Other 26 Previews: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2015

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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Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Respect. If this conference isn’t careful, it could be on the verge of losing all of the respect it has built up over the course of a long period of competitive basketball. Last season, following Wyoming’s surprise Mountain West Tournament victory, the league went into Selection Sunday hoping to land four teams in the field of 68. Instead, the Cowboys were joined by San Diego State and a woefully underseeded Boise State (regular season champion relegated to a road game against Dayton in the First Four), while Colorado State and its three seniors were entirely left behind. Since 2011, when the conference put two teams (San Diego State and BYU) into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the league has been afforded plenty of respect by the Selection Committee with 14 invitations over the past four seasons. But during that stretch, the Mountain West has also combined to go just 6-14 in the NCAA Tournament, a full six wins below expectations based on its seed line. Worse yet, the conference has dipped from top five conference RPI rankings in 2013 to #10 in 2014 and #13 last season. Not good.

Non-Conference Slate. Part of upping those RPI numbers has to do with scheduling smartly in the non-conference schedule. Back when the Mountain West was earning five NCAA Tournament invitations, some of the credit for that Selection Sunday success had to go to the conference programs massaging their schedules to boost their RPI profiles. It seemed like there was a collective effort to avoid scheduling terrible RPI anchors and, while also scheduling several tough teams with good RPIs, avoiding a brutal schedule to harm the all-important win/loss records. This year? As Matt Stephens of The Coloradoan showed on Monday, if you average the 2014-15 RPIs of this year’s opponents, nobody in the league plays a schedule with an average RPI of stronger than 100th. That’s not good. UNLV has the toughest non-conference slate, with UCLA, Oregon, Wichita State, Arizona State and Arizona dotting the schedule, but those tests are also dragged down by some of the dregs of Division I basketball (Southern Utah, Prairie View A&M, South Dakota). Long story short: the Mountain West has seemingly scheduled it’s way behind the eight-ball from the get-go this season.

New Faces on the Sidelines. Last season in this space we remarked that there were no new coaches in the conference and we noted that there was a good chance that at least one of the jobs in the state of Nevada might open up. And that there may be another opening due to retirement. At least, that’s one way to look at our analysis. Anyways, sure enough, David Carter is out at Nevada after his third straight losing season (the final nail a dip all the way down to 9-22), replaced by long-time NBA assistant and general coaching vagabond Eric Musselman. Meanwhile, the conference lost a legendary coach to retirement, just not the one that there was the most smoke about, as Utah State’s Stew Morrill decided to call it quits after 17 straight winning seasons. Plenty of stability remains in the program, however, as Tim Duryea – who sat down the bench from Morrill for 14 of those 17 seasons – takes over as the head man.

Predicted Order of Finish

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

All-Conference First Team

Anthony Drmic, Boise State

Anthony Drmic Returns From Injury For The Broncos, And Should Be Among The Conference’s Best Again (Associated Press)

  • G Cullen Neal, So, New Mexico (17.0 PPG, 3.7 APG in 3 games) – Neal’s 2014-15 season was cut short by an ankle injury, but after another year in the program and another year adding strength, he’s poised to lead a Lobo renaissance. He could lead the conference in scoring.
  • G Marvelle Harris, Sr, Fresno State (16.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.0 SPG) – One of the country’s best-kept secrets, Harris is a versatile scoring wing who can beat opponents in a variety of ways.
  • F Winston Shepard, Sr, San Diego State (11.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG) – Sure, he still can’t shoot the ball (43.1 eFG%). But long and athletic with smothering defense and playmaking skills doesn’t just grow on trees.
  • F Anthony Drmic, Sr, Boise State (15.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG in 7 games) – Another player on the All-Conference team who had last year’s run ended well before conference play even began, Drmic has a long history of success in this league. He’ll play a major part as a scoring wing for a team hoping to repeat atop the Mountain.
  • F Jalen Moore, Jr, Utah State (15.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 39.1 3P%)It’s not just about the hair for Moore. He’s also got a complete offensive game, capable of scoring from arc to rim.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G John Gillon, Jr, Colorado State (7.9 PPG, 3.2 APG, 39.5 3P%) – He only played 20 minutes per game on last year’s veteran Rams squad. With extra minutes and free reign at the point, he seems poised for a breakout season.
  • G Josh Adams, Sr, Wyoming (12.8 PPG, 3.6 APG RPG, 3.3 RPG) – Adams was terrific down the stretch last season, flashing a swagger to join his ability to throw home tomahawk jams on the break.
  • F James Webb III, Jr, Boise State (11.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 40.9 3P%) – An athletic 6’9 dude just as apt to knock in a three as he is to dunk on your head? Yup, we’ll find a spot for him on the all-conference teams.
  • F A.J. West, Sr, Nevada (12.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG) – Lost in the disaster that has been Reno the past two seasons, West has quietly developed into one of the conference’s most reliable frontcourt options.
  • C Stephen Zimmerman, Fr, UNLV – Dave Rice’s prized big man chose the Rebels over suitors like Kentucky and UCLA. He’ll be counted on immediately to provide major frontcourt scoring on his way to NBA riches.

