RTC Conference Primers: #7 – Mountain West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences; he is also a staffer on the Pac-12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.
Reader’s Take I
- Tectonic Shifts in the MW: As the landscape of college sports continues to shift, the Mountain West continues to change. This year, the conference is without BYU and Utah for the first time in its history. Aside from the fact that the state of Utah was sort of the center of the conference for many years, the impact on the basketball side of things cannot be overstated. In the 12 years that the two schools were a part of the conference, they won five outright regular season titles between them and twice shared the regular season title. TCU will join the two Utah schools as ex-MW members after this year when it joins the Big 12.
- Temporary Fixes? As old schools depart, new schools come in. Boise State joins the conference this season, although there are already rumors that its stay may be short-lived, as other conferences including the Big 12 and the Big East, woo the Broncos. Fresno State and Nevada are due to join the conference in 2012-13, but as the ground continues to move under the feet of college athletics, one never knows what changes will come next.
- Scheduling: With just eight conference teams this year, each team will play just 14 conference games. So while the Pac-12 and Big Ten and other major conferences are kicking off games against their conference rivals on or before New Year’s, MW schools will wait until the middle of January to get into conference play, filling the interim with games against schools like Johnson & Wales, Texas-Pan American, Nebraska-Omaha, Houston Baptist, San Diego Christian and Utah Valley. This is not a good thing for a conference, not a good thing for the fans, and not a good thing for college basketball.
- Changes On The Sidelines: Aside from having a new team in the conference, we’ve got a couple returning teams with new coaches. The most high profile coaching change comes at UNLV with Lon Kruger gone for Oklahoma, and Dave Rice, the former associate head coach under Dave Rose at BYU, returning to Vegas where he played and served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian. The other coaching change is at Wyoming, where Larry Shyatt returns to town after spending the last several years as the associate head coach at Florida.
- New Favorites. Last year, it was more or less a two-horse race for the conference title between BYU and San Diego State. This year, there is no BYU and SDSU has graduated its four most important players. As a result, it looks to be two new horses who head the pack in search of a conference title with UNLV and New Mexico far and away the favorites. In the MW preseason basketball poll, the Lobos got 22 of the 26 first place votes from the media, with the Rebels snagging the other four. Those two schools also dominated the all-conference team selections, each putting two players on the list.
Predicted Order of Finish
- New Mexico (12-2)
- UNLV (12-2)
- Colorado State (8-6)
- San Diego State (7-7)
- Air Force (6-8)
- Boise State (4-10)
- Wyoming (4-10)
- TCU (3-11)
All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)
- G Kendall Williams, sophomore, New Mexico (11.6 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.0 RPG, 42.6% 3FG) – Williams was uncannily composed for a freshman last year, coming out of the gate hot and rarely letting up. He did tire a bit towards the end of the season, but he is a well-rounded player that can function as a lockdown defender, a slasher, a spot-up shooter, or even run some point in a pinch.
- G Anthony Marshall, junior, UNLV (9.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG) – Marshall is a consistent jump shot away from being a MW Player of the Year candidate. But even if that jumper doesn’t suddenly appear overnight, he excels in the open floor, he’s a superb man defender, he rebounds well for a guard and he can even handle the point.
- G Dorian Green, junior, Colorado State (7.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.8 APG) – Green took a big step back in his sophomore year, seeing his playing time take a hit and his scoring average drop by almost five points a night. But if he can find confidence in his shooting stroke again, he’s got an innate feel for the game and a versatile skill set.
- F Chace Stanback, senior, UNLV (13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG) – Stanback’s junior season in Sin City was a lot like his first, just more efficient. He got more minutes, turned the ball over less, committed less fouls and shot higher percentages from both in and outside of the arc. While Dave Rice certainly wouldn’t mind similar bumps this season, more consistency in effort (which would likely lead to more consistency in production) should be his biggest goal.
- C Drew Gordon, senior, New Mexico (13.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG) – After transferring to Albuquerque from UCLA in mid-season, Gordon wasn’t eligible until the middle of December. He took a few games to get his feet under him, but from the middle of January on, he was a monster (14.3 PPG, 11.8 PPG after January 12). He’s sort of a black hole in the post, but as good as he is down there, sometimes you don’t want him to pass the ball back out.
