The San Diego State Aztecs lead SI.com's Mountain West basketball preview, with Wyoming, Colorado State, UNLV and Boise State rounding out the top five in the conference.
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 -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the Mountain West, which starts with San Diego State at the top again but shuffles significantly after the Aztecs.
Projected Conference Race
|rank||team||projected conf. record||2013-14 Conf. record|
|1||San Diego State||15-3||16-2|
|11||San Jose State||4-14||1-17|
Coach of the Year: Larry Eustachy, Colorado State
The Rams dropped to a .500 record last year after winning 26 games in 2013. But that roster returns its top two scorers in J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano. Toss in some intriguing transfers, and this squad could surprise in the Mountain West if the defense can take a step forward.
Player of the Year: Winston Shepard, San Diego State
The best player on the best team in the league will shine this year, especially with the departure of starters Xavier Thames and Josh Davis. Expect more impact plays from Shepherd, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 2013.
Freshman of the Year: Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
A five-star recruit from Henderson, Nev., the 6-5 Vaughn was Rivals.com’s eighth-ranked player in the country when he signed with UNLV. He’s the headliner of a top-five class for the Rebels, who need instant production after losing experience on the perimeter.
|Dwayne Polee II||F||Sr||10.9||4.4||0.6||115.5|
The Aztecs again look like the cream of the crop in the Mountain West. Though coach Steve Fisher’s team loses starters Xavier Thames and Josh Davis, the cupboard isn’t bare. Talented forward Winston Shepherd will continue his growth up front, and with 6-9 Arizona transfer Angelo Chol finally eligible, the program should again shine on defense -- it ranked ninth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency in 2013.
|Larry Nance Jr.||F||Sr||13.7||7.1||1.4||114.3|
|Derek Cooke Jr.||F||Sr||8.6||7.3||1.1||113.6|
|Charles Hankerson Jr.||G||Sr||8.1||2.4||1.7||103.6|
|Trey Washington III||G||So||4.9||1.4||1.3||99.7|
The Cowboys will go as far as forward Larry Nance, Jr. takes them. Nance tore his ACL in February and missed the final stretch of the year, which saw Wyoming lose six of its final seven games. If Nance (15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds per game) is healthy, the Cowboys could be dangerous alongside guards Josh Adams and Riley Grabau. They'll also need to improve on a league-worst 28.9 rebounds per game.
|Joseph De Ciman||G||Jr||6.6||2.3||1.1||112.4|
Last season, the Rams won the program’s fewest games (16) since 2010 thanks, in part, to a defense that finished 226th or worse in six defensive categories, per KenPom.com. But Colorado State can still score, and the return of forward J.J. Avila and guard Daniel Bejarano should keep the offense moving. But that duo needs to combine with a number of transfers to improve on defense before the Rams contend.
The Runnin’ Rebels suffered an underachieving year in 2013, when they missed both the NCAA tournament and the NIT. Perhaps a highly touted recruiting class will change things in Las Vegas. Coach Dave Rice landed the country’s No. 5 class, per Rivals.com, which included guard Rashad Vaughn and forward Dwayne Morgan, both top-15 players overall. San Francisco transfer point guard Cody Doolin could also make an impact.
Boise State knew how to put the ball in the basket last season. The Broncos led the league in scoring (76.2 points per game) and won 21 games. Coach Leon Rice gets guard Derrick Marks (14.9 points per game) and forward Anthony Drmic (15.9) back, but Boise State will have to improve on defense. It allowed opponents to shoot 44.6 percent from the field in 2013, last in the league.
Guards Marvelle Harris and Cezar Guerrero look like team leaders after the departure of leading scorer Tyler Johnson, who paced Fresno State with 15.9 points per game last year. It won’t hurt to have sophomore Paul Watson (10.0 points per game) back, along with eligible Texas transfer guard Julien Lewis. The Bulldogs just need to shore up a defense that finished ninth in the league in 2013.
A mass exodus took place at New Mexico after last season. The Lobos head into 2014 having lost their top three scorers and top two rebounders with the departures of Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams. Now a program that ranked second in the Mountain West in scoring (74.0 points per game) and rebounding (38.1 boards per game) will expect a step-up from senior guard Hugh Greenwood.
Nevada’s first priority is finding a replacement for guard Deonte Burton, who finished second in the league in scoring (20.1 points per game) last year. Losing Burton, along with guard Jerry Evans Jr. and forward Cole Huff, will hit Nevada’s offense. The program needs scoring, but returning guard Michael Perez (11.5 points per game in ’13) can’t ignore defense: The Pack allowed a league-worst 73.9 points per game in 2013.
Coach Dave Pilopovich’s squad suffered a blow with the transfer of explosive guard Tre’ Coggins. Returning for his junior year would have signaled a five-year military commitment, something Coggins reportedly wasn’t prepared for. Even with Coggins, Air Force was one of the least efficient offenses in the Mountain West. Guard Max Yon and forward Marek Olesinski need to spearhead a turnaround on that side of the ball.
The Aggies’ top returning scorer in 2014, sophomore forward Jalen Moore, averaged 5.6 points per game last season. That’s because Utah State lost four seniors who averaged nearly 50 points per game. Coach Stew Morrill will likely look for an instant impact from transfer guard Darius Perkins (Miami-Dade College). But plenty of questions exist on this roster.
The Spartans struggled mightily on both sides of the ball in 2013, which resulted in a seven-win season in coach Dave Wojcik’s first campaign. San Jose State returns its top three scorers, including guard Rashad Muhammad (13.2 points per game). But that might not be a good thing after those players led the Spartans to rank 337th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Expect some struggles in San Jose.