have been few and far between for the Wyoming women's basketball program. Hopefully, that gives us the kind of confidence we're going to need to play with the rest of the way."
Wyoming will host Seattle University in a nonconference matchup Wednesday night.
A Double Shot of Nzeukou
UNLV junior forward/center Sadrine Nzeukou posted consecutive double-doubles last week in helping lead the Lady Rebels (8-11, 1-4) to their first conference win.
After finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds in a 55-52 loss to San Diego State, Nzeukou had 11 points and 14 rebounds in a 63-52 win against Air Force as the Lady Rebels snapped a three-game losing streak.
"She came back this season in really good shape," coach Kathy Olivier said of the 6-foot-2 Nzeukou, a team captain the past two seasons. "We have four or five good post players, but she's kind of separated herself. She's a confident player with very good fundamentals and it shows in games. She plays under control, she does what we ask her to do and she's finding success."
Falcons Settling In
Though her team is still in search of its first conference win, first-year Air Force coach Andrea Williams said the Falcons (5-11, 0-3) played their best conference game of the season in Saturday's 62-53 loss at UNLV.
Sophomore guard Alicia Leipprandt fueled a late rally, scoring six of her 12 points during an 8-0 run in which Air Force cut the deficit to 57-52 on a layup by Leipprandt with 1:19 to play. The Rebels were able to put the game away by hitting six straight free throws.
"We came up short, but that's really the first time we've competed for a full 40 minutes," Williams said. "We put ourselves in position to win, and that's good progression for us. We grew a lot as a team."
The Falcons host San Diego State (8-8, 2-2) Wednesday night. All four of the Aztecs' conference games have been decided by three or fewer points.
Nailing Down the Boards
First came Wednesday's effort against UNLV, when he combined with teammate Malcolm Thomas to outrebound the Rebels' entire roster.
Then came Saturday's performance at New Mexico, where he ripped down a game-high 15 rebounds to post his second consecutive double-double (19 points) in helping lift San Diego State to an 88-78 win at one of the more intimidating venues in the nation.
If Kawhi Leonard seemed imposing as a freshman last season, another year has only seemed to double his resolve.
In SDSU's past two games, Leonard, who has 12 double-doubles in 19 contests this season, has amassed 32 rebounds. He has 10 or more rebounds in four of his last five games (62 rebounds, 12.4 rpg).
"He pursues every ball, and he's very smart and very aggressive when he goes after it," said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, whose team remained No. 6 in the nation after improving to 19-0 overall and 4-0 in MWC play. "Normally, when your big guys are really working, they're running 94 feet. But Kawhi runs more than 94 feet, because he's usually out on the perimeter when a shot goes up. He's done a wonderful job of staying with it and being smart and aggressive with his play."
The Other Guy
While Jimmer Fredette has certainly built a case for being considered one of the premiere players in the nation, BYU coach Dave Rose will tell you there is no player more important to his team's success than Jackson Emery, Fredette's running mate in the backcourt.
The No. 9-ranked Cougars have designated Tuesday's game against TCU as "Jackson Emery Night" in honor of the senior guard recently breaking the school's career steals record. Emery eclipsed the 30-year-old record held by Danny Ainge when he recorded his 196th career steal in a win at Utah on Jan. 14. He also surpassed the 1,000-point plateau against the Utes in the second half.
"He's just a very special player," said coach Dave Rose. "His ability to create havoc defensively is a real skill and a real blessing to our team. When we're in positions where we really need to score, he'll do it on the defensive end by getting a steal and getting us out on the break for an easy basket.
"To be able to break any type of record that has stood for 30 years is pretty impressive, and he's got quite a few more games to build on that."
No Easy Way Out
After turning in two solid performances against BYU and UNLV in its first two conference games, only to watch both agonizingly slip away in the final stages, Air Force must now regroup in time to face No. 6 San Diego State on the road Wednesday night.
"San Diego State is very deserving of their ranking," said Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds. "To go into a place like (New Mexico), where you're in a very hostile environment, they're just a multi-talented team that can hurt you inside as well as outside. And their best offense is probably their defense."
Asked if Air Force would use a similar defensive approach to that of New Mexico, which opted to play the Aztecs straight up and was buried by an avalanche of three-pointers (SDSU's 13 threes tied a school record for most in a MWC game), Reynolds said, "We're going to punt the ball."
TCU coach Jim Christian is still trying to get a true gauge of his basketball team. After the Frogs turned in a strong performance in a win over Wyoming at home last Wednesday, they dropped a 79-69 decision at Colorado State on Saturday in a game in which the Rams dominated the paint and shot 72.4 percent in the first half.
