Philadelphia, PA –
OUTLOOK: The New Mexico Lobos have been putting quality product on the floor ever since Steve Alford arrived in Albuquerque and this year will be no different as he brings back four starters from a year ago. Granted, Alford does lose a key piece of the puzzle from his backcourt, but the roster is chock full of wannabe floor generals so finding a replacement may not be all that tough.
Like the Lobos, UNLV also brings back four starters from a season ago, but the difference between the two teams comes from the top with the Runnin' Rebels starting fresh with a new coaching crew. It might take some time for the new guys to assimilate and get the players to buy into whatever approach they are preaching, but you can be sure UNLV will be lurking in the shadows at the end of the season.
Few teams dominated college basketball like San Diego State did last year, but key losses to the roster have head coach Steve Fisher resetting the expectations. If fans think the Aztecs are going to run through the regular with as much ease as they did in 2010-11, then they are sorely mistaken and will inevitably be disappointed come March.
As for the rest of the teams in the Mountain West Conference, there will be a few surprise wins here and there, but nothing to shake the foundations of the league, as much as future conference realignment may.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: New Mexico
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. New Mexico; 2. UNLV; 3. San Diego State; 4. Colorado State; 5. Wyoming; 6. Air Force; 7. TCU; 8. Boise State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEW MEXICO: Locked and loaded, the Lobos are the team to beat in the Mountain West this season. True, the team loses Dairese Gary (14.1 ppg, 5.5 apg) who won more games than anyone else while at UNM, but there are still four returning starters that have the ability to match up with almost anyone else in the league. Alford has been a winner everywhere he's gone, from Manchester College, to SW Missouri State and Iowa, Alford has taken New Mexico to the postseason in each of his first four campaigns, but he has yet to get beyond the second round of any event, something that should change this year as long as everything goes according to plan. Named the MWC Newcomer of the Year after last season and expected to compete for all-conference honors again this year, Drew Gordon left UCLA in order to deliver 13.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg for the Lobos, his rebounding total of 273 pacing the team even though he missed the first nine games of 2010-11 due to NCAA transfer rules. Gordon was the first UNM player to average a double-double in more than three decades. Gordon will get plenty of scoring support from Kendall Williams (11.6 ppg) and Phillip McDonald (10.9 ppg), the former also being key in the passing game after delivering four assists per outing and being named the MWC Freshman of the Year. Expected to make an immediate impact is sophomore guard Demetrius Walker who was forced to sit out last season following his transfer from Arizona State. A guard-dominated roster, a player like A.J. Hardeman (7.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) could easily find himself as a central figure along the front line for the Lobos.
UNLV: For the second year in a row the Runnin' Rebels finished with an 11-5 record in the Mountain West and made it to the NCAA Tournament even though they fell to San Diego State in the MWC Tournament. Still, the team's appearance in the postseason was short lived as they fell to sixth-ranked Illinois, 73-62, and that also turned out to be the end of the Lon Kruger era in Las Vegas as the head coach opted to take over the University of Oklahoma program. In need of new leadership, the Rebels went searching within the Mountain West and pulled Dave Rice away from BYU where he had been the associate head coach for several years. Coach Rice, an assistant with UNLV up until 2004 before taking the same position with Utah State and then heading to Provo, may be taking on his first head coaching job, but he is far from a novice when it comes to UNLV basketball. Additionally, Rice has former Wyoming head coach Heath Schroyer next to him on the bench, as well as former standout player Stacey Augmon, who should earn quite a bit of reverence and respect for what he was able to do with the Rebels as a player. Unlike many new coaching staffs who have to step in a fix a faltering program, Rice and his assistants have the luxury of working with four returning starters (Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall, Chace Stanback and Quintrell Thomas). Bellfield, a senior guard, has been a starter in 78 straight games so he's the one that everyone else looks to for guidance on the hardwood, his 11.2 ppg and 3.7 apg last season making him one of the more productive guards in the league. Stanback (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is the sort of slasher that harkens back to Augmon and hopefully the assistant coach can pass on some of that toughness and tenacity that made him such a terror at the defensive end of the floor. Marshall (9.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg) and Thomas (6.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are the sort of guys who are willing do whatever is asked of them, a trait that should take them and the Rebels far this season.
SAN DIEGO STATE: The 2010-11 campaign was the sort of season for the Aztecs that people will talk about for years to come. The squad didn't lose its first game until late in February in a thrilling MWC matchup with ninth-ranked BYU on the road and then after that the only other regular-season setback came against the same Cougars, this time in San Diego (80-67). Still, SDSU exacted revenge on BYU in the conference tournament (72-54) and then took out both Northern Colorado and Temple in the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual champion UConn. Fisher put all his faith in Kawhi Leonard and the swingman did not disappoint as he averaged a double-double (15.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg), but now the Aztecs have to move forward without Leonard, not mention fellow starters D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. Not quite wiping the slate clean, San Diego State still has holdover Chase Tapley, who averaged 8.6 ppg and James Rahon who accounted for 7.0 ppg as he appeared in all 37 games last year. However, beyond those two there are many new faces and others who have barely seen playing time, so it only makes sense that the Aztecs lower their expectations for this year. Transfer Xavier Thames is now ready to go and Garrett Green could be significant in the paint at 6-11. It may not sound like a big deal, but Fisher added former player Tony Bland (2009) to his coaching staff and that might be the sort of move that helps bridge the generation gap between the players and the aging head coach.
