RTC Summer Updates: Mountain West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on August 2nd, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Mountain West correspondent, Andrew Murawa.
Reader’s Take I
- A New Look League: In the aftermath of last summer’s conference shake-ups, the Mountain West is a slimmer volume this year than last, and will look even different next year. Last year’s regular season champion, BYU, is off to pursue football independence, with membership in the West Coast Conference for basketball and some other sports a byproduct of that decision. Secondly, Utah jumped at the opportunity to become a member of the new Pac-12 conference. In the 12 years in which the two Utah schools were a part of the MWC (okay, since its unveiling of their new logo in July, the league office wants the conference to be abbreviated as MW, rather than MWC, and we’ll try to do that from here on), they won a combined five outright regular season titles between them (BYU three, Utah two) and twice shared the regular season titles. However, the MW did not sit idly by and let its conference dissolve when the Utah schools left. It snapped up Boise State to give the Mountain West eight teams in the 2011-12 campaign, with Fresno State and Nevada due to join in 2012-13 just as TCU departs for the Big East. In the long run, the three losses are bigger than the three additions, but the newcomers are strong enough to keep the MW chugging along.
- Coaching Shuffle: We knew heading into the offseason that there would be at least one new coach in the conference, as Wyoming pulled the trigger on firing Heath Schroyer during the middle of the conference season. In late March they announced the hiring of Larry Shyatt, an associate head coach at Florida, back for his second stint as the head man in Laramie. But when Lon Kruger announced a day later that he had accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma, arguably the most attractive job in the conference opened up at UNLV. Ten days later, UNLV announced the hiring of Dave Rice, most recently the associate head coach to Dave Rose at BYU, but previously a player and assistant coach under Jerry Tarkanian in Vegas. With Rice’s brother, Grant Rice, the head coach at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High – not coincidentally the high school of 2012 top ten recruit Shabazz Muhammad – the hiring opens further inroads for the Rebels with local recruits. To tie everything up in a nice little bundle, Schroyer was hired by Rice as one of his new assistants, along with former Rebel star Stacey Augmon and former SDSU assistant Justin Hutson.
- Transfer Hotbed: Every year, the Mountain West seems to be the landing spot for some big transfers, guys who have struggled in their first stop in a BCS conference and who are ready to start over a rung down the ladder. UCLA as a feeder school for the conference is a well-worn path, having sent Chace Stanback to UNLV and Drew Gordon to New Mexico in recent years. This year, another former Bruin will be active in the MW, with forward Mike Moser joining Stanback in Las Vegas for the Rebels. No less than five other former-Pac-10 players will show up on MW rosters this season, with Drew Wiley (formerly of Oregon) joining Boise State, Demetrius Walker (formerly of Arizona State) joining New Mexico, and Xavier Thames (formerly of Washington State) joining San Diego State, all of whom will be eligible this season. Arizona’s Daniel Bejarano and USC’s Bryce Jones also announced transfers to Colorado State and UNLV, respectively, but neither will be eligible until the 2012-13 season. UNLV also welcomes former Marquette point Reggie Smith to compete with incumbent point guard Oscar Bellfield this season, while CSU inked former Minnesota center Colton Iverson, eligible in 2012-13. Then there’s the Aztecs, who signed Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien and St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee. While O’Brien will sit out a year, Polee, who attended Los Angeles’ Westchester High, has applied for a hardship waiver, given that his mom is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. While these waivers aren’t often granted, if it happens in this case, Polee could be a big boost for the Aztecs’ 2011-12 hopes.
- New Mexico – The Lobos return everybody of significance from last year’s squad, save for one big piece: point guard Dairese Gary – one of the best floor generals in Lobo history. Phillip McDonald, A.J. Hardeman and Gordon all return for their senior seasons, while last year’s promising freshman class – highlighted by Kendall Williams, but also including Alex Kirk, Tony Snell and Cameron Bairstow – returns for their second go-round. And a solid three-man recruiting class arrives in the form of wings Jarion Henry, Dominique Dunning and Aussie Hugh Greenwood, while Arizona State transfer Walker is newly eligible. But all eyes will be on junior point guard Jamal Fenton as he tries to take over the reins from the departed Gary. He’ll get pressed for lead-guard duties by Williams, Snell, Walker and Dunning – all more comfortable at the wing – but if Fenton proves he is capable of leading this team, the Lobos are the strong favorite in the conference.
