2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on November 6th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and a Pac-12 microsite writer. You can occasionally find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.
- Major Mountain? No one is going to confuse the Mountain West with the ACC or the Big East, but fans of this conference are getting used to the fact that its best teams are regularly relevant on the national scene. In the past three years, while a conference like the Pac-12 has been fortunate to get a mere eight NCAA Tournament bids, the MW has earned 11, more than any other non-BCS league. Two seasons ago there were a pair of Sweet Sixteen performances and a national sensation in Jimmer Fredette, while this year suggests the chance at success approaching that magical year, with two teams – UNLV and San Diego State – ranked in the top 20 of the recently released USA Today preseason poll and a couple more teams in the “others receiving votes” category.
- New, new, new. One of the reasons for the MW’s continued success has been the ability of the conference, and its member institutions, to roll with the rapid changes in the basketball landscape. That’s reflected this season in a pair of new teams in the league – Fresno State and Nevada climb aboard while TCU drops out – as well as a host of new impact players. Aside from four ESPN top 100 freshmen this season (including the #7 prospect, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett), the conference welcomes in a handful of Division I transfers, like Khem Birch (UNLV, via Pitt), James Johnson (SDSU, via Virginia), J.J. O’Brien (SDSU, via Utah), Dwayne Polee (SDSU, via St. John’s) and Colton Iverson (Colorado State, via Minnesota), who are expected to make big impacts this season.
- More television exposure? Last year’s MW television schedule featured seven regular season games on the ESPN family of networks, and one game on CBS. Of course, 91 other regular season games were televised on other national cable networks of one kind or another. But, with the shuttering of The Mtn., the conference’s cable network, this year’s television schedule is quite different. As far as national exposure on the big boy channels, things aren’t going to change much, with six conference appearances on ESPN networks. To make matters worse, instead of having every regular season conference game televised, channels like CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network on the Time Warner Cable Sportsnet will pick and choose MW games. All told, just 53 games features MW conference teams are scheduled for television on a national cable network, with 21 of those headed to the TWC channel which currently sports limited distribution.
Reader’s Take I
Predicted Order of Finish:
- San Diego State (12-4)
- UNLV (11-5)
- New Mexico (11-5)
- Colorado State (9-7)
- Nevada (8-8)
- Air Force (6-10)
- Wyoming (6-10)
- Fresno State (5-11)
- Boise State (4-12)
- G Deonte Burton, Jr, Nevada (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG) – He might not have gotten a lot of publicity west of the Rockies, but a prolific scoring guard who can rip off a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio while burying better than 37% of his three-point attempts — including plenty of clutch ones — deserves a mention. The Wolf Pack loses two big frontcourt threats, so Burton may have to handle a heavier load this season.
- G Wes Eikmeier, Sr, Colorado State (15.5 PPG, 2.0 APG) – Never one to turn down an open look, don’t leave him alone from deep or he’ll make you pay (36.9% from three last year), but get up into his body and he can go around you and score off the bounce or get to the line, where he converts almost 88% of his attempts. New head coach Larry Eustachy would like to see him up those FTAs while limiting his turnovers, but either way, CSU will often rise and fall with Eikmeier.
- G: Chase Tapley, Sr, San Diego State (15.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.8 SPG) – One of the most well-rounded players in the conference, Tapley is perennially underappreciated. The fifth starter on the great Kawhi Leonard Aztec teams, Tapley jumped into a lead role last year early for Steve Fisher’s squad, only to get overshadowed by his MW Player of the Year teammate one slot below. Still, as one of the peskiest defenders in the league and one of the steadiest offensive talents, it is impossible to keep him off the all-conference list as a senior.
- F: Jamaal Franklin, Jr, San Diego State (17.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG) – After an understated freshman campaign, Franklin burst onto the scene last year, breaking out 12 double-doubles in his final 20 games on his way to the MW Player of the Year award. While he does a ton of things very well, priority one for improving his game is cleaning up his perimeter shot, where he is capable of hitting better than the 32.5% he shot last year from three.