Sixth Man: Chase Tapley, junior, San Diego State (8.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.9 APG) – Someone has to pick up the slack for the Aztecs, whose top four players from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team have moved on. Tapley has been steady in a supporting role his first two years on campus, but he’ll need to be a focal point offensively and also as a team leader for SDSU to have any kind of success this year.
Impact Newcomer: Mike Moser, sophomore, UNLV (0.6 PPG, 0.5 RPG in 2009-10 with UCLA) – While Moser was almost invisible in his one year at UCLA, the 6’8″ forward has made an impression in his time at UNLV. An impressive physical specimen, Moser is a versatile offensive threat that can finish inside among the big boys or step outside and knock down a three, while changing the game on the other end of the court as well. It’s possible that by the end of the season, not having him on the preseason all-conference team will look like a mistake.
New Mexico (NCAA Seed: #6) – The Lobos return almost everybody of importance from last season’s NIT squad. Unfortunately, the one guy not coming back is point guard, floor general and lifeblood of the program, Dairese Gary. Clearly, objective number one is finding his replacement. Junior point guard Jamal Fenton, a 5’9” waterbug, took over the reins in the NIT after Gary went down with a torn ACL in the MW tournament, doing a solid if unspectacular job, and he’ll get every opportunity to earn the slot. Should he falter or need help, head coach Steve Alford has other options, including Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker and sophomore wing Tony Snell, neither of whom qualifies as a true point but both of whom bring varied skills to the offense. Even off-guard Kendall Williams, last year’s Mountain West Freshman of the Year, can help out with the ballhandling – but then again, he can do a little bit of everything. Whoever is handling the point for the Lobos at any given time is likely to have plenty of weapons to work with, starting with the MW preseason player of the year, senior center Drew Gordon, who dominated conference opponents last season. Seniors A.J. Hardeman and Phillip McDonald round out the list of returning starters, with sophomore bigs Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow and junior wing Chad Adams returning to add depth. Newcomers Dominique Dunning and Hugh Greenwood will also compete for playing time, and either could even wind up getting minutes at the point. There is talent aplenty in Albuquerque this season, and so long as Alford can find a good solution at the lead guard, the combination of talent, experience and depth should carry this team to a conference title.
Other Postseason Teams
UNLV (NCAA Seed: #8) – The Runnin’ Rebels are a solid 1-A in the talk for preseason conference favorite, but they’ve got questions of their own to answer. Last year UNLV was at its best when it played suffocating defense and turned that into offense. But when they couldn’t force turnovers and get out in transition, their offense struggled, especially in the halfcourt. And now they’ll be playing without last year’s leading scorer and defensive catalyst, Tre’Von Willis. For the Rebels to show significant improvement over last year, they’ll need to improve their offense. Luckily for Rebel fans, in comes Dave Rice, who was largely responsible for the offensive game planning at BYU the last two years. And Rice will have toys to work with, starting with a couple of seniors in forward Chace Stanback, last year’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, and point guard Oscar Bellfield, a glue guy who does a lot of things well. Wings Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins return, as does three-point specialist Kendall Wallace who missed all of last year with a torn ACL. Up front, the three-headed center of Quintrell Thomas, Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez returns, with Lopez and Thomas, in particular, perhaps due for a leap forward. Finally, there are a couple of transfers who will make an impact: Mike Moser (detailed in the “Impact Newcomer” section above), and Marquette transfer Reggie Smith, a sophomore point guard who will push for playing time. With a roster just about as talented, experienced and deep as the Lobos, the race at the top of the conference should be mighty interesting, with the Lobos getting the nod based mostly on the fact that they’ve got two offensive go-to players, while the Rebels begin the season searching for their offensive identity.
