An interesting thing occurred during Air Force's 9-4 start leading into Mountain West Conference play.
The Falcons actually developed confidence. Real confidence, not the often-stated "we get beat anybody" refrain that is said for public consumption.
That might not mean much when the Falcons start regularly playing Mountain West Conference teams -- Air Force opens against Utah on Jan. 5 -- but at least the Falcons are giddy to test themselves to see how much progress they've made.
"We're excited to get started and can't wait until Wednesday," Air Force center Taylor Broekhuis said after a Jan. 2 victory over Florida A&M. "BYU, San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV are probably all going to be Top 25 teams, so it's going to be a tough year. But that's all you can ask for -- great competition each night."
Air Force played solid defense during most of the nonconference slate, holding opponents to 62.5 points and 38.1 percent shooting from the field.
Part of the improvement is that Air Force can now go nine or 10 players deep, something it couldn't do in recent campaigns.
"We've realized that we're a little deeper now and that, when we don't play defense, we don't win games," Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds said. "In the four games we've lost, our opponents have shot over 40 percent, and in the games we've won, they've shot under 40 percent. The things we've really emphasized is to share the ball and really engage defensively."
--Air Force completed nonconference play with an 81-48 rout of Florida A&M. The 33-point margin of victory was the largest for the Falcons since a 34-point victory over Prairie View A&M early last season.
--Through Jan. 2, the Falcons were 6-0 when scoring 70 or more points.
--Air Force rallied back from an 18-point deficit to notch a 76-65 victory over Sam Houston State on Dec. 28. The comeback equaled the biggest in Jeff Reynolds' four seasons as coach. Air Force rallied from 18 down for an overtime win over Radford early in the 2007-08 season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 28 -- Tom Fow's team-leading 3-point basket total through Jan. 2.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will be a challenge, and I don't know that I've ever seen the teams' rankings as high. If we play defensively like we're capable of, I think we can be more competitive in the league than we have been. That's our goal, and we'll see what happens." -- Coach Jeff Reynolds, assessing the Falcons' task in Mountain West Conference play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Utah, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: The Falcons see a solid opportunity to beat Utah if they can play pesky defense and keep high-scoring Utes F Will Clyburn in check. That's easier said than done, but Air Force will throw a variety of fresh players at Clyburn, who seldom takes a rest.
--at Brigham Young, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: Evan Washington figures to receive the unenviable task of defending All-America G Jimmer Fredette. However, BYU has a major edge in frontcourt, and either Brandon Davies or Noah Hartsock is capable of exposing Air Force's forwards if too much attention is paid to stopping Fredette.
FUTURES MARKET: Air Force's offensive efficiency is better than it was last season, and so is the club's balance. Five players had game-high scoring honors, and all five of them were averaging between 12.6 and 9.5 points per game through Jan. 2. G Michael Lyons had two 20-point outings, and F Tom Fow had one. The good thing about the balance is that Air Force isn't doomed if one of its top offensive threats is off his game or injured, as happened last season, when the Falcons lost leading scorer Grant Parker for an extended period of time.
--Sophomore C Taylor Broekhuis missed two games with a concussion, but he scored a game-high 15 points against Florida A&M in his return to action Jan. 2.
--Sophomore G Michael Lyons missed a game against San Houston State with a knee injury.
--Sophomore F Zach Bohannon returned from thumb surgery against Sam Houston State and averaged 7.7 points over his first three outings.
Brigham Young's 14-1 start was impressive, but the record often plays second fiddle to the exploits of star guard Jimmer Fredette.
Fredette is etching his name alongside Danny Ainge as the top two players in BYU history, and the senior All-American's national reputation seemingly increases with each stellar outing.
Fredette had 25 or more points in six consecutive December games, including a season-best 34 against Buffalo on Dec. 30. He was averaging 24.1 points and 4.4 assists entering No. 16 BYU's conference-opening game against UNLV on Jan. 5.
The game in Buffalo was BYU's second of the month in Fredette's home state of New York. The other contest -- against Vermont on Dec. 8 -- was in Fredette's hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y.
Obviously, the attention paid to Fredette reached its zenith during the hometown visit. But Fredette regularly dwarfs his teammates when it comes to publicity.