- F: Mike Moser, Jr, UNLV (14.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.9 SPG) – After barely earning a sniff of the court in his single season at UCLA, last year Moser’s 15 double-doubles announced his presence to the college basketball world. His offense tailed off some at the end of the year, and with the Rebels’ new additions up front, he’ll probably spend more time at the three (in part with an eye towards a future NBA career), so he’s still got plenty to prove. But he’s a skilled and talented athletic freak who still has plenty of room to get there.
6th Man: Leonard Washington, Sr, Wyoming (12.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG) – He’s had his share of run-ins with the law and with coaches and teammates, but make no mistake, Washington is a talented basketball player. In part due to his team’s molasses-slow tempo, Washington’s traditional stats aren’t going to wow anyone, but the former football player is one of the nation’s best rebounders, a versatile offensive threat and a consistently positive force on the defensive end.
Impact Newcomer: Khem Birch, Soph, UNLV (4.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG in 10 games with Pittsburgh last year) – He won’t be eligible until December, but when he’s ready, expect him to jump right into Dave Rice’s finishing lineup, if not his starting one. His abrupt departure from Pitt in the middle of the year leaves questions about his attitude, but on the floor he’s a strong rebounder and an excellent shot-blocker who will help toughen up the Rebel defense.
- San Diego State (NCAA #4 seed) – While just about everybody else around the country is busy singing the praises of UNLV, I’m taking the Aztecs to squeak out the MW title by a game over UNLV and New Mexico in a league that will be competitive from top to bottom. Why SDSU over the Rebels? In a word: guards. Steve Fisher’s squad boasts arguably the two best perimeter players in the conference in Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. Throw in junior point guard Xavier Thames and senior sharpshooter James Rahon – who is bound to bounce back from a down 2011-12 season stroking the three – and the Aztecs can run the four-out, one-in as well or better than anyone in the conference. Throw in freshman combo forward Winston Shephard, a highly regarded recruit who is big and athletic enough to rebound with the big boys and skilled enough to take his defender away from the basket and beat him off the dribble, and SDSU adds more firepower this season. And that’s all before even getting to the bigs on this team. Sure, senior Deshawn Stephens, entering just his fourth year of organized basketball, is the lone returning big guy, but between a trio of Division I transfers and a freshman center, Fisher has plenty of options along the front line. The three transfers, all with three remaining years of eligibility, bring a lot to the table. J.J. O’Brien is an undersized and versatile frontcourt player, Dwayne Polee is an absurd athlete who blocks shots and dunks with the best of them, while James Johnson, who won’t be eligible until December, is the lone true post player among the transfers. The freshman is 6’9” center Skylar Spencer, an offensively raw prospect who can immediately contribute on the glass and on defense. While it remains to be seen exactly who earns what minutes where in Fisher’s frontcourt, he’s got plenty of talent to complement his experienced and dynamic backcourt, meaning SDSU has slightly fewer questions to answer in their final season in the MW than the other two top contenders for the throne.
Other Postseason Teams:
- UNLV (NCAA #5 seed) – So on top of returnees like Mike Moser, Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez, the Rebels add transfers Khem Birch and Bryce Jones (neither of whom will be ready to play immediately, Birch due to transfer and Jones due to injury) and the best recruiting class in the conference, highlighted by ESPN top 100 recruits Anthony Bennett (2012’s #7 recruit) and Katin Reinhardt. And I pick them tied for second in the conference? Good god, man, why? The fact is that there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered here. Starting in the backcourt, Marshall is one of my favorite players in the conference, but I’m still not convinced he’s a guy I would want as my primary point guard. He’s one hell of a defender and as fearless attacking the paint as anybody in the league, but teams can back off him and dare him to shoot perimeter jumpers (which he’ll all too often do) and he can struggle at times getting his team good looks in the halfcourt offense. Freshman Daquan Cook is more of a true point guard, but chances are good that, although Cook will get some minutes, the Rebs will live and die with Marshall at the one. The next big question to me is Moser. It’s no secret that a skinny 6’8” doesn’t have much of an NBA future as a power forward. And, with guys like Birch and Bennett ready to jump in at the four, all signs point to Moser spending most of 2012-13 at the three. Given that UNLV was at its best last season when Moser was pounding the glass and scoring in the paint, it remains to be seen how Moser and the team will adjust. Moser’s certainly got some small forward skills (he hit 33% of his threes last season and has the form to improve that number), but it is possible that in the quest to improve his skills for the next level, he may hamper his contributions to this team. Now, all that being said, Moser and Marshall are still pretty darn good, Bennett looks ready to be a force from day one, and there’s a lot more talent here. Senior big Thomas and junior running mate Lopez are each capable of producing breakout seasons on their way to future professional paychecks. On the wing, Hawkins brings a basketball IQ and defensive intensity that any coach would kill for, while Jones’ athleticism and scoring ability will be a welcome addition. And Reinhardt is a intelligent scoring guard who could see a bump in early minutes due to the injury to Jones, meaning he could be awful hard to get back out of the lineup once Jones returns. In short this is a deep roster with talent for miles. The challenge for head coach Dave Rice will be to keep everyone happy while putting his best players in positions to succeed. And, most importantly, he needs to have this team playing its best basketball come March, something that has not happened in Vegas in any of the last three seasons.