"That's been the frustrating thing for me," said Christian, whose team stands at 10-9 overall and 1-3 in league play. "We've been good at home, but when we go on the road, we're just a different basketball team. We have not been able to build on the momentum we've developed from game to game.
"Our biggest problem is we have not been able to transfer our effort from the practice floor to the game. It's a unique, difficult thing that we're trying to find our way through and we've just got to keep working at it."
Going to Extremes
The good news? New Mexico guard Phillip McDonald, coming off the bench for the first time in his three-year career, tied a career high by scoring 27 points in the Lobos' win over Colorado State last Wednesday. The puzzling? McDonald was 0-for-5 from the floor in Saturday's loss to San Diego State.
The good news? New Mexico guard Dairese Gary finished with 23 points against San Diego State. The puzzling? Gary went scoreless against CSU.
"Phillip is our shooting guard and he needs to score, so that bothers me a little more than Dairese having a game where he doesn't score," said coach Steve Alford. "We don't have to have Dairese in that role. We need Dairese to run the show. He defends the best guard on the other team. And although we don't expect Phillip to score 27 every night like he did against Colorado State, we do need to get more consistent scoring out of him."
Filling the Void
With standout senior guard Tre'Von Willis sidelined by a sore right knee, UNLV got double-digit scoring from four players in rallying to win 64-52 at Air Force on Saturday.
The Rebels, who trailed by five with just over seven minutes remaining, staged a 19-2 run down the stretch as Derrick Jasper (11 rebounds, six assists) fueled the rally with a key block and Chase Stanback finished with a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds).
"Any time you've got a player down like Tre'Von Willis, and you have other guys stepping up and contributing, that's a real shot in the arm for their confidence, especially on the road," said coach Lon Kruger. "Those guys stepped up and put us in a position to win. I think it was also a confidence booster for us in terms of free throws (18-for-21), because we hadn't been very good at the line."
Kruger said he expects Willis to return this week, but was uncertain as to how soon the senior would be at full speed.
Light at End of Tunnel
Utah won for the first time in 29 days with a 68-51 victory at Wyoming on Saturday to snap a seven-game slide, its longest since 1949-50.
"I've had a group that's very willing to be coached," coach Jim Boylen said of trying to hold his team together during the losing streak. "There was a comment made after (Saturday's) game that our kids didn't seem very excited after the win. Well, we're not surprised when we win a game. We feel like we have a good team and we feel like we're doing the right things.
"Keeping the group together is really dependent on the group. My job is to teach and coach. We're still a work in progress, but we've got a willing group, a coachable group and a working group."
In Saturday's 79-69 win over TCU, Colorado State had four players finish in double figures. While the performances turned in by senior forwards Andy Ogide (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Travis Franklin (14 points, 17.3 ppg) were hardly surprising, the Rams also got double-digit scoring from sophomore guards Dorian Green and Jesse Carr, who combined for 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor.
In addition, sophomore Wes Eikmeier contributed nine points and five assists, while sophomore Greg Smith finished with seven points, five assists and three steals.
As to the improvement in his team's balance this season, coach Tim Miles, whose Rams are 12-5 overall and 2-1 in the MWC, said: "The ability to hurt people inside, as well as do some things from the outside, has really helped us."
Picking Up the Pieces
For a team that won the MWC Tournament last season before advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, losing your starting guard tandem is not something you care to ponder.
Yet such is the case for San Diego State (7-8, 1-2), which is attempting to replicate last year's success minus Jene Morris, a first-round WNBA draft pick, and Quenese Davis. The two combined last season to average 30.3 points while contributing 270 assists and 173 steals.
And while Arizona transfer Courtney Clements was tabbed the league's preseason Newcomer of the Year and is averaging 12.3 points after scoring a career-high 29 in Saturday's 70-67 overtime loss to Utah, it's been a work in progress for Aztecs coach Beth Burns.
"If you're going to replace your backcourt, it's a process," said Burns.
"You can't even begin to fathom how much you have to teach them, because you can't even remember what you have to teach them. When you think of every aspect of the game, every possession of the game, and you have young guards, it's just an adventure.
"The good news is, we took it on the chin early. The only way you're going to get experience is to play. We've continued to improve. We were really frightening defensively in early November, as inexperienced teams usually are. We have speed, length and great shot-blocking in our front line, but we don't have speed in our backcourt. It's just a matter of finding things both offensively and defensively that can put us in position to be successful. As a staff, you obviously don't want to come off a Sweet 16 appearance and change everything."
