Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: They came up short in the postseason yet again and then watched their head coach bolt for UCLA and still the New Mexico Lobos find themselves as the favorite to take the Mountain West Conference title this season. Perhaps more than anything, the fact that the Lobos were picked to wear the crown in 2013-14 has quite a bit to do with how well Steve Alford assembled a cast of talent before abandoning Albuquerque in order to assume the lead position with the Bruins. Perhaps the team, now under the direction of first-year head coach Craig Neal, will use the departure of Alford, just days after the latter announced a 10-year contract agreement with UNM, as motivation to show what he is missing out on in the Land of Enchantment.
New Mexico picked up all but one first-place vote from the league's media, the other going to UNLV which is hoping to put forth a good showing after losing Anthony Bennett in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Runnin' Rebels finished third in the league standings a season ago with a 10-6 mark and were 25-10 overall, so it is somewhat surprising to think that they could again challenge for the championship even after one of their players was chosen first in the draft.
With head coach Steve Fisher leading the team for another season, the San Diego State Aztecs figure to be in the mix all year as they hope to show that their 9-7 finish in the MWC in 2012-13 was a fluke and they can return to not only give both New Mexico and UNLV a hard time, but also perform well enough to be a significant threat in the postseason.
One team that figures to continue on a downward spiral is Wyoming which, after putting together a very strong showing against non-conference opponents in 2012-13, won just four of 16 league bouts a year ago. Unfortunately, another long-time MWC member that appears to be heading in the wrong direction is Air Force after it finished an even 8-8 in league play and was four games over .500 last season.
With the Western Athletic Conference almost completely redefining itself on the hardwood this year, the MWC ended up adding even more former members from that league as both Utah State and San Jose State join up with Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada as other programs that opted to make the move previously. However, none of those squads figure to pose much of a threat to the Lobos, Runnin' Rebels or Aztecs as those familiar names take over when the competition heats up.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: New Mexico
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. New Mexico, 2. UNLV, 3. San Diego State, 4. Boise State, 5. Utah State, 6. Colorado State, 7. Fresno State, 8. Wyoming, 9. Air Force, 10. Nevada, 11. San Jose State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEW MEXICO: Coach Neal has the luxury of bringing back several key players from last year's team, one that has a lot to prove after being bounced out of the NCAA Tournament by Harvard, in Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood. Williams, who was an AP All-American honorable mention selection last season in addition to being named the 2012-13 MWC Player of the Year, steps in as the preseason player of the year in the conference, putting that much more pressure on the three-year starter. Williams, only the second player in MWC history to be named both the Freshman and Player of the Year, is someone who can do it all when called upon from scoring points (13.1 ppg), to handing out assists (5.3 apg) and playing defense (1.8 spg). Joining Williams on the preseason all-conference team is Kirk, a junior center who provides size and strength in the paint for the Lobos. The top returning rebounder in the league with 8.8 rpg, Kirk is also a viable option in the scoring department as well (12.9 ppg) who should take some of the pressure off Williams. The team did lose a critical piece in leader Tony Snell, a gritty performer who did all the dirty work for the Lobos, but the squad does retain the services of Greenwood who is a capable floor general. Bairstow showed a burst late last season, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in the final seven games which is a good sign for the Lobos as they aim to show the fans that they can get the job done even without Alford prowling the sidelines in The Pit.
UNLV: One would think that after watching a star player head to the next level as the top pick in the NBA Draft a team would take several steps backwards, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the Runnin' Rebels and head coach Dave Rice. Despite having six freshmen on the roster, UNLV is still expected to be a force in the MWC again this season, which may say more about the other talent in the league than it does about the strength of the Rebels. Junior forward Khem Birch was selected as the 2012-13 MWC Defensive Player of the Year and is again expected to perform his duties against the opposition accordingly. A member of the All-MWC Preseason Team, Birch was responsible for 3.0 blocks per game in league play and was also good for 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest, which means the Rebels will have to find someone else to be the leader in the scoring department this year. Because of the efforts of Birch, UNLV ranked eighth in the nation in blocked shots with close to six per game, but they'll need more than that to be competitive. Bryce Dejean-Jones figures to be helpful on offense, although he is the only returning player to have averaged double-digit points (10.3 ppg), which means opposing defenses might key on him more than anyone else. Experts are targeting Kendall Smith as the preseason freshman of the year after averaging 27.5 points, 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game as a senior in high school.
SAN DIEGO STATE: Coach Fisher always has his team in the thick of things, particularly early on in the season, but now would be the perfect time for him to take advantage of a new coaching regime at New Mexico and a depleted roster in Sin City. However, SDSU must move forward without Jamaal Franklin, one of the top all-around talents the league has seen in quite some time. Also departing after last season were Chase Tapley and DeShawn Stephens, two other keys starters for a program that finished 23-11 overall and an impressive 14-1 at home. Fisher does bring back forward JJ O'Brien and guard Xavier Thames who were starters a year ago, not to mention reserve Skylar Spencer who has the potential to be a major contributor at the defensive end of the floor. O'Brien is one of the unit's top returning scorers who put up 7.2 ppg, adding 4.5 rpg, as he shot 52.6 percent from the field, while Thames is the complete package with 9.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg and 2.4 apg even as he took a back seat to the exploits of Franklin. The most important addition to the roster has to be Tulane transfer Josh Davis who is eligible to play immediately. Averaging a double- double (17.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg) for the Green Wave a year ago, Davis finished fourth in the country in double-doubles and should raise more than a few eyebrows with his move to the West Coast.