COLORADO STATE: Since taking over the program prior to the 2007-08 campaign, head coach Tim Miles has steadily improved the success level of the Rams, beginning with a mere seven wins his first year and leading to a 19-13 record in 2010-11. Miles has pushed Colorado State into the postseason the last two years, although the team has not yet made it to the NCAA Tournament. Both double-digit scorers from last year are gone, which means the offensive scheme for Colorado State now has to be tailored around someone else. Wes Eikmeier is the top returning scorer for the group after putting up 9.1 ppg, but the better option to assume the lead role in the scoring department is probably Dorian Green (7.1 ppg). Green has started all 64 games in his career for the Rams and the team has managed to get by with his spotty shooting, but that can't continue to happen if he is going to be more of a go-to-guy in the clutch. Pierce Hornung, the MWC Sixth Man of the Year, gave the squad a huge spark off the bench as he hit the glass for more than four and a half rebounds per contest, three times clearing double-digit boards. A 57.8 percent shooter from the field over two years in Fort Collins, Hornung is someone who would benefit from spending more time on the floor as a starter.
WYOMING: Scoring just 65.9 ppg generally doesn't go far when a team is trying to be competitive. That was the story with the Cowboys as they posted a record of just 10-21 and failed to win a single game away from home in 14 opportunities last year. For the second year in a row and the third time in the last four campaigns Wyoming finished in eighth place in the standings, so it wasn't a surprise that in early February the school decided to cut ties with head coach Heath Schroyer and install Fred Langley as an interim. Langley was able to squeeze a couple of wins out of the Pokes versus TCU and Air Force, but the school decided to bring in Larry Shyatt for the future. Back in 1997-98, Shyatt guided the Cowboys to a 19-9 record and a 9-5 mark in the Western Athletic Conference before moving on to Clemson. Coach Shyatt, who served as an assistant at Florida since leaving Clemson, has just one returning starter who scored in double figures in Francisco Cruz 10.0 ppg). JayDee Luster (5.9 ppg) played almost 28 minutes per game yet didn't take his own offense too seriously. Part of the problem was that Luster hit on just 21.4 percent of his three-point tries and that in turn dropped him down to just 33.6 percent from the floor overall. As a team, Wyoming shot only 28.2 percent from beyond the arc, not only the lowest level of accuracy in the MWC but also 285th in the country last season. The big question for the Pokes will be whether or not Afam Muojeke will be able to make it through an entire season without landing on the injured list. Each of the last two seasons Muojeke (7.7 ppg) lost out on golden opportunities to shine in Laramie.
AIR FORCE: Each year the Falcons put a plucky and spirited team on the court and the team seems to get run over by bigger opponents who don't have as many size restrictions placed on them like there are at the service academy. Now in his fifth season in Colorado, head coach Jeff Reynolds brings back a squad that had its best overall record (16-16) since 2006-07 and bounced back from consecutive ninth-place finishes in the MWC by tying for the sixth position on the strength of a 6-10 mark. Air Force has a host of lettermen scheduled to return this year, but collectively those non-starters made little, if any, impact from night to night. Losing the likes of Tom Fow and Evan Washington, a couple of guys who brought senior leadership to the program and also fought hard in the paint to come up with a combined eight rebounds per contest, will by tough to overcome right out of the gate. Michael Lyons, a third-team All- MWC selection, appeared in all 31 games for the academy and started all but one as a sophomore. On the way to averaging 13.7 ppg, Lyons converted an impressive 49.7 percent from the field, a huge leap from his 38.6 percent accuracy as a freshman. Taylor Broekhuis had more than a few games where he played a major role for the Falcons, ending up with 7.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg, so putting more on his plate shouldn't be too much of a stretch. The same goes for Todd Fletcher (4.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.5 rpg), as long as he doesn't get too comfortable with trying to make an impact from three-point range where he's been just 29.4 percent accurate in two years.
TCU: Jim Christian had great numbers as the head coach of Kent State, taking five of his six teams to the postseason and producing a .704 winning percentage with the Golden Flashes, but his move to Fort Worth has not been as pleasant. In fact Christian has won a total of just 38 games in his first three years with the Horned Frogs, just 10 more than he won in his final campaign at KSU when he was 28-7 overall and 13-3 in conference play. Last year was simply dreadful for TCU as the team won a mere 11 games and just one of 16 opportunities against the rest of the MWC. It is nothing new at TCU, which has a total of just five wins in 46 conference road games in six years. Bringing back three starters from last year might be considered a good thing for most teams, but that's not necessarily the case for the Frogs, who will be led by Garlon Green (11.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Hank Thorns (10.7 ppg, 7.0 apg, 3.5 rpg) and J.R. Cadot (8.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg). A third-team All-MWC selection last year, Thorns might be the best player on the team, but the Virginia Tech transfer hasn't exactly had a smooth ride with TCU. Nevertheless, having Thorns on the court tends to help everyone involved as he led the league and ranked fourth in the nation in assists, his 225 dishes placing him second on the all-time single-season list in the Mountain West. However, aside from Green who has made 40 percent of his three-point field goal tries the last two years, Thorns needs more outlets in order for him to be a true threat whenever he touches the ball.
BOISE STATE: Maybe the move for the Broncos to the Mountain West made sense for the football team, but the basketball squad will struggle early on to be competitive. Last year head coach Leon Rice was able to guide his squad to a 22-13 record and an appearance in a postseason tournament, albeit the CBI in which the Broncos bowed to Oregon in the third round, 79-71. From a team that averaged better than 74 points per game in 2010-11, Boise State doesn't have a single returning player who delivered double-digit points on a regular basis. In fact, there are just two returning starters in Jeff Elorriaga and Ryan Watkins who between them accounted for slightly over nine points per game. Both players were just sophomores, so on the positive side coach Rice saw enough to consider them two of his better players to begin with. Watkins, the only freshman to ever appear in as many as 35 games with Boise State, showed his potential by dropping 18 points against Evansville in the postseason. The team's leading returning scorer, Westly Perryman (6.1 ppg) saw time in all 35 games a year ago and connected on 44.0 percent of his field goal chances.