"It's a little uncomfortable as a coach to have a player who gets that much attention, but I'm really pleased with how our players have handled it," Cougars coach Dave Rose told the Deseret News. "And I think it speaks mostly to Jimmer and Jimmer's personality. He is such a likeable and approachable guy, and his approach to the game is so team-oriented that players understand his No. 1 focus is to help the team win. I also think they really respect his game and know he's a really good player."
Of course, everybody involved also knows BYU wouldn't be 14-1 and ranked among the top 20 teams in the nation if Fredette weren't running the show. He flirted with leaving for the NBA in the offseason before electing to return for one more season of college stardom.
--BYU had shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range over the past three games through Jan. 2 to raise its season percentage to 34.9. The Cougars had made 32 3-pointers during that span.
--Typically a good free-throw shooting team, BYU made just 68.8 percent of its free throws in its first 11 games before shooting 80.2 percent over its final four nonconference contests.
--Dave Rose notched his 140th career win as BYU's coach against Buffalo on Dec. 30, passing G. Ott Romney for third place on the school's coaching victories list.
BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- Number of 20-point games Jimmer Fredette had this season through Jan. 2.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We really like his attitude and his competitive nature. Matt is a playmaking guard. He's a terrific shooter that can score off the dribble and is an excellent distributor. He has the versatility to play multiple positions, but our expectation is that his natural position is point guard." -- Coach Dave Rose, on Matt Carlino, who transferred to BYU from UCLA.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at UNLV, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: Jimmer Fredette runs into a hot-playing point guard in UNLV's Oscar Bellfield in what should be a fun battle to watch. The Rebels ousted BYU from last season's Mountain West Conference tournament when low-scoring post player Brice Massamba had 13 points against the Cougars' soft interior presence.
--vs. Air Force, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: The Falcons will try to slow the game down since they don't have the firepower to play a fast-paced game with BYU. The Cougars beat Air Force by 43 last season in Provo, and it would be a surprise if BYU doesn't win big this time, too.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman G Matt Carlino transferred to BYU in late December after leaving the UCLA program. Carlino will be eligible at mid-semester next season with 3 1/2 seasons of eligibility remaining. By joining BYU's program now, Carlino can practice against senior All-American guard Jimmer Fredette, and BYU coaches can get a good read on his skills. Carlino will be the favorite to inherit Fredette's point guard position once he's eligible.
--Senior G Jimmer Fredette passed Mark Bigelow (213) for second place in BYU history when he made three 3-pointers against Fresno Pacific on Jan. 1. Fredette had 214 career 3-pointers, trailing only former teammate Jonathan Tavernari (265).
--Senior G Jackson Emery has 44 steals to raise his career total to 192 through Jan. 2, three shy of Danny Ainge's school record.
--Sophomore F Stephen Rogers had a career-best 16 points against Fresno Pacific and was 11-for-11 from the free-throw line.
Colorado State envisioned taking a seven-game winning streak into the Mountain West Conference opener against Wyoming. Instead, the Rams enter the contest with a one-game losing streak.
They also hope the loss doesn't dent the momentum of three straight weeks of solid play to end December.
Of course, a 10-4 nonconference record is nothing to feel bad about, but Colorado State would have preferred 11-3.
A last-second 3-point by Hampton's Kwame Morgan saddled the Rams with a 77-75 loss on Jan. 1 that represented Colorado State's first defeat since it fell to Kansas on Dec. 11.
The loss ended Colorado State's longest winning streak since the program won nine consecutive games early in the 2006-07 season.
The Rams see the Mountain West opener against Wyoming as a jump-start toward being a surprise contender. Colorado State is viewed as being a notch below upper-echelon programs San Diego State, Brigham Young, UNLV and New Mexico but as vastly improved while featuring a cast of veteran performers.
Colorado State opened some eyes by winning three straight games to win the Cancun Governor's Cup in late December, a feat that included a semifinal victory over Mississippi and the title victory over Southern Mississippi.
Being viewed as the conference's fifth-best program certainly beats the recent past, when Colorado State was the worst program in the Mountain West. The overmatched Rams went 0-16 in conference play in coach Tim Miles' first season on the job in 2007-08.
The next step is contending for the conference crown. The question is whether that's possible this season.
--The 94 points Colorado State scored in a victory over Dominican represent the Rams' highest point total in coach Tim Miles' four seasons at the school.
--Colorado State averaged 8.1 steals over its 14 nonconference games. Travis Franklin led the way with 24 steals.
--A major factor in the Rams' 77-75 loss to Hampton on Jan. 1 was the season-worst 18 turnovers.
