Mountain West Conference Preview

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2014

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.

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San Diego State… And Everyone Else. Last season it was the Aztecs and New Mexico who fought tooth and nail all season long for conference supremacy until it was decided on the final night of the season in San Diego when a late 26-7 run from the Aztecs erased a 16-point Lobo lead and earned the Aztecs an outright conference title. This year, with those Lobos down their only three double-digit scorers from last season, there is no clear-cut contender to the Aztecs’ throne. San Diego State is the only Mountain West team deserving of consideration for being placed among the top 25 teams in the country and, unless somebody else proves their worth, may be the only team going dancing come March. Sure, Steve Fisher’s crew will have plenty of questions to answer along the way, but given the steadiness of this program in recent years, the Aztecs are significant title favorites in this conference.

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion.

As for the “everyone else” part, Boise State, Colorado State and UNLV appear to be the next group of teams in a tier behind the Aztecs. Maybe one of them can separate itself from the pack and challenge the Aztecs, but each of these teams will rely heavily on newcomers to fill in big gaps on their roster. The Broncos will need production from young frontcourt players to replace the nation’s best offensive rebounder. The Rams have four Division I transfers expected to play big roles. And the Rebels? Well, it isn’t all that much of an overstatement to say that everyone is new.

Taking Care of Non-Conference Business. Last year, the conference got in trouble early when Boise State, UNLV, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming all struggled mightily in non-conference play, coming out of November and December with little or nothing to show for their efforts. If this conference hopes to turn things around this season and get more than just the Aztecs and maybe one other team into the Big Dance, they need to score quality wins early in the season. Keep an eye on these games, for instance:

  • 11/18: Utah at San Diego State
  • 11/21: Stanford vs. UNLV in Brooklyn (with a chance to face Duke in the finals of Coaches vs. Cancer)
  • 11/21: Georgia State at Colorado State
  • 11/22: Boise State at Wisconsin
  • 11/22: Colorado at Wyoming
  • 11/24-26: San Diego State in the Maui Invitational
  • 11/28: Boise State at North Carolina State
  • 11/30: Cal at Fresno State
  • 12/5: Wyoming at SMU
  • 12/7: San Diego State at Washington
  • 12/10: Colorado at Colorado State
  • 12/10: Wyoming at Cal
  • 12/17: San Diego State at Cincinnati
  • 12/20: Utah at UNLV
  • 12/23: Arizona at UNLV

No New Coaches… For Now. It’s a rarity these days that a conference can get through a season without a firing. Or in the case of a mid-tier conference like this one, having a coach get stolen away by a bigger program. But, there are some warm seats around the conference, especially in the state of Nevada, where David Carter seems to be in need of a big year to prove his worth and where Dave Rice, despite a brand new five-year contract extension, can’t be entirely comfortable. An even bigger story come the end of the season may be at the conference’s current big-name school, where Steve Fisher’s contract expires at the end of this season. And he’ll be 70 years old in March. And he’s got a son (and member of his staff, Mark Fisher) battling ALS. And, he’s executed one of the biggest turnarounds in recent history in college basketball by building a terrific basketball program from scratch. None of this means a damn thing, of course, but the fact is, 70-year old coaches do retire and of all the names in this conference, Fisher is the one closest to retirement. And the fact that no extension has been signed certainly lets people talk.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. San Diego State (16-2)
  2. Boise State (13-5)
  3. UNLV (12-6)
  4. Colorado State (12-6)
  5. Wyoming (10-8)
  6. New Mexico (9-9)
  7. Fresno State (9-9)
  8. Air Force (6-12)
  9. Nevada (5-13)
  10. Utah State (4-14)
  11. San Jose State (3-15)

All-Conference First Team

  • G Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – Vaughn was strong in his first game in a Rebel uniform in an exhibition contest and should only get better as the year wears on. Surrounded by a talented but young squad, Vaughn appears most ready to take on the scoring responsibilities for this team.
  • G Dwayne Polee, Sr, San Diego State (8.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG) – The overall numbers from last season may not look all that great, but consider that Polee turned into a different player down the stretch after knocking in a game-winner against Boise State in early February. From that game on out, Polee averaged 22.7 MPG, 10.2 PPG and and 4.4 RPG, including five straight double-digit scoring efforts in postseason play. He’ll get a good crack at helping to replace Xavier Thames’ departed production as well.
  • F Winston Shepard, Jr, San Diego State (11.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG) – Still very much the physical freak at a long 6’8” with guard-like ball skills, Shepard has been just getting by on raw ability in his first two seasons on Montezuma Mesa. Now is the time for Shepard to take on a leadership role for Steve Fisher and company and provide more offensive punch.
  • F Anthony Drmic, Sr, Boise State (15.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG) – Drmic’s 2013-14 numbers actually are a disappointment, a dip from the stats he put up as a sophomore. For the Broncos to seriously challenge San Diego State’s spot atop the league standings, Drmic will not only need to improve upon last year’s output, but put in a career year in Boise.
  • F Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming (15.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.1 BPG)Coming off both a career year and a devastating injury, Nance’s senior season in Laramie is one to keep an eye on. If he’s at full strength, he should be regarded as the best player in the conference and the Preseason Player of the Year.
If Larry Nance Is Completely Healthy, He's A Serious Player of the Year Candidate (Blaine McCartney, WyoSports)

