2013-14 Conference Preview: Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 7th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times? In some way, the 2012-13 regular season was the peak for the Mountain West basketball. As a conference, the MW finished third in RPI, behind only the Big Ten and the Big East, with regular season champion New Mexico finishing third nationally in that admittedly flawed rating. Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State all finished in the top 35 in RPI, while only two teams – Fresno State and Nevada – finished below 100 in that rating. And best of all, five of the nine conference teams earned invitations to the NCAA Tournament, and all five were either seed-line favorites or, in the case of Boise State, involved in a virtual coin-flip in a First Four game. But Selection Sunday was the last glimpse of glory for the conference, as only two of the conference teams made it even so far as the first weekend of the Tournament, and by the time the Sweet 16 rolled around, the MW was little more than a punchline. To put it plainly, this is a conference with a lot of doubters heading into the new season.
Replacing Production. To make matters worse, all of the historic powers in this conference are faced with replacing major losses. UNLV saw freshman Anthony Bennett leave on his way to becoming the number one overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, but will also have to find ways to replace transfers Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt, along with backcourt rock Anthony Marshall. New Mexico had head coach Steve Alford bail for the greener pastures of UCLA, not a week after agreeing to a big contract extension in Albuquerque, and will also have to find a replacement for breakout wing Tony Snell, who left for the NBA. Steve Fisher and San Diego State now find themselves without any remaining ties to the 2010 Sweet 16 team, as graduates Chase Tapley and James Rahon are joined on their way out the door by their own early entrant to the NBA Draft in Jamaal Franklin. And Colorado State? Geez, if you know anybody returning on the Ram basketball squad, you and I should sit down and have a beer sometime. While there is still plenty of talent around the conference, there are a lot of players who need to produce in order to make us believe.
The Final Effects of Realignment? Not too long ago, the Mountain West was a stable collection of nine teams who seemed more or less happy to be with each other, despite a flailing cable network and a mishmash of interests. Just three seasons ago, teams like Utah, BYU and TCU were cornerstones of the conference. Now, those three schools are gone. But, to be honest, the conference has to be thankful that they have who they still have. Even in the middle of last year’s basketball season, Boise State and San Diego State each had one foot out the door to the Big East (really? San Diego and Boise, east? This still bugs me after all this time) before cooler heads prevailed. Still, in an effort to replace those teams should their defection have completed, the MW snapped up Utah State and San Jose State from the WAC, and those two teams join the conference this season, marking the end to the changes in the membership of the Mountain West, at least for the foreseeable future. One significantly unfortunate side effect of all the running around – the balanced conference schedule where everybody plays everybody at home and away is a thing of the past.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- New Mexico (15-3)
- San Diego State (13-5)
- Boise State (12-6)
- UNLV (11-7)
- Utah State (10-8)
- Colorado State (8-10)
- Fresno State (8-10)
- Air Force (6-12)
- Wyoming (6-12)
- Nevada (5-13)
- San Jose State (3-15)
All-Conference First Team/6th Man/Newcomer Prediction:
- G Deonte Burton, Sr, Nevada (16.3 PPG, 3.6 APG) – Last year was a disappointment in many ways in Reno, but Burton remained one of the nation’s most dynamic players, capable of filling it up offensively while also keeping his teammates involved. While he doesn’t have a ton of talent around him, this type of ability makes me save a spot for him.
- G Kendall Williams, Sr, New Mexico (13.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.5 RPG) – The reigning MW Player of the Year, Williams deserves a spot here, even if he is a frustrating player to watch. At times he can look like the best player in the conference – witness his 46-point breakout at Colorado State last February. At other times, you can forget he’s even out there. But we’ll give the senior the benefit of the doubt and hope he finds some consistency in his final year in Albuquerque.
- F Josh Davis, Sr, San Diego State (17.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG at Tulane) – Davis took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to move from the relative basketball backwater of Tulane to getting to spend a year playing in front of The Show. An athletic scorer and rebounder, he’ll be Steve Fisher’s most experienced offensive option.