Frogs Brace for Early-Season Showdown
Tabbed to win the conference in the preseason coaches' poll, TCU (10-6, 2-0) is about to find out just how far it's come when it squares off against Wyoming on Wednesday night in Laramie. One of four conference teams sitting at 2-0, the Cowgirls boast the best overall mark in the league at 11-3.
"It's a game where if you win, you can get off to a really good start," said TCU coach Jeff Mittie. "It's a road game for us, so it's really a great opportunity to set the stage for the rest of the year. But it's a long season playing 16 league games, and I think it's one of those years where there's so much parity, you may see a lot of close games."
The Frogs have won four straight after dropping five of their previous nine. The turnaround, Mittie said, came in a 76-69 win over then-No.
14 Oklahoma on Jan. 1. TCU followed that with a 49-47 win at San Diego State.
"We just lost so many close games early where we just weren't able to get over the hump," Mittie said. "We played a really tough (nonconference) schedule, and you can't play average in those games and expect to win. And that's what we were doing, playing average basketball. But I think the Oklahoma game got us going in the right direction, and to win a close game at San Diego State did a lot for our confidence."
Piecing Together the Puzzle
If it wasn't enough that Utah interim head coach Anthony Levrets was stepping into the shoes of a coach (Elaine Elliott) who is one of just 16 to post 20 20-win seasons, he has also had to find a way to win without the team's best inside player. Sophomore forward Taryn Wicijowski, last year's MWC Freshman of the Year, was lost to a season-ending knee injury in November.
Nonetheless, the Utes, who are 9-8 overall, are one of four teams with a mark of 2-0 thus far in conference play. The loss of Wicijowski, meanwhile, who averaged 18.5 points in last year's MWC Tournament, has been offset by the emergence of sophomore guard Iwalani Rodrigues and freshman forward Michelle Plouffe. Rodrigues is averaging 15.2 points, while Plouffe is averaging 13.4, both of which rank among the top 10 scorers in the league.
"We're not done getting better," said Levrets, whose team travels to Provo Wednesday night to face rival BYU. "We're really young (one senior). We have players in new roles who are still growing into them."
Inexperience was evident early, as the Utes, despite holding on, too often surrendered double-digit leads. It happened again on Saturday, when Utah needed overtime to beat San Diego State after building a 12-point lead at the half.
"It happened at New Mexico State where we were up 20 in the first half and they came back, and the same thing happened at Utah State," Levrets said.
"We didn't play poorly against San Diego State; they played pretty well down the stretch. But we managed to hold on. We got a stop when we needed to and we made a play when we needed to. I think that's a sign of a team growing up."
Injuries Have Hampered Lobos
With a career record of 333-157 at New Mexico, coach Don Flanagan ranks among the premiere coaches in the nation. But not even a coach of Flanagan's stature can overcome the loss of two of his team's top returning players in Sara Halasz and Nikki Nelson, both of whom have been lost to season-ending knee injuries. Halasz was the team's top returning scorer. In addition, senior center Jessica Kielpinski has been limited by a foot injury..
As such, the Lobos (6-7, 0-1) have struggled offensively. New Mexico, which visits Colorado State Wednesday night, ranks last in the league in scoring offense (60.5 ppg) and field-goal percentage (33.8).
"We're playing hard, but we're having problems offensively in not being able to score consistently," Flanagan said. "We're shooting too low of a percentage. We're trying to improve our defense to get to a point where we can be in games, but we've got to shoot a higher percentage. Shooting 30-35 percent from the field is not going to win you a lot of games.
"We've lost two experienced players. Obviously, that's been a problem.
I've had times this season when I've had five freshmen on the floor. I don't think there's ever been a year (Flanagan is in his 16th season at New Mexico) where I've ever had more than two. The positive is that each one of those freshman is playing 15-20 minutes per game, and that's going to help at some point."
Falcons on Rise Under Williams
Inheriting a team that has finished with double-digit wins (10) only once since the MWC's inception in 1999-00, first-year Air Force coach Andrea Williams knew there were challenges ahead.
After 15 games, however, the Falcons (5-10, 0-2) already have more wins than in eight of their previous 11 seasons in the MWC.
"I think we've made a lot of progress considering that we've put in a whole new offensive and defensive system," Williams said. "We've overhauled everything, and we're playing at a tempo that our players aren't used to. It's a new experience for everyone involved, so everybody is trying to figure out their roles. Right now, we're just looking for that one key win to get the monkey off our back."
