2009-10 Conference Primers: #7 – Mountain WestPosted by rtmsf on October 31st, 2009
Andrew Murawa of The Great Leap Backward is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- BYU 12-4
- UNLV 11-5
- San Diego State 10-6
- Utah 10-6
- New Mexico 9-7
- TCU 7-9
- Wyoming 6-10
- Colorado State 5-11
- Air Force 2-14
- Jimmer Fredette (G), Jr, BYU (16.2ppg, 4.0 apg)
- Carlon Brown (G), Jr, Utah (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.3 apg)
- Afam Muojeke (F), Soph, Wyoming (13.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
- Jonathan Tavernari (F), Sr, BYU (15.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg)
- Zvonko Buljan (C), Sr, TCU (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
6th Man: Billy White, Sr, San Diego State (8.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
Impact Newcomer: Derrick Jasper, Jr, UNLV
What You Need to Know. The Mountain West Conference is consistently one of the top high mid-major conferences in the country. In just over a decade in existence, the MWC has only failed to finish among the top 10 conferences in terms of RPI just once (2005-06), and only once in the conference’s history has it failed to advance more than one team to the NCAA tournament (2000-01). Six of its nine member schools feature campuses above 4,000 feet in elevation, and that, coupled with some small, raucous arenas, make MWC arenas a tough place for visiting teams to play.
New look league: Only five of last year’s top 20 scorers in the conference, and only one of last year’s top ten in minutes played, return. Last year, the Mountain West Conference was dominated by veterans, but despite their absence, coaches around the league have plenty of incoming talent to get excited about. For every Luke Nevill, Lee Cummard, Wink Adams, Kyle Spain or Brandon Ewing that has moved on, a Derrick Jasper, Malcolm Thomas, Kawhi Leonard, Shawn Glover or JayDee Luster has arrived. As a result, every team in this league has questions that will need to be answered between now and March. Who can BYU get to step in and take up the slack that the graduation of Lee Cummard leaves? Can gigantic sophomore David Foster fill the hole in the paint for Utah left by Luke Nevill? Can UNLV get enough production from its frontcourt to help their strong backcourt? Can Steve Fisher’s San Diego State squad not underachieve for once? Is New Mexico’s Phillip McDonald ready to become a star in this league?
Stability remains: While there has been a lot of turnover in terms of players in the MWC, the guys patrolling the sidelines will look remarkably similar. In an era of seemingly rampant coaching turnover, the MWC boasts nine returning coaches, three of whom (UNLV’s Lon Kruger, San Diego State’s Fisher and New Mexico’s Steve Alford) have more than 350 career wins. BYU fans should feel particularly pleased to see their head coach, Dave Rose, return. Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just after the end of last season, but has been fortunate enough to have received a clean bill of health following treatment and surgery in the offseason.
Non-conference boost: One area where the conference has gone downhill recently has been in the strength of its collective non-conference schedule. In the early 2000s, the MWC was consistently in the top 10 conferences in terms of non-conference schedule strength, but have slid to the point where their non-conference schedule strength the past three years has been out of the top 20. It would appear, however, that the conference has made a concerted effort to improve those numbers this year. In addition to the inaugural MWC/MVC Challenge (which will give MWC teams a chance to compete against a mid-major conference of similar historical strength), you’ll find tough games against both major conferences and respected mid-major programs littering the schedules. From tough roadies against national powers like Arizona, LSU and UCLA to sneaky matchups against other mid-majors like Utah State, St. Mary’s and Oral Roberts, the MWC has gone a long way towards beefing up their early-season schedules.
Predicted Champion. BYU (NCAA Seed: #9). BYU brings back the most experience to a league that will be sorely lacking in that area this season. Senior forward Jonathan Tavernari and junior guard Jimmer Fredette each finished in the top 10 in scoring in the conference last season, and each can be expected to increase their output a bit this season to make up for the loss of all-MWC forward Lee Cummard. Junior Jackson Emery joins Fredette in the backcourt and provides strong defense and a capable three-point stroke. Up front, the Cougars hope for solid contributions from senior Chris Miles and sophomore James Anderson. Miles is an offensive-minded post player, who can struggle a bit defensively against stronger players, while Anderson is a good defensive complement. Throw in some athletic players off the bench and a couple strong recruits and the Cougars look like the most solid of the teams at the top of the conference. The goal for BYU, however, will be to advance out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament, something they have failed to do in the lifetime of the MWC.