BY THE NUMBERS: 50 -- Career double-digit scoring games by s
enior forward Andy Ogide through Jan. 1.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Hampton just turned us over, and we let them. We made some really bad decisions, and some of them were caused by Hampton, but we made more bad decisions than Hampton caused." -- Coach Tim Miles, to the Coloradoan, after the Rams' six-game winning streak was snapped.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Wyoming, Jan. 4
KEY MATCHUPS: Look for Colorado State to rely on frontcourt players Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin, who both tormented Wyoming last season. Playing great defense on high-scoring Wyoming guard Desmar Jackson is crucial.
FUTURES MARKET: Forward Travis Franklin's improved free-throw shooting has made him a regular threat to score 20 points, which he accomplished five times during the nonconference portion of Colorado State's schedule. Franklin scored 21 or more points on three consecutive days as the Rams won the Cancun Governor's Cup championship immediately before Christmas. Franklin had made 75.4 percent of his free throws through Jan. 1 after shooting a brutal 54.5 percent last season.
--Senior F Andre McFarland had 137 career 3-pointers through Jan. 1, nine away from cracking the school's top five.
--Senior G Adam Nigon moved into 10th place on the school's all-time steals list. Nigon enters Mountain West Conference play with 99 career steals.
--Senior F Travis Franklin was the Mountain West Conference Player of the Week for the period ending Dec. 26 after averaging 20.8 points and shooting 58.8 percent from the field over a four-game stretch. Franklin also was the MVP of the Cancun Governor's Cup.
Nevada-Las Vegas will certainly be well-rested when it opens Mountain West Conference play against Brigham Young on Jan. 5.
The Rebels will have played just once in a span of 14 days when they host the Cougars in the highly anticipated conference-opening contest between two of the top teams in the Mountain West.
UNLV enters the contest on a three-game winning streak that includes a victory over Kansas State on Dec. 21.
The Rebels routed Central Michigan 73-47 on Dec. 30 in their final tune-up before the BYU game. The Rebels didn't score in the opening three minutes of their first contest in nine days but quickly chipped the rust away and cruised to their fourth-largest victory of the season.
UNLV coach Lon Kruger was pleased with the 12-2 start but also continued to impress upon his players that they need to raise their level of play.
"Everyone would like to be further along in every area, but it's a good starting point," Kruger said. "This is a group, that most importantly, they do understand that we have to keep getting better because teams in this league are playing at a very high level and playing very well.
"Any team in the league that doesn't keep making progress is going to fall behind, so we have to play at a high level and keep getting better. That's the challenge."
A fast start in conference play is imperative for the Rebels. Their third Mountain West contest is a road game against undefeated San Diego State on Jan. 12, so a loss to BYU would leave UNLV facing the prospects of a possible 1-2 start.
--UNLV has played outstanding defense most of the season, allowing opponents just 60.1 points per game and holding them to 38 percent shooting from the field through Jan. 1.
--The victory over Central Michigan increased UNLV's record to 8-0 when holding opponents under 60 points this season.
--The Rebels matched a season-best by forcing Central Michigan to make 25 turnovers. UNLV led the Mountain West by forcing 18.9 turnovers per game through Jan. 1.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9.3 -- Average number of steals for UNLV through its first 14 games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Justin always gives us activity. Defensively, he gets his hands on balls. He seems to be in the right place at the right time, and he's done that consistently throughout the year." -- Coach Lon Kruger, on the spark sophomore G Justin Hawkins provided in the victory over Central Michigan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Brigham Young, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: The Rebels need to apply severe defensive pressure on BYU star Jimmer Fredette. The Cougars' All-American will get his points, but hounding him and making someone else on BYU step up is a better option than having Fredette put up 30-plus points.
--vs. TCU, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: Tre'Von Willis had one of his three 30-point games last season against TCU. The senior is starting to round into form after a suspension to start the season and is due for a breakout game.
FUTURES MARKET: Forward Chace Stanback led UNLV in scoring with a 12.5-point average through Jan. 1 but was entering Mountain West play in a shooting slump that had seen him make just 14 of 44 shots (31.8 percent) over the past five games. The Rebels need Stanback to quickly regain his early-season shooting form (he shot 59.3 percent in UNLV's first nine contests) with games against Brigham Young and San Diego State upcoming.
