The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the Mountain West.
Best case: What happens when an already bad team suffers a handful of injuries? In the case of the 2009-10 Air Force Falcons, what happened was a 1-15 finish in the Mountain West and a whole mess of red numbers where Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free profile was concerned. (Just look at all that red! Oof.) Believe it or not, though, a one-win MWC season was actually an improvement over the Falcons' 0-16 mark in 2008-09. Air Force doesn't have much in the way of incoming talent, and leap-ready junior center Sammy Schafer will miss the 2010-11 season while he recovers from a concussion in his home state of Oregon. In other words, these Falcons will be lucky to get more than a few conference wins, and another season at the bottom of the heap seems imminent.
Worst case: There are all sorts of snarky things you could write about a team that's won one conference game in the past two seasons. You can't get much lower than that. But since the Air Force Academy trains noble and hardworking American pilots in the art of flying super-awesome weapons of war into dangerous and hostile situations, I'll save the snark for later. The Air Force rules, even if its basketball team doesn't. (And, jokes aside, worst-case scenario is another winless conference season. That one's obvious.)
Best case: Jimmer Fredette thought long and hard about leaving for the NBA. He tested the waters, spent time at a few camps, and no doubt had heard plenty of enticing things ... but in the end chose to withdraw his name and return to BYU. Cougars fans are awfully pleased about that. Fredette is one of the best players in the country, an offensive weapon that shoots at a high rate, doesn't turn the ball over, assists teammates frequently, draws a bunch of fouls while rarely committing any of his own, and rightfully dominates BYU's ultra-fast attack. He's a joy to watch. If several players adapt to their expanded roles, you can go ahead and notch BYU for another NCAA tournament bid. But this time, the Cougars will want more.
Worst case: Of course, there are questions about this BYU team. Those questions involve everyone not named Fredette. Jonathan Tavernari graduated, Tyler Haws left for a Mormon mission and Michael Loyd Jr. said farewell to the program. Into their place steps a solid, but somewhat new supporting class. Forwards Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies will look to replace Tavernari's production. Chris Collinsworth and Nick Martineau have returned from their Mormon missions, and should incorporate themselves quickly, while freshman Kyle Collinsworth will look to replace Haws and Lloyd in the backcourt. Will that transition hamper BYU's tournament efforts? A first-round loss would make for another nice but ultimately disappointing season; even with all the new faces, that's probably the worst (or, I guess, best) BYU's MWC competitors can hope for.
Best case: We don't spend much time thinking about Colorado State basketball, and lately, that apathy has been justified. The Rams went 0-16 in the Mountain West in 2007-08 and, until last season, failed to win more than six conference games in any season since 2000. But this might be the right time to give coach Tim Miles' team more than a passing nod. CSU went 7-9 in the Mountain West in 2009-10 (and, no small feat, qualified for the College Basketball Invitational, the program's first postseason adventure since 2003) thanks to an above-average defense and the capable play of junior forwards Travis Franklin and Andy Ogide. Both return for 2010-11, as does nearly every Ram worth noting. This veteran group will be looking to claw its way out of the lower third of the MWC in a major, plus-.500 sort of way, and it appears to have the talent to do so.
Worst case: As with any senior-driven team, the risk is that the Rams will fail to improve. It's not that they'll get worse, per se, it's just that they might not take the mythical step forward everyone seems to associate with returning players almost regardless of age. If that happens, Colorado State will be back to the drawing board, and Miles will have little to show for his team's consistent improvement during his tenure.
Best case: Junior college transfer Darington Hobson took over the Mountain West in almost no time at all. The athletic forward did a bit of everything for the surprising Lobos and quickly worked his way into conference player of the year awards and an NBA draft selection in June. That's the kind of hole you don't quickly fill. Unless, of course, you're Steve Alford, who managed to wrangle two high-profile transfers this offseason, both of whom -- UCLA forward Drew Gordon and Tennessee forward Emmanuel Negedu -- were highly recruited out of high school. (Gordon came to New Mexico after clashing with UCLA coach Ben Howland; Negedu collapsed during a workout at Tennessee, had a defibrillator implanted in his heart, and found UNM to be one of the schools willing to clear him to play.) That frontcourt would be scary in any conference. In the Mountain West, it should dominate. And with senior point guard Dairese Gary back in command, the Hobson-less Lobos might even be better than last season.
Worst case: Of course, there are risks associated with New Mexico's new talent, risks Alford knows all too well. Gordon was unable to get along with teammates and coaches at UCLA. Negedu is enough of a health risk that even the slightest sign of heart trouble will likely end his career. (When talent-bereft Indiana tells a talented player it can't clear him, you know the player's health is risky, to say the least.) Alford was willing to take risks on players at Iowa, and those risks didn't always pan out. Pierre Pierce says hello. In any case, New Mexico's new talent will have to pan out if the Lobos plan on recreating last season's 30-5 season. If it doesn't, Alford's surging program could be due for a hasty backslide.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Best case: San Diego State might be this conference's best team. Considering the return of Jimmer Fredette and the talent available to Alford at UNM, that's saying something. Sophomore Kawhi Leonard is one of the best college basketball players you've never heard of, an irrepressible rebounder and top-notch defender who, with just a bit more offensive efficiency, might end up being the best player in the league. San Diego State returns basically everyone from last season's MWC-tournament winning team, including Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and D.J. Gay. The Aztecs had to fight to get into the NCAA tournament last season, but that shouldn't be a problem this time. Once they get there, they'll be looking to do a whole lot more than fight. That shouldn't be a problem, either.
