Sports Illustrated’s 2017–18 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Chris Johnson and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.
These are the model’s projections for the Mountain West, including individual awards, the teams’ order of finish and (advanced and raw) stats for the top seven players in each school’s rotation.
The Big Picture
The Mountain West suffered as a whole last year; the 2016–17 competition produced only one bid to the NCAA tournament, which ultimately ended in a first-round loss. Fortunately, this season looks to be more exciting for the conference. While Nevada both welcomes and returns enough talent to defend their conference title, San Diego State is determined to challenge by putting their underwhelming 19–14 (9–9 in conference) season behind them, and UNLV looks to shock the division with the help of five-star freshman center Brandon McCoy. The MWC will be a legitimate contender for multiple spots in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Player of the Year: Chandler Hutchison
A popular pick for conference player of the year, Hutchison adored himself to Broncos fans by returning for his senior year, going back on his previous decision to enter the NBA draft. Last season, Hutchison quickly outshined his former teammate Paris Austin with impressive numbers, putting up 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. With Austin leaving for Cal during the offseason, Hutchison is the key returning player for Boise State, and could average even better numbers this year as the focal point of a top-three offense.
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon McCoy
There should be scant competition for McCoy in this department. The UNLV true freshman is a five-star McDonald’s All-America who turned down offers from basketball powerhouses Arizona and Michigan State. The most exciting signing for Las Vegas in recent years, we project the 6'11" big man to average 13.8 points while running the offense from the middle of the floor. He could very well be a one-and-done, but the combination of his size and raw talent will help to pull UNLV from the bottom of the conference, and easily qualifies him for newcomer of the year.
All-conference team and sixth man
PG: Koby McEwen, Utah State
SF: Justin James, Wyoming
F: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
PF: Jordan Caroline, Nevada
C: Brandon McCoy, UNLV
Sixth Man: SF Malik Pope, San Diego State
Projected Order of Finish
(Projected conference record in parentheses. The tiebreaker for teams with identical records is their standing in SI’s 1-351 national rankings, which will be revealed Oct. 31.)
Nevada begins the season as the favorite to win the conference for the second year in a row, and has the talent to make a threatening run in the NCAA tournament. While the loss of Cameron Oliver to the draft and Marcus Marshall to graduation is a considerable blow to the Wolf Pack’s scoring production, Jordan Caroline has the ability to fill the hole. The addition of four transfers from a combination of the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten will help take some of the burden off Caroline’s shoulders.
San Diego State
San Diego State fans have high hopes in newly appointed head coach Brian Dutcher. The Aztecs struggled last season as what was supposed to be a strong tournament run turned into a middle-of-the-conference finish with no postseason. The problem for the Aztecs this year—as it has been in years past—will be scoring; their defense remains an impressive unit, but if their wings can’t start producing more points, the season may take a turn for the worse. Things are looking up though, as Dutcher returns the team’s top three scorers and the hope—yet again—that Malik Pope will break out as the team’s superstar.
It will be tough for Boise State to fall far—if at all—this year, thanks to the return of conference player of the year contender Chandler Hutchison; the senior’s decision to forgo the 2017 NBA draft helped ease the lingering pain from Paris Austin’s transfer to Cal. Austin’s departure leaves the Broncos’ wings vulnerable, and Justinian Jessup will have to step up to fill the role. Fordham transfer Christian Sengfelder will only add help.
Cowboys forwards Justin James and Hayden Dalton, projected to combine for just under 30 points and just over 13 rebounds per game, are poised to lead Wyoming back to a winning conference record. Thanks to the return of nearly all of their production, including last year’s Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year in James, the Cowboys will have chemistry and talent, and can easily find themselves among the top of the conference come March.
The Bulldogs post a plethora of wing talent coming into the season, making it for good reason that they are the only team in the Mountain West to have five projected double-digit scorers on the roster. A combination of guards Jaron Hopkins, Deshon Taylor and Jahmel Taylor provide Fresno State with a lethally skilled rotation of outside shooters. But what the Bulldogs make up for in guards they lack in size. Bryson Williams showed breakout potential last season, and will likely be joined up front this year by Terrell Carter II.
The Running Rebels finished 4–14 last season, tied for last place with Air Force. The return of last year’s leading scorer Jovan Mooring is likely the depressing season’s silver lining, but it will be McDonald’s All-America center Brandon McCoy who will lead the team this year. The front runner for conference newcomer of the year, McCoy is projected to have 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, mesmerizing numbers for a true freshman.
Koby McEwen is likely to be a first team all-conference point guard, and Sam Merrill won’t be far behind. With MWC Freshman of the Year and a season of experience on his résumé now, McEwen has star potential, but the Aggies lack the roster depth needed to be a top seed. Adding to their struggles, possibly the worst news of the prseason came when center Norbert Janicek underwent season-ending knee surgery.
Junior point guard Prentiss Nixon is left to pick up the pieces of a second-place Colorado State team that lost the two players that were a large reason for that finish. Nixon and J.D. Paige make for a threatening pair of guards, but with the loss of Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo, the Rams will fall far unless Nixon proves to be the team’s single-handed superstar.
Coach Craig Neal is gone, and Lobos fans are hopeful as to what new appointee Paul Weir will bring to the team. New Mexico will struggle again defensively this year, but with senior guard Antino Jackson its only player projected to average double-digit points, the team will see a decrease in scoring production as well. Along with Jackson, Weir will have a handful of other transfers at his disposal, but not enough talent to keep him from the bottom of the conference.
Unlike UNLV, Air Force does not bring in a five-star freshman this season to help pull the team up from the bottom of the table. The Falcons’ starting five will likely be laden with seniors who, although experienced, have proved underwhelming to this point in their career. Point guard Jacob Van offers talent on the wing, but his projected 12.2 points per game won’t be enough to carry the team.
San Jose State
San Jose State underwent arguably the most dejected offseason of any team in the Mountain West—with the resignation of head coach Dave Wojcik came the news of Spartans star Brandon Clarke’s decision to transfer to Gonzaga. San Jose lacks leadership, as senior point guard Jalen James seems unlikely to fill the role. Ryan Welage returns as a potential force from the wing, but the team’s disarray will make it difficult for him to lead them to a successful season.