If Larry Nance Is Completely Healthy, He’s A Serious Player of the Year Candidate (Blaine McCartney, WyoSports)

6th Man: J.J. Avila, Sr, Colorado State (16.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.4 APG) – Paired with Daniel Bejarano, Avila is part of the most versatile duo in the Mountain West. Either of those players could be in this spot, but we’ll give the nod to Avila for his more measured on-court demeanor.

Predicted Champion:  

  • San Diego State (NCAA #4 seed) – The Xavier Thames era (all 80-24 of it) is over. But that doesn’t mean anyone should feel sorry for the Aztecs. All Steve Fisher did was bring in a top 20 recruiting class with three top-100 players to go with his bevy of returning talent. The leading returning scorer is junior Winston Shepard, with last year’s breakout player Dwayne Polee back for his senior season. Throw in senior do-everything forward JJ O’Brien and shot-blocker extraordinaire Skylar Spencer joined in the middle by Arizona transfer Angelo Chol (an intimidating shotblocker in his own right) and this Aztec team could be be even better than the ninth-ranked team in KenPom’s defensive efficiency last year. But with Thames’ consistent outside shooting gone, Fisher and company will need to find somebody else to knock down some shots in order to get things going this season. With sophomore shooter Matt Shrigley out for the better part of the non-conference schedule with a broken elbow suffered in last weekend’s exhibition game, freshman Trey Kell appears to be the only other player on the team (aside from Polee, who has his own role) capable of providing the long-distance acumen they’ll be missing in Shrigley. Oh, and if all the above talent wasn’t intimidating enough for the conference, we’re just now getting around to mentioning skilled 6’10” freshman Malik Pope and his classmate Zylan Cheatham, a point-forward type. Both of those guys have serious injury concerns that may keep them out of the lineup well into the season, but if Fisher can find a way to fold them in when they get healthy, they are both big-time talents.

Other Postseason Teams:

  • Boise State (NCAA, #12 seed) – Last season, the Broncos were among the favorites in the conference and expected to wind up in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they lost their only games against significant competition in non-conference play and were never able to get on track inside of the conference, winding up on the outside looking in of any postseason invite. But, three of their four leading scorers – Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks and Mikey Thompson – return, along with veteran guard Igor Hadziomerovic and intriguing sophomore Nick Duncan. Duncan, in particular, has his work cut out for him since the Broncos’ biggest personnel loss is that of Ryan Watkins, the nation’s best offensive rebounder (and no slouch on the defensive end either) last season. Duncan, a skilled offensive player capable of stepping out behind the three-point line and demanding respect, is certainly not the same type of player that Watkins was, but he’s the only experienced big man on this roster. Newcomers Kevin Allen (a Juco transfer), Zach Haney and David Wacker (the last two both freshmen) will also be in the mix up front. If Leon Rice can find an answer along the frontline and on the glass, and if the Broncos can find some defensive toughness, there is definitely enough offensive talent here for this squad to out-do last year’s more hyped squad.
  • UNLV (NIT) – It was an interesting offseason in Vegas. First, there was speculation that head coach Dave Rice would be fired. Then, rumors surfaced that he would beat the sheriff out of town by taking the open job at South Florida. And then UNLV changed course and re-upped Rice with a big five-year contract extension. All of this in the midst of a complete roster shake-up with all five players who averaged better than 9 PPG or 25 MPG now gone, four of them with eligibility remaining. So, when you watch the Rebels this season, make sure you’ve got a roster handy. But, while Rice’s teams continue to underachieve on the court, he’s still regularly pulling in significant talent, and though the players will be all new, they’ll be good. The biggest downfall of the Rebels during Rice’s time has been the absence of a legitimate point guard, and that won’t be an issue this year, as San Francisco graduate transfer Cody Doolin will spend his single year in Sin City as the man at the point. He’s experienced and solid, eliminating the hovering questions at the one. Surrounding him is plenty of young talent, beginning with freshman five-star wing Rashad Vaughn, extending to his classmates Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan (both of those top 100 players as well), bouncing over to long sophomore Christian Wood, and including another senior transfer, Jerome Seagears, from Rutgers. Throw in Jelan Kendrick coming back for his senior year and there is reason to be excited about this team, especially with the hope that Doolin can help tie all of these pieces together.
  • Colorado State (NIT) – It is no secret that head coach Larry Eustachy really likes this team; he’s spent the offseason telling anyone that would listen. And he has good reason. J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano both return for their senior years and each of them averaged at least 16 points, seven boards, three assists and a steal last season, while both shooting at least 30% from deep. That’s a good start, but remember, those were the best players on a team that finished 16-16 last season. What could make this year different is a bunch of newcomers, starting with sophomore point guard John Gillon, a transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock who will be this team’s floor general from day one. If Gillon needs any help, Grambling transfer Antwan Scott will spend his senior year in Fort Collins as well. But where the Rams really need difference makers are up from two other Division I transfer: Stanton Kidd (formerly of North Carolina Central) and Dantiel Daniels (Southern Illinois). Throw in for Oregon wing Fred Richardson and returning role players like Joe De Ciman, Carlton Hurst and Marcus Holt and Eustachy’s enthusiasm begins to make a lot of sense.

