In a college basketball season where mid-majors are stronger than ever, one of the “other” conferences is looking to reign supreme over the rest, and perhaps to stake a claim as the best conference in the western half of the country. With the Pac-10 suffering an uncharacteristically bad season, the Mountain West may be the best of the west. Despite not having a team in the preseason top 25 (BYU led the way with just 16 votes), the MWC now boasts two teams in the poll, New Mexico at 14 and BYU at 23. When comparing this to the Pac-10, who can only claim #22 Washington, it’s apparent that the bridge between the two conferences is closing, if only for one season. Wednesday night will showcase two of the Mountain West’s premier teams, the aforementioned #23 BYU (0-0, 14-1) and UNLV (0-0, 12-2). The two teams square off at the Marriott Center in Provo, where BYU is notoriously difficult to take down.
The BYU Cougars feature a three guard starting lineup, and there’s no doubt who the leader is. Junior point guard Jimmer Fredette has established himself as one of college basketball’s best players this season. Despite his relative obscurity, Fredette managed to turn heads when he dropped 49 against Arizona. He averages almost 22 points a game, but simultaneously maintains a 5.6 assist average. He is in the top 20 nationally in both these categories. Fredette can score anywhere; he’s deadly beyond the arc, as is his teammate, Jackson Emery. Emery is hitting an astonishing 50% of his threes. Worth noting is that Emery averages nearly 3 steals a game. The third guard in the lineup, as well as third leading scorer is Tyler Haws. Like Fredette and Emery, he makes over 50% of his shot attempts, but is not the shooting threat those two are. Haws does his damage inside the arc; he has connected on 63% of his shots in that area. Forward Jonathan Tavernari is trying to find the same stroke he had last year, when he led the Cougars in scoring. His averages have plummeted, and much of that can be attributed to his awful 39% shooting percentage. Tavernari has to try to attack the rim more. As his confidence builds, so will his accuracy. Joining him in the frontcourt is the team’s leading rebounder, Noah Hartsock. If your leading scorer from a year ago is struggling, you need solid contributions from everyone else, and Hartsock makes up for Tavernari’s misses with a 64% shooting percentage. He’s a good shot blocker down low. Primary bench players are Chris Miles, Michael Loyd Jr., Charles Abouo and Brandon Davies. Miles and Davies bolster the short starting lineup. At 6-11 and 6-9, they are the two tallest players in the BYU rotation. Abouo is a swingman, and his statline is very similar to Tavernari’s, if you factor in minutes played. Loyd Jr. is an excellent shooter off the bench, but can also score inside. He rounds out a deep BYU team that is among the nation’s leaders in shooting. Lamont Morgan Jr. also sees a bunch of minutes, as the only capable playmaker backing up Fredette. He’s 10th on the team in scoring, but third in assists
UNLV heavily leans on the strength of it’s backcourt to get things done. Having a 6-6 point guard and guards capable of rebounding doesn’t hurt. Despite the slew of new players for the Rebels this season, namely Chace Stanback and Derrick Jasper, the two leading scorers were playing for Lon Kruger a year ago. Tre’Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield, two members of the three man backcourt Kruger employs, toss in 14.5 and 11.1 points a contest, respectively. Much of Willis’ points come at the charity stripe, where he has missed four of his 54 attempts. Although Willis scores more, it is Bellfield who leads the team in assists. Jasper is the third guard, and at 6-6, his combination of size and playmaking ability makes him special. However, it appears some may have overestimated his impact. Jasper isn’t even cracking three assists a game. However, he has been a consistent scorer, the team’s second leading rebounder and hasn’t turned it over. The leading rebounder is Stanback, who has the range to step out and make threes. Stanback is also a stellar defender. It’s very impressive for a 6-8 power forward to lead a guard-oriented team in steals, but Stanback does that, as well as ranking first in blocked shots. Joining Stanback in the frontcourt is Matt Shaw, Darris Santee and Brice Massamba. Only Santee ranks in the top five on the team in rebounding, and despite backing up Shaw and Stanback, he’s been the most effective Rebel big. Shaw sees more minutes because he can stretch the defense with the three ball; he’s knocked down 10 this season. Massamba is shooting close to 70% from the field. Providing breathers for the triumvirate of guards is Kendall Wallace (a starter who sees less minutes than Willis), Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Steve Jones. Wallace is essentially a spot up jump shooter; a vast majority of his shots come from beyond the arc, and he paces the team at 38% from three. Marshall is just a freshman, and is extremely talented, contributing in all sorts of ways. However, he has been atrocious shooting the ball, not a hallmark of great players. Hawkins and Jones probably won’t see too many minutes against an opponent the caliber of BYU, but Hawkins is a reliable bench scorer who can be called upon if necessary.
In their two losses this year, the Runnin’ Rebels have shot a shade over 25% from long range. What’s frustrating is that they are not much better for the season (30%) but continue to incessantly hoist threes. The general rule of thumb is to take the home team in this series. Adding BYU’s ability to stroke it from deep, and the Cougars are the pick.
BYU cruises to a 79-71 victory.