--Senior G Tre'Von Willis finally made it into the starting lineup against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 15, and he had started UNLV's last four games through Jan. 1. The first-team All-Mountain West selection last season was demoted after a suspension stemming from an offseason domestic-violence arrest.
--Junior PG Oscar Bellfield shot 50.9 percent from 3-point range during nonconference play. Bellfield has already made 29 3-pointers through Jan. 1 after making 48 in 34 games last season.
--Senior G Derrick Jasper tallied just 15 points in UNLV's final two nonconference games after missing a game against Southern Utah when a balky knee flared up.
New Mexico is adjusting on the fly and attempting to figure out the best way to incorporate transfer Drew Gordon into the mix.
The high-profile UCLA transfer came off the bench in each of his first five games with the Lobos, as coach Steve Alford elected to keep freshman Alex Kirk in the starting lineup.
Kirk became the first New Mexico freshman ever to post a double-double in his first career game, and he had done nothing to lose the starting position. Through Jan. 1, he was shooting 52.1 percent from the field and averaging 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds. Kirk also had a team-best 11 blocked shots.
Gordon didn't transfer to New Mexico to be a bench player, so it will be interesting to see how the junior responds if he doesn't crack the lineup shortly after the start of Mountain West Conference play. He had knee surgery in late October, and he was just getting his timing down as nonconference play ended.
Gordon was shooting 40 percent from the field, and he was averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds through Jan. 1.
After making his debut against The Citadel on Dec. 19, Gordon admitted to first-game jitters and indicated he wasn't in game shape. He pronounced the knee as fully healthy.
As far as figuring out whether to move Gordon into the starting lineup, Alford sees it as one of those pleasant problems to have.
"He hasn't played in 13 months," the coach said, "and he's just getting his feet wet."
--New Mexico had won five consecutive overtime games before losing 76-73 in double overtime against Dayton on Jan. 1.
--Dayton made 13 of 29 3-pointers against the Lobos, a 44.8 percent clip. Lobos opponents were shooting just 27.7 percent from 3-point range entering the contest.
--The Lobos were 7-0 at home this season and 56-5 in coach Steve Alford's four seasons through Jan. 1.
BY THE NUMBERS: 456 -- Assists for Dairese Gary through Jan. 1. He was closing in on becoming the fifth New Mexico player with 500 career assists.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm extremely proud of our guys. Our guys continue to give tremendous effort. This road trip was a brutal road trip, and we win by one at Texas Tech and go into overtime here." -- Coach Steve Alford, after a double-overtime road loss at Dayton on Jan. 1.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Cal State Bakersfield, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: The Lobos are playing a nonconference contest during their opening bye in the nine-team Mountain West. They should get a lot of chances to practice their 3-point defense against Cal State Bakersfield, a recent addition to the Division I ranks that is narrowing the gap by shooting lots of 3-point shots.
--at Wyoming, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: Wyoming is thin up front with C Adam Waddell ailing, so look for the Lobos to take advantage of that by hammering the ball inside to A.J. Hardeman and Drew Gordon.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman G Kendall Williams has been more than a contributor in his first season on campus. He ranked second on the Lobos in scoring (12.2) and assists (4.4) and had a team-best 24 steals through Jan. 1. But the most pleasing development was his 56.8 percent accuracy from 3-point range. Sometimes a freshman struggles to find his shooting comfort level, but that hadn't been the case for Williams. He also had 33 assists against just nine turnovers over the past six games.
--Senior G Dairese Gary had started 111 consecutive games through Jan. 1, the longest streak in the nation. Gary also has moved into third place in Mountain West history with 456 career assists.
--Sophomore F Emmanuel Negedu had missed four straight games through Jan. 1 since his heart defibrillator went off at halftime of the Dec. 19 game against The Citadel. Negedu suffered cardiac arrest at Tennessee before being revived in September 2009. He transferred to New Mexico after Tennessee refused to clear him for future competition.
--Freshman G Tony Snell made his first career start against Texas Tech on Dec. 29, scoring seven points in 20 minutes.
SAN DIEGO STATE
San Diego State takes a perfect 15-0 record into Mountain West Conference play after being one of just seven teams nationally to finish the calendar year with an unblemished record.
The No. 7 Aztecs had the second-longest winning streak in the nation behind Duke entering the Jan. 5 conference opener at Texas Christian.
San Diego State enters the conference slate as the favorites to win the title, but coach Steve Fisher isn't expecting his team to make it through the Mountain West without at least one or two losses.