    Larry Eustachy Is Making No Secret About Liking His Team's Chances (Photo credit: Getty Images)

    Larry Eustachy Is Making No Secret About Liking His Team’s Chances. (Getty Images)

  • Wyoming (NIT) – On Tuesday, February 18, the Cowboys were sitting at 7-5 in the conference and, although a long shot to be able to make an NCAA Tournament run, were having a quietly nice season. Hosting Fresno State, their star forward Larry Nance tore his ACL at the start of the second half and, although his team rallied to secure the win that night, the Cowboys only won one of their final seven games. Despite the missed time, Nance was still an easy choice on the all-conference team, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year. He’s expected to be fully healthy to start the season, but as always, we have to take a wait-and-see approach. If he does bounce back to his pre-injury form, he is pretty special, a 6’8” forward who not only rebounds with abandon, blocks shots and provides solid man defense, but can also score off the bounce, get to the line, knock in foul shots at a 75% clip and excel within the system dictated by fine head coach Larry Shyatt. If Nance is healthy, his presence alone makes Wyoming a significant foe. If he’s not, they’ll trudge through 60 possession games, slug out a handful of 55-53 wins amidst some ugly losses and generally be ignored outside of this conference. Senior forward Derek Cooke is Nance’s running mate up front and the duo form an imposing tandem inside, while Josh Adams and Riley Grabau are experienced perimeter options.
  • Fresno State (Some other random tournament)Rodney Terry took over at Fresno State just as the Bulldogs were transitioning out of the WAC and into the Mountain West (he coached one year in the WAC). And, since he showed up in the Central Valley, you can just tell that he is making progress. Terry is bringing in quality recruits, landing impact transfers and coaching up lesser-known recruits on the way towards making Fresno a miserable trip for conference foes to take. The Bulldogs struggled to a five-win conference season in his first trip around the conference, but jumped to 9-9 last season, winning eight of their last ten conference games. And yet, through it all, there is this sense of overwhelming bad luck. Terry landed local top-100 seven-footer Robert Upshaw, then couldn’t get through to the kid and saw him transfer in a wave of immaturity. Terry landed Kansas transfer and physical specimen Braeden Anderson, struggled to get him academically eligible for ten tantalizing games at the end of 2012-13, then saw him involved in a life-threatening car accident that may never allow Anderson to live up to his immense talents (Anderson will play this season and should be a very interesting story). But with experienced returnees like point guard Cezar Guerrero, wing Marvelle Harris, frontcourt athletes Paul Watson and Alex Davis, sophomore breakout-candidates Emmanuel Owootoah and Karachi Edo and newly-eligible D-I transfer Julien Lewis (from Texas), Terry has his most talented Bulldog team. And if things break just right, a top three conference finish is not out of the question.

