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2011 Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

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(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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LAS VEGAS (Sports Network) – For the last week, BYU has been the focus of the college basketball world for what one player did off the court, now it is time for the Cougars and the rest of the Mountain West Conference to prove their mettle on the hardwood as they compete in the 12th annual conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Last week, forward Brandon Davies was suspended by BYU for violating the school’s honor code and that dismissal was felt immediately by the Cougars as they suffered an ugly 82-64 loss to New Mexico, at home no less. But three days later, the Cougars rebounded to crush Wyoming in the season finale, 102-78, in Provo to lay claim to a share of the MWC title with San Diego State. Thanks to a pair of wins over the Aztecs this season, BYU enters the conference tournament as the top seed and will be awaiting the survivor of the opening-round matchup between ninth-seeded TCU and eighth-seeding Wyoming on Wednesday night.

It doesn’t matter much which team makes it to the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon because they are sure to be blown away by the Cougars, but for the sake of argument the Horned Frogs and the Cowboys still deserve some attention.

In the case of TCU, it has been stumbling along since suspending leading scorer Ronnie Moss, and a 70-65 setback to Air Force a week ago means the program is sliding away on a 13-game winless streak. If there is one saving grace for the Frogs it is guard Hank Thorns who is one of the nation’s top assist men with seven per game, but other than that the team has very little to offer and finished a mere 1-15 in league action.

On the other side, the Cowboys are on to their second head coach of the season after dismissing Heath Schroyer and now the team is being guided by Fred Langley. Under Langley, the Pokes won a couple of conference games but still the team finished a mere 3-15 and was the one team that actually lost to TCU in January (78-60).

Aside from the Davies news coming out of Provo, the Cougars have been the topic of national conversation because of the exploits of one Jimmer Fredette. The nation’s leading scorer this season with a staggering 27.9 ppg, Fredette is a finalist for several national awards and lived up to his preseason billing as an All-American. The leading scorer in all but two of his team’s 31 games this season, Fredette is not only a scoring machine who sets off bombs from several feet outside the three-point line, he is also first on the Cougars with 134 assists which makes him a very tough matchup, defensively. Backcourt mate Jackson Emery (12.7 ppg) doesn’t get the same level of publicity, but that’s probably why he’s been able to make 87 steals this season and become the program’s all-time leader in that department. But make no mistake, losing Davies is going to hurt this team on the inside because without him they have little if any presence on the glass.

BYU’s loss may well be San Diego State‘s gain, seeing as how the only two setbacks this season for the Aztecs (29-2) came versus the Cougars. The second seed in this year’s tournament, SDSU is set to face off against seventh-seeded Utah (13-17) on Thursday night and will begin the quest for back-to-back tournament titles at that time. SDSU, which has won this event three times total and has played in the championship round in each of the last two seasons, pounds away against teams in the paint, using brute force rather than finesse in order to land in the win column over and over again. Flying under the radar, at least while Fredette is in this league, perhaps the most impressive performer is Kawhi Leonard who is a double-double machine (15.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg) for the Aztecs. Throw in Malcolm Thomas (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and SDSU has a formidable front line as long as they can stay out of foul trouble.

Mix in D.J. Gay (11.7 ppg, 104 assists), one of the most experienced players in MWC history, and the Aztecs have all the makings of a team destined for great things this season.

As for the Runnin’ Utes of Utah, a team which lost the two regular season games against SDSU by a combined 31 points, they are the worst shooting team in the league at just 42.7 percent and their effort on the glass is somewhat suspect as they allow a league-high 36.3 rpg. Nevertheless, Will Clyburn is still one of the top scorers in the conference with his 17.0 ppg overall, yet his production dipped about two points in league bouts, the team falling to just 64.6 ppg against the rest of the MWC in 2010-11. Josh Watkins (14.6 ppg), not to be confused with Jay Watkins (8.1 ppg), had his moments this season, but having a starting center (David Foster) who is scoring just 2.8 ppg doesn’t help matters even if he has become one of the best shot blockers in the history of the league.

The most intriguing matchup in the quarterfinals has to be the New Mexico-Colorado State tussle in the second game of the day on Thursday. The fifth-seeded Lobos are a team that you can never sleep on, yet they were far more disappointing this season than most thought would be the case. UNM began the campaign with 10 wins in 11 tries, but then the bottom started to fall out or,more specifically, the squad was exposed in conference play by the teams that know the Lobos very well. Under the direction of head coach Steve Alford, who is quickly becoming a legend in Albuquerque, the Lobos reached the 20-win plateau again this year but were a mere 8-8 in league action. With Dairese Gary (14.5 ppg) directing the action and setting himself up for 170 assists over 31 starts, it falls to Drew Gordon (12.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg) to play the tough guy in the paint and his efforts have helped to give UNM a rebounding edge of almost six per game over the competition this season.

Fourth-seeded Colorado State, a squad that won it all with a narrow 62-61 victory against UNLV in the title game back in 2003, seemed to be cruising right along against the rest of the MWC, save for BYU and SDSU, but then came a couple of unexpected setbacks to UNLV at home and a blowout loss to Air Force on the road, perhaps shaking the confidence of the Rams just a bit. The team may be having group issues, but you can be sure Andy Ogide is going to try and snap them out of it, the team’s overall leading scorer (17.0 ppg) who has led the way in the last 10 games. Ogide, a 58.8 percent shooter from the floor, is also good for about seven and a half rebounds per game, while Travis Franklin (12.3 ppg) lines up as the only other double-digit scorer for a squad that is posting almost 72.0 ppg this year.

Count on the Las Vegas crowd to be squarely in the corner of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the No. 3 seed which will face off against sixth-seeded Air Force in the late game on Thursday night. Like New Mexico, the Rebels were one of the teams to watch early on in the season with a nine-game win streak out of the gate that included victories over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech, but no matter how well the Rebels (23-7) played this season, there was no way there were going to keep up with BYU and SDSU, so settling in for the third spot was the best they were going to do. UNLV did manage to close out the regular season with five straight wins, but against the Falcons during the campaign the team seemed to be deferring to Air Force as far as tempo and style, even though the Rebels topped the academy both times. With one of the more balanced scoring attacks in the league, UNLV was paced by Tre’Von Willis with his 13.1 ppg, although he did miss several games which allowed Chace Stanback (12.4 ppg) and Oscar Bellfield (11.3 ppg) to grab some of the spotlight.

The Falcons can be a spunky bunch and come out of nowhere to challenge UNLV, but the simple fact is Air Force just doesn’t have the size inside to be able to fight off most teams. One of three programs in the MWC yet to win the tourney title, Air Force may have fallen to the Rebels twice during the regular season, but still the outcomes were respectable. As is the case every year with the academy, size and rebounding continue to plague the squad and this season the team lost out to opponents by almost six rebounds per game, and against the rest of the MWC the deficit was even greater. Evan Washington tends to be the most active on the glass with better than four and a half rebounds per game, but his 7.2 ppg don’t exactly instill fear in the competition. Michael Lyons (13.2 ppg) and Tom Fow (12.1 ppg) give the Falcons the best chance to win, but it will still be a very tough 40 minutes on Thursday night.

With a top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament no longer in the cards, perhaps the Cougars have lost some of their fight with the departure of Davies, but that doesn’t mean the team won’t be there in the conference title game against San Diego State. Needless to say, the Aztecs have a double-dose of payback as a motivating factor for the next time the Aztecs and Cougars matchup, so hand the crown over to Steve Fisher and his bunch.

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