College basketball conference previews: Mountain West
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Next up is the Mountain West:
Coach of the year: Leon Rice, Boise State
With the expected regression of teams like New Mexico and Wyoming, and the talent-laden inconsistency of UNLV, the 2016 Mountain West title is most likely up for grabs between Boise State and San Diego State, last year’s regular season co-champions. Rice’s team, led in the backcourt by seniors Mikey Thompson and Anthony Drmic (this is our last chance, folks, to popularize the nickname “The Drmictologist”), is in a strong position to win the league outright for the first time ever. If they do this, Rice could win the coach of the year award for the second-straight season. In every year since 2008, the winner of the award has also won at least a share of the regular season conference title.
Player of the year: Cullen Neal, New Mexico
The 2014-15 season was a brief one for Neal, who went down to Puerto Rico for the Season Tip-Off tournament, dropped 49 points in two games, then wrecked his ankle in the team’s third game of the year. As a result of earning a medical hardship waiver, he’ll still be a sophomore during the 2015-16 campaign. With the departure of its four most-utilized players from last season, New Mexico has a leadership void that coach Craig Neal’s son is primed to fill. According to projections from SI.com’s Luke Winn and Dan Hanner, Neal is expected to be a Top 15 scorer nationally, averaging just shy of 17 points a game.
Freshman of the year: Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV
The Runnin’ Rebels have three top-100 recruits in this years class, according to Rivals.com. The rest of the conference’s teams have one top-100 recruit combined. The centerpiece of UNLV's massive 2015 haul is Zimmerman, who has already been chosen as the conference's preseason player of the year and could be disruptive enough in the lane to average a double-double. The true seven-footer is likely to get ample court time and opportunities to disrupt shots in the lane. And with UNLV hopefully set to embrace a faster pace of play under Dave Rice this season, one can envision Zimmerman being a prime scoring target both in transition and in the half court set.
Projected conference race
|conference rank||team||projected Conf. record||last year's Conf. record|
|1||San Diego State||15-3||TK|
|11||San Jose State||1-17||TK|
Each team’s outlook in about 68 words
Everyone in San Diego is abuzz about Malik Pope’s return to the team in favor of declaring for the NBA. San Diego State’s most successful teams, though, have been just that: teams. One of the hallmarks of strong recent Aztecs squads has been a stifling defense, and this year’s San Diego State team projects to have one of the very best in the country. But an NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations also looms rather ominously.
|James Webb III||PF||11.8||7.1||0.7||129.6||20%||65%|
Normally when a team loses eight players to graduation or transfer, it’s expected to take a step back. But several of the key players from Boise State’s massive 16-player 2014-15 are back this season, somehow forming what feels like one of the most complete teams Leon Rice has had—even without Derrick Marks. James Webb III should continue the tradition of North Idaho College players who have transferred to the big time and been productive, while Mikey Thompson should partner well in the backcourt with the Drmictologist (see above), who is projected to score in double-figures after sitting out most of last season with an ankle injury.
The team’s stellar recruiting class and three significant transfers breed an increasingly familiar feeling: the Runnin’ Rebels have so much talent, but so many question marks as to how or if it will all come together. A laudable non-conference slate featuring four of the best Pac-12 teams, Wichita State, and a Power 5-filled Maui Invitational field is significant beyond any SOS the NCAA tournament committee might consider in March; it’ll tell us by mid-December if the glistening pieces on this roster have coalesced into something powerful that could win the MWC, or more importantly, get past the first round of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in 25 years.
This isn’t your older brother’s, perennially-dangerous-NCAA-tournament-4-seed New Mexico team. After an injury plagued 2014-15 season that saw the losses of Cullen Neal and Jordan Goodman—and the team’s first losing record since 2007—the 2015-16 Lobos will suit up a squad that misses its four most-utilized players from last season per possession: Goodman, Arthur Edwards, Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney. Look for this team’s production to flow through Neal as it finds its footing again in the Mountain West.
The Aggies always feel like a dangerous team. The major storyline is that larger-than-life figure Stew Morrill is no longer coaching the team, but his longtime assistant Tim Dureya should make the transition smoothly. The less symbolic, but more significant storyline is that the team returns its entire starting lineup. Forwards David Collette and Jalen Moore get a fair amount of ink, but Chris Smith could be just as valuable for Utah State on offense.
|Joe De Ciman||SG||9.7||4.2||1.8||114.9||16%||74%|
If it’s possible to go a “quiet” 27–7, the Rams did so last season, missing the NCAA tournament after a 13–5 league finish and a MWC tournament semifinal loss to San Diego State. This team loses its three top contributors, but retains the services of forward Joe De Ciman and guard John Gillon. A goal of fourth-year coach Larry Eustachy will be improving his team’s defense in tight games.
Preseason MWC player of the year Marvelle Harris is not the only returner to this middle-of-the-pack squad, but he is the most impactful returner. Winn and Hanner’s projections have Harris scoring more than 16 points per game for the Bulldogs, putting him in the top 25 nationally. He and familiar backcourt battery-mate Julien Lewis’s combined threat should put the Bulldogs in a position to upset more than a few teams.
It's easy to think the Cowboys’ year was last year, that their Cinderella run was the byproduct of over-performing players who have since left. This year, the Cowboys sit in the bottom half of the conference in our projections—but they did last season, too. Aside from senior guard Josh Adams, head coach Larry Shyatt will look to mold a very young team that finished in the top 15 in Ken Pomeroy’s “Experience” metric last season. Maybe veteran leadership was a factor that contributed to the Cowboys senior-driven MWC tournament championship run in 2015. If it was, Wyoming won’t have that to fall back on this year.
The good news for former Sacramento Kings and Reno Bighorns coach Eric Musselman—the new man in charge at Nevada—is that he could be starting three or possibly four seniors in his lineup. The bad news? Those upperclassmen were the backbone of a team last season that wasn’t very good, finishing a dismal 9–22 under coach David Carter and struggling in particular to shoot the ball. Still, Musselman’s pedigree and the ability for players like AJ West and Marqueze Coleman to potentially improve have things looking up for the Wolfpack.
The sentiment out of Colorado Springs is that despite Dave Pilipovich’s best efforts, recruiting has been on the decline for some time. What he lacked for in quality of recruits this past off-season he attempted to make up for in quantity: The coach landed seven new commits, none of who have even a two-star rating according to Rivals.com. Losing six seniors to graduation from last year’s 14–17 squad won’t help improve the team’s most glaring weakness: it’s defensive efficiency. The Falcons allowed 1.1 points per possession last season, and were often especially vulnerable to opponents’ three-point attacks.
|Gary Williams Jr.||SG||7.2||3.7||1.4||82.4||21%||60%|
The historically, eminently, unspeakably bad Spartans of 2014-15 might somehow be worse this season. Of last season's 351 D-I teams, the Spartans were ranked 349th, according to Ken Pomeroy. That roster has since lost its five top contributors on a per-possession basis and gained just one recruit that has more than two-stars at the end of his name. Isaac Thornton and Brandon Mitchell are the only even slightly familiar faces left on this team.