One player who could help expedite that objective is sophomore forward Dymond James, who is averaging 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
"She has the ability to finish with a double-double every night, which we need in the post," Williams said. "Getting her to stay focused and play
30-35 minutes without getting into foul trouble is going to be one of the biggest steps for her. As a sophomore, she's going to have to become a go-to player. But I think she's understanding that role and showing more maturity. She needs to bring it every night."
In putting the skids on a four-game losing streak last week against UNLV, BYU not only got double-digit scoring from four players, it also turned up the heat defensively. The Cougars (10-6, 2-0) held the Lady Rebels to 32.7 percent shooting for the game and 25.0 percent in the second half.
It was a similar story in Saturday's 88-60 win at Air Force, where the Falcons shot just 35.8 percent and turned the ball over 24 times.
"The team that wins the conference is going to have to play defense, because some nights the ball just won't go into the basket," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. "I think our team defense has gotten better, but we still need to work on our individual defense, especially in the post and having teams beat us off the dribble. But we did a lot better job of that against Vegas. We didn't give them a lot of easy baskets and we didn't give them a lot of offensive rebounds."
Wiping the Slate Clean
Colorado State, which hosts New Mexico Wednesday night, has been doing some serious soul-searching in the aftermath of its 83-43 loss to Wyoming in its conference opener last week, the worst loss in coach Kristin Holt's two-plus seasons at the university.
"I know we're a better team than we've been the last couple years and we've had some good showings, but the Wyoming game was just a shock to me," said Holt, whose team is 7-7 overall. "The disappointing part to me is that we gave up. We could have lost by 50 or 60. It was tough to see. I certainly think it woke our team up.
"I've got a good core group of kids that wants to win. That loss bothered them and it should. I don't see that kind of effort ever happening again.
The response at practice has been that we're not going to have a season that's reflective of that game. If you get blown out by 30 or 40, and you're working your tail off, that's one thing. I just didn't like our competitiveness. We've talked a lot about our approach and that your attitude and effort have to be there. If you have those things and you lose, that's OK. But if you don't, it's unacceptable. And that's the part we want to fix this week."
Wyoming Wary of Defending Regular-Season Champs
With the best overall record in the conference, Wyoming (11-3, 2-0) hosts preseason conference favorite TCU (10-6, 2-0) in a key matchup Wednesday night.
"We have to limit the amount of good looks that TCU gets and make sure that we move in our motion offense," said Cowgirls coach Joe Legerski. "I think it's going to come down to the team that shoots the higher percentage and, of course, the team that wins the rebounding battle. But TCU is very talented, a team with a tremendous amount of experience. They were the No. 1 (preseason) pick in our league and they've played like that. It's going to be a real challenge for us."
As it will be for TCU. Wyoming has won five straight games by an average of 24 points.
"We just go out each and every night and try to win four-minute segments; that's all we talk about," Legerski said. "I never worry about where the score is at as long as we're playing well and competing in four-minute segments."
Finding the Handle
While UNLV coach Kathy Olivier has been pleased with her team's defensive effort thus far, as well as its performance on the boards, it's turnovers that have hurt the Lady Rebels (7-9, 0-2).
UNLV ranks first in the conference in field-goal percentage defense (35.3) and rebounding margin (+8.3), but is seventh in turnover margin (- 3.19).
"I like what we're doing defensively, but we've struggled to get into a flow offensively because we've had too many turnovers," Olivier said. "We have to be able to take care of the basketball and play together down the stretch."
Adjusting on the Fly
After turning in an impressive performance with an 89-77 win at No. 25 UNLV in its Mountain West Conference opener, BYU, which climbed to No. 10 in this week's ESPN/USA Today Coaches' poll, got a tough test from Air Force in its 76-66 victory on Saturday. In a contest marked by no fewer than 41 fouls, the Cougars (16-1) led by as many as 18 in the second half, but saw the advantage whittled to eight with two minutes left.
"I think that says more about conference play than our guys," BYU coach Dave Rose said Monday. "You have to understand that this is a very competitive conference. The style of play that you get night in and night out is always going to change. You have to adjust to that and still find ways to win games."
The Cougars will also likely have to find ways to win without Chris Collinsworth. Rose said the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward could be facing arthroscopic knee surgery after missing the team's past two contests.