- UNLV – Rice takes over in Vegas with a team that is ready to compete for a conference title. He’s got eight players with significant experience returning and a couple promising transfers entering as well. Stanback was the Rebels’ most efficient offensive player last season, and their second leading scorer, and he’ll return for his senior season alongside Bellfield. Bellfield, however, will get a push from Marquette transfer Smith for playing time at the lead guard, while Stanback figures to be bolstered by the addition of UCLA transfer Moser. In the middle, the Rebels’ three-headed center of Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and Brice Massamba returns, with each player but Lopez and Thomas with the most upside. And on the wing, junior Anthony Marshall could make a big jump, as he figures to be the Rebs go-to wing replacing the production of the departed Tre’Von Willis, provided he can tighten up his jumper. Justin Hawkins and sharpshooter Kendall Wallace – who missed last season with a torn ACL – provide depth at the wing.
- San Diego State – Coming off the most successful season in the history of SDSU basketball, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for Steve Fisher, but many of the staples are gone. Kawhi Leonard headed to the NBA lottery, while forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas and point guard D.J. Gay have graduated, meaning the top four scorers and the top three in rebounds and assists are gone. Chase Tapley, a role-playing guard the past two seasons who may need to increase production in the absence of the missing stars, highlights the returnees. James Rahon, a dead-eye wing, also returns, as do Jamaal Franklin and LaBradford Franklin, a pair of unrelated sophomore guards who will be called upon to play a much bigger role. The Aztecs also add Thames, a transfer from Washington State who did little to distinguish himself in his one year on the Paloose. Fisher added two other transfers this offseason – O’Brien and Polee – but both will likely sit out this year. Then there’s Brian Carlwell, who has petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility after having his college career temporarily halted by a car accident when he was a freshman at Illinois. Carlwell’s request has been sent to a secondary committee by the NCAA, delaying a final decision, and the NCAA has yet to respond to either Polee’s petition either. Without either of those players, the SDSU front line would be awfully thin, although Fisher has some feelers out for some late additions.
- Air Force – Jeff Reynolds’ Falcon team took a big step forward last season. A 6-10 record and a sixth-place finish may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but after consecutive seasons in the basement, the Academy was competitive again last year. And with four of his six players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in 2010-11 returning, Reynolds hopes his team is ready to take another step forward. Senior wing Tom Fow is joined by juniors Todd Fletcher, center Taylor Broekhuis and leading returning scorer Michael Lyons, with Mike Fitzgerald, Shawn Hempsey and Scott Stucky perhaps ready to contribute. Given that the Falcons don’t need to go much deeper than about seven players, this could be a solid middle-of-the-pack squad.
- Colorado State – The Rams knew last year was the year. They had their seniors lined up along with the ancillary pieces in place to make their run to the NCAA Tournament; they came up short. Now, absent Andy Ogide, Travis Franklin and Adam Nigon, the Rams have to remake themselves. Junior guards Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green lead the returnees, with junior forwards Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith giving head coach Tim Miles some hope up front. But Hornung and Smith are undersized, and the Rams will need either redshirt freshman Chad Calcaterra or redshirt sophomore Trevor Williams to emerge in the post. Junior guard Jesse Carr, sophomore guard Dwight Smith and incoming freshman point Cody Mann will provide depth on the perimeter.
- Boise State – To say that nothing returns for the Broncos is only slightly overstating the case. With the top four players in minutes played and points scored gone, senior guard Wesley Perryman is the leading returnee with 6.1 points per game in 23 minutes of action a night. Fellow senior Tre Nichols is the only returning point guard, with sophomore forwards Thomas Broleph and Ryan Watkins also coming back with minimal experience. There is, however, an eight player recruiting class about which to get excited. A couple of wings from Australia, 6’4 Igor Hadziomerovic and 6’5 Anthony Drmic, might be the two to be most excited about, but juco transfers Kenny Brucker (6’9 center) and Jarrell Crayton (6’7 wing) figure to both be ready to play immediately. Exactly what form this Bronco team will take remains to be seen, but there are at least some interesting pieces here.