UNLV (NCAA Seed: #11). Like the rest of the conference, the story of 2009-10 begins for the Rebels with what does not return. With Wink Adams, Rene Rougeau and a couple members of the supporting cast moving on, the Rebels will need a bit of a makeover to contend in the MWC. Luckily for Lon Kruger, UNLV returns two starting guards (junior Tre’Von Willis and sophomore Oscar Bellfield) and gets an influx of talent in the way of three talented transfers and a strong incoming class. The most heralded of the newcomers is Kentucky-transfer Derrick Jasper, a spectacular athlete who struggled at times with injuries in Lexington. Kruger envisions Jasper as a do-everything athlete, capable of ball-handling, strong defense, outside shooting and penetration. The question mark for the Runnin’ Rebels will be frontcourt, although help arrives there as well. UCLA transfer Chace Stanback will help some, but won’t provide a lot of muscle up front. Freshman Carlos Lopez could provide some of that muscle, but will take some time to develop. In the meantime, the Rebels will have to count on senior Darris Santee and sophomore Brice Massamba to do the dirty work while the backcourt provides the scoring punch.
San Diego State (NIT). The Aztecs lost as much (or more) as anybody in the conference this offseason. Gone are such standbys as Kyle Spain, Lorenzo Wade, Richie Williams and more. However, instead of worrying about his empty cup, coach Steve Fisher has filled it up again. Freshman wing Kawhi Leonard, the most anticipated freshman recruit in the conference, and three talented Division I transfers (Malcolm Thomas and Tyrone Shelley from Pepperdine and Brian Carwell from Illinois) will give the Aztecs a much-needed infusion of talent. Couple those newcomers with returnees like junior guard D.J. Gay, junior forward Billy White, sophomore forward Tim Shelton and senior forward Mehdi Cheriet and the Aztecs cup is nearly overflowing with talent. White, in particular, is a guy that the coaching staff is excited about. He is long, athletic and skilled, and will likely be the go-to guy offensively, providing him with the opportunity to go from a talented player to a difference maker. However, given the perception that San Diego State has underachieved the past few seasons, the Aztecs will have to prove themselves capable of playing at a high caliber before being considered a championship contender.
Utah (NIT). Replacing conference player of the year and defensive player of the year Luke Nevill will be no easy task for the Utes, but at least they’ve got the guy with the size to do it in 7’3” sophomore David Foster. Whether Foster is ready to play at this level after having been out of basketball for a couple of years (he was away on a Mormon mission last year), is another question entirely. Even if Foster is ready, he needn’t be counted on to score a lot, as the Utes return two strong guards in junior Carlon Brown and senior Luke Drca. Both players are big versatile guards, capable of running the offense, scoring and defending. Brown will need to improve his outside shot to take his game to the next level, but he is an explosive talent. Senior forward Kim Tillie provides experience and versatility along the front line, capable of defending a variety of players and rebounding the ball effectively. However, for Jim Boylen’s squad to challenge for a conference title, they will need to get contributions from elsewhere on the roster, with long, bouncy freshman wing Shawn Glover perhaps being the most likely candidate.
New Mexico (NIT). Last year the Lobos finished in a three-way tie for the regular season title in the MWC, but were still left on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament pairings were announced. To make matters worse for Steve Alford’s program, the three leading scorers on last year’s squad were all seniors who have moved on. The bright side, however, is that some intriguing talent remains. There are two returning starters in junior point guard Dairese Gary and senior wing Roman Martinez, both of whom expect to play an increased role this season. But the X-factor for the Lobos is sophomore guard Phillip McDonald, last year’s big recruit for Alford. McDonald will need to step up his game and provide a big scoring punch for the offense, a role he is capable of filling. Depth for the Lobos will come from a handful of returnees who got limited playing time last season and a pretty strong four-man recruiting class. If McDonald does rise to the occasion and Alford is able to coax some quality minutes out of his newcomers, the Lobos are more than capable of challenging for an NCAA tournament berth.
Top 10 RPI Boosters:
Nov. 16, 2009 – San Diego State @ St. Mary’s (11pm PST, ESPN) – an intriguing early season matchup during ESPN’s 24-Hour hoops marathon that can be a good barometer for both teams.
Nov. 28, 2009 – Louisville @ UNLV (1pm PST, Vs) – rematch of last year’s Rebel upset of Louisville at Freedom Hall.