"If we are going to go undefeated in the league, we are going to have to play better," Fisher said. "I don't know if anyone is going to go undefeated in the league, and probably no one will. To win in this league and not to have back-to-back-to-back losses, we are going to have to continue to get better.
"I do like the fact that against good teams in hard venues, we have found ways to win. We have had stretches in lots of games where we have played really, really good basketball. I think we have the athleticism and the experience to be very, very difficult for anybody that we play."
Seeing San Diego State among the list of unbeaten teams entering January along with national programs such as Duke, Kansas, Ohio State and Syracuse has been a bit surreal for a program that has never won a single NCAA Tournament game. The other two unbeaten squads were Cincinnati and Central Florida.
The unprecedented start puts a major target on San Diego State as Mountain West play begins.
"I think everybody likes it," center Malcolm Thomas said. "When the expectations are so high, it's so easy for everybody to turn their back on you. When everybody is cheering against us, we like it. We feed off it like when our fans cheer for us. It's kind of the same thing."
--The Aztecs enter the Mountain West opener against TCU with a streak of 24 consecutive victories over unranked teams.
--San Diego State shot an incredible 87.5 percent (21-of-24) in the second half of a 93-50 victory over Occidental on Dec. 31. The Aztecs finished the contest at 61 percent from the field.
--The 43-point margin of victory over Occidental was San Diego State's largest since a 45-point victory over UC San Diego during the 2001-02 campaign.
BY THE NUMBERS: 15 -- San Diego State's winning streak through Jan. 1 was the longest in school history.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's going to be a war because TCU, last year, when they came (to San Diego), was a war. I'm expecting it to be an even tougher game this year. We're just going to have to match their intensity and hopefully come out with a victory." -- Senior C Malcolm Thomas, on the conference-opening contest against the Horned Frogs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at TCU, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: The Horned Frogs have a tough backcourt in Ronnie Moss and point guard Hank Thorns, and their upset hopes hinge on both players having big games. D.J. Gay draws the assignment of keep Thorns in check.
--vs. Utah, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: The Utes had trouble defending San Diego State frontcourt players Kawhi Leonard (two double-doubles in two games) and Malcolm Thomas (51 points) last season. The Aztecs figure to ride those two again.
FUTURES MARKET: Senior center Brian Carlwell made his first start in two seasons with the program when injured forward Billy White missed the Occidental contest. Carlwell had seven points and six rebounds in 23 minutes, asserting that he could be a capable starter should starting center Malcolm Thomas, forward Kawhi Leonard or White miss any games over the second half of the season.
--Senior F Billy White was expected back for the conference opener against TCU after missing the Occidental contest with a sprained right ankle.
--Senior G D.J. Gay is one of 66 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation's top point guard.
--Sophomore F Kawhi Leonard had nine double-doubles this season through Jan. 1. He was already tied for third (with former NBA player Joel Kramer) in school history with 26 career double-doubles.
Junior-college transfer J.R. Cadot was expected to provide a boost for TCU's offense after making 60.3 percent of his field-goal attempts last season for Sheridan College.
What wasn't expected was Cadot's shooting accuracy increasing at the Division I level.
Cadot was shooting 71.2 percent from the field as TCU prepared to open Mountain West Conference play against San Diego State on Jan. 5. He had made 53 of 72 shots.
Even more unbelievable was that Cadot was shooting 87.8 percent at home. Cadot had missed just five of 41 shots at home, and he made 22 straight at one point.
In the contest in which his streak ended, Cadot had 19 points and 12 rebounds against Chicago State. But he wasn't totally happy because he missed three shots.
Yeah, he only went 9-for-12 from the field. That's 75 percent.
"It feels bad to miss a few shots because I wanted to keep that streak going," Cadot said, "but that is not how it works in basketball."
Cadot was averaging 8.5 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds through Jan. 1. He had a remarkable 40 offensive rebounds -- the second-highest total on the Horned Frogs was 16, by Amric Fields.
"J.R. is one of those guys where you do not have to run any plays for him," Horned Frogs coach Jim Christian said. "He runs the floor and he gets offensive rebounds."
--TCU committed a season-low five turnovers in the Dec. 30 loss to Tulsa. It marked the third time the Horned Frogs had fewer than 10 turnovers this season. They had nine on two occasions.