- Wyoming – The second Shyatt era in Laramie began with a host of transfers, with last year’s two leading scorers, Desmar Jackson and Amath M’Baye among them. While Cowboy fans don’t seem particularly shaken up about the Jackson departure, the M’Baye transfer is particularly hard to take after he averaged 17 PPG and 7 RPG following the Schroyer firing. What remains in Laramie isn’t particularly exciting, with lead-footed senior guard Francisco Cruz the leading returning scorer. If there is hope for the Cowboys, it is in senior wing Afam Muojeke, who earned MWC Freshman of the Year honors three years back and also led the Cowboys in scoring with 17 PPG in his sophomore campaign in 2009-10. Unfortunately, that season was shortened by a ruptured patellar tendon and he has never been the same player since. If Muojeke can regain the explosiveness he once had, and if fellow senior Adam Waddell can also shake his history of injuries to man the post effectively, perhaps the Cowboys can make a jump up the standings of a conference in a down year.
- TCU – It’s the last year in the Mountain West for the Horned Frogs, and it may be do-or-die time for head coach Jim Christian. While Christian is well-liked, the fact remains that he is 11-37 in conference play in his time in Fort Worth, and the looming move to the Big East would be an ideal time for a fresh start. In order to avoid that fate, Christian will look to mighty-mite senior point guard Hank Thorns to make things happen for the Frogs. Despite his diminutive 5’9 frame, he is an assist waiting to happen and perhaps the best point guard in the conference. Junior Garlon Green will join Thorns in the backcourt, and senior wing J.R. Cadot should also be penciled into the starting five, and if Christian just had another three players like those three, he might be okay. However, finding serviceable big men will be the problem here. Sophomore Amric Fields is one likely starter up front, while the other is wide open. Junior center Cheick Kone has done absolutely nothing in his time on campus, but unless freshman center Ryan Rhoomes or undersized juco transfer Adrian McKinney is up to play right away, Kone may be called on for some minutes.
Last year’s Mountain West was arguably the strongest collection of basketball teams the conference has ever put together. When the brackets were announced on Selection Sunday, the conference had three teams dancing (down one from 2009-10), including San Diego State as a #2 seed and BYU as a #3. This year’s conference looks to be back to the old MW: a couple of solid teams and a mess at the back of the pack. New Mexico and UNLV have high hopes, but the rest of the conference is littered with questions to which there are no answers readily apparent. Third place here is wide open – it could be any of those last six teams in any order behind the Rebels and the Lobos.
Reader’s Take #2
Jamaal Franklin only averaged eight minutes – and three points – in the 22 games in which he got on the court at all last season for San Diego State, but down the stretch of the season, when Steve Fisher needed somebody outside of his main six-player rotation to give his team a spark, it was often Franklin. He seemed to take particular joy in getting over Utah. He only scored 64 points on the season, but dropped 22 on the Utes in just 28 minutes of play. A spectacular athlete as a 6’5″ wing, he is an excellent shooter, a strong rebounder for his position and a player unshaken by the spotlight. In the absence of two-thirds of last year’s scoring punch, it may be Franklin to whom Fisher and the Aztecs turn for offense this year.
Mark Your Calendar
- Nov. 14-16: Colorado State in the NIT Season Tip-Off – The Rams are in the West regional in Palo Alto, with a chance to face Stanford in the second round of this tournament with a chance to earn at trip to Madison Square Garden and a potential shot at Oklahoma State there. CSU can beat Stanford and doing so would give themselves a chance to pick up another pair of challenging games prior to conference play.
- Nov. 24-27: New Mexico in the 76 Classic – The Lobos travel to Anaheim over Thanksgiving weekend to compete with a relatively uninspiring field. However, Villanova could await Steve Alford’s squad in the championship game for an interesting matchup.
- Nov. 25-26: UNLV in the Las Vegas Invitational – The Rebels kick off the Las Vegas Invitational in the semis with a visit from USC, but the real intrigue could come if they get past that game and get a chance to test North Carolina in the championship game. While the Rebels may be overmatched in a battle with a consensus top-three team, we’ll get to find out right quick what this team is made of.
- Dec. 4: UNLV at Wichita State – The third season of the MWC/MVC Challenge is highlighted by this battle between the Rebs and the Shockers, who should be the MVC favorite in 11-12.