- Colorado State – The Rams and head coach Tim Miles thought last year was going to be the breakthrough year for the program. A solid backcourt paired with a group of seniors along the frontline seemed to have all the makings of an NCAA Tournament team. Unfortunately, although the Rams posted a solid 19-13 record, they came up short in all of their big games, against Kansas as well as BYU and San Diego State in conference. This year, most of those guards return, with juniors Dorian Green, Wes Eikmeier and Jesse Carr forming the nucleus of a solid backcourt. However, it’s a rebuilding year up front, with guys like Pierce Hornung, Will Bell and Greg Smith (all 6’6” or smaller) being asked to play major roles. And Miles will need either 7’0” sophomore Trevor Williams or 6’10” redshirt freshman Chad Calcaterra to do something neither has ever done before: provide productive minutes at a Division I level at the center position. With Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson and Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano due to be eligible next season, all signs in Fort Collins point towards next year.
- San Diego State – Gone are Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas. Just writing those names fills me with good memories of watching the Aztecs the last couple of years. And while players like Chase Tapley, James Rahon and Tim Shelton provide a link to the past, the talent level on Montezuma Mesa is significantly down. Washington State transfer Xavier Thames is newly eligible this season, and will take over the point guard position, with LaBradford Franklin and Jamaal Franklin (no relation), each of whom played very minor roles last season, providing depth in the backcourt. Jamaal had some important minutes down the stretch, and if he earns enough playing time, he could be due for a significant jump. Up front, however, the Aztecs are very, very thin. Graduate student Garrett Green, a 6’11” transfer from LSU with immediate eligibility, will step right into the center position, while Shelton, who has struggled with knee injuries throughout his career, will be asked to provide more minutes than he’s played since 2008-09. The only other eligible players of any size on the roster are 6’7” junior Alec Williams (who has played a grand total of 136 minutes in two years at SDSU) and 6’8” junior college transfer DeShawn Stephens, who has exactly two years of organized basketball experience in his life. Head coach Steve Fisher will have this program back on the upswing very soon, but even picking this team fourth in the conference seems like a serious stretch.
- Air Force – The Academy is trending up. After consecutive 10-21 seasons, the Falcons finished 16-16 last season. And with its leading scorer returning, and with SDSU and CSU replacing vital cogs on their rosters, this could be the chance for the Jeff Reynolds’ squad to notch an upper division finish. Junior guard Michael Lyons averaged 13.7 points per game last year, but key contributors like Tom Fow, Derek Brooks, Evan Washington and Zach Bohannon are gone, meaning Lyons will need to up that average this year and some new players will need to step up. Junior Todd Fletcher will reprise his role as the team’s point guard, with classmate Taylor Broekhuis manning the post. But Reynolds will need guys like Taylor Stewart and Mike Fitzgerald, along with some members of its 11-member freshman class (they do things a little differently at the academies) to step into significant roles.
- Boise State – It’s a new conference home for the Broncos (albeit perhaps a temporary one) and it’s a new start for the basketball program. Six seniors graduated from last year’s squad, including the top four scorers, and nine newcomers enter the program. There are two returning starters in senior point Westly Perryman and sophomore forward Ryan Watkins, and three other players that got some time last year in sophomore guard Jeff Elorriaga (who started 11 games), senior guard Tre Nichols and sophomore forward Thomas Broleph. But the newcomers will need to make an impact for this team to make a splash in the conference. Junior Drew Wiley, a transfer from Oregon, may have the biggest upside of the transfers – he’s a shooter that can play multiple positions. Then there are a couple of Aussies who have had international experience – 6’4” Igor Hadziomerovic and 6’5” Anthony Drmic – who could bring some punch to the offense. And up front, guys like freshman Darrious Hamilton and JuCo transfers Jarrell Crayton and Kenny Bruckner could provide some muscle up front. The fact that there is so much new in Boise this year, makes this team a mystery, but head coach Leon Rice has some players here and they could sneak up the conference standings.