BOISE STATE: The Broncos raced through the non-conference schedule last year in impressive fashion, barely losing to nationally-ranked Michigan State by four points while also topping 11th-ranked Creighton. Under head coach Leon Rice the squad also showed some strong play in conference with wins over New Mexico and Wyoming, before the latter spiraled out of control, which is why there remains some promise and encouragement in the state of Idaho. There are four seniors on the roster, but there are two juniors (Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic) who are probably drawing more attention following strong 2012-13 campaigns. An All-MWC Second Team selection, Marks is a gifted guard who has the potential to earn national honors after averaging 16.5 ppg and producing a pair of 30-point efforts last season. Drmic, who like Marks has been selected to the preseason all-conference team, was the top scorer in MWC play with close to 19 points per outing as he is one of the most accurate 3- point shooters. Guards Thomas Bropleh and Jeff Elorriaga will also pick their spots to influence games for the Broncos as well. The Broncos hope to continue their strong play out on the perimeter at the offensive end after ranking 11th in the country with 39.1 percent accuracy on 3-point shots, but at the same time they need to pose more of a defensive threat that is capable of blocking more than a mere 1.7 shots per outing (334th nationally).
UTAH STATE: After 14 consecutive seasons with at least 21 victories, the Aggies are a team that doesn't take losing well, but they might have to grow some thicker skin because the outlook for 2013-14 isn't all that great. Head coach Stew Morrill, who has won close to 75 percent of his games in 15 years with USU, had to settle for a fifth-place finish in the WAC a year ago, but at least the group is scheduled to return four starters and that should help with the transition to the MWC. Of the eight returning players overall, three scored in double figures for the Aggies and at the top of that list was Preston Medlin who was responsible for 16.3 ppg, not to mention 3.5 rpg. Now a senior, Jarred Shaw provides a strong presence in the paint as the top returning rebounder who was good for 8.4 rpg, not to mention 14.2 ppg. Despite spending time as a guard out on the perimeter, Spencer Butterfield also had a knack for finding his way to the glass in order to pull down 6.6 rpg, which went well with 12.2 ppg. Throw in Marcel Davis, who as a freshman accounted for 7.1 ppg, and the Aggies have one of the top scoring squads ready to take the floor this year. Getting Danny Berger (7.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) will also be key for USU after he played just five games before redshirting. Even though the Aggies are typically thought of as a perimeter-attacking team on offense, it should be noted that the squad ranked third in the country in rebounding margin with a plus-9.1 rpg.
COLORADO STATE: In his first season with the Rams, head coach Larry Eustachy experienced unprecedented success as the squad posted a record of 26-9 and scored more than a few upsets. Colorado State logged an 11-5 record and a surprising second-place finish in the MWC before making it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the expectations this season aren't nearly as high for the Rams after losing all five starters and bringing in as many as nine new players. On a team that averaged 72.9 ppg to rank 49th in the country last season, the Rams don't bring back a single player who averaged double digits a year ago. Another disappointing aspect for CSU is that it was tops in the entire country in rebounding margin in 2012-13 with a plus-11.9 rpg, but the top returner in that department, Daniel Bejarano, brings with him only 5.5 rpg. Bejarano is also the top returning player in terms of scoring with his 6.3 ppg and was second in assists with 32, but one has to wonder who he might be passing the ball to moving forward, with so many unproven players in Fort Collins. Jon Octeus (4.7 ppg, 45 assists) will help direct the flow of the game from the backcourt, as will Jesse Carr who was injured last season but granted another year of eligibility. Perhaps with the stronger pieces of the CSU puzzle now residing at the guard positions, it might be possible for the team to register more than just 4.6 steals per game, which was 332nd in the country last season.
FRESNO STATE: The Bulldogs have not made it to the postseason since 2007 when they made a quick exit from the NIT, and odds are the squad will be sitting at home once again at the conclusion of the MWC Tournament in 2014. Now in his third season, head coach Rodney Terry is coming off a 2012-13 campaign in which his players produced a record of 11-19 overall and finished seventh in the conference with only five wins in 16 chances. The team also posted a record of just 6-8 at the Save Mart Center, the first time the Bulldogs have played below .500 in the building since 2003-04, so there are plenty of areas of improvement for the group moving forward. Unfortunately, Terry has lost three of his five starters from a year ago and has seven newcomers making up the roster, and that is not the way to build a contender. Senior guard Allen Huddleston is the top returning scorer for the unit after putting up 9.7 ppg, but his 34.8 percent shooting from the field was less than impressive. With a collective 59.9 ppg, Fresno State ranked ninth in the conference and 325th in the country in scoring and now the numbers figure to hover at or below that level given how much the team has lost. A few years back, Kevin Olekaibe was one of the most explosive scorers in the conference, but last season he managed only 8.3 ppg in a diminished role and has since decided to transfer. Needless to say, with a lack of firepower, it appears the Bulldogs will have very little bite this season.
