RTC Summer School: Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on August 14th, 2012
Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the Mountain West.
Drew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. You can also find his musings on Twitter @amurawa.
Three Summer Storylines
- Tectonic Movement Continues. For the second straight year, the landscape of the MW shifts. Last year it was BYU and Utah heading off to greener pastures with Boise State landing in their place. This year TCU is on its way out the door with Fresno State and Nevada on their way in. And next year Boise State and San Diego State will depart with San Jose State and Utah State coming in. All in all, this will still be a good basketball conference even after all these moving parts settle, but the loss of a rapidly improving Aztec program will be tough for MW fans to take. TCU and Boise State certainly aren’t major losses on the basketball side, but the strength of their football programs could have provided stability for the conference and the potential for improved programs on the hardwood. Between the four newcomers, each of Fresno State, Nevada and Utah State have had good runs over the course of a handful of years, but they’ll all need to prove their ability to compete with more established programs like UNLV and New Mexico, while SJSU figures to step directly into the basement of the conference.
- The Mtn. Crumbles. On May 31, The Mtn., the Mountain West’s television network, went dark, ceasing all operations after six years. Now, say what you will about the network, a channel that eschewed HD programming, struggled with distribution and had issues with their on-air talent, but the shuttering of its doors leaves some questions for MW hoops fans. In the era of The Mtn., if you wanted to follow MW hoops, it was easy to do so. Now, it remains to be seen exactly how much exposure teams from this conference will get during the year. Sure, the MW still has deals in place to get games shown on NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, but what about that Air Force/Boise State game on some random February Wednesday? Should you want to watch that game and you’re not in Idaho or Colorado, odds are pretty good you’re going to be out of luck.
- Continued Success? For all the uncertainty about the membership of the conference, the last three years have been something of the golden age of Mountain West basketball. In the past three seasons, the MW has received 11 NCAA Tournament berths. Two years ago there were dual Sweet Sixteen appearances by BYU and SDSU. We’ve had Jimmer and Kawhi grab national headlines, while other guys like Dairese Gary and Darington Hobson, Billy White and Drew Gordon, D.J. Gay and Hank Thorns, Andy Ogide and Malcolm Thomas have kept us all entertained. But, even with all of those players now gone, there is still plenty to be excited about in the conference. San Diego State and UNLV lead the way again, with both expected to start the season in the preseason Top 25. New Mexico and Colorado State, who joined the Aztecs and Rebels in the Big Dance last year, both should be in the hunt for another tourney bid, while Nevada could be a sleeper in its first season in the conference. And, as always, we could be in for another surprise or two.
Reader’s Take #1
- San Diego State – The top of the conference is a log jam, with the fans of whichever team not picked as the preseason favorite sure to howl. But, I’m going with the Aztecs on account of their established returning backcourt. Xavier Thames had his ups and downs in his first year at SDSU last year, but by and large showed the ability to run this team well, especially with weapons like reigning MW Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin and steady veteran Chase Tapley ready to make his job easier by scoring in bunches. Then there’s also James Rahon returning for his senior season after he saw his shooting numbers dip last year. Up front, however, there are some question marks. Head coach Steve Fisher has put together a talented frontcourt, but only senior forward DeShawn Stephens has actually produced with SDSU. Still, between Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien, St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee and incoming freshmen Winston Shepherd and Skylar Spencer, the Aztecs figure to be in pretty good shape. O’Brien and Polee have both produced quite well at the Division I level, but the freshmen may have more upside.
- UNLV – After brief deliberation, forward Mike Moser made what looks to be a smart decision to return to school for his junior year in Sin City. Moser was phenomenal early, posting eight double-doubles before conference play even began, but tailed off somewhat as the season went on, averaging just 8.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in the final five games of the conference season, a far cry from the 14.9 and 11.0 he averaged in his other 30 games. Still, he comes back as perhaps the co-favorite for conference player of the year, and assuming he can continue to improve his three-point shot and tighten up his handle, should be a high draft pick next season. Anthony Marshall figures to handle the point guard duties as a senior, with Justin Hawkins moving into the starting lineup beside him at the two, but the most excitement about this team comes from a bunch of newcomers. Wing Bryce Jones is newly eligible after transferring from USC, while forward Roscoe Smith, a transfer from Connecticut who will be eligible immediately, figures to get time up front. Khem Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh, will be eligible in December. And then there is the five player freshman class, highlighted by the #7 recruit in the 2012 class (according to ESPN) Anthony Bennett, who should see immediate minutes up front as well.
- New Mexico – Of the big three in the Mountain West, the Lobos have the biggest question to answer: how do they replace Drew Gordon? The since graduated senior was a monster up front for Steve Alford, grabbing more than 28% of all opponent’s missed field goal attempts, and more than 12% of his own team’s misses. Luckily, UNM gets center Alex Kirk back from a season lost to a back injury, and he, along with Aussie Cameron Bairstow, will get first crack at the minutes in the middle left open by Gordon and A.J. Hardeman’s departures. The Lobos also have a trio of freshman bigs who may factor in up front. The backcourt is far more set, with Hugh Greenwood, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell returning starters at the one through three, with backup point guard Jamal Fenton and backup off-guard Demetrius Walker expected to contribute heavily as well. In a conference with experienced backcourts at the top of the league, the Lobos likely have the best returning group around the perimeter. If they can get positive answers up front, they could go far.
