A look around the new-look Mountain West

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
11:00
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Jimmermania has come to an end. Kawhi has said his goodbyes. So who’s got next in the Mountain West?

That’s the biggest question for a conference that saw first-round draft picks and championship-winning programs depart this offseason. Following a publicity-grabbing season with two teams advancing to the Sweet 16, there are new names to learn and a number of programs on the rise.

Even the way in which the Mountain West is branded is different, with a new logo and commissioner Craig Thompson's noting the perception of his league as being “bold, feisty and highly competitive.” But is that the reality going forward?

Here’s a quick peek …

On the move: The Mountain West is a conference in transition. BYU is off to the West Coast Conference and rival Utah is now in the Pac-12. TCU has one final season before going to the Big East. Boise State comes in from the WAC this season, while Fresno State and Nevada do the same the following year.

[+] EnlargeRice
AP Photo/Matt CilleyThe MWC welcomes in Boise State and second-year coach Leon Rice.
Got all that? Ultimately, the MWC is an eight-team league this season after losing two programs that have represented it well. BYU was a perennial contender for the conference championship and brought plenty of notoriety to the league with Jimmer Fredette emerging as the national player of the year. Utah had struggled of late, but also won its share of titles in previous years and even made it all the way to the national championship game in 1998.

The new kid on the block is Boise State, a "football school" that has only advanced to the NCAA tournament once since 1994. But under first-year coach Leon Rice, the Broncos are coming off a 22-win season during which they reached the semifinal round of the CBI. They lost seven seniors and their top four scorers from that team, but Rice’s history of success as an associate head coach at Gonzaga has many believing that Boise will soon become a contender in the Mountain West.

More Rice, please: Dave Rice remains in the conference, leaving his position as BYU associate head coach to take over at UNLV. After Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma, Rice was fortunate enough to return to his alma mater at a time when the Rebels should be in position to challenge for the league title.

UNLV returns four of its top five scorers, including Chace Stanback. The team also adds potential impact transfers in forward Mike Moser and guard Reggie Smith (eligible in December), and is welcoming back top 3-point shooter Kendall Wallace after a torn anterior cruciate ligament forced him to redshirt last season. The Rebels are stacked.

Rice, who will install an up-tempo offense to utilize guards Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall, didn’t lose a single player to a transfer. But he will have to deal with possible disciplinary action for Stanback, the leading returning scorer and rebounder who was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in May.

Lobos looking good: Rice has stopped short of calling UNLV the favorite to win the league. After all, New Mexico has a strong argument for being considered the preseason pick. The Lobos return six of their top seven scorers, with the exception being point guard Dairese Gary. But Steve Alford made an offseason move to address that hole, signing Hugh Greenwood out of Australia as a potential replacement.

Greenwood then proceeded to make a name for himself this summer playing in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Latvia, averaging 17.1 points for the Australians. He’ll compete for a job with Demetrius Walker, the Arizona State transfer who becomes eligible after showing flashes of potential with the Sun Devils. They’ll go well alongside reigning MWC freshman of the year Kendall Williams and senior Phillip McDonald in the backcourt.

The frontcourt features player of the year candidate Drew Gordon, who averaged a double-double last season after becoming eligible in December, along with senior A.J. Hardeman and another Australian, Cameron Bairstow. New Mexico’s frontcourt does have some depth issues. Emmanuel Negedu is no longer able to play because of heart issues. Alex Kirk is out indefinitely after having back surgery to repair a herniated disc. Swingman Chad Adams is suspended for the first two regular-season games after being charged with DWI in May. And it is uncertain whether 6-foot-9 recruit Jarion Henry will qualify.

[+] EnlargeGreen
AP Photo/Bill FeigGarrett Green wasn't a superstar at LSU, but he was (quite literally) a huge August addition for SDSU.
Aztecs rebuilding: Double-double machine Kawhi Leonard left for the NBA draft after a stellar sophomore season that resulted in San Diego State's first trip to the Sweet 16. Without him and the seniors who left, the Aztecs are missing their top four scorers from a 34-3 team. Should be interesting to see how they fare.

The frontcourt got even more thin after the NCAA denied center Brian Carlwell’s appeal for a sixth year and Kevin Young reneged on transferring and went to Kansas instead. The Aztecs do add 6-foot-11 transfer Garrett Green, who graduated from LSU and is taking advantage of the graduate school rule that allows him to play this season without sitting out. However, SDSU is not expecting St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee II to become eligible until the following season.