WYOMING: With Arena Auditorium as one of the top home-court advantages in recent years, the Cowboys were able to string together a series of impressive wins before bowing to Western Michigan in late March, snapping their 23-game win streak at home against non-conference foes. More than just that impressive effort in Laramie, head coach Larry Shyatt had the Pokes going undefeated until the second week of January, a string of 13 straight victories, but after that the wheels appeared to fall off. Wyoming went from delivering a 16-2 non- conference slate to winning just four times in 16 league chances, capturing just a single win in eight opportunities on the road. The team was hit with a number of issues off the court that spun them out of control and now Shyatt's job is to show that he can right the ship and get the Cowboys back on the horse. Unfortunately, unless he has a magic that no one knows about, Shyatt will have to try and make that transition sometime after this season because the talent just isn't there on the roster. Larry Nance Jr. is Wyoming's top returner after averaging 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds last year, while the only other players coming back who scored more than four points per game are Josh Adams (6.6 ppg) and Riley Grabau (6.0 ppg), the latter figuring to become the lead guard for a team that averaged a mere 9.2 assists per game to rank 341st in the country.
AIR FORCE: Very often overlooked in basketball, simply because recruiting to the service academies can be a difficult proposition, the Falcons are again considered a team that will finish near the bottom of the MWC standings, although you would never be able to tell that based on their effort and enthusiasm. Limited at both ends of the floor because opponents generally hold a significant height advantage, the Falcons did show some spark on the glass a year ago by coming up with only a minus-2.8 rpg versus the competition, but then again they still had their issues when it came to challenging shots, producing only 1.7 blocks per outing which was 330th in the nation. Head coach Dave Pilipovich had a tremendous player in Michael Lyons last year, the only double-digit scorer on the roster (17.7 ppg), hut he is no longer around. The same goes for Mike Fitzgerald (9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Todd Fletcher (9.5 ppg, 117 assists), and Taylor Broekhuis (8.3 ppg) which means it will be a huge uphill battle for a team that doesn't resemble the 2012-13 version whatsoever. Because Air Force again lacked the height to hold its ground in the paint, particularly on offense, the team did show growth when it came to 3-point field goals, sinking 8.5 shots beyond the arc per game to rank 12th in the country, an effort that the staff hopes will continue moving forward.
NEVADA: The Wolf Pack used to be a dominant force over in the WAC, but last year the group was simply dreadful as it produced an overall record of 12-19 and finished ninth in the WAC with a mere three wins in 16 chances. Now in his fifth year as head coach and his 15th overall with the program, David Carter lost three starters, one of whom was leading scorer Malik Story (16.7 ppg). Also on that list are Kevin Panzer and Jordan Burris, but with a combined 11.5 ppg they weren't nearly as vital as Story. Considered one of the top guards in the country, Deonte Burton will now have to carry Nevada more so than he did a year ago. Burton was responsible for 16.7 ppg as a starter in all 31 games for the Pack, and while he led the program with 112 assists and 42 steals, Burton wasn't nearly the same perimeter threat on offense that Story was, as the latter accounted for 83 of the team's 183 3-point baskets. Jerry Evans Jr. (7.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Marqueze Coleman (4.5 ppg) will help to balance the scales a little bit at the offensive end of the floor, but a major concern for the Pack has to be their defense which ranked 290th in the country as it allowed opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the floor, not to mention 37.3 percent beyond the arc (317th).
SAN JOSE STATE: If it were not for a split of 12 non-conference games, the Spartans would have been one of the weakest teams in all of college basketball a season ago. Still, San Jose State enters the 2013-14 campaign with the distinction of having lost 14 consecutive outings. The team has not won since topping New Orleans (71-64), a team that only a few years ago dropped down from Division I status, back on Jan. 5. Unfortunately, with the team performing so poorly, winning only nine total games in each of the last two seasons, head coach George Nessman was let go and Dave Wojcik was brought in to revive the program, a daunting task for sure. Heading into last season, SJSU had James Kinney as a potential all-conference performer, but while he scored 20.6 ppg, he ended up appearing in just 14 games before being suspended in February because of academics, reportedly. Needless to say, losing Kinney threw the team into a tailspin and even now it is difficult to see what direction it is heading in with senior forward Chris Cunningham (10.7 ppg) the top returning scorer. The only player to start every game last season, Cunningham was also first on the glass with nine rebounds per outing. D.J. Brown, another solid starter for the fractured group, can score the ball (9.2 ppg) and help out teammates (107 assists), but his 30.3 percent shooting from the floor is something that has to be addressed moving forward.