- New Mexico (NCAA #6 seed) – Much like SDSU, New Mexico looks to be set on the perimeter. Understated point guard Hugh Greenwood returns for his sophomore season alongside junior backcourt-mate Kendall Williams, who helps out with the ballhandling. Long and lean three-point bomber Tony Snell makes for a third returning starter around the perimeter, while Steve Alford also returns senior point guard Jamal Fenton and junior off-guard Demetrius Walker, the latter of whom could be a starter if the Lobos decide to go small. The difference between UNM and SDSU is that the Aztecs have a bit more proven frontcourt situation, while New Mexico needs to find suitable replacements for Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. If everything goes well, junior Cameron Bairstow and sophomore Alex Kirk – a seven-footer back from a season lost to back surgery – will step right in. Bairstow, not an overly athletic dude, is not the kind of big man that is going to effectively fill lanes on the break or score on the block with pretty posts moves, but he can grind out effective minutes in the paint, playing physical defense and pulling down rebounds. Kirk displayed much more skill and athleticism as a freshman, but it remains to be seen how he’ll bounce back from last year’s injury. Helping out up front will be freshmen Nick Banyard and Devon Williams, along with undersized senior Chad Adams, who is really more of a three than a true big. But, that is the kind of thing Lobo players should get used to this season. With the bulk of the talent on this roster loaded around the perimeter, guards like Williams, Walker and Snell, for instance, are going to need to chip in on the glass and in the paint, aiding in the rebounding effort and potentially getting used to guarding bigger and stronger players. If the Lobos can do that effectively on the defensive end, it will translate into an advantage when they’ve got the ball in their hands.
- Colorado State (NCAA #12 seed) – It’s a new era for the Rams, as Tim Miles, after accomplishing the goal of returning CSU to the NCAA Tournament (it was a long road back from the 7-25 team in his first season on Fort Collins), left for a new challenge at Nebraska. The replacement is Larry Eustachy, off three consecutive 20-win seasons at Southern Mississippi. And the new coach is welcomed by a veteran team, with five returnees from last season (four of whom will be seniors) being bolstered by 6’10” Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, a senior himself. One of the big deficiencies on last year’s squad was size, with the Rams sporting the seventh smallest rotation out of the 345 Division I teams (according to KenPom.com), as no player taller than 6’6” earned minutes last year. As a result, Iverson’s presence will go a long way towards addressing that issue, while seniors Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith can now finally match up with guys their own size on a more regular basis. Both, however, did yeoman’s work in the roles that were forced to accept last year, with Hornung in particular, just killing it on the glass, placing second in the nation in offensive rebound percentage. Smith will spend more time this year at his more natural small forward spot. As for Iverson, he showed glimpses of great talent at Minnesota, but was always more effective rebounding and blocking shots than he was putting the ball in the hoop; the hope is that an extra year of practice (and let’s face it, smaller defenders in the MW) will improve his offensive output. But the real strength of this team is in the backcourt, even with senior guard Jesse Carr now out for the season with a torn ACL. The Rams still feature a daunting one-two combo, with Dorian Green running the point and Wes Eikmeier hunting shots at the two. Green is a fearless scrapper who is a true floor general, capable of creating for teammates, drilling threes or getting himself to the foul line, where he shoots better than 83%. Eikmeier is similarly effective from the charity stripe and from behind the arc, and could see even more space this season with the Rams featuring a true post threat in Iverson. Still, the real key for the Rams’ chances of getting back to the Big Dance is to improve on the road. Last year, they didn’t win a conference game away from Moby Arena until the final day of the regular season.
