The Mountain West is coming off its finest basketball season, with great regular-season performance (and some clever scheduling) pushing five teams into the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, the postseason was a complete bust as the league went just 2-5 in the NCAAs, with losses to a 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-seed along the way. Small sample sizes notwithstanding, it was a disastrous performance and a significant blow to the perception of a league that has had its share of doubters after years of similar underachievement on the national stage. The league now heads into what should be another very competitive season knowing that, fair or not, validation really can only come in March.
After adding Nevada and Fresno State last season, the Mountain West welcomes Utah State and San Jose State this year as the conference moves to an 18-game schedule that is not a full round-robin. That setup will make it a little harder to evaluate league performance as schedule strength will vary a bit. It also adds another brutal home venue to a league where homecourt advantage is already enormous. Utah State has a staggering record at the Spectrum under Stew Morrill, and as Air Force showed last season, even non-title contenders can be bears at home in this league. Even as the Aggies adjust to life in a better conference, they should be a very tough out in Logan, at the very least.
Player to Watch
New Mexico’s Alex Kirk has the size and developing skill to be a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and just as importantly, he has quality guards to get him the ball and a league where very few teams this season have reasonable post options with which to defend Kirk. Even if you do, Kirk can then just step outside and hurt you from the perimeter. That all should add up to a league player-of-the-year caliber season from the 7-footer as the Lobos look to claim at least a share of a fifth league championship in six seasons.
New Mexico has four returning starters from a team that won the league comfortably last season, with primary 2013 challenger Colorado State losing all five starters. Even though several other teams should be very solid again this season, it’s hard to pick against the Lobos. The transition from Steve Alford to right-hand man Craig Neal should go smoothly enough and the Lobos have enough talent left on the roster to cover for the departure of wing and first-round Bulls pick Tony Snell.
Boise State arrived perhaps a year ahead of schedule last season and returns basically everyone to take another run at the top of the league. The potent scoring combo of Derrick Marks and “The Drmictologist” Anthony Drmic, provides a strong 1-2 core, but the Broncos have multiple other options that can hurt you. If they can get a bit more stout defensively after a year of seasoning, they could emerge as the primary challenger. UNLV should also be good again, especially if the addition-by-subtraction model holds true in terms of team chemistry. The Rebels lose a lot of talent from last season’s team, including No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, but have plenty returning and had some options waiting in the wings, as well. This Rebels team won’t be as talented as last season’s, but the parts fit better and if the attitude does, as well, they could be a threat to New Mexico. San Diego State suffered a lot of personnel losses, but should be solid once again, too, as their young bigs develop.
Assuming their guys come back to full health, Utah State should be formidable in its debut season. They have enough talent to compete, at least on a skill basis, and their patient style will be an interesting contrast to how many other teams in the league play. Fresno State also could rise up as a factor with some efficiency improvement from their guards and/or the help of Oklahoma State transfer Cesar Guerrero. The Bulldogs improved a ton down the stretch last season and could make another leap this year under Rodney Terry.
Three big questions
1) How much of a hangover will there be from the NCAA tournament flop?
That’s a question for many teams, but specifically in Albuquerque, where the 3-seed Lobos were unceremoniously dumped in their opening game by Ivy League upstart Harvard. Simply put, it was a game that New Mexico should not have lost, and now most of the core is back and has to grind through a 30-plus game season with everyone looking at their accomplishments with one eyebrow raised. The Lobos should be experienced enough to shrug it off and perform during the season, but this will be a huge talking point in March.
2) How much will a better TV deal help the league?
This will be interesting to see, as the Mountain West returns to ESPN’s networks for the first time since the conference balked at the Worldwide Leader’s offers and started the new-defunct The Mtn. network seven years ago. That lack of relative national exposure, even with deals with what are now CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network, was a problem for the league. The new multi-platform broadcast agreement combined with the launch of a new digital network should make Mountain West basketball much more accessible nationally.
3) How close to last season can this season be?The league will not have the top-end ceiling it did last season, but where the conference ends up -- and how good NCAA tournament seeding will be -- may depend on how well a few teams handle mass graduation losses and how well the newcomers hold up their ends of the bargain. Air Force and Colorado State were crushed by graduation, although the Falcons have some promising underclassmen and the Rams return rotation guys Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano, for starters. Nevada, Fresno State and San Jose State need to get some stuff done in nonconference play to help lift the league as a whole.