- F Anthony Drmic, Jr, Boise State (17.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG) – While Derrick Marks may be more prone to spectacular performances, Drmic is the Broncos’ most consistent performer. He scored in double figures in 19 of the 21 games in 2013 and does a little bit of everything, including stroking it at a near-40% clip from deep.
- C Alex Kirk, Jr, New Mexico (12.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.8 BPG) – After spending a year sidelined by back surgery, Kirk came back better than ever, turning into not only a double-double threat on a nightly basis, but one of the best centers in the conference at protecting the paint.
6th Man: Preston Medlin, Sr, Utah State (16.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.2 APG) – On an Aggie team that returns three upperclassmen who averaged better than ten points per game last season, Medlin stands out among the crowd. He missed the team’s final 15 games with a fractured wrist, but in his past two seasons in Logan, he has established himself as a versatile scorer, capable of knocking down deep jumpers or getting into the lane and drawing fouls.
Impact Freshman: Jalen James, Fr, San Jose State. We’re going to go with a deep track here, not because James is the most highly regarded freshman in the conference – that honor would go likely go to either Christian Wood or Kendall Smith from UNLV – but because he’ll likely step into the biggest role early. On a Spartan team with a spartan roster that returns just two guys who averaged more than two points per game last season, James will have the opportunity to step in a big offensive role immediately.
- New Mexico (NCAA #5 seed) – The Craig Neal era begins in Albuquerque with plenty of returning talent from last year’s conference champion team. The only major void the Lobos will need to fill is Tony Snell’s spot. And while replacing a 6’7” guard good enough to be a NBA first-rounder is not the easiest task, the presence of veterans Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood in the backcourt will ease the transition. Athletic sophomore Cleveland Thomas looks like he’ll take Snell’s spot in the starting lineup, but Kansas-transfer Mervyn Lindsay and JuCo transfers DeShawn Delaney and Arthur Edwards will have a say in the matter as well. Up front, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow are a rock-solid pair of veterans, with young talent being developed in reserve. The Lobos don’t have the greatest non-conference schedule in the world (although Temple could await in the Charleston Classic, Cincinnati will visit The Pit, the Lobos will visit Kansas and then meet up with Marquette in Las Vegas), so a #3 seed this season seems unlikely, but in a Mountain West with some major conference turnover, the Lobos look like the clear-cut favorite.
Other Postseason Teams:
- San Diego State (NCAA, #6 seed) – Steve Fisher has a lot to replace on Montezuma Mesa. Not only is Jamaal Franklin – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder the last two seasons, as well as the 2012 MW Player of the Year – gone a year early to the NBA, but rock-solid veteran Chase Tapley has used up his eligibility. In fact, senior point guard Xavier Thames and junior forward J.J. O’Brien are the only two of last year’s top six leading scorers who return. But, there is no shortage of talent, especially with graduate transfer from Tulane – and Kawhi Leonard lookalike – Josh Davis imported to the coast. Davis will step in as the team’s leading scorer (and a consistent double-double threat) along the frontline, but Fisher will also need O’Brien and versatile sophomore Winston Shepard to be more consistent contributors on the offensive end.
- Boise State (NCAA #7 seed) – The Broncos are the Mountain West team that returns the most production. Of the nine guys from last year’s rotation, eight players return, including second-team all-conference honorees Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. However, for the team to take the next step from happy to be invited to the NCAA Tournament to ready to advance, the Broncos must not only match their efficient offensive style from last season, but toughen up on the defensive end. And given that the one rotation player the Broncos did lose – center Kenny Bruckner – was their best interior defensive presence, they’ve got their work cut out for them. But man, that offense sure does have a lot of weapons.