--TCU's loss to Rice meant they ended the season with a 4-1 record against Texas schools. The Horned Frogs notched victories over Southern Methodist, Houston, Prairie View A&M and Texas Tech.
--The Horned Frogs matched a season-best performance when they hit 57.4 percent of their shots against Chicago State on Dec. 28. TCU shot 50 percent or better in six of its first eight home games.
BY THE NUMBERS: 22 -- Consecutive field-goal attempts made at home by J.R. Cadot over a five-game span.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He was playing as hard as he has ever played. We need some other guys to play at that level and we will continue to get better." -- Coach Jim Christian, of the recent solid play delivered by senior G Greg Hill.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. San Diego State, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: TCU expected to have leading scorer Ronnie Moss back from a concussion, and that's a major necessity against the highly athletic Aztecs. Moss and PG Hank Thorns match up well with San Diego State's backcourt of D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley.
--at UNLV, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: UNLV PG Oscar Bellfield has played superbly this season, and the matchup between Thorns and Bellfield figures to be a good one. Moss going against UNLV G Tre'Von Willis will also be fun to watch.
FUTURES MARKET: Concern was rampant when PG Hank Thorns went down to the court grasping his right knee during a Dec. 21 contest against Northwestern State. But the injury turned out to be merely a sprain, and Thorns missed just one game before returning. What TCU has learned during the nonconference portion of the schedule is that Thorns is irreplaceable. The Virginia transfer is averaging 5.7 assists and has more than twice as many assists as turnovers. Any chance of creeping up the Mountain West standings dissolves immediately if Thorns is ever sidelined for a lengthy period.
--Junior G Ronnie Moss missed the Rice contest on Jan. 2 after suffering a concussion during the Dec. 30 loss to Tulsa. It was only the second time Moss missed a game during his TCU career.
--Junior PG Hank Thorns is one of 66 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation's top point guard.
--Freshman F Amric Fields had a career-best 26 points in a victory over Chicago State. That's the most points any Horned Frogs player had scored this season through Jan. 1.
Utah junior Will Clyburn has established himself as one of the top scorers in the Mountain West Conference before playing in his first league game.
The junior-college transfer averaged 19.1 points during nonconference play, making the Utes a dangerous opponent for teams that might overlook Utah's 7-7 record.
Utah opens Mountain West play at Air Force on Jan. 5, and the offense will certainly revolve around Clyburn, who had seven 20-point games and had led Utah in scoring 10 times in nonconference action.
The 6-foot-7 forward also led Utah in rebounding (8.6) and had four double-digit rebounding games, topped by a 14-board effort against Bradley on Dec. 4.
He's also the player the Utes will look for to take the important shots in close games. Utah had lost five of its last six games through Jan. 1, but it would be six of six if not for Clyburn's game-winning 3-point shot against Boise State on Dec. 17.
"I didn't have any hesitation at all," Clyburn said. "I knew it was going up."
Clyburn had 24 points and made a season-high five 3-pointers in Utah's 88-79 loss to Portland on Dec. 31. His season-high output was 27 against Weber State.
Clyburn also led Utah in 3-point baskets (32) and steals (21) as well as another category that shouts out his importance to the team. He was averaging a whopping 36.2 minutes per game.
Utah isn't expected to contend this season, but Clyburn figures to contend for first-team all-conference honors.
--Utah's only victory during the last four weeks of 2010 saw the Utes come back from a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Boise State. The win matched the largest comeback in coach Jim Boylen's four seasons. Utah also overcame a 16-point deficit to defeat No. 20 Illinois last season.
--The Utes made a season-high 11 3-pointers and shot a season-best 52.4 percent from 3-point range in the loss to Portland. Will Clyburn was 5-for-7 and G Chris Kupets was 4-for-7.
--Utah was 6-1 at home through Jan. 1, well on its way to its 38th consecutive winning record on its home court.
BY THE NUMBERS: 64 -- Through Jan. 1, Utah was 12-0 over the past two seasons when holding opponents to 64 or fewer points.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We still haven't played a 40-minute game. We have to play smarter, more consistently and with more grit for more of the game." -- Coach Jim Boylen, while analyzing a season-long problem for the Utes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Air Force, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: The Falcons often struggle against big players, so 7-foot C Jason Washburn figures to have an opportunity to be a key contributor. Washburn was shooting 57.6 percent from the field to go with a modest 7.5 scoring average through Jan. 1.
