Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: As one of the most successful, active coaches in all of Division I basketball, Steve Fisher has a propensity for cranking out winning teams, whether it be at Michigan or now in San Diego where his Aztecs are again considered the cream of the crop in the Mountain West Conference.
SDSU is coming off an impressive 31-5 campaign and an unblemished home mark (9-0) in league play, but still the Aztecs failed to lay claim to the brass ring, or in this case, the national title.
Giving the Aztecs a run for their money in 2014-15 figures to be Boise State and New Mexico, although there is something about UNLV that makes the Runnin' Rebels an intriguing prospect every year, even though the squad from Sin City is in rebuilding mode at the moment.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the MWC this season is where the Utah State Aggies are expected to fall in the standings. The team has consistently been a tough competitor both here, and in the Western Athletic Conference, but like UNLV, the Aggies are also seeking to redefine their identity.
There are always upsets to be found, the idea behind why the games are being played to begin with, but it would be quite a surprise, given what happened last season with these particular teams and how they are now constructed, to see a unit other than SDSU, BSU or UNM representing the Mountain West in the NCAA Tournament.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: San Diego State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. San Diego State, 2. Boise State, 3. New Mexico, 4. UNLV, 5. Wyoming, 6. Colorado State, 7. Fresno State, 8. Nevada, 9. Air Force, 10. Utah State, 11. San Jose State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SAN DIEGO STATE: For the second time in the last four seasons, coach Fisher molded his San Diego State Aztecs into a Sweet 16 competitor, but again the team fell short of expectations in the NCAA Tournament. Nationally ranked for the bulk of the season, SDSU suffered a total of just five defeats and of them, three came against top-20 foes. Coach Fisher has lost the quarterback of his team in Xavier Thames (17.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.2 apg), not to mention a devastating rebounder in Josh Davis (10.1 rpg), but there are still three starters that San Diego State can again build around as they shoot for postseason glory once more. Junior forward Winston Shepard is the top returning scorer who put up 11.6 ppg and while that may sound disappointing, it needs to be pointed out that the Aztecs were again one of the top defensive programs in all of Division I as they limited opponents to only 57.0 ppg (second only to Virginia, 55.7 ppg, in fact). Not having a lot of scoring punch is not the main concern for Fisher and the Aztecs, rather it is how well they defend opponents at the other end of the floor. When it came to attacking 3-point shooters, SDSU was one of the best in the business, limiting snipers to only 28.8 percent (fifth nationally). In terms of overall field goal defense, the Aztecs were eighth as they allowed just 38.6 percent success. As long as defense is the main focus, a player like Dwayne Polee II (the 2013-14 MWC Sixth Man of the Year) will be able to give a little more attention to his own offense. The same goes for Skylar Spencer (4.8 ppg), Matt Shrigley (5.2 ppg) and Aqeel Quinn (5.0 ppg).
BOISE STATE: The Broncos opened the 2013-14 campaign with eight straight wins before taking a tumble against both nationally-ranked Kentucky and Saint Mary's in a span of just four days, the defeats slowing the team's drive toward success as it finished just 21-13 overall and 9-9 in conference. Leon Rice, now entering his fifth season as the head coach, missed out on the postseason for the second time in four years because of the struggles down the stretch. There is certainly hope for the Idaho-based program as three starters return, two of them being the top scorers from a season ago in Anthony Drmic (15.9 ppg) and Derrick Marks (14.9 ppg). A two-time, All-MWC Second Team selection and an honorable mention pick as a freshman, Drmic has the distinction of leading the Broncos in scoring each of his three seasons with the squad. A steady contributor, Drmic has scored in double figures in 70 of his 93 career outings and currently ranks seventh on the school's all-time scoring list. Adding scoring punch is Marks who has been an all-MWC selection all three of his years in Boise as well. Capable of filling up the basket on any given night, Marks did have some trouble with his perimeter accuracy last season as he connected on only 28.8 percent of his 3-point tries, but at least the rest of the team picked him up as the Broncos ranked 63rd nationally with 37.2 percent shooting on the outside. A disciplined group, BSU made sure that it treasured every possession as it ranked 17th nationally with a mere 10 turnovers per contest.
NEW MEXICO: Following in the footsteps of Steve Alford, who fled Albuquerque for UCLA, New Mexico head coach Craig Neal made quite an impression with the Lobos as he guided the team to the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row and the fourth time in five seasons, but again UNM came up short when exposed to the brightest of spotlights. Nevertheless, the Lobos are a group who are used to winning as much as any other team in the MWC as they've won no fewer than 22 games in each of the last seven campaigns, and at least tied for first in the conference standings four times. However, there appears to be a problem for Neal and the Lobos this year, call it rebuilding if you will, but the fact is the top three offensive stars are no longer on campus. Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams may not have been household names outside of the MWC, but anyway you look at it UNM is in desperate need of replacing almost 50 points and 20 rebounds per contest. Hugh Greenwood, now a senior, is a guard who can fill some of the holes, assuming he can elevate his scoring production from 6.2 ppg after shooting just 39.9 percent from the field. It should be noted that even with those numbers, Greenwood has been well respected in the MWC. Fellow senior guard Deshawn Delaney (5.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) will get more chances to show off his ability and even the son of the coach, Cullen Neal (7.1 ppg, 2.0 apg), will be given an expanded role. A scrappy new bunch of players might be tough to mold into a cohesive unit, but hopefully they'll be able to carry on the tradition set by the 2013-14 squad that ranked 10th nationally in holding opponents to 38.9 percent shooting from the field.