The Rest:

  • New Mexico – Putting the Lobos this far down just seems wrong. Aside from maybe UNLV, the Lobos are the prototypical Mountain West basketball program, with fanatical crowd support and, dating back to 2007-08 when Steve Alford took over, an absence of underwhelming seasons. But, this year seems different. Gone are Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, the latter a year early to a professional career. Gone also are transfers Cleveland Thomas, Merv Lindsay and Nick Banyard. The team’s most recognizable returnee is senior Hugh Greenwood, a guy who has been a talented but complimentary player in his years in Albuquerque. Coach’s son Cullen Neal and last year’s high-flying role player Deshawn Delaney join him as what counts for known quantities on this squad. Beyond that, Craig Neal will count on sophomores Devon Williams and Obij Aget and junior Arthur Edwards for significant contributions. And then there is JuCo transfer Jordan Goodman, considered among the handful of best junior college recruits in the nation. Unfortunately, as Jon Rothstein reports, he’s probably out for the first two or three weeks of the season due to injury. When he does return, and when he gets his legs under him, he’ll should be right in the mix among the Lobos best frontcourt players. If everything comes together, New Mexico could be in the mix anywhere in this conference up to second, but there are just too many questions right now, even in a conference full of questions, to pick them any higher.

    Hugh Greenwood Is One Of The Few Recognizable Faces on The New Mexico Roster (Roberto E. Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

    Hugh Greenwood Is One Of The Few Recognizable Faces on The New Mexico Roster. (Roberto E. Rosales, Albuquerque Journal)

  • Nevada David Carter knew that Deonte Burton wasn’t going to be around this season, what with the star guard having used up all of his eligibility. Jerry Evans was graduating as well. But, he figured he’d at least have versatile wing Cole Huff to build around this season. Alas, no such luck, as Huff opted to sit out a year and transfer to Creighton. So, after two straight seasons of sub-.500 basketball, the Wolf Pack lose their three best players and are left with a roster full of question marks. Michael Perez is the team’s leading returning scorer at 11.5 PPG, A.J. West seems primed for a bump in production in his senior year, and junior Marqueze Coleman looks ready to take over Burton’s role, if not his production. Beyond that, Carter needs sophomore D.J. Fenner to make a huge leap and JuCo transfer (and former Cal Bear) Kaileb Rodriguez to take over a good chuck of minutes along the frontline.
  • Air Force – From the Falcons on out, the conference gets increasingly depressing. At the end of last season, at least you figured that the Academy would have it’s best player – Tre’ Coggins – returning for his junior season. Instead, he decided Cal State Fullerton fit his plans better and left. Still, the Falcons return four starters – all seniors – in Max Yon, Kammryn Williams, Justin Hammonds and Marek Olesnski. Of course, these are four starters returning from a team that went 12-18 last year, lost games to UC Davis, Jackson State, and VMI and lost its best player in Coggins. Dave Pilipovich is a very good coach, but you have to at least have some pieces to make a run in this conference and I’m just not seeing those pieces.
  • Utah State – For 14 straight years at Utah State, head coach Stew Morrill’s teams had won at least 21 games each season. That streak ended last year when the Aggies won 18 games. This season? Smart money is on this being the first season in which Utah State will have a losing record under Morrill. Why? Well, aside from four talented graduating seniors, the Aggies lost five other players to transfer this offseason. Four players who saw the court last year return, with a combined average of 27.3 minutes per game between them. Those four players combined to average 9.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG and 1.7 APG. Suffice it to say, things are not good in Logan this year. Sophomore Jalen Moore is by far the team’s best player and figured to take on a much bigger role this season even without all the defections, but despite his apparent talent, he is still a work in progress. Freshman center Elston Jones also brings promise, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy after missing the bulk of his senior year of high school with a knee injury.
  • San Jose State – The Spartans’ first year in the Mountain West, and the program’s first under Dave Wojcik, was as miserable as it was expected to be. A 1-17 conference record, only five of those 17 losses by single-digits and just seven total wins on the year only begin to sum up the horror of the first year. But, um, the good news is that most of those players from that team return and will be counted on to fill roughly the same roles as last year? Yikes. There’s Rashad Muhammad (he of the 24 assists, 14 steals and one block in 873 minutes of action last year) at the wing, Jalen James (of the roughly 1:1 assist to turnover ratio) and Jaleel Williams (who, as the team’s second-biggest player in the regular rotation attempted 144 three-point attempts; and made just 42). In fact, just two players on the team last year had an offensive efficiency rating over 100 (roughly average in Division I); both of those players transferred out of the program. The good news is that this team is young, so, who knows, maybe things can get drastically better. But this team needs to prove it can climb its way out of the conference cellar.
AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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One response to “Mountain West Conference Preview”

  1. Gus says:

    Welcome back Andrew!

    Looking forward to another year of Aztec domination.


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