- Wyoming – It’s a new start for the Cowboy program, with a familiar face at the helm. New head coach Larry Shyatt was the Wyoming head man in 1997-98, leading the team to a 19-9 record and an NIT berth before heading off for nicer weather as the head coach at Clemson, and later, as a member of Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida. Shyatt comes back to Laramie in a similar situation to his first round-up. When he arrived in 1997, the team was coming off a 12-16 record; this Cowboy team is trying to bounce back from consecutive 10-21 years. To make matters worse, the Cowboys lose their two leading scorers (Desmar Jackson and Amath M’Baye) to transfers, along with two other contributors, while big man Djibril Thiam graduates. The best remaining pieces to build around are 5’9” incumbent point guard Jaydee Luster, former Mountain West Freshman of the Year Afam Muojeke and senior big man Adam Waddell. Waddell and Muojeke’s careers have been nearly derailed by injuries throughout their careers, while Luster, though electric, has been inconsistent. One intriguing newcomer for Shyatt is junior forward Leonard Washington, a transfer from USC who was a difference-maker in practice last year for the Cowboys – he could be the team’s best player from the get-go. Of the four incoming freshman, the most recognizable name is Larry Nance, Jr., the son of the former NBA star. He’s a project with upside, but on a roster with limited talent, he could play right away.
- TCU – It is the Horned Frogs’ last year in the conference, and if things play out as expected, they’ll likely finish right about where they have the last few years. In their six years in the Mountain West, they’ve never finished higher than seventh, but with one less team in the conference this year, they might have a chance to do so. Senior point guard Hank Thorns was the conference leader in assists last season with seven per game, and he is the unquestioned leader in Fort Worth and a singular talent, capable of putting his team on his back. And frankly, it’s a sin that I didn’t find a spot for him on the all-conference team. He may share the backcourt with freshman guard Kyan Anderson, a one-time Providence commit, who is used to playing with the ball in his hands and will have to capitulate to Thorns’ presence. Up front, J.R. Cadot and Amric Fields each got significant playing time last year, with Cadot actually being very effective offensively despite not using very many offensive possessions. Head coach Jim Christian would be wise to see if Cadot can play a bigger role offensively. Finally, at the wing is junior Garlon Green, the team’s leading returning scorer who made great strides last year with his jumpshot, adding an effective three-point shot (49 threes on 47.6% 3FG) to match his good midrange game. Ideally Christian would see one of his big guys (junior center Cheick Kone, freshman center Ryan Rhoomes or junior power forward Adrick McKinney) turn into a glass eater and defensive specialist up front, to make this team a little tougher. If that happens, maybe, just maybe, the Frogs can sneak up to sixth..
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Knowing what we know about conference realignment, knowing that football programs rule the roost, and knowing that there are other conferences out there that are desperate for reinforcements against the coming onslaught of realignment (I’m looking at you, Big East), let’s face it: Boise State isn’t long for this league. Which is a shame. Just like the fact that Utah and BYU are gone and TCU is leaving is a shame. Fresno State and Nevada arrive next year, and they’re athletic departments that fit in well with the league, but it is a shame that some of the history of this league is gone. I don’t envision a scenario whereby the MW ceases to exist, but without a doubt, the conference has been weakened by the continuing shakeup in college sports.
Spotlight on… the MW/MVC Challenge
For the past two seasons, the Mountain West and the Missouri Valley Conference have held a MW/MVC Challenge, similar in practice to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. For mid-major conferences like these, this is not only an excellent strategy for providing appealing games for fans of the program, but it is a good strategy for leagues hoping to build their profiles with regards to the NCAA Tournament. Normally, getting schools like Creighton and San Diego State together the week after Thanksgiving might not happen, but the fact that it is happening now provides a boost to the RPIs of both teams and both conferences. If major conference programs aren’t interested in scheduling good mid-major programs (and we can have the discussion about who is and who is not a mid-major conference or program another day – for my purposes here, I’m talking about non-Big Six conferences) on a regular basis, conferences like these should find common ground with similar conferences (the MW/C-USA football agreement is a good example) and find ways for these mid-major conferences to help each other. And it doesn’t hurt that we get to see games like UNLV/Wichita State and Missouri State/New Mexico along the way.
Let’s face it: the Mountain West just isn’t what it has been the last few years. Some great players have moved on, as have some great programs. But the battle between the top two teams in this conference should keep fans interested for another year. Maybe when UNLV and New Mexico meet for the first time this year on January 21, they won’t be two top ten teams like SDSU and BYU were last year. But they’re going to be pretty darn good. With deep, talented and experienced rosters, those two regular season games between those two teams may well be the two best games all year between non-BCS conference opponents.