- UNLV (NCAA #9 seed) – The 2013-14 edition of the Runnin’ Rebels will look quite different than the team that lost to Cal in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament last season. Gone are Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser, Anthony Marshall, Katin Reinhardt, Justin Hawkins and Quintrell Thomas. The key returnees for Dave Rice are junior wing Bryce Dejean-Jones – a guy who never saw a shot he didn’t like – and junior center Khem Birch, who is significantly more polished defensively than he is on the offensive end. While Rice has put together a 51-19 record in his first two seasons as head coach, there has been some frustration about this team potentially underachieving, so there is some pressure on him to succeed this season despite the losses. The good news is, a couple four-star freshmen in 6’10” Christian Wood and 6’2” point guard Kendall Smith join up, as do talented transfers Roscoe Smith (formerly of Connecticut), Kevin Olekaibe (formerly of Fresno State), Deville Smith (JuCo transfer from Southwest Mississippi CC) and Jelan Kendrick (formerly of, well, let’s say dozens of previous schools). And, Rice may have the opportunity to carve out more distinct roles for his team. In other words, don’t expect the Rebels to fall far, or for long.
- Utah State (NCAA bubble) – Last year, the two new Mountain West teams – Fresno State and Nevada – combined for a 8-24 record in conference play. The previous year, it was Boise State that was 3-11 in their first year in the conference. Meanwhile, Utah State’s compatriot in their first go-round in the MW, San Jose State, is expected to limp home to a last-place finish. So what makes the Aggies a better candidate for early success in their new stomping ground? Easy: veteran talent. Stew Morrill will return three players who averaged better than ten points per game last season and each of Preston Medlin, Jarred Shaw and Spencer Butterfield are talented enough to be considered for preseason all-conference honors. The Aggies have won 20 or more games in 14 straight seasons. But a step up in the level of competition and the added disadvantage of being unfamiliar with most of their new conference foes, means equaling that total this year will be difficult. Throw in their typically benign non-conference slate (their toughest non-conference game may be BYU) and the Aggies may find that they’ll need to seriously impress in conference play in order to earn an NCAA sniff.
- Colorado State (NIT) – One-year transfer wonder Colton Iverson: gone. Four-year starter at the point, Dorian Green: gone. Wes Eikmeier, Pierce Hornung, Greg Smith: all gone. After the best season in school history in more than 40 years, head coach Larry Eustachy is starting over, almost from scratch. But, if we know one thing about Eustachy it is that he can coach up his guys with the best of them. He does have guards Jesse Carr and Dwight Smith returning from seasons lost due to injury, and wing Daniel Bejarano, point guard Jon Octeus and forward Gerson Santo all showed some nice glimpses in bit parts last season. But Eustachy will need to get some help from newcomers, especially along the frontline, where only Santo and transfers J.J. Avila and Marcus Holt will be in the mix for time.
- Fresno State – The Bulldogs’ first season in the Mountain West was not a particularly successful one, what with the five conference wins. But, if you looked close enough, you saw hope for the future and the foundation for future success. The Bulldogs upset UNLV, a vastly more talented team, twice, and head coach Rodney Terry was assembling some talented young pieces. Since the end of last year, however, freshman center Robert Upshaw was first suspended, then dismissed from the team after a short but turbulent stay at his hometown university. Junior guard Kevin Olekaibe decided he would spend his senior season playing for the Runnin’ Rebels. And then, Braeden Anderson, a former Kansas-commit who took a long, hard road to eventual eligibility at Fresno State, was involved in a serious car accident over Labor Day weekend that left him lucky to be alive, but likely out for this season. In short, a team that was once a sleeper in the conference is now again left to fight for the scraps in the back half of the standings. Still, Terry has proved his ability to squeeze the most out of his guys, so expect the Bulldogs to overachieve, especially with a bit more talent around the program this season. Oklahoma State transfer Cezar Guerrero is one name to keep an eye on.
- Air Force – Last year’s Falcons were one of the most entertaining teams in the conference, a sentence I couldn’t have conceived of writing just a few short years back. With prolific scorer Michael Lyons tearing through a great senior season and classmates Taylor Broekhuis, Todd Fletcher and Mike Fitzgerald locked into the system, the Falcons had their best offensive season since Jeff Bzdelik had them near the top of the standings back in the middle of the last decade. But, with all those seniors gone, and the fifth starter DeLovell Earls recovering from offseason leg surgery, Dave Pilipovich is back almost to square one. He’ll need guys like Earls, Tre’ Coggins, Justin Hammons, Max Yon and Kammryn Williams to step into much larger roles and thrive.
