First Look: UNLV reloads, but San Diego State still the Mountain West favorite

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Steve Fisher (left) may have lost leading scorer Xavier Thames, but he returns plenty of talent, including second leading scorer Winston Shepard. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

Fisher and Shepard is taking a first look at the major conferences for 2014-15. The series will include the AAC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12, SEC, A-10 and ACC. Next up: the Mountain West.

Few teams were more effective defensively than San Diego State last year, so it's fitting that the Aztecs are positioned well to defend their frontrunner status as the Mountain West changes around them next season.

With significant roster turnover at New Mexico (which lost a lot of talent) and UNLV (which is bringing in an uber-talented freshmen class), the league race should shape up differently than last year. But San Diego State returns plenty of talent and welcomes even more, which should result in everyone chasing the Aztecs again.

{C}Here's an early look at what's in store for the Mountain West in 2014-15:

State of the champions

The entire 2013-14 conference season came down to the battle between San Diego State and New Mexico. The teams split regular season meetings and the Aztecs won the regular season title by one game. The rubber match was the conference tournament final, where the Lobos prevailed. San Diego State will lose the player around which everything revolved – guard Xavier Thames, who averaged 17.6 points per game last year – but it returns key cogs in forward Winston Shepard (11.6 ppg), Dwayne Polee II (8.5 ppg) and JJ O'Brien (7.8 ppg). And it welcomes a stacked recruiting class, led by top-100 forward Malik Pope, a 6-foot-8 wing who can score it but who is coming off multiple injuries toward the end of his high school career, and fellow top-100 forward Zylan Cheatham. Steve Fisher has the personnel to sculpt another contender.

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New Mexico, meanwhile, put three representatives into the recent NBA draft combine – Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk – but now faces the reality of replacing its top three scorers. While four players who saw action in 31 or more games last season return, none of them averaged double-digit scoring, with sophomore-to-be Cullen Neal (7.1 points per game) the leading returning producer. In Neal, Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney, the Lobos look to be a much more perimeter-oriented crew than they were a season ago.

Top contender

After an offseason full of roster losses, it might seem hard to believe that UNLV could compete for a Mountain West title. Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.6 ppg) transferred to Iowa State for his final season, Khem Birch (11.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and Roscoe Smith (11.1 ppg, 10.9 rpg) both departed early for the NBA draft and, most recently, Deville Smith (9.7 ppg, 2.7 apg) left the program. Then you consider the replacements, and it's clear the Rebels compensated well for the attrition. In come consensus top-20 recruits Rashad Vaughn and Dwayne Morgan, both five-star prospects according to Rivals' rankings. With them arrives 6-9 forward Goodluck Okonoboh, a four-star, top-100 prospect. Players like Jelan Kendrick (6.3 ppg) will help fill in the gaps, but UNLV's fortunes will revolve around its coveted freshmen performing at an elite level. If their output matches their pedigree, the Rebels can push San Diego State at the top of the standings.

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Top freshman

Rashad Vaughn, UNLV. Vaughn is a top-shelf scoring guard with a 6-5, 200-pound frame. He is the nation's No. 8 recruit overall, per Rivals. He is a local kid, hailing from Henderson, Nev., and playing at noted Findlay Prep. He represents the hope for the Rebels to contend in 2014-15 as well as the hope that coach Dave Rice can infuse more energy into a program that has been fine-but-not-great in his three years at the helm. UNLV has won 20 games each season and made two NCAA tournaments, but it has been a step or two behind the pace in the Mountain West, with third-place finishes each season. Vaughn has some help in that loaded incoming freshman class, but he'll be the one expected to fuel UNLV's launch into the next level.

Impact transfer

Julien Lewis, Fresno State. The Bulldogs will lose leading scorer and rebounder Tyler Johnson (15.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg) but return three other players who averaged in double figures in Marvelle Harris (14.3 ppg), Cezar Guerrero (13.1 ppg) and Paul Watson (10 ppg). Lewis is added to the mix after sitting out a season following a transfer from Texas, where the 6-3 guard averaged 11.2 points per game as a sophomore. The rotation will be interesting, with Guerrero and Harris already a solid backcourt, but then the Bulldogs have room for playing multiple guards for extended minutes. (The graduated Allen Huddleston logged 22.3 minutes per game in 38 outings last season, with Guerrero at 29.2 and Harris at 34.6.) If Lewis offers more punch in a three-guard lineup or even as a quality backup, a team that won 21 games last season and finished 9-9 in the league could inch toward contention.

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Coach on the hot seat

No obvious candidates in win-or-pink-slip situations, but there could be a couple coaches feeling uneasy without some steps forward. David Carter took over at Nevada in 2009 when Mark Fox departed for Georgia, and it's been an uneven ride since: 21 wins and an NIT berth in Year 1 followed by a sub-.500 second season, followed by 28 wins and another NIT trip, followed by another two losing seasons. Last year, he led the Wolfpack to a 15-17 overall record and a 10-8 conference mark. At Air Force, Dave Pilipovich took over for the fired Jeff Reynolds in Feb. 2012 and kept the job, but he is 30-32 in his two full seasons. The Falcons drifted to 10th in the Mountain West last season with a 6-12 record. Two years isn't the largest sample size, but another mediocre season won't help Pilipovich distinguish himself from his predecessor.