"I think the doctors wanted to see if we could get him back at practice and work it around a little bit, but it's just not responding," Rose said of Collinsworth, who is averaging 5.9 points and 5.6 rebounds. "It's still extremely sore and the swelling seems to change day to day. So, it looks to me like we're probably going to have to go in and 'scope it. We'll know more about it this afternoon or (Tuesday)."
Tough to Take Fight out of Falcons
Air Force (10-5, 1-1), which opened conference play with a win at home over Utah, garnered plenty of respect from BYU coaches and players in the aftermath of its 76-66 loss on Saturday.
Nonetheless, Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds is not about to start taking solace in near-misses.
"It wasn't a moral victory; we lost the game," Reynolds said. "I felt like we did some things well offensively at times. We were able to get the types of shots we wanted but, defensively, (BYU) has so many weapons that we just didn't do enough. We didn't keep them off the boards and we didn't take away enough of their weapons to win the game."
"We're playing better, we're more experienced, we're more healthy," Reynolds said. "Whether that results in more conference wins I'm not sure, because I think the league is much better and I'm not sure we've closed the gap that much."
Lobos Looking to Rebound
Defending regular-season conference champion New Mexico (12-4, 0-1) will be looking to shake off the effects of a 67-66 loss at Wyoming when it hosts improved Colorado State on Wednesday before facing a stern test at No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday.
"The thing that concerns me the most is getting back to the level of basketball we're capable of playing and taking care of what we need to do," said coach Steve Alford. "I did not like our energy level (against Wyoming), I did not like our maturity on defense and I did not like our pace on offense.
"This week is really about taking care of what we do, and hoping we do it well enough to win. ...We've got a great atmosphere at home, but if we play like we did Saturday, it's not going to matter whether we're playing at The Pit or out at the fairgrounds."
If UNLV (13-3, 1-1) wasn't playing with a chip on its shoulder following its conference-opening loss at home to BYU, it certainly gave an impressive impersonation. The Rebels responded on Saturday with an 83-49 win over TCU, a game in which UNLV staged a 24-0 first-half run and ultimately forced 23 turnovers.
The Rebels, who led by as many as 25 in the first half, visit No. 6 San Diego State on Wednesday.
"Whenever you lose a conference home game, I think you come back with a little bit more urgency in the next one," said coach Lon Kruger. "For 40 minutes, that was probably as well as we've played this season in terms of focus, taking responsibility and playing hard on each possession."
Meanwhile, TCU coach Jim Christian, whose team hosts Wyoming on Wednesday after dropping its first two conference contests, said the Horned Frogs need to become tougher, both physically and mentally.
"We're going to learn a lot about our resolve," said Christian, whose team enters the week at 9-8 overall. "The guys on the team have to be more determined. We're coming off an awful performance, one we were embarrassed by. If you have the type of leadership that wants to achieve the goals every team wants to achieve, you don't need me. At the end of the day, it's up to the players. There is no speech or miracle drill. When you play that poorly, it's up to you as an individual to learn from it and get better."
Making His Mark
Utah junior wing Will Clyburn has made an immediate impact on the MWC. A transfer from Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College, Clyburn ranks second in the league in scoring at 18.8 points per game. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's 71-62 home loss to No. 6 San Diego State, posting his fifth double-double of the year. Clyburn has scored double figures in all 16 games this season.
"He's a big-time player and a big-time kid, which is even more important to me because he's a great person," said Utes coach Jim Boylen, whose team (7-9, 0-2) will be looking for its first conference win when it hosts rival BYU on Tuesday. "I know people talk about (San Diego State's Kawhi) Leonard and (BYU's Jimmer) Fredette, and they're both terrific, but Will is at the top of the league in a lot of categories (Clyburn also ranks second in the MWC in rebounding at 8.3 per game). He's still developing in a new system, but the future is bright for him and the future is bright for us with him."
Getting Back to Work
It will have been eight days since Colorado State played a game when the Rams face New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque on Wednesday. CSU (11-4, 1-0), which opened conference play with a 73-60 home win over Wyoming on Jan. 4, has lost seven consecutive games in the series since posting an 88-79 win at The Pit on Jan. 24, 2007.
"Eight days is a long time off, but we played a lot of games in a short period of time, so we needed some rest and we needed to be away from each other a little bit, too," said coach Tim Miles. "It's my job in the next two days to get our guys highly competitive in practice and get back in that fighting mode, because The Pit is a different kind of beast. Homecourts are always worth about a four-, five-, six-point advantage, but at The Pit it's double that."