- Nevada (NIT) – Last year in the WAC, the Wolf Pack lost two games against conference competition; unfortunately, the last of those losses was in the semifinals of the conference tournament, dooming them to an NIT bid after an otherwise strong regular season. Head coach David Carter returns better than 65% of the scoring from that team, but unfortunately, lose their two best frontcourt players to graduation. Still, the backcourt was the thing that really made this team special last year, and they have the potential to be even better this year as the team will likely spend more time playing small. It all starts at the point with junior Deonte Burton, an attacking lead guard that is just as likely to create for himself as he is for teammates. Senior Malik Story is his partner in crime, a great shooter who can spot up and be the beneficiary of Burton’s drive-and-dish ability. Junior wing Jerry Evans is the team’s third returning starter, and at 6’8” he’s a versatile weapon for the Pack, capable of helping out on the glass, guarding multiple positions and still sticking the occasional three. Add to that perimeter mix freshman guard Marqueze Coleman, and Nevada could join the list of MW playing a four-out, one-in style. The question, however, is who that one-in will be? Juniors Kevin Panzer and Devonte Elliott earned some minutes in relief last year, but both remain unproven, while redshirt freshman Richard Bell, JuCo transfer Cheikh Fall and freshman Cole Huff are all even bigger question marks. While the perimeter situation is solid here, the combination of a lack of answers in the middle and the prospect of scouting seven new teams this season likely relegate the Pack to also-ran status.
- Air Force – From here on out, we’re looking at teams that I project to miss out on postseason play. Sure, one of these teams may be invited to, and accept, an invitation to play in the CBI or CIT, but I’m not going to bother with those projections. However, I expect even many of these teams at the bottom of the conference to compile solid non-conference records on the way to potential .500 or better records on the year. Starting with the Falcons, this should be an improved team this season behind head coach Dave Pilipovich, who handled the final eight games of the year last season. Mike Lyons’ junior year at the Academy was a disappointment, hampered by injury, but he remains the best player on the team and one of its best athletes. However, he did see his three-point percentage reach a career-high of 37.2%; coupled with a greater number of attempts, that bodes well for his senior campaign. Lyons, at 6’6”, is an excellent athlete for AFA, capable of creating his own shots and defending a variety of positions, and the Falcons feature two sophomores, 6’5” Justin Hammonds and 6’4” Kammryn Williams, who can match Lyons’ athleticism – a rarity in recent years in Colorado Springs. Up front, senior center Taylor Broekhuis had a breakout year for the Falcons last year, earning more minutes and upping his numbers across the board. Next stop for Broekhuis is a 12/6 campaign in his final year, numbers which may be a bit optimistic, but that are certainly within reach for the big guy. Rounding out the best of the rest of the AFA rotation are seniors Todd Fletcher (a point guard whose primary skill is managing games) and Mike Fitzgerald (a lanky wing that’s dangerous from deep). This is arguably the best Falcon team since the 2006-2007 team that advanced to the NIT, but in a deep conference, it remains to be seen if that quality will be reflected in the record.