Meanwhile, Steve Fisher is hoping that athletic guard Jamaal Franklin makes a big jump as a sophomore after playing key minutes last season. The Aztecs already have returning starter Chase Tapley and 3-point specialist James Rahon, but could use contributions from Franklin and Washington State transfer Xavier Thames.

On the rise: While BYU and San Diego State made headlines with their NCAA tournament wins, it was also significant for the league that Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force went to the postseason, too. And with Larry Shyatt taking over at Wyoming, there will be opportunities for many teams to make some noise.

Boise is excited about adding Australian freshmen Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic after their strong showings at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships. Oregon transfer Drew Wiley also becomes eligible for the Broncos as they debut in the MWC.

Colorado State lost its top two scorers, but coach Tim Miles received a contract extension and has improved the team every year of his tenure. The Rams’ strength lies with a talented junior class that includes returning leading scorer Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green and Mountain West sixth man of the year Pierce Hornung.

Air Force is coming off a surprising CIT appearance and isn’t expected to finish last anymore, which is baby steps but at least it's progress. The Falcons have leading scorer Michael Lyons back and hope to get contributions out of their 11-man recruiting class.

Wyoming could be improved in Shyatt’s first year even after top two scorers Desmar Jackson and Amath M’Baye transferred in the wake of his hiring from Florida. USC transfer Leonard Washington becomes eligible, and the Cowboys will hope that Afam Muojeke and Adam Waddell bounce back from injury-plagued seasons. Muojeke was one of the top scorers in the conference, but has now dealt with knee issues for two years. Shyatt also added a six-player recruiting class, including guard Riley Grabau, who was Mr. Basketball in Colorado.

TCU won’t have leading scorer Ronnie Moss anymore after he finished the season on suspension, but the Horned Frogs do return point guard Hank Thorns and top rebounder J.R. Cadot. Their new-look frontcourt includes Temple transfer Craig Williams, JC transfer Adrick McKinney and 6-foot-11 Winslo Barry.

Key contests: There will be a lot of small-time schools getting games against Mountain West programs this season because scheduling hasn’t been easy. With only a 14-game league schedule this season, teams were left scrambling trying to find games to play. For example, when San Diego State announced its partial nonconference schedule, it had no games listed between Dec. 7 and the Jan. 15 league opener, while noting that as many as five home dates still needed to be worked out.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a good number of must-see games. Here are some matchups to keep an eye on:

[+] EnlargeColorado State Hoops
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiAfter a season in which CSU flirted with the NCAA tourney bubble, things are looking up in Fort Collins.
Colorado State in NIT Season Tip-Off, Nov. 14-16: The Rams can make an early statement by beating Southern Methodist and then either West Regional host Stanford or Fresno State to earn a trip to Madison Square Garden. Simply put, a spot on national TV in the World's Most Famous Arena would do wonders for the program.

San Diego State at Baylor, Nov. 15: The Aztecs’ first road game of the season is also their first significant test to see if they have what it takes to defend their conference crown. A lack of depth in SDSU's front line doesn’t bode well going up against Baylor’s Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy.

Boise State at Long Beach State, Nov. 22: A young and inexperienced Broncos team takes on a senior-laden Long Beach State squad that is defending its regular-season Big West title and has hopes of going to the NCAA tournament.

San Diego State at Arizona, Nov. 23: The defending Mountain West Conference champion goes on the road to face the defending Pac-10 champion in an another game that should be a good opportunity to see how the Aztecs are doing in the post-Kawhi Leonard era and how the Wildcats look without Derrick Williams.

New Mexico at 76 Classic, Nov. 24-27: The Lobos get a difficult first-round matchup with Santa Clara, a game against a power conference opponent in Oklahoma or Washington State, and possibly a date with Villanova in the championship game. In the absence of many big-name opponents on UNM's schedule, it’s crucial the Lobos do well in Anaheim.

UNLV at Las Vegas Invitational, Nov. 25-26: In the final two rounds at the Orleans Arena, the Rebels face USC and then get a possible game against North Carolina. The Trojans have the ability on defense to give UNLV problems running its fast-paced offense, and the Tar Heels could very well be the nation’s top-ranked team.

MWC/MVC Challenge, Nov. 30-Dec.4: NCAA tournament-capable teams want to pad their resumes with quality wins here when UNLV plays at Wichita State, New Mexico hosts defending regular-season champion Missouri State and San Diego State welcomes in perennial Valley contender Creighton.

UNLV at Wisconsin, Dec. 10: Behind a big day from Stanback, the Rebels won this game last season on their way to a spot in the Top 25. The rematch in Madison will give UW's Jordan Taylor a chance for revenge.

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