Cowboys Come Out Swinging
Despite two of its top players --- junior forward Afam Muojeke and junior center Adam Waddell --- being limited by injury this season, Wyoming (8-8 overall) evened its conference mark at 1-1 on Saturday with a 67-66 home win over defending MWC regular-season champion New Mexico on Francisco Cruz's short jumper at the buzzer.
The win snapped New Mexico's 14-game win streak in regular-season MWC play, the longest in league history.
"It was a great win for us," said coach Heath Schroyer. "New Mexico is a great program and will be for a long time with Steve (Alford) and his staff there. It shows a lot of character from our guys, because for the last year and a half we've been very limited with two of our top players on the shelf for the majority of the time. I think it shows that as our young players continue to grow and develop, and if we can ever get everybody healthy and on the floor at the same time, I've always said that this team has a chance to be pretty good."
Living Large in Land of Giants
While the San Diego State trio of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White represents one of the most formidable front lines in the nation, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher will tell you that no one is as crucial to the success of his No. 6-ranked team than senior point guard D.J. Gay.
Gay, playing on a badly bruised calf, scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half on 4-of-6 three-point shooting as SDSU (17-0, 2-0) erased a one-point halftime deficit in its 71-62 win at Utah on Saturday. This after Gay had finished the first half 1-of-5 from the field (0-of-4 on threes) and was 1-of-4 from line.
"D.J. is a wily veteran who is our most important player," Fisher said. "He doesn't look like he's that good, but he gets the job done. He's unafraid. He takes and makes big shots. He makes plays when you have to have plays made. He never gets overly excited either in good times or bad. Sometimes, some of our other guys, when it's going good, have a tendency to get a little too hyper or get frustrated when it's going bad. D.J. calms everybody down."
Bear with me while I adjust my chair. Being a crusader for "The Little Guys," I hope you'll understand how big of a challenge it can be to extend my arms high enough to reach the keyboard.
Ah, that's better. Boy, up here a guy could get a superiority complex. Up here, a guy could be cocky, cavalier, condescending and not give a fig. Up here, you play by my rules or you'll rue the day you dared deem yourself worthy of worming your way into my world.
It's the best seat in the house --- assuming "The Little Guys" don't kick it right out from under you.
Which, of course, is exactly what happened in last week's Rose Bowl.
In the event you missed it --- and judging by the game's 11.7 television rating, the highest overnight rating (excluding the NFL) on record for ESPN and all of cable television, few of you did --- you know that "The Little Guys" won. You know because ESPN's Chris Fowler and Erin Andrews made sure you did, asking TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in a postgame interview just how good it felt to "win one for the little guys."
Ever the diplomat, Dalton responded with courtesy and consideration. He should have responded by asking Fowler and Andrews if they'd ever pondered the notion of doing some prep work. This wasn't Joe Palooka getting off the deck and dethroning the champ. In the Rose Bowl, "The Little Guys" were ranked No. 3 in the nation. "The Little Guys" had just finished 13-0 after posting back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. "The Little Guys" feature a group of seniors that won 44 games, and in a world happily devoid of the BCS could stake a claim as the national champion.
But there it was again. The stigma, the stain. "The Little Guys" label. Not a part of an automatic-qualifying BCS conference? Take a seat at the kiddies' table and be grateful you're not asked to genuflect. When will it end? What does a league have to do to prove it's one of "The Big Boys?"
Well, here's some news: the Mountain West is one of "The Big Boys." And while it may take some starch out of the ruling class' collar, it might also prompt those blinded by BCS greed to do their homework:
Over the past seven seasons (including 2010), the Mountain West Conference owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a mark of 22-9 (.710). The SEC is second at 34-18 (.654), followed by the Big East and Pac-10 (both 20-14) at .558. And for those dubious of the MWC's ability to go toe-to-toe with "The Big Boys?" During that span, the league is merely 11-3 against automatic-qualifying BCS teams in bowl games.
For the second time in three years, a team from the MWC will be in the national championship discussion at the conclusion of the bowl season. With TCU defeating No. 5 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, it will finish the year as one of only two undefeated teams. Utah concluded the 2008 season 13-0 with a 31-17 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Utes finished No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches' Top 25.
Since the league's inception 12 years ago, the MWC holds a 13-7 record in bowl games against opponents from automatic-qualifying BCS conferences, including wins over the Pac-10 (six), SEC (two), ACC (two), Big Ten (one), Big 12 (one) and Big East (one). In four BCS appearances, the MWC is 3-1. The ACC's record over that same span in BCS games, 2-11.
