With the regular season about to kick into full swing, we’re continuing our our preview series here on Busting Brackets. You can check out all of our pieces in the series by clicking here. Our previews continue with a look at the ultra competitive Mountain West Conference.
This year, the conference known for it’s battles between BYU and San Diego State will look a lot different that it’s product on the court a year ago. Gone is arguably the best two players of the Mountain West in Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard.The league’s top team has took it’s talents to the West Coast Conference. Despite being without BYU, in comes Boise State and a lot of young talent across the board. New Mexico returns a ton of talent from a decent team just a year ago. Despite losing head coach Lon Kruger to Oklahoma, UNLV also brings back four starters from a year ago. Head Coach Dave Rice plans on installing an up-tempo offense that gets the Rebels running.
The strength of the Mountain West is the two teams up top that should be two of the top 25 teams in the country at the end of the year. With so much loss to this conference, it will be nearly impossible to duplicate the competition we saw last year.
But with an up an coming Boise State, Air Force, and Colorado State, the future could be bright for the conference.In January of last year, the Mountain West was ranked 4th in the conference RPI standings, higher than the ACC, SEC, and PAC 10. It will be a struggle to stay in the top 8.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Steve Alford’s New Mexico Lobos come into the season as the favorites, with four returning starters and the best frontcourt in the conference. Drew Gordon averaged a double double last season at forward and his versatile game is always a threat. The former UCLA Bruin and top 50 recruit in the class of 2008 might not be your typical post player, but he has a great mid-range jumper, is athletic, and can get to the class on both sides of the court. This off-season he has improved his perimeter game and head coach Steve Alford wouldn’t be shocked if he is the conference player of the year and possibly a first round pick in the NBA draft.
Complementing Gordon is senior forward A.J. Hardeman. Strong on the glass, Hardeman brings a working man’s attitude to the court. He has a great basketball IQ, plays strong defense inside on the 4 or 5, and is improving his post game.
Despite having one of the better senior frontcourts in the nation, the battle for the Lobos will be figuring out how to replace point guard Dairese Gary. The all-conference first teamer a year ago is the school’s winningest player. It will be impossible to replace him with one player on the court, but Alford has some options at the point with combo guards Demetrius Walker (an Arizona State transfer) , Aussie freshman Hugh Greenwood, freshman Dominique Dunning and sophomore Tony Snell.
So far it’s Snell who has been in the starting lineup in Exhibition play. He dropped 20 points on Western New Mexico this weekend, and seems to have an inside edge at the point to start the season. Alongside him will be a combination of Kendall Williams and Phillip McDonald, who both averaged 10+ ppg last season. Without a doubt, the team to beat in the Mountain West with the best personnel and coach in the conference.
Coming in a close second is first year head coach Dave Rice’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Any coach who returns 70% of it’s scorers from a 20+ win team has a good chance of taking a conference title. Moving to an up-tempo style, Rice will rely heavily on the very talented Anthony Marshall. He is slated more as a shooting guard, but since he projects better at the next level at the point, Rice believes he will see plenty of time there this season. Marshall was ranked as a top 20 shooting guard in the class of 2009 by Rivals.com — and will get to the hoop consistently no matter who is guarding him. He has the versatility to play at the 1,2 or 3 on both sides of the court. That’ll be huge as the Rebels start the Let’s Run campaign.
6’8″ senior forward Chance Standback will be another huge part. Playing at the power forward position last year, he’ll move back to his natural position of small forward this season. He’ll be the target on the perimeter on the fast break. He lead the team in three pointers and rebounding a year ago and will benefit from the fast break.
If UNLV can get strong play from a ton of newcomers, including UCLA Mike Moser, they will be in a battle atop the conference.
It’s hard to say there will be a sleeper in the Mountain West, but with Steve Fisher at the helm at San Diego State, there is no doubt that the Aztecs have a chance of surprising a bit this season. The question is, “how do you replace four All-Conference Players?”Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White will all be missed on in the frontcourt. So will court general D.J. Gay, who put up a solid 4:1 assist to turnover ratio in his senior campaign and was arguably the soul of the Aztecs. Also gone is 6’11″ senior Brian Carlwell who was hoping for a granted sixth season from the NCAA.
So with all the talent gone, how is San Diego State a sleeper favorite? Beyond Steve Fisher, it’s a bunch of young and upcoming talent.
Back is top defensive guard Chase Tapley, who is the only returning starter. He becomes the vocal leader on this squad and will get plenty of touches off the ball and with it. James Rahon returns after a season off the bench that saw near starter minutes. He is this teams deep threat and should mold into a true scorer off his jump shot. The guards are so good on this team that it’s possible to see a four guard rotation on the floor at times.
LSU transfer Garrett Green will get the chance at the center position. The 6’11″ big man started five games last season for the Tigers, and is instantly eligible after graduating after the season. He brings a lot of experience in the frontcourt, and should get a good amount of the touches.
When you break down the talent, it seems impossible that the Aztecs could take home a conference championship or even compete for it. The fact of the matter is that San Diego State has won 20 games for six straight years. Steve Fisher is one of the best coaches in college basketball. He has a good chance of molding these guys together at just the right time.
FIRST TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE
- Drew Gordon (New Mexico) – The favorite for MWC Player of the Year, Gordon became was the first Lobo since 1976 to average a double double. He has the athletic ability to take over ballgames and is a huge reason the Lobos are the conference favorite.
- Chace Stanbeck (UNLV) – Moving back to small forward will only help the versatile Stanbeck, who has been the heart and soul of the Runnin’ Rebels since he made his way to campus. The senior has started all but one game in his tenure, and will use that experience heading into his final season.
- Kendall Williams (New Mexico) – The conference’s Freshman of the Year will be looked upon to lead this squad yet again with pure emotion. He is a long ranger shooter that can make things happen, and certainly one of the top five players in the MWC.
- Anthony Marshall (UNLV) – His athletic ability is key to the season, and his high energy plays lead the best backcourt in the conference. Watch for Marshall as a surprise player of the year candidate.
- Michael Lyons (Air Force) – The most underrated player in the conference coming into the season. He averaged just under 14 points per game last season and is a real catalyst for the Falcons.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
- 1. New Mexico – Steve Alford has the most experienced team entering the season and the Lobos are the favorites to win the conference outright.
- 2. UNLV – Head Coach Dave Rice will have his Rebels running, but the true question is how is his talent going to respond? After struggling against Washburn. 70% of this team’s offense returns though, and once it clicks, watch out.
- 3. San Diego – If there is a coach in the country that can propel young players to their top potential early, it’s Steve Fisher. His team is the dark horse heading in.
- 4. Air Force – Many don’t think the Academy can’t make a run in the Mountain West, but I disagree. The frontcourt lacks experience but does have some talent.
- 5. Colorado State – Tim Miles returns his three top guards but lack size at the forward positions. With two 7 foot centers, some post play is expected, but both lack experience.
- 6. Boise State – A new conference and nine underclassman will really make it tough on second year coach Leon Rice to succeed. There is a lot of stock in the incoming recruiting class though, and the Broncos have a decent shot at competing at times in conference play.
- 7. TCU – Jim Christian is without a doubt on the hot seat heading into the last year of the MWC. He has a talented guard in Hank Thorns, but he’ll need to win big to stay on board next season.
- 8. Wyoming – Coach Larry Shyatt seems like the man for the job, and this team has some pretty good talent. The Cowboys have to put together though, and that will be a battle itself.