- Wyoming – For a month and a half, the 2012-13 Cowboy basketball season looked like it had the potential to be one of the handful of their best since they won a national championship in 1943. They won 13 straight games to start the year, including an impressive win over Colorado, but an unfortunate bar fight over New Year’s weekend left senior Luke Martinez with a broken hand and, even worse, criminal charges, and he never suited up for Larry Shyatt again. From that point, the Cowboys lost twice as often as they won and snuck in ahead of Nevada in a race to keep out of the cellar. With star forward Leonard Washington now gone, the Cowboys need to find a new source for any type of offensive output, as returnees like Larry Nance Jr., Riley Grabau and Derek Cooke aren’t exactly prolific scorers. Expect the Cowboys again to be a headache defensively, but unless they can find somebody to provide some scoring punch, they’ll be again relegated to the back of the pack. Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson is one candidate to fill the role of the leading scorer.
- Nevada – Last year, the Wolf Pack came into the Mountain West with high expectations, as they were roundly picked as a team with at least a chance to be in the NCAA Tournament discussion. Suffice it to say, those expectations were never even approached, as the team limped home to a last-place finish that was even less impressive that the three conference wins suggest. Gone is leading scorer Malik Story, but really, that may be a blessing in disguise. Now, without any question, this is senior point guard Deonte Burton’s team. But, while Burton is a special talent with NBA interest, David Carter’s team is lacking in size, offensive punch and experience. For Nevada to make a significant run up the standings, they’ll need UTEP transfer Mike Perez and freshman wing D.J. Fenner to step right into big roles.
- San Jose State – New year, new conference, new coach, new basketball facilities on the way and an almost completely remade roster. New is shiny and good and reason for hope for the future, but in the present, expect the Spartans, who went 3-14 against WAC competition last season, to struggle mightily in their first season in their new environs. Still, Doug Wojcik brings with him the experience of helping to build up a Boise State basketball program, and he’s shown a desire and ability to remake the program. With just four players returning from last season and a whopping eight newcomers (seven freshmen and a JuCo transfer) things have definitely changed. Senior forward Chris Cunningham and junior guard D.J. Brown are the key returnees, while freshmen guards Jalen James and Rashad Muhammad (Shabazz Muhammad’s brother) are the most exciting newcomers.
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 ten new entities who will have the biggest impact on the 2013-14 MW season.
- Utah State – With apologies to fellow newcomer to the conference, San Jose State, it is the Aggies who have the best chance to make a big immediate splash in the conference. It helps that the talent level across the league is down a bit this season, but if Utah State can stay healthy, something it failed to do last year despite still winning 21 games, they’ve got a chance at an upper-division finish.
- Craig Neal, Head Coach, New Mexico – In Steve Alford’s six years in Albuquerque, the Lobos never failed to win less than 22 games. And Neal, Alford’s associate head coach, was there every step of the way. It should be a seamless transition for Neal to the spot on the one seat over on the bench, with four returning starters from a 29-6 team easing the transition.
- Josh Davis, Senior, San Diego State – After starting his career at North Carolina State, Davis opted to be a big fish in a smaller pond at Tulane and turned into a double-double type performer for the Green Wave, notching 19 games with double figures in points and rebounds. For his last go-round in college, he’ll step back up onto the big stage and how he performs will have a lot to say about how the Aztecs perform.
- J.J. Avila and Marcus Holt, Juniors, Colorado State – The Rams go from a 26-win season and the nation’s best rebounding team behind Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung, to a team with just one returning player taller than 6’4”. Which means this pair of junior college transfers, standing 6’7” and 6’10” respectively, will need to play big roles immediately for Larry Eustachy.
- Cezar Guerrero, Sophomore, Fresno State – Two years ago, Cezar Guerrero was a brash freshman at Oklahoma State, carving out a role for himself on a talented team. But just prior to the start of school last season, Guerrero announced he was transferring out of Stillwater. He spent last year practicing with the Bulldogs and now is expected to slide right into the starting role at the point for Rodney Terry.