If Miami (Ohio) defeats Middle Tennessee State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 6, the MWC will claim its second straight (fourth overall) Bowl Challenge Cup. The MWC is the only league to win the Bowl Challenge Cup three times since the award's inception in 2002-03. No wonder ESPN has barely discussed the Cup it created for the conference bowl champion during the current 2010 postseason. If it did, the network might actually (gulp) be forced to allude to the Mountain West Conference. Of course, if you watched the Rose Bowl, you know that would run counter to journalistic integrity, considering announcers Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit conveniently failed to mention the Mountain West Conference by name throughout the broadcast. The same MWC that is yet again dominating the bowl season and on the verge of winning ESPN's Bowl Challenge Cup.
With a 4-1 mark in 2010, the Mountain West secured its fifth straight winning bowl record. The MWC is one of three conferences to finish with a winning bowl record each of the last four years (Big East and SEC). At present, the Big East is 3-2, while the SEC is 3-4 this postseason.
The MWC is 8-2 in bowl games over the last two seasons, with both losses coming against Boise State. Of the eight wins, four have come against automatic-qualifying BCS conferences (2-0 vs. Pac-10 and 1-0 vs. the ACC and Big Ten).
"What it really comes down to," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney told ESPN.com, "is how you play big games against great opponents on big stages."
Big games, big stages. Events reserved for "The Big Boys," a once exclusive moniker that heretofore also belongs to the Mountain West Conference.
Aztecs Raise Bar in MWC
With all five starters returning from a team that finished 25-9 last year and narrowly missed advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after winning the MWC Tournament, many knew that San Diego State's men's basketball team had a chance to be special in 2010-11.
How special? Not only are the Aztecs 15-0 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, they are also the only team in the 12-year-history of the MWC to finish nonconference play undefeated. One of only seven undefeated teams in the country, SDSU opens league play on Wednesday at TCU.
"You have to get a little lucky to win 15 straight," coach Steve Fisher said Monday. "It doesn't matter who you are. We've had some games where we didn't play particularly well, got a little lucky and made some plays down the stretch. We went on the road to some hard places to play and found ways to win.
"We feel good about where we are, but we're smart enough to know that nobody cares now and everybody will prepare harder for you as you get into league play. There are very few secrets now."
Meanwhile, Fisher said he is hopeful that senior forward Billy White, who recently suffered a sprained ankle during practice and did not play in the team's 90-53 win over Occidental on Friday, will be ready for the conference opener.
Something's Gotta Give
No. 15/14 BYU (14-1) opens conference play at No. 25 UNLV (12-2) on Wednesday in a game that figures to serve as a significant measuring stick for both teams. UNLV's return to the rankings makes this the fifth Top-25 match-up between MWC teams and the earliest one yet in the 12-year history of the league.
The contest matches the league's No. 1 scoring offense (BYU, 83. 9 ppg) against the No. 2 scoring defense (UNLV, 60.1 ppg). The Cougars rank first in the MWC in scoring margin (+18.8) and three-point field goals made (7.80 pg), while the Rebels rank No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense (38.0) and are also first in steals with an average of 9.29 per contest. UNLV ranks first in turnover margin (+5.14) and is fourth in three-point field-goal percentage defense (32.5).
"When you talk about (UNLV) defensively, it's such a unique style that they play that you really have to focus on getting into an offensive set to be able to score and not turn the ball over," said Cougars coach Dave Rose. "We've been a good team at not turning the ball over, but Vegas will try and turn us over. We turned the ball over way too many times in our loss against UCLA (19), so turnovers are going to be a big issue in this game."
Key to Success
If Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds had his way, the Falcons (9-4) would reprise the same defensive effort they did in Sunday's 81-48 rout of Florida A&M when they host Utah in the conference opener for both teams on Wednesday.
The Falcons sprinted out to an 18-0 lead and held the Rattlers to 15.6 percent shooting in the first half to take a 40-12 lead at the break, the fewest points Air Force has allowed in a first half since limiting Dartmouth to 12 on Dec. 28, 2008.
"For the first eight minutes of the game, we probably played as well defensively in putting pressure on the ball as we have all year," Reynolds said. "It's a big part of what we do."
Let the Games Begin
New Mexico coach Steve Alford is fully aware that putting together a sparkling nonconference record has little bearing on what transpires when league play begins.
A year ago, the Lobos went 14-1 against nonconference opponents and were nationally ranked before dropping consecutive games against San Diego State and UNLV when league play commenced.