Worst case: It's hard to fathom this team taking a step back, but the difference between NCAA tournament participant and NIT invitee can be razor-thin in the Mountain West. SDSU will have to fight off two very good teams at the top of its conference to assert its superiority. Failing that, the Aztecs might have to beat nonconference foes like Gonzaga and Saint Mary's (which, unfortunately, are not battles for the future of BYU's WCC-bound basketball team) and establish themselves as worthy of an at-large bid, even if the conference title goes wanting. Such is the life of a putative mid-major on the rise: You can't afford slip-ups, even if you're this good.
Best case: The Horned Frogs are nobody's idea of a basketball power, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The good news is the return of junior point guard Ronnie Moss, who led the team in scoring in 2009-10. TCU also has Virginia Tech transfer Hank Thorns -- a potential all-name all-star, at least -- becoming eligible this fall, which will give coach Jim Christian another guard to round out his lineup. Christian would also do well to focus on his team's interior defense: The Horned Frogs allowed opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 53.0 in 2009-10, good for a No. 323 national rank. (Opponents were especially deadly from inside the arc, where TCU allowed an eFG of 53.8 percent, nearly the worst in all of college hoops.) TCU won five conference games in 2009-10, which is something to build on. If that defense gets even marginally better, and Thorns can make some sort of impact, the Frogs could be more competitive than at any time since their leap to the conference in 2006.
Worst case: It wasn't just interior defense that held back TCU in 2009-10, though. The Horned Frogs allowed their opponents to shoot pretty much whenever they pleased, sure, but they also didn't force turnovers and, strangely enough, committed a ton of fouls in the process. (Usually, when you're gambling on that many fouls, you'd think at least a few turnovers would follow. Apparently not.) There is much to shore up here, and if TCU continues to play this brand of defensive basketball, it's likely in store for a fifth straight sub-14-win season.
Best case: The Rebels' 2010-11 prospectus is pretty easy to figure. It comes down to Tre'Von Willis. Willis was arrested on charges of domestic battery by strangulation and grand larceny, as well as a misdemeanor charge of coercion, in late June. His lawyer recently entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, in the meantime telling media that Willis would be back in time for a productive senior season. Even if that seems unlikely -- Willis' first court date is Nov. 22, and coach Lon Kruger has remained mum on the subject -- UNLV fans better hope Willis' lawyer has information they don't. If Willis is in the lineup, he presents an athletic and efficient scoring and rebounding threat, the perfect centerpiece to a talented UNLV team that has its eye on the top of the conference in 2010-11.
Worst case: If Willis doesn't play, those hopes are probably dashed. To be sure, UNLV's supporting cast can play. Chace Stanback, the team's leader in rebounds and steals, could become an elite defender. Oscar Bellfield is a capable (though not ideally efficient) long-range shooter, and sophomore guard Anthony Marshall could be one of the league's elite perimeter defenders if he makes major strides from his freshman season. But even so, without Willis this group goes from potential conference champion to a fourth- or fifth-place finish faster than you can say "misdemeanor charge of coercion." (See what I did there?) Willis is the key. Stay tuned.
Best case: Utah coach Jim Boylen is positively ecstatic about his program's move to the Pac-10, and why wouldn't he be? Almost overnight, His job went from good-but-not-great Mountain West job to in-demand major conference gig. In the meantime, though, Boylen's team is still rebuilding. Fortunately, the Utes gained a handful of junior college transfers in the offseason, any of whom could play immediate roles as contributors in Utah's holdover year. The most likely candidate is point guard Josh Watkins, who averaged 15 points per game at Howard College last season. Center David Foster is an impressive interior piece. If the JC prospects pan out, Boylen's last season before the Pac-10 transition could be a surprisingly un-terrible one.
Worst case: More likely, though, is a rebuilding year, one easily forgotten by the Ute faithful. Boylen lost a variety of players from last season's 14-17 squad thanks to defections, and returns only one of his top five scorers, senior Jay Watkins. Carlon Brown, Marshall Henderson and Luka Drca all averaged double figures in 2009-10, and though Drca's graduation was a known concern, Brown and Henderson's departures were the kind you can't plan for. In other words, it's fair to expect a season worse than last year's campaign, which did after all include a win over Illinois and two over UNLV. But with the Pac-10 -- and all its recruiting power -- on the horizon, who cares?
Best case: There is good news for the Wyoming Cowboys, and it is this: Afam Muojeke, a 6-foot-7 junior swingman, was averaging 17.9 points per game before a knee injury and subsequent surgery ended his season in late January. In his absence, freshman Desmar Jackson led the team in points and sophomore A.J. Davis played a nice complimentary role. With all three on the court, Wyoming should be more competitive than last season's three-win conference season. Best case is a nice bump into the middle of the Mountain West, and all the spoils that could bring in whatever future the post-realignment Mountain West ends up having.
Worst case: With Muojeke, UW's dismal offense should improve, but the defense is just as much a concern. More than anything, though, what the Cowboys need are some shooters. Wyoming's effective field goal percentage in 2009-10 was just 46.7 percent, which ranked it No. 262 in the country. Its 3-point percentage was a dismal 26.0, making it the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the country. If coach Heath Schroyer plans to avoid another 10-21 campaign, the Cowboys will have to add some perimeter help to Muojeke and Jackson's offensive skill.