Wyoming's Justin Williams is drawing rave reviews for his prodigious shot-blocking abilities.

The senior from Chicago ranks second in the nation in blocked shots — averaging six per game — and he is blocking shots at a record pace. Williams is threatening to break the Cowboy single-season school record per-game block average set by Theo Ratliff, who blocked 5.1 shots per game in 1994-95.

Last Wednesday in a loss at BYU, Williams blocked seven shots.

"Justin is a player," said Cougar coach Dave Rose. "I played with a great shot-blocker in college, Hakeem Olajuwon. It kind of reminded me of him. We weren't a very good defensive team, until they got to him. He'd kind of make up for all our mistakes and swat it away."

Last season, Williams was the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year and set the league record with 81 blocked shots. This year, he has recorded 102 blocks already. Only Northeastern's Shawn James, with 104 blocks, has more. For his efforts, Williams is attracting national attention.

Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara touted Williams in a recent article, pointing out that he has blocked more shots all by himself than 317 of 334 Division I teams this season. Skwara compared Williams to Duke's Shelden Williams, who was the national defensive player of the year last season. The Cowboys' Williams is averaging two blocks per game more than the Blue Devils' Williams.

On top of that, Justin Williams is causing headaches for opposing offenses in the MWC.

"Justin is perhaps the best defensive player in the country," said Colorado State coach Dale Layer. "He changes the game with his presence."

While his numbers are impressive, New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay said, what's more even impressive is how Williams affects the flow of games by the way he alters opponents' shots.

"Justin is a very gifted athlete," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "He's rangy, long and a very good jumper. He's always looking for opportunities to help. His awareness and anticipation is excellent."

Williams is one of only two MWC players averaging a double-double (11.3 points and 10.5 rebounds) this season along with San Diego State's Marcus Slaughter. In his last outing, at BYU, Williams poured in 21 points and snatched 13 rebounds in 32 minutes.

CAN CSU COME BACK?: Colorado State entered conference play with a glossy 11-2 record and boasted the league's best RPI.

A few weeks into the MWC season, the Rams are just 1-4 in the league and are 12-6 overall.

The reason for the rapid decline? Blame the schedule-makers. CSU played four of its first five conference contests on the road. The latest, and biggest, blow came last Saturday, when the Rams lost at TCU, which had been winless in MWC play.

"They had to play four of their first five on the road," said Wyoming coach Steve McClain, whose team visits CSU Wednesday. "Probably any team faced with that schedule would be in the same boat."

"We've certainly struggled on the road. It's obvious," Layer said. "We've lost confidence with so many games away from Moby Arena. When you lose, your confidence comes down, especially when you play a tough road schedule."

The Rams may be able to make up for their slow start over the next few weeks. They will play six of their next eight games at home, where they are 8-0 this season.

LEWIS SUSPENSION: CSU's Cory Lewis was suspended for the TCU game after being ejected for fighting during the UNLV contest on Jan. 18.

Lewis was assessed a flagrant personal foul after throwing a punch at a Rebel player at the 14:16 mark of the second half resulting in his ejection from the contest. He was not allowed to travel to the TCU game. If he is ejected again for fighting, Lewis will be suspended for the rest of the season, including tournament play.

HOME VS. ROAD: It's no surprise that home teams have been dominant in the MWC. Through last week's games, the home teams have posted a 19-5 record. In fact, only three teams have won on the road in league play so far this season — San Diego State (2-1), UNLV (2-1) and Wyoming (1-1).

The rest of the league is 0-for-16 on the road.

"Most of the places have great crowds and there are great teams in this league," McKay said. "It's so balanced from top to bottom. It's very difficult to win in hostile arenas."

McKay added that the key to winning on the road is relying on good play from seniors and the guard line. "That's why you see both San Diego State and UNLV with two road wins," he said.

The Aztecs (5-1) are the hottest team in the league, having won four straight games. They host New Mexico and travel to Wyoming this week. The Rebels (4-1) are right behind them in the standings and enjoy a pair of home games this week against Air Force and New Mexico.

Three MWC teams are unbeaten all year at home — Air Force (11-0), New Mexico (11-0) and CSU (8-0) while BYU (8-1) and San Diego State (7-1) have only had one setback at home. That's a combined 45-2 record at home between the five teams.

New Mexico (0-5) and TCU (0-5) have yet to win any road games this season.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com