UNLV: Always a popular pick to challenge for the conference title, the Runnin' Rebels have won no fewer than 20 games every season since 2007, but last time around the squad finished just 20-13 overall and 10-8 in league play, which wasn't nearly enough to get them back to the postseason for the eighth year in a row. Head coach Dave Rice, now entering his fourth season in Las Vegas, is finding the cupboard bare when it comes to returning starters and yet the rest of the MMWC is still thinking the Rebels will be better than expected. Not only is there not a single starter coming back for the 2014-15 campaign, there are no players who scored even as much as seven points per game on the roster. Senior guard Jelan Kendrick was good for 6.3 ppg and 2.4 rpg, but he is someone who had the potential to hurt the team as much as help it due to his 54.4 percent accuracy at the free-throw line. Considered players to watch for the Rebels, sophomore Forward Christian Wood will now have plenty of room and opportunity to spread his wings and claim valuable real estate in the paint. At 6-foot-11, he started two games as a freshman and scored in double figures a total of three times as he played mostly as a backup to Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch. Needing to reach a bit deeper to find another player to keep an eye on, UNLV lists freshman guard Rashad Vaughn as one of those individuals after he averaged 19.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game as a senior at Findlay Prep.
WYOMING: The fortunes of the Cowboys lie in the availability of senior forward Larry Nance Jr., after he went down with a season-ending ACL injury on Feb. 18 versus Fresno State. At the time of the injury, Nance led the Pokes in both scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.6 rpg). A definitive presence on the inside, Nance also accounted for 55 of his team's 124 blocked shots over the course of 33 games, which made it clear that his strength was inside the paint and not out on the perimeter where he was coaxed into taking 37 shots from 3- point range, hitting on just nine of those opportunities. Providing plenty of support for head coach Larry Shyatt as he enters his sixth season at Wyoming, are returning starters Josh Adams, Derek Cooke Jr. and Riley Grabau. In the case of Grabau, he has grown up considerably from three years ago when he took just 20 shots from the field in total, eventually advancing to 10.1 ppg last season as he knocked down 42.0 percent of his 3-point tries. Cooke (6.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), now a senior forward who measures 6-foot-9, he has teamed with Nance to form one of the stronger front courts in the Mountain West, although the former could stand to work on his pitiful aim at the free-throw line (.449). Adams (12.7 ppg) was first in the passing department with 92 assists, but when he is not helping out teammates he is taking a few too many shots out on the perimeter where he was just 31.3 percent accurate in 2013-14.
COLORADO STATE: With 23 years of head coaching experience, Larry Eustachy has been through all of the highs and lows that come with being caught up in the machine that is college sports. He landed in Fort Hughes in 2012 after an eight-year stint at Southern Miss, and immediately brought success to the Rams as posted a record of 26-9. However, last season CSU took a step back and merely broke even through 32 games. In conference play, the Rams tied for eighth as they won only seven of 18 dates, preventing them from advancing to the postseason in any capacity after being invited to the postseason the previous four years. Eustachy has three starters coming back this year, but lost a solid all-around talent in Jon Octeus (13.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.7 apg). Senior guard J.J. Avila, who played his first two collegiate seasons at Navy, started all 32 games last season and emerged as the top overall scorer (16.6 ppg) in addition to placing second on the glass (7.4 rpg) while being named to the All-MWC Third Team. Joining Avila as an all-conference pick was Daniel Bejarano, a transfer himself from Arizona, who was responsible for another 16.3 ppg and a team-high 8.3 rpg. However, for someone so familiar with the paint, it was somewhat surprising to see that Bejarano shot just 36.4 percent from the floor. With nine newcomers to the program, a junior like Joe De Ciman (8.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg) will certainly have his responsibilities expanded.