Dec. 2, 2009 – Cal @ New Mexico (6pm PST, CBSC) – the Pit hosts Pac-10 favorite Bears.
Dec. 2, 2009 – UNLV @ Arizona (6pm PST, FSN-Arizona) – one of three big MWC matchups with the Wildcats.
Dec. 9, 2009 – Michigan @ Utah (6pt PST, CBSC) – the Utes have a brutal non-conference schedule (including hosting Oklahoma and traveling to LSU), but this may be their best chance for an upset.
Dec. 12, 2009 – New Mexico vs. Texas A&M (in Houston, 3pm PST) – not a home game for the Aggies, but a tough roadie nonetheless for the Lobos.
Dec. 12, 2009 – Kansas State vs. UNLV (@ Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, 4pm PST) – Lon Kruger hosts his old school in his new home town in an interesting clash between quick backcourts.
Dec. 19, 2009 – Creighton @ New Mexico (6pm PST, The MTN) – perhaps the best matchup in a strong inaugural edition of the MWC/MVC Challenge.
Dec. 28, 2009 – BYU @ Arizona (6pm PST, Fox College Sports) – tough holiday trip for the Cougs into McKale.
Jan. 1, 2010 – Dayton @ New Mexico (6pm PST, The MTN/CBSC)– the Flyers will have their work cut out for them with a New Year’s visit to the Pit.
Key Conference Games:
Jan. 6, 2010 – UNLV @ BYU (7pm PST, The MTN) – conference opener for both teams
Jan. 27, 2010 – BYU @ New Mexico (7pm PST, The MTN) – after a Saturday game in San Diego, BYU has to travel to the Pit on a Wednesday night.
Feb. 17, 2010 – UNLV @ Utah (7pm PST, The MTN) – the second of back-to-back tough roadies for the Rebels, where a slip-up could be easy.
Feb. 24, 2010 – San Diego State @ BYU (6pm PST, CBSC) – on the verge of March, the Aztec newcomers have had plenty of time to gel. This will be a test of their tournament readiness.
Mar. 3, 2010 – BYU @ Utah (6pm PST, CBSC) – the Holy War, the second to last conference game for each team
Digging Deeper. As mentioned earlier, six of nine MWC member schools have campuses above 4,000 feet in elevation, with Wyoming’s campus at 7,220 feet the highest campus in Division I. And, the MWC has ranked in the top seven conferences nationally in terms of attendance in each of its first 10 years. Combine the two and you wind up with a strong homecourt advantage for MWC teams. Last season, the MWC was 108-40 (.729) in all home games and 59-16 (.786) in home games against non-conference opponents.
Fun With KenPom. The Mountain West last season came very close to overtaking the SEC as a member of the “Super Six” BCS conferences. According to the Pomeroy numbers, the MWC finished closer to the SEC (#6) than it did to Conference USA (#8). The league was in the same ballpark as the SEC against the other BCS conferences (MWC: .313; SEC: .372), but it also held a 3-1 record head-to-head against the SEC. With so much in the way of personnel losses this season, it’s unlikely to think that the Mountain West will put more pressure on the worst BCS conference (stay tuned for that one!), but the MWC is probably strong enough to remain just outside the window looking in.
NCAA Tournament History. The Mountain West has only been around for a decade and its NCAA record is 8-22 (.267) during that time. Of course, schools like UNLV and Utah have a long and rich NCAA Tournament history that isn’t counted as part of the MWC”s statistics. Still, it’s a little surprising that over the course of ten seasons, the conference has only put two teams into the Sweet 16 (guess who: Utah in 2005; UNLV in 2007), and none further than that. What’s particularly astounding is that BYU, a program who has had some very good teams over the past fifteen years, has a streak of seven NCAA trips in a row that ended in the 1st Round. That might end this season.
Final Thoughts. All things considered, the MWC will be a fun conference to watch this season, giving you everything you watch college basketball for. While many of the stars in the conference are gone, you’ll have the opportunity to watch new stars emerge and to see new combinations gel. While it is unlikely that one of these teams will improve to the point of being a major threat deep in March (not that there aren’t five teams that could, with a little luck and expedited cohesion, get to the second week of the Big Dance), this will be the year that MWC coaches will be laying the groundwork for the future. As with any venture relying on youth and inexperience, there will be growing pains along the way, but given the experience and skill of the head coaches in the league, expect to see quite a few MWC teams playing at a high level throughout the season.