- Wyoming – The Cowboys were a great story last season, showing dramatic improvement from an overmatched and undermanaged 2010-11 team that was routinely uncompetitive on its way to a 3-13 conference record. Last year, under head coach Larry Shyatt, UW was in just about every game on their way to a 6-8 MW result. However, minus five contributing seniors from that team, Shyatt has to work his magic once again. It all begins with senior forward Leonard Washington, who will play this season after resolving a couple of legal issues that came up in the offseason. When Washington is engaged, he is among the most talented players in the conference. Despite being, at best, 6’7”, Washington’s strength and athleticism allow him to effectively bang with bigger bodies inside, but he’s also capable of stepping out to the perimeter and hitting a three (although, to be honest, hitting just 30% of his attempts from deep, we’d like to see him largely forsake those shots) or taking his man to the hoop off the bounce. And, he’s one of the toughest and most versatile defenders in the MW. Luke Martinez is the only other returning starter on this team, an excellent and prolific three-point shooter (nearly 80% of his attempts from the field in 2011-12 came from behind the arc), with surprising athletic ability. Expect sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr. to have a big impact this season as well, as he will be the recipient of all the extra minutes he can handle – his rebounding numbers will go through the roof while he works on rounding out the rest of his game. Meanwhile, senior guard Darrius Gilmore should take over the reins at the point. Beyond that, Shyatt will need to get production from newcomers, with guys like freshman two-guard Jason McManamen and JuCo big man Derek Cooke separating themselves from the competition in the Cowboys’ offseason trip to Canada. Shyatt’s too good of a coach to pick the Pokes too far down the standings, but the MW will be tough sledding this year.
- Fresno State – The other newcomer to the MW this year is the Bulldogs, a team coming off a 3-11 record last year in the WAC. Just looking at that record in a poor conference last season would normally be enough to write off FSU this season, but there is plenty of talent on this team. It is hard to know where to start here, but we’ll go with 7’0” freshman center Robert Upshaw, regarded by ESPN as this year’s #55 recruit. Bulldog head coach Rodney Terry landed Upshaw in part because he’s a home-town kid, but the fact remains, teams coming off a 13-20 season don’t normally land future NBA guys like Upshaw, and this was a huge score for the program. Upshaw is still a work in progress, and like many bigs, his defensive game is ahead of his offensive skills, but he’s a good passer, he’s got a handful of effective post moves and he can make a difference on the glass. The other cornerstone for the Bulldogs is junior off-guard Kevin Olekaibe, a bomber who never saw a shot he didn’t like. Fortunately, he makes them at a great clip, and even better, he gets to the line on a regular basis and almost never turns the ball over. His cohort in the backcourt will be junior Tyler Johnson, another nice prospect whose game blossomed last season. Together, Olekaibe and Johnson’s main weakness is their lack of size, but the prospect of having Upshaw protect the paint for them may go a long way towards mitigating that problem. Come December, Terry will get a nice early Christmas present when former Kansas commit Braeden Anderson becomes eligible. At 6’9” Anderson will add even more size and athleticism up front for the Bulldogs, potentially turning a weakness last season into a strength this year. Between those four guys, FSU has a nice start to a roster. Unfortunately, from there on out, it is all unproven question marks. If Terry can lean heavily on his first four guys, there is the potential for a surprising season.
- Boise State – Just when we started getting used to this Bronco team, they’re on their way up and out the door. After joining the conference last year, they’ll join San Diego State in the Big East in football next season while throwing its basketball program into a semi-permanent battle for second place in the Big West. God. Realignment can be so dumb. But, we’ve got ‘em for another year, so we might as well enjoy ‘em. And, this should be an eminently enjoyable team to watch, so long as you don’t much care for defense. Offensively, it all starts with a pair of sophomore Aussie wings – Anthony Drmic and Igor Haziomerovic. Haziomerovic missed the last half of his rookie campaign with a broken foot, but he’s a big guard who can play inside and out. Drmic, likewise, is a versatile offensive threat. He is likely the team’s best playmaker, but he’s also the guy most capable of creating his own shot, and he’s one of the team’s best defenders. Classmate Derrick Marks looks to be the point guard of the future in Boise, but he’ll need to drastically cut down on his turnovers – he coughed it up on nearly a quarter of all the possessions he used last season – in order to help this team improve. Up front, junior power forward Ryan Watkins is a guy who could be on the verge of a breakout year for the Broncs. He rebounds the ball well on both ends of the court, is a tough defender and scores the ball around the hoop. Expect senior Kenny Bruckner, a tough offensive rebounder, to be his primary companion in the paint. While BSU should be an improved squad over last year’s last place team, and it isn’t tough to see that head coach Leon Rice has this team on the upswing; still, it’s a decent bet that BSU leaves its brief run in the MW with a pair of basement finishes.