FRESNO STATE: The Bulldogs reached the postseason finals last season, in the CBI that is, which means the next logical step is heading towards a more prestigious postseason appointment if possible. Head coach Rodney Terry saw his squad go from eight conference wins the two previous years to a total of nine and a tie for fifth place in the MWC lasy seasom. The prospects of extending the campaign beyond the regular season appears to be quite strong for the Bulldogs, given the fact that they have four returning starters, although the lone loss was leading scorer Tyler Johnson who took his 15.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 103 assists with him, not to mention an impressive 43.2 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line. However, even with the loss of Johnson, Fresno State is still loaded when it comes to perimeter offensive threats, thanks to the efforts of Cezar Guerrero (13.1 ppg), Marvelle Harris (14.3 ppg) and Paul Watson (10.0 ppg), who not only combined to bring down 13.0 rpg, they also converted a collective 181 triples for a unit that ranked third in the league and 58th nationally with 7.5 3-pointers made per contest. Unfortunately, while FSU snipers spent much of their time out on the perimeter, they failed to secure loose balls in the paint, which is why the Bulldogs are coming off a season in which they were next-to-last in the MWC and 288th in the country in rebounding margin at minus-2.9 per contest.
NEVADA: Entering his sixth season in Reno, head coach David Carter is hoping his Wolf Pack can finally settle in as a member of the Mountain West and find some stability. Since bolting from the Western Athletic Conference following a 2011-12 campaign in which the Pack was 13-1 in league action and 28-7 overall, headed towards the quarterfinals of the NIT, Nevada has had trouble getting back on track. Last season, the Pack rebounded from a 3-13 league slate a year earlier in order to finish in a tie for third place at 10-8, but still there was no postseason to celebrate. Well, first for the bad news; Deonte Burton (20.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 142 assists) is no longer with the program, neither are Cole Huff (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) or Jerry Evans Jr. (12.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) which means Nevada is having to fill some major holes both in scoring and on the glass. Now a senior, guard Michael Perez is a transfer from UTEP who played in all 32 Nevada games after becoming eligible. He is the top returning scorer with 11.5 ppg to his credit, although he shot a mere 38.3 percent from the field. Junior center AJ West, who might be a bit undersized at just 6-foot-9, started 19 of the final 21 games for Nevada a season ago, and while he managed to score in double figures a total of seven times, he ended up with an average of only 6.8 ppg. Marqueze Coleman (6.0 ppg) played less than 18 minutes per game and was a reserve in all but two appearances, so his development will be encouraged for sure.
AIR FORCE: The Falcons were coming off a very successful 2012-13 campaign during which they finished above .500 for the first time in five years, but the Academy took several steps backward last season as they finished 10th in the MWC with a record of only 6-12, and was 12-18 overall under the direction of Dave Pilipovich. The good news for Air Force heading into the 2014-15 campaign is that four starters are back to hopefully improve an offense that ranked near the bottom in the MWC and 283rd nationally in scoring with a mere 66.0 ppg. Unfortunately, the one player who is not coming back is Tre Coggins, the team's leading scorer who produced 16.0 ppg. Still, there are three double-digit scorers back on the roster, including Kamryn Williams who not only posted 10.1 ppg, he also led the squad with 6.5 rpg, the best mark for a Falcons player since 2001. Max Yon, a senior guard, was the only player to start all 30 games for the Falcons, and as a result he posted 13.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.5 apg. Marek Olesinski (10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Justin Hammonds (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will be important pieces to the puzzle, as will Kyle Broekhuis who missed all of last season due to injury.
UTAH STATE: For a team that has been so successful under the leadership of Stew Morrill since he took over in Logan back in 1989, to see that the Aggies are expected to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in the MWC is startling. Unfortunately, like every team in college basketball, there are times when you need to start from scratch and that time is now for Utah State as there is not a single starter coming back from a team that finished eighth in the MWC and failed to win 20 games (18-14) for the first time since Morrill took over. Sean Harris is the lone senior on the roster and he appeared in just 10 games for the squad a season ago, scoring a grand total of six points, matching the number of personal fouls he was charged with. With 11 newcomers, Harris will be needed to show them the ropes, not so much become a leader during game day on the floor. Sophomore forward Jalen Moore, one of four players to appear in every game last season, is the top returning scorer with his 5.6 ppg, while JoJo McGlaston showed up in 24 games and was responsible for a mere 2.3 ppg.
SAN JOSE STATE: Hard to believe, but the Spartans are expected to finish behind a Utah State program that doesn't have a single returning starter, and yet SJSU brings back four such players. The lack of support for the Spartans probably has something to do with the fact that the squad finished last in the league and was 329th nationally in scoring last season with a paltry 62.5 ppg. With a minus-9.2 ppg scoring margin, SJSU was last in the Mountain West in that department as well, 333rd in the country. The only significant loss for the Spartans is Chris Cunningham (8.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), a bit of a rough player who always seemed to be in foul trouble. After a successful freshman campaign in which he led SJSU in scoring with 13.2 ppg, despite coming off the bench in all but three of 31 outings, Rashad Muhammad will be a key figure on a shaky offense again this season, although he'll need to improve upon his disappointing 36.4 percent shooting from the field. Fellow sophomore Jalen James, who recorded just the second triple-double in program history, will also have to boost his accuracy from the floor (.351) if the Spartans hope to climb out of the basement.