UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State are early favorites to win the Mountain West as conference play begins.
As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the Mountain West:
UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels sit atop this list for two reasons: They haven’t lost to a team outside of kenpom.com’s top 100 and they have two top-30 wins already (over Oregon and Indiana). The stiffest competition UNLV will face in the Mountain West won’t be as strong as the Ducks or Hoosiers were at the time of those wins. And despite a reasonably tough non-conference schedule that also included UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Wichita State, UNLV has emerged with the 22nd most efficient defense in the country. The Rebels are also pushing the pace more than they did a year ago, which aides the production of scorers Patrick McCaw and Derrick Jones Jr. With quicker possession times, losses coming only at the hands of strong teams, and improved defensive efficiency, this team resembles the 2012–13 Rebels team that went 25–10. And stud freshman Stephen Zimmerman isn’t even at full strength yet, as he’s still working through a thigh injury.
Boise State. Since the 2012–13 season, the Broncos have not finished worse than 51st in adjusted offensive efficiency. They made the NCAA tournament in 2013 but missed it in 2014 in part thanks to some slack defense. In 2015, they renewed their commitment to defense, finishing with the most efficient unit of the Leon Rice era and returning to the Big Dance. This year, the offense is clicking as usual under seniors Anthony Drmic and Mikey Thompson, netting an adjusted 1.081 points per possession, but Boise State remains a sub-200 team in terms of shooting defense and steal percentage. The Broncos don’t intimidate people defensively right now. But that might not matter too much in Mountain West play, as there’s only one other team in the conference that boasts a top-100—Colorado State. In a league defined by defense, the Broncos’ offense might be the only one that can overwhelm the likes of UNLV and San Diego State.
San Diego State. The Aztecs have most of its familiar traits back this season. San Diego State again has a top-10 defensive efficiency and defensive field goal efficiency buttressed by height and length. The limiting factor here is the team’s offense. The best defense in the world won’t solve San Diego holding you to 48 points, Grand Canyon holding you to 45 points or Little Rock holding you to 43(!). San Diego State lost each of those games. Sophomore Malik Pope, a former top-40 recruit, continues to be an afterthought, as he’s been limited to 4.9 ppg. Instead, two former top-75 recruits lead the scoring efforts of the underclassmen on this team: Freshman Jeremy Hemsley contributes 13.4 ppg, while his classmate Zylan Cheatham puts in a second-best 8.4. The Aztecs have the defenders to stop anyone in the Mountain West cold if they so choose, but they can’t afford the same offensive lapses during conference play.
Fresno State. The Bulldogs went 15–17 last year, lost six players to graduation or transfer and gained just one incoming freshman ranked recruit (three-star forward Nate Grimes). The 2014–15 non-conference slate wasn’t anything to write home about either: the team went 3–8 against Division I competition. So it’s a mild surprise that the Bulldogs opened up this season with a 9–4 record. Three of those losses, at the hands of Oregon, Arizona and Evansville, are respectable. Marvelle Harris (18.6 ppg) remains the efficient scorer he was last season, but junior college transfer Torren Jones (11.8 ppg) has helped offset a slight dip in production thus far from key returners Cezar Guerrero, Julien Lewis and Paul Watson. The midseason boost of Washington transfer Jahmel Taylor could be a big lift as well for this team. An honorable mention here goes to the San Jose State Spartans, who have jacked up the tempo this season under Dave Wojick and have already won two more games against Division I competition than they did all of last season.
Colorado State. The Mountain West rarely has runaway favorites or huge flops, so take this with a grain of salt, but Colorado State has struggled. The Rams lost the four seniors who propelled last year’s 27–7 squad, but this year’s rising seniors Gian Clavell and Antawn Scott, along with junior John Gillon, have replaced those players’ output so far. The 7–5 Rams started out with nice wins against Oakland and UNI, but have one Division I win since Thanksgiving, and that came against sub-300 team USC Upstate. Colorado State isn’t a full flop by any means, but if the team doesn’t start the Mountain West Conference season reasonably strong (three of its first four games are against Boise State, UNLV and San Diego State), it won’t be able to pick up in 2015–16 where it left off last season: on the NCAA tournament’s doorstep.
Player of the year so far
Josh Adams, Wyoming. When SI’s Luke Winn and Dan Hanner projected the performance of every player in Division I last Fall, Adams was forecasted to score 13.6 points per game, contribute an offensive rating of 101.7, and be utilized for 79% of possible minutes on 27% of possessions. Try 24.9, 111.5, 91.7% and 36.4% instead, per kenpom.com, marks are good for third, 16th (among high-usage players), 19th and fifth in all of D-I, respectively. The catalyst of the Cowboys’ unlikely and awesome run last season to the Mountain West Conference tournament championship picked up this year where he left off, tying for second nationally in offensive win shares (2.2) and posting five games with more 30 points already. It’s hard to argue against the country’s second-leading scorer as the Mountain West’s early player of the year favorite, even if the Cowboys have taken a step back.
Best non-conference win
San Diego State over Cal, 72–58, in Las Vegas (Nov. 27). This game gets the slight nod over UNLV’s 72-69 defeat of then-No. 13 Indiana at the Maui Invitational simply based on the suspicion that a win over Cal might look better in March than a win over Indiana. Each of the late November victories proved the Mountain West’s top teams could go toe-to-toe with elite out-of-conference competition on a neutral court. Aside from both Boise State and UNLV vanquishing a ranked Oregon Duck team, there hasn’t been much else for the Mountain West to boast about; the conference doesn’t have a win against a current top 25 team.
Must-see game in January
Boise State at UNLV, Jan. 27. Both the Broncos and the Rebels face a tough test against San Diego State either just before or just after this game, but neither team can afford to overlook this Jan. 27 date. With Stephen Zimmerman ostensibly back at full strength, a balanced UNLV attack with a strong defense will try to conquer a veteran, offense-oriented Boise State team led by Anthony Drmic. This should pit the league’s top two teams to date against each other.