- D.J. Fenner, Freshman, Nevada – With Malik Story’s 17 points per game having graduated, there is a big hole on the offensive end of the court for the Wolf Pack. Enter this talented freshman who averaged 27 points per game last year as a high school senior on his way to Washington Player of the Year honors. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to be the secondary scorer alongside Deonte Burton.
- Jelan Kendrick, Senior, UNLV – To say that Kendrick has bounced around in his basketball career is to invite charges of gross misuse of understatement. Still, there is no denying his ability on the court. A 6’6” guy with the ability to not only mix it up in the paint, but run an offense, Kendrick will be in the mix with more traditional point guards for Dave Rice.
- Jalen James and Rashad Muhammad, San Jose State – The Spartans may be the nearly universal pick to earn the cellar slot this year, but with a completely remade roster, somebody is going to have to take the shots. And this pair of freshman guards may be the duo that first-year head coach Doug Wojcik tries to build the future of his program around.
Last year in early March, as the Mountain West was wrapping up a stellar regular season that would send better than half of its basketball programs into the NCAA Tournament, the conference had a good portion of the college basketball public in the palm of its hand. Aside from a group of exciting teams and talented players, there was improved television coverage and the conference was poised to make a big splash on the national stage. And then, well, let’s just say the NCAA Tournament didn’t go as planned, much like had happened previously. In the last five seasons, almost inarguably the peak of the conference’s basketball power, they’ve put 18 teams in the NCAA Tournament, including nine teams as a six-seed or higher, and won just eight games. In other words, it is completely understandable if an outsider takes a good hard look at this conference and decides that until and unless somebody around these parts makes a run in the tournament, the whole bunch can be dismissed as pretenders.
So, what to make of the failures of the conference? There was much hand wringing last March about how the level of coaching in the conference was subpar, with Steve Alford in particular getting called out for his track record of failure in the tournament and Dave Rice’s ability to get a talented team to coalesce being questioned. And yes, those questions are fair, to a point at least. But, the fact is, despite a few high profile studs like Jimmer Fredette, Kawhi Leonard and last year’s #1 pick Anthony Bennett, the talent level in the Mountain West is just not up to the same level as other major conferences. Over the course of those past five season, just seven MW players have been selected in the NBA Draft, and just four (the above three, plus Tony Snell) have been first-rounders. By comparison, 18 players from Kentucky alone have been taken over that stretch. The Pac-12, which has been famously in a down-turn, has had 27 players selected. Even Gonzaga, a program with whom top-tier Mountain West programs should be able to compete for talent, has had more NBA draft picks over the course of those five years than any single Mountain West program.
Now, I could sit here and tell you all about how guys like D.J. Gay and Dairese Gary and Michael Lyons and Dorian Green, etc, were great college players who got every last bit out of their talent, but the fact remains that the Mountain West just doesn’t get the same type of elite talent that major conferences get on a regular basis. These programs need to rely on mostly four-year players who improve over their careers and deliver big seasons as upperclassmen. Sure, programs with similar levels of talent can make deep runs in March – ask Butler or VCU or Wichita State – but those kinds of stories, though maybe occurring more often now than they did in the past, are still outliers. The fact is, in most cases, NBA-level talent is going to win out.
Now, none of this means you should ignore the Mountain West. If you’re looking for good, competitive, college basketball, the argument can definitely be made that the MW is right up there with the big boys – the ACC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, etc – in terms of the quality of the experience. The conference features great home-court advantages in great college towns with great rivalries and (mostly) exciting brands of ball. Then there are a bevy of coaches who have proven, time and again, their ability to get the most out of their players. Sure, Larry Eustachy or Larry Shyatt are not likely to turn their respective programs into regular Sweet Sixteen entrants, but you can bet both of those guys will squeeze every last ounce of production out of his guys. Steve Fisher was once thought of, back in the Fab Five days, as a guy who would just roll the ball out and let his players play, but he’s proven over the course of his career at San Diego State, that he does a terrific job of developing talent. Rodney Terry has his program on the come and Leon Rice may already have his in Boise. No, while you can count on more first-weekend flameouts than Sweet Sixteen appearances, you, the savvy college hoops aficionado, knows that simply winning games come tournament time is not the ultimate test of a conference’s appeal.