- Colorado State – It is the dawn of a new era in Fort Collins, as the five-year Tim Miles era ended when he accepted the head coaching gig at Nebraska after getting CSU back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years last season. In comes Larry Eustachy after eight pretty successful seasons at Southern Mississippi after an unfortunate ending to his Iowa State tenure. Eustachy will find mostly the same players who made the NCAAs last season, with the addition of 6’10” banger Colton Iverson, a transfer from Minnesota. Iverson will go a long way towards patching the Rams’ biggest hole from last year – the lack of any real size in the lineup; CSU had the seventh smallest team in the nation last year in terms of effective height. Iverson looked good last week for the Rams in their international trip to the Bahamas, scoring 18 points and grabbing 14 boards in their lone exhibition game. Paired with senior forward Pierce Hornung up front, CSU will feature one of the toughest frontcourts in the conference. The backcourt is pretty settled for the Rams, with Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green, Jesse Carr and Dwight Smith being joined by Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano. It remains to be seen how they’ll fare under the new administration, but with almost everyone returning from an NCAA tourney team, a repeat performance is not an unfair expectation.
- Nevada – The top four teams in this conference seem to be in their own class, while the bottom five are all jostling for position. From here on down, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of differentiation between any of the clubs. But, they all have the ability to surprise should everything come together right. The Wolfpack could be the most accomplished of this bottom pack, having excelled in the WAC in 2011-12 with a 13-1 record before having their season destroyed with a semifinal loss in their conference tournament. And, despite the fact that leading scorer and highly efficient point guard Deonte Burton returns, the Pack have some significant holes to patch. With their top two rebounders – Dario Hunt and Olek Czyz – lost to graduation, head coach David Carter needs some production up front. Juniors Devonte Elliot, Jerry Evans Jr. and Kevin Panzer are the most likely options. Alongside Burton in the backcourt, former Hoosier Malik Story makes for an excellent pair of guards.
- Wyoming – The biggest offseason question for the Cowboys is the status of last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Leonard Washington. With a long history of behavioral issues, Washington’s offseason has been, um, eventful. He was suspended on April 4 for unspecified violations of program standards, then on May 15 was fined and placed on probation for criminal entry and battery charges in Laramie. He remains on indefinite suspension, but is still enrolled at the university and his status is unknown. Aside from Washington, just three players who earned more than ten minutes per game on last year’s surprising UW team return: senior shooting guard Luke Martinez, senior point guard Darrius Gilmore and sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr. In their recently wrapped up trip to Canada, freshman shooting guard Jason McManamen and JuCo transfer Derek Cooke stood out among the newcomers, with McManamen averaging 9.3 points per game and displaying a strong three-point stroke and Cooke establishing himself as a beast on the boards, grabbing more than eight rebounds per game. If Washington is eventually reinstated, the Cowboys could again challenge for a spot in the middle of the MW, but if he’s worn out his welcome in Laramie, UW could be closer to the cellar.
- Air Force – After a midseason coaching change, interim head coach Dave Pilipovich’s Falcons out together a pair of consecutive wins – including one over SDSU – before dropping their final five games of the year. Still, that was good enough to earn Pilipovich the permanent job. And with most of the significant contributors, save versatile wing Taylor Stewart, back for another go-round, the Academy has a chance to be in the thick of things in the middle of the pack here. Michael Lyons, one of the better scorers in the conference, is back for his senior year after a thoroughly disappointing junior campaign that was, in part, marred by injury. Center Taylor Broekhuis could be on the verge of a breakout senior year after an up and down year last year, while point guard Todd Fletcher will also be in his final year of eligibility. And sophomores Kammryn Williams, Justin Hammonds and Max Yon all had promising rookie campaigns, providing hope that the next batch of Falcon stalwarts are on board. With their style of play and typical service academy toughness, AFA should be a tough matchup all year long.
- Fresno State – Coming off a 13-20 season in a very average WAC last season, it would be easy to just write off the Bulldogs. But, when you beat out big time programs like Georgetown and Kansas State (with the aid of a coaching change) for a top-100 recruit like 6’11” center Robert Upshaw, you’ve at least got some reason for optimism. At 250 pounds with some good length, Upshaw’s got a pro body, but his game is still a work in progress. Defensively, he’s already strong, but despite flashing some skilled post moves and a pretty good basketball IQ, he is still developing. Head coach Rodney Terry also welcomes one time Kansas commit Braeden Anderson this season. After some troubles getting eligible, Anderson will be eligible in December and should step into a starting role as an athletic power forward immediately. With the frontcourt significantly bolstered by that pair, returning off-guard Kevin Olekaibe should have options to help shoulder the scoring load. Olekaibe took more than 31% of FSU’s field goals last season, and actually converted at a pretty solid rate while almost never turning the ball over. His backcourt mate is yet to be determined, but if they can get solid point guard play, the Bulldogs could surprise.