--vs. San Diego State, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: Utah was powerless to stop San Diego State frontcourt players Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard last season, as shot blocker David Foster lacks the athleticism to guard either player. It will be up to C Jason Washburn and F Josh Watkins to slow down the potent duo.
FUTURES MARKET: The Utes could use a breakout performance in Mountain West Conference play from inconsistent sophomores Shawn Glover and Chris Hines. Both players averaged six points per game in nonconference play, and both shot poorly -- Hines at 39.4 percent and Glover at 34.7 percent. Hines scored just 12 points over Utah's final three nonleague games, and Glover tallied just six points.
--Junior C David Foster had 40 blocked shots through Jan. 1, raising his career total to 160. Foster recently passed Mitch Smith (157 from 1985-89) to move into second place on the school's career blocks list behind Luke Nevill (205 from 2005-09).
--Junior G Josh Watkins didn't start against Portland due to a bruised shoulder, but he came off the bench to score 14 points in 21 minutes.
--Freshman G/F J.J. O'Brien (broken foot) returned to action against Butler on Dec. 22 after missing nine games.
Finding a consistent starting five was an early-season issue for Wyoming, but the Cowboys had used the same starting lineup for the past seven games entering the Jan. 4 Mountain West Conference opener against Colorado State.
Wyoming used five different starting lineups over the first seven games before settling on center Djibril Thiam, forward Amath M'Baye, wing Francisco Cruz, shooting guard Desmar Jackson and point guard JayDee Luster.
The Cowboys had gone 5-2 with that lineup to even their record at 7-7.
The lineup had been in flux due to lingering injuries to forward Afam Muojeke and center Adam Waddell, two players the Cowboys were hoping would be starters.
Muojeke had started just four games while recovering from major knee surgery in the middle of last season. Waddell hasn't started at all while being bothered by an Achilles tendon injury.
"If we can ever Adam and Afam healthy and into our rotation, I think this team has a chance to be pretty good," Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said.
M'Baye was the only player to start all 14 games, and the sophomore had been a pleasant surprise, ranking third on the Cowboys in scoring (11.0) and second in rebounding (5.1).
M'Baye had been Wyoming's third-best player behind Jackson (15.5 points, 2.6 steals) and Thiam (12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks).
--Wyoming had lost 14 consecutive road games entering the conference opener at Colorado State. The Cowboys were 0-3 on road this season after going winless in 11 road games last season.
--The Cowboys were 7-0 this season when holding opponents under 60 points.
--Wyoming's Dec. 31 contest at Houston Baptist was postponed when the Cowboys missed their flight from Denver to Houston. The Cowboys' bus got stuck in traffic during what is usually a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from campus to Denver International Airport, but inclement weather and an overturned semi-truck caused major traffic delays.
BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- Consecutive double-digit scoring games for G Desmar Jackson through Jan. 1.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need both of them going into league play, but it will be day-to-day with each of them." -- Coach Heath Schroyer, on the injury issues of key players Afam Muojeke (knee) and Adam Waddell (Achilles tendon).
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Colorado State, Jan. 4
KEY MATCHUPS: The Cowboys had trouble defending Colorado State frontcourt players Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin last season and will need to do a better job against the pair. Adam Waddell fared well against the Rams last season, but his availability remained up in the air.
--vs. New Mexico, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: Wyoming nearly upset a much-more powerful Lobos team at home last season and figures to be revved up for its conference home opener. This is the type of contest where Afam Muojeke, if healthy, could combine with Desmar Jackson to make things highly interesting.
FUTURES MARKET: Junior-college transfer Francisco Cruz had given Wyoming the type of 3-point shooting it lacked last season. Cruz had made nine 3-pointers in Wyoming's last four games through Jan. 1, and he was shooting a team-best 45.1 percent from 3-point range. His ability to knock down outside shots complements the style of leading scorer Desmar Jackson, who is more adept at driving and slashing for points. Even with Cruz's stellar 3-point shooting, Wyoming was making just 28 percent from 3-point range through Jan. 1.
--Junior F Afam Muojeke missed three late-December contests as his surgically repaired knee flared up. He returned to play 16 minutes against Kennesaw State on Dec. 28.
--Junior C Adam Waddell missed seven of Wyoming's eight December games due to a pesky Achilles tendon injury.
--Sophomore G Desmar Jackson finished December with three straight 20-point performances. He had four 20-point games on the campaign through Jan. 1.
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