Predicted Champion 

Winston Shepard Is Back For His Senior Year, And His Aztecs Will Again Be Formidable (AP)

Winston Shepard Is Back For His Senior Year, And His Aztecs Will Again Be Formidable (AP)

  • San Diego State (NCAA #8 seed) – They’ve got the most talent in the conference. They’ve got a chip on their collective shoulder after suffering the indignity of having Boise State come into Viejas Arena late last February and take the regular season title. And, perhaps most importantly, they’ve got a new point guard who they hope to be an anchor for this program for years to come. Freshman Jeremy Hemsley may not immediately step into the same shoes worn by past stalwart Aztec points like Xavier Thames and D.J. Gay, but the potential is there for him to grown into them. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by talented teammates. Last year’s sometimes point guard Trey Kell is expected to move over to the off-guard spot (where he’s more comfortable), but he’ll be present as a calming influence in the backcourt. Up front, there is talent all over. Sophomore forward Malik Pope wowed in limited minutes as a freshman and could be ready to explode this year. Alongside Pope, veterans Winston Shepard, Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol anchor an imposing frontline. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s also redshirt freshman Zylan Cheatham, who lost his proper freshman season to a broken foot. All reports from the end of last year and throughout the offseason have been that he is capable of stepping right in as one of the team’s most dynamic players. But for all the talent and promise, the same old problems still lurk around Viejas Arena: On a bad night, this team is capable of putting up enough bricks to build another Montezuma Mesa. And given that the team’s best returning deep threat – Matt Shrigley – is likely out for the year with a torn ACL, there are no immediately obvious answers.

Other Postseason Teams:

  • Boise State (NCAA, #11 seed) – Mountain West fans should still be a little mad at how the Selection Committee treated Boise State last season. That will never go away. But hopefully Broncos fans are able to put aside any bitterness about the way the season ended and recognize it for what it was: probably the best season in the history of the program. What makes it that much better is that the Broncos are poised for a rollicking encore. Sure, conference POY Derrick Marks is gone. But, what seemed like a cruel twist of fate last season – Aussie Anthony Drmic’s season-ending injury in early December – could pay dividends this year. Drmic, although a very different kind of player, will inherit Marks’ go-to scorer role. James Webb III will try to prove his breakout sophomore season was no fluke whiile playing alongside another rugged Australian stretch-four, Nick Duncan. Mikey Thompson will try to finally put it all together in his senior season. Chandler Hutchinson – the most highly touted recruit in the history of the program – could break out as a sophomore. And then there are talented pair of freshmen guards – Paris Austin and Malek Harwell – just for good measure. Oh, and as if offensive-minded head coach Leon Rice didn’t have enough toys, there is catch-and-shoot three-point threat Lonnie Jackson (career 38% three-point shooter) available as a graduate transfer from Boston College. While last year may have been the best year in program history, this team could be even better.
  • UNLV (NCAA, #12 seed) – The natives are restless in Sin City. Head coach Dave Rice has had no trouble bringing in prized recruits on the regular – he’s had top 20 recruiting classes in three of the past four years, and has another one lined up for next season – but he’s struggled in turning those wins on the recruiting trail into wins on the court. Believable reports about his head being on the chopping block have come and gone the past two offseasons, yet on the UNLV sideline he remains. But despite many things — the recruiting success, the 89-47 (.654) overall record, a contract stretching through 2018-19, Rice’s history as a member of the only national championship team in UNLV history — the writing is on the wall: NCAA Tournament or pink slip. Of course, the good news again is that he’s got the kind of roster that can go dancing – and potentially do more. Up front, the Rebels can pair freshman center Stephen Zimmerman (#10 overall recruit per ESPN) with sophomore center Goodluck Okonoboh (2.9 BPG last season), with Oregon transfer Ben Carter and freshman skywalker Derrick Jones ready to chip in as well. In the backcourt, Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagars can man the point, while sophomore Patrick McCaw is ready to improve on his promising rookie campaign. Rice will need to coach this team up, but the talent is here, and we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Fresno State (NIT) – Rodney Terry’s club struggled through a brutal non-conference last season, losing their first six games against Division I opponents. But, they were much better after the calendar flipped, going 10-8 in the 2015 calendar year. This season they return their top five starters, which means that if the Bulldogs are ever going to make some serious noise in this conference, the time is now. Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis are all seniors who have had eventful college careers, and they’re joined by talented, if undersized, junior frontcourt players in Paul Watson and Karachi Edo. Terry will need to manufacture depth to not only round out this team, but also build a platform for the future.