- Boise State – The Broncos struggled with inexperience and injury in their first year in the MW last season, but early in the season showed an ability to put the ball in the hoop. However, after freshman guard Igor Hadziomerovic went down for the year and classmate and countrymate Anthony Drmic saw his shot cease to fall, BSU’s offensive numbers went downhill. But now with the two Aussies back at full strength and with a year of experience under their belts, the Broncos feature two of the savviest wings in the conference. And, up front, between Kenny Buckner and Ryan Watkins and a pair of freshman European power forwards (Edmunds Bukulis and Vukasin Vujovic) BSU has plenty of bulk. The big question mark and one that was never answered in 2011-12, however, is at the point guard position. Derrick Marks showed flashes of a playmaking ability as a freshman, but turned the ball over far too often. Still, unless Drmic can transition into an unconventional point, Marks has to be the guy at the one. There’s enough talent elsewhere for the Broncos to be a tough out, but unless that lead guard spot gets settled one way or another, BSU could be in for another year of cellar dwelling.
The top four teams in this conference all made the Tourney last year, and all four again seem to be strong enough to repeat that feat. SDSU and UNLV appear at first glance to be the two most talented teams in the conference, but if a couple key questions get answered in the right fashion, both UNM and CSU have the ability to challenge for a conference title as well. After those four, the remaining teams in the conference have enough unanswered questions that they cannot be safely considered as NCAA Tournament contenders. But if, for instance, Nevada finds a surprise up front or Boise State gets an answer at the point or Upshaw is a revelation for FSU, any of those bottom five teams could at the very least find their way into some other postseason conversation. And, as always in the MW, road trips, even for the cream of the crop, could be very perilous.
Reader’s Take #2
Last year in this spot I picked Jamaal Franklin as my breakout player of the year in the Mountain West. Please pause while I pat myself on the back for that one. This year, in a league full of returnees, there may not be anyone who has such a singular rise in the conference, but I’ll point out two sophomores who could make a big splash for their respective teams.
First, we mentioned Boise State’s Anthony Drmic above as an important cog for the Broncos. He led BSU in scoring, rebounding, and three-point shots last year, while finishing second on his team in steals and assists. And, he did all of that despite more or less hitting a wall sometime after the calendar turned. In 2011, he averaged 14.9 points and hit 42.7% from three-point range, but in 2012 scored just 9.6 points per game and made just 20.9% of his threes. Part of that can be chalked up to improved competition, part to a wicked shooting slump, and part to some injuries, but in the Broncos’ final game of the season, a heartbreaking buzzer-beater loss to SDSU in the MW Tournament, Drmic was often the best player on the floor. With a year of American college basketball under his belt, if Drmic’s body and mind are more ready for the rigors of the season, he could extend those 2011 numbers throughout the season and carry the Broncos up the standings with him.
Secondly, Larry Nance, Jr., was a raw but talented rookie for Wyoming last season, mostly responsible for rebounding the ball, playing tough defense and running the floor in transition, tasks he accomplished with aplomb albeit in limited minutes. But with minutes opening up along the frontcourt for the Cowboys, especially in the wake of the Leonard Washington saga, Nance could be due for a big bump in minutes. And, more importantly, he could actually have a play or two run for him at some point. During the Cowboys’ recent trip to Canada, Nance averaged 10 points and five rebounds per game in a situation where nearly all of the players on the team got similar minutes. If Nance suddenly finds himself playing 25 minutes or so this season, he could wind up averaging 13 points and eight rebounds or so for Larry Shyatt while still having plenty of room for improvement. The arrow next to Nance’s name should be pointing way up.
Mark Your Calendar
- 12/1/12 – San Diego State vs. UCLA – The Aztecs have been the best thing going in the Southern California hoops scene the last three years. But, as part of the Wooden Classic, they’ll have a major test on their hands with the big bad Goliath of SoCal looking to take back its throne.
- 12/29/12 – UNLV at North Carolina – Last year the Rebs sprung the upset on the national #1Tar Heels in Vegas, but Roy Williams’ young club will be hoping for pay back in Chapel Hill.
- 1/19/13 – UNLV at New Mexico – The conference opener should be a heck of a game. If the Rebels can somehow steal a win in the always tough Pit, they may jump out as the early lead in the conference horse race.
- 1/16/13 – UNLV at San Diego State and 2/16/13 – San Diego State at UNLV – Just when a new great rivalry had sprung fully formed from the rigors of the MW schedule, the Aztecs are leaving the conference at the end of the year. After last year’s two great regular season battles, circle these dates for the final two instances of this young rivalry, one that we hope can find a way to continue in non-conference form in the future.
- 3/2/13 – UNLV at Nevada – It just seems right that these two schools are in the same conference. After the Wolfpack’s visit to the Thomas & Mack at the end of January, this should be a tough end-of-year road trip for the Rebels, with conference title implications afoot.