Reader’s Take II
There are plenty of notable newcomers in the conference, some of whom we’ve dealt with above. But below, we’ll break down the five new entities who will have the biggest impact on the 2012-13 MW season.
- Anthony Bennett, Fr, UNLV – Bennett is the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with UNLV right out of high school since Freddie Banks in 1983. With a ready-made power forward’s body, he’s also got the skills to step outside and score from the perimeter. Coupled with established star Mike Moser, they make for a ridiculously flexible Rebel frontline.
- Khem Birch, Soph, UNLV – Birch quit on Pitt early in the season last year, a decision which leaves a lot of people questioning this guy’s mindset, but there’s little question he’s a talented baller. Still, it remains to be seen if he can deal successfully with adversity.
- Larry Eustachy, Head Coach, Colorado State – Aside from the head guys at the conference’s two new schools, Eustachy is the lone new head coach in the conference this year, taking over for Tim Miles in Fort Collins. And this just in, he can coach. In 2000, he led Iowa State to a 32-win season, and an Elite Eight while taking home the Associated Press’ National Coach of the Year award. In his last step he rebuilt Southern Miss into a consistent winner. And now, he walks into a CSU team coming off its first NCAA appearance in years and is welcome by four returning seniors.
- Colton Iverson, Sr, Colorado State – Oh, and to add to the end of that last bullet point, Eustachy also gets a newly eligible incoming Division I transfer who is not only a senior but who has also spent a year in the CSU program. It remains to be seen where Iverson’s game has gone since his last year at Minnesota, but on a Rams team that needed size up front, Iverson will surely provide rebounding and shot-blocking for the otherwise undersized squad.
- Nevada – With apologies to fellow newcomer Fresno State, the Wolf Pack are the school with the best chance to have an impact on the 2012-13 race. While they’ve got a lot of questions to answer up front, they’re talented enough around the perimeter that they’ll have a puncher’s shot against anybody in the conference.
Spotlight on… the Future of the Conference
Through all of the conference realignment meanderings, the conference has held it together pretty well. Sure, losing BYU and Utah cut the home base out of the conference, but last year those teams weren’t missed a bit and now they seem like a distant memory. The losses of Boise State and San Diego State next year are certainly rough (especially the loss of a rapidly improving SDSU program; the fact that they’re disappearing to the Big West is brutal), but the additions of Fresno State and Nevada this year and Utah State and San Jose State next year, while perhaps not living up to the brawn of some of the departing members, are good patches overall. It will take awhile for the remaining member institutions to build up some of the great rivalries (UNLV/SDSU, BYU/Utah, really, BYU/anybody else) that are disappearing, but that’s par for the course on the college sports landscape right now (Kansas/Missouri, Texas/Texas A&M, anybody?). The fact is, this will be a good basketball conference far into the future, so long as UNLV and New Mexico remain around. However, as we’ve all had drummed into our heads repeatedly over the last few years, none of this is about basketball; it is about football. And while at present none of the teams in this conference are going to be especially attractive targets for other conferences based on the state of their football programs, the best way for the MW to assure itself of continued existence into the future is to improve the state of their current television contract. Sure, the current agreements with CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network and the new Time Warner channels are nice, but what everybody wants these days is a spot on the four-letter behemoth in Bristol. That’s your challenge, commissioner Thompson.
For the fifth consecutive year, expect the Mountain West to be one of the most exciting races in the country. I’m picking SDSU here, but compelling arguments can certainly be made not only for UNLV but New Mexico as well. After that top tier, Colorado State and Nevada can certainly be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid, although it is likely that they’ll have to sweat things out come March. The foursome at the bottom of the conference, though not expected to seriously contend for the conference lead, are all capable of stepping up on the right night and knocking off some of those teams at the top especially in front of their home crowd. In short, once again, the MW is going to be worth keeping an eye on from start to finish. And if things break right, they’ve got a chance to have a team or two playing meaningful basketball deep into March.