    Marvelle Harris Is One Of The Mountain West's Underappreciated Stars (Khlarissa Agee, The Collegian)

    Marvelle Harris Is One Of The Mountain West’s Underappreciated Stars (Khlarissa Agee, The Collegian)

  • New Mexico (NIT)– In the eight seasons that Craig Neal has spent in Albuquerque (six as Steve Alford’s top assistant, the last two as the head coach), the Lobos have only once had an offense that averaged less than 107.9 adjusted points (according to Ken Pomeroy’s calculations) per 100 possessions. And only once has that offense been worse than 66th in the nation. Unfortunately, that season was last season. No offense to one of the most likable players in the league in recent history, but when Hugh Greenwood is your go-to scorer, your offense has issues. However, reinforcements are on the way, beginning with coach’s son Cullen Neal, who is back from an ankle injury that cost him all but three games a season ago. His shooting acumen will immediately make the Lobos more potent, while another coach’s son, Elijah Brown, a transfer from Butler, should also provide immediate assistance. Another D-I transfer, 6’8” forward Tim Williams, formerly an All-Southern-Conference selection at Samford, will bolster the New Mexico frontline. The Lobos may not have quite enough this season to jump back into conference contention, but they will be significantly better than last year’s team.

The Rest

  • Utah State (NIT) – New head coach Tim Duryea has a lot to live up to in the wake of Stew Morrill. In Morrill’s 17 seasons in Logan, the Aggies never had a losing season, made 13 postseason appearances and eight NCAA Tournaments. Not much to live up to, right? The immediate job got significantly harder at the last minute when sophomore forward (last year’s second-leading scorer and rebounder and leading shot blocker) announced on Wednesday that he would be transferring out of the program. Still, there is good news, as now four of the Aggies’ top five leading scorers from last season return, with versatile forward Jalen Moore joined a talented backcourt trio of seniors Chris Smith (60 three-pointers made at a 46.5 percent rate) and Darius Perkins (61 3PM at 43.3 percent) along with sophomore Julion Pearre (35 3PM at 33.7 percent). If Duryea can handle the new responsibilities and find some solid depth, this team could make some noise near the top of the conference.
  • Colorado State – Last year’s three double-digit-scoring seniors are gone, leaving behind their college days with an NIT appearance that made for a disappointing final act. But Larry Eustachy still has a chance to field high-octane veteran ballclub. Junior point John Gillon was terrific in limited minutes last year and should have plenty of help around the perimeter from seniors Gian Clavell, Joe DeCiman and Fed Richardson. Grambling transfer Antwan Scott (15.7 PPG in 2013-14) could also provide backcourt punch. Up front, Tiel Daniels will need to get immediate help from JuCo All-American Emmanuel Omogbo.
  • Wyoming – Larry Nance, Derek Cooke, Riley Grabau and Charles Hankerson are gone. But damn, that was fun, wasn’t it? Senior guard Josh Adams is the only returnee of significance from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, with returnees Alan Herndon and Jason McManamen expected to step into bigger roles. Almost everything else is up in the air, but head coach Larry Shyatt has probably earned far more trust than the record we’re predicting for this team.
  • NevadaEric Musselman takes over in Reno and is tasked with finding a way to get the Wolf Pack back to the level they were playing at when they were dominated the WAC last decade. His work is cut out for him, as this program hasn’t had an overall winning record since moving to this conference, despite a 10-8 conference record two seasons ago. Musselman at least has senior forward A.J. West to ride, with veteran guards in Marqueze Coleman, Tyron Criswell, Eric Cooper and D.J. Fenner around as well. But, given the toxic nature of the program in recent years, we’ll see if he does better once he’s able to clean house and rebuild. At least he gets an early start on that this season with freshman point guard Lindsey Drew, who may be the face of this program for the next four years.
  • Air Force – Here’s a note I read in the Robert Gagliardi write-up of Air Force in the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook: the Falcons have now won at least six conference games in each of head coach Dave Pilipovich’s three seasons at the Academy. And, most strikingly, this is the longest such streak in the history of the program. In other words, expectations are rightly low. Still, while the Falcons have remained in the bottom half of the league, they’re at least playing an entertaining brand of basketball. And this year should bring more of the same, with guards Trevor Lyons, Zach Kocur and Hayden Graham leading the way.
  • San Jose State – In two seasons in the Mountain West, the Spartans have won a grand total of one conference game. Last year they didn’t beat a Division I opponent all season. However, this year could be the first step towards building something. RTC favorite Rashad Muhammad is gone via transfer (some fun totals in two seasons: 354 3PAs, 134 3PMs, 90 TOs, 55 assists, 32 steals and four blocks), but head coach Dave Wojcik has some intriguing newcomers. Former Utah wing Princeton Onwas will be eligible this season, as will JuCo point guard Gary Williams. There are five freshmen ready to play (highlighted by four-star recruit Cody Schwartz, a stretch-four with upside). And then there’s sophomore point guard Jalen James, who was limited to just eight games last season due to injury. There’s probably not enough here to make a real run at anything besides last place, but the Spartans will hopefully at least belong on the same court as their conference-mates.
AMurawa (999 Posts)

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