"And I think this league is better this year than what it was a year ago," said Alford, whose team opens MWC play on Saturday at Wyoming. "I'm not sure our team is at that point right now, but every team in this league looks better. We have great respect for the league and a great appreciation of just how demanding it is. The next five days are going to be big for us. We've got to show a lot of improvement before we start things up at Wyoming."
Frogs Battling Through Injuries
TCU got a scare when standout junior guard Hank Thorns suffered a sprained knee against Northwestern State on Dec. 21, but now it's Thorns' running mate, Ronnie Moss, who has the attention of the Horned Frogs' faithful.
Moss, a junior guard who led the team in scoring last season, suffered a concussion in a 69-66 loss at Tulsa last week and may not be ready when TCU (9-6) hosts San Diego State in the conference opener for both teams on Wednesday. Moss did not play in Sunday's 70-61 setback at Rice.
"A concussion is such a hot-button issue right now that we're just going to have to wait and see," said coach Jim Christian. "There are certain (medical) guidelines he's going to have to meet. I know he wants to play, but it's really up to the doctors at this point."
Deep-Six the Mid-Major Tag
UNLV's Lon Kruger has been a head coach in the SEC (Florida) and the Big Ten (Illinois) and an assistant at Kansas State when the Wildcats were part of the Big Eight Conference (now the Big 12). Now in his seventh season with the Runnin' Rebels, Kruger is convinced that the MWC has reached a point where it can go toe-to-toe with the nation's best.
"It's a better league than other people realize, whether you're comparing it to the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12," said Kruger, whose team is off to a 12-2 start and will host BYU (14-1) on Wednesday in the conference opener for both teams. "This league has very good teams, very good players and tough venues.
"Each year, I think we're improving the way people around the country look at our league and just how good it really is."
Utes Hoping to Get Back on Track
Utah (7-7) opened the season by winning six of its first eight. The Utes have since dropped four of their last five, including four straight, a trend they hope to reverse in their league opener on Wednesday at Air Force.
Though the team arguably played its best first half of the season in Friday's loss at Portland (the Utes led 40-32 at the break), the Utes surrendered an 11-point advantage in the final 20 minutes.
"We need to be more competitive at both ends of the floor," said coach Jim Boylen. "Obviously, rebounding and defending one-on-one have been issues with our team; that's where we have to grow and get better. We also need to play at a little faster tempo. This is not a halfcourt, grind-it-out team like we've had in the past. It's a different team, and we're still getting to know each other and finding out who we are."
Playing With the Big Boys
Colorado State, which came within a point of knocking off eventual champion San Diego State in last year's MWC Tournament, is off to a 10-4 start. The Rams had won six straight, their longest win streak under coach Tim Miles, before falling to Hampton 77-75 on Saturday at the San Francisco Hilltop Challenge at USF.
CSU hosts rival Wyoming in the league opener for both teams on Tuesday night.
"We need to become a better defensive team, but we also have to learn how to beat the top four teams (BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV)," said coach Tim Miles. "We've yet to punch through that barrier with the top four teams. The only team we've beaten among those four is UNLV, and we only beat them once. We need to beat those teams consistently, and until we do, we will not move forward."
No matter the caliber of the coach, when a team is absent two of its top players, the going can be tough. And while Wyoming (7-7) is weathering the storm thus far, coach Heath Schroyer also knows that opening league play without a healthy Afam Muojeke and Adam Waddell will put the Cowboys to the test.
Muojeke, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who last season ranked second in the MWC in scoring at 17.9 points per game before rupturing the patella in his left knee, has made just four starts this season and is averaging 18.8 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, Waddell, a 6-foot-10 junior center, has yet to start a game after suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason that led to tendonitis in his Achilles tendon. Waddell, who was limited by knee and ankle problems last season, averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2009-10. He has appeared in six games this season and is averaging 14.2 minutes.
Team doctors have told Schroyer that neither player will be 100 percent healthy during the 2010-11 season.
"It's tough," Schroyer said. "Two years ago, those guys were the building blocks as freshmen on a team that (finished 19-14) and went to a postseason tournament (the College Basketball Invitational). To not have them for most of last year and again this year has been really tough.
"If you asked any coach in the league how they would fare if they were told they wouldn't have arguably their best two players, at least their most experienced players, for two years, most people wouldn't want to talk about that. But it has allowed our younger players to grow, not only for the present but for the future."
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Have a question for Mick? E-mail him at mick@TheMWC.com or check him out on Twitter @MWCMick.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.
Have a question for Mark? Visit him at ElevationSportsNetwork.com or check him out on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.