Stock Watch Mountain West: Boise looks Tournament-bound; Air Force starting over
Over the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference -- one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point over the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.
Stock up: Boise State
One can be mistaken for thinking Boise State’s impressive 21-win season in 2012-13, which included the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2008, was ahead of schedule. None of the Broncos’ major contributors last season were seniors, and their two best players -- guard Derrick Marks and wing Anthony Dmric -- were just sophomores. That relative lack of experience may have hurt Boise during a tough Mountain West conference slate and a First Four loss to La Salle, but it also presents a huge opportunity in 2013-14.
With all of its starters back, Boise -- one of five teams from the Mountain West to reach the NCAA tournament last season -- can aim for even loftier goals. Dmric and Marks are the names you might already know. Marks, whose 31.3 usage rate last season was among the 25 highest figures in the country, was one of the MWC’s best offensive players in 2012-13, but will need to become more consistent to tap the limits of his potential. Dmric was a more efficient scorer than Marks, posting a 116.3 offensive rating to Marks’ 105.4, while using fewer possessions (26.2), according to Kenpom.com.
The good news for Boise -- and conversely, the bad news for the rest of the MWC -- is that Dmric and Marks still have two years of college hoops ahead of them. With an even better supporting cast, the duo could become one of the nation’s best scoring tandems this season. Or maybe Boise, who also returns senior sharp-shooter Jeff Elorriaga, the MWC’s leader in three-point makes (84) last season, is instead better defined as having a high-scoring trio. Elorriaga averaged 10.2 points for the Broncos last season and could see that number increase if opposing teams commit extra defenders to stopping Dmric and Marks, which could also open things up in the frontcourt for senior Ryan Watkins, an efficient scorer (his 125.3 offensive rating ranked 22nd nationally) who grabbed a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (18.5) than all qualifying players last season, per Kenpom.
With Watkins averaging just 21.3 minutes per game in 2012-13, expect to see sophomore Edmunds Dukulis, who sat out last season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, and freshman Nick Duncan logging significant frontcourt minutes. Sophomore Mikey Thompson and junior Igor Hadziomerovic will join Marks, Dmric and Elorriaga to form one of the league’s best perimeter attacks.
There is plenty of talent and depth here, enough to think Boise can make a run at back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since 1993-94. That should be the baseline expectation. Unless Boise’s returning players don’t improve, and the new ones don’t make the Broncos better -- two scenarios that seem unlikely -- this team should be in the conversation for the MWC regular season championship.
Stock down: Air Force
When Dave Pilipovich signed a five-year contract extension this summer, it was clear Air Force believed he was the right coach to lead the Falcons through a tough rebuilding period. That seems like an unavoidable reality after Pilipovich’s team, which posted an 18-14 record, won eight conference games and stirred NCAA tournament bubble talk, lost four starters in the offseason, including league-leading scorer Michael Lyons.
The remaining group is inexperienced and unproven, a mix of mostly unknown reserve players that will be asked to step into much bigger roles. Junior Max Yon and sophomore Tre’ Coggins, who averaged a combined 19 minutes per game last season, should lead the Falcons’ rebuilt backcourt, while juniors Kamryn Williams, Marek Olesinski and DeLovell Earls should command a high percentage of frontcourt minutes.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch from Air Force this season is whether the increased tempo Pilipovich installed last season -- the Falcons averaged 64.2 possessions per game -- remains in place this year. Pilipovich still incorporates some elements of the pace-averse Princeton offense into his system, but last season’s uptick in tempo was a significant shift away from the slower offenses run by Air Force teams of years past. Without most of the players that made that tempo increase viable in the first place, will Pilipovich try to slow things down this season? One and One asked the Air Force coach that very question this summer.
“We’re going to continue to play the same way,” Pilipovich said. “We feel the [Princeton] system works here, to a degree. We need to add our personalities and tweak it a bit. [Being more] uptempo will help us in recruiting and fans enjoy that style of play, but that’s also my personality.” Watching Pilipovich “tweak” his offense while guiding a young team through a rigorous MWC conference slate should be interesting. That doesn’t mean the Falcons will be winning very many games, though.