Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Mountain West this season:
1. What will UNLV’s new-look offense look like?
Dave Rice arrived back at his alma mater promising to run an offense true to the Runnin’ Rebels name, put the players through conditioning drills that readied them for the uptempo style, and took part in a splashy marketing campaign called “Let’s Run.”
It’s time to see what the shift in offensive thinking produces on the court for a team full of experienced players who have the smarts and talent to adjust. Top scorers Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall are athletic guards who will play alongside 3-point specialist Kendall Wallace. There doesn’t appear to be a Jimmer Fredette on this team for Rice to turn to like he did while running the offense at BYU. Rather, the Rebels are going to have to spread the ball around and get athletic big men Quintrell Thomas and UCLA transfer Mike Moser involved.
This group might not initially remind anyone of Jerry Tarkanian’s best teams that Rice himself contributed to off the bench as a player. But after some time buying into a flashy new offense, it should be interesting to see how far it takes this team.
2. Who emerges in New Mexico’s backcourt?
The media picked New Mexico to win the Mountain West, and forward Drew Gordon is the conference’s preseason player of the year. But for the Lobos to achieve their goals, someone will have to emerge in their backcourt to fill the leadership void left behind by departing point guard Dairese Gary.
The most tantalizing possibility to step in for Gary is Hugh Greenwood, the Australian who by virtue of his strong performance on the international stage this summer was chosen as preseason freshman of the year. The Lobos also have Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker eligible, and if he can tap into some of the potential he showed as a top-100 recruit and freshman year as a Sun Devil, New Mexico will have gotten a good one.
Kendall Williams is primed for a standout sophomore season and Phillip McDonald is a senior who has been solid for years. Add in a top-flight point guard to the mix and Steve Alford’s team could start making noise on a national scale like a couple of programs from the Mountain West did last season.
3. Can San Diego State recapture the magic?
This Aztecs team is virtually unrecognizable from the group that went to the Sweet 16 last season and then saw the departures of Kawhi Leonard and the senior class. But talent on the roster remains, and the question is whether it can capture the hearts of the city even without the high expectations.
Coach Steve Fisher announced Chase Tapley and James Rahon as starters, and the Aztecs expect major contributions from Jamaal Franklin and Washington State transfer Xavier Thames, who is the conference’s preseason newcomer of the year. The frontcourt includes newcomers in LSU transfer Garrett Green and junior college transfer Deshawn Stephens. Leaders will have to emerge from that group for the team to stay afloat. They certainly aren’t household names yet, but then again, few expected Leonard’s meteoric rise as an NBA prospect when he first arrived on campus.
A transition year for the Aztecs doesn’t have to feel like a step backward if this team continues to not only improve, but also pack Viejas Arena. Fisher, who signed an offseason contract extension, has said that perhaps his team needs the fan support more than ever.
4. Which programs can maintain momentum?
Colorado State, Air Force and Boise State are coming off postseason tournament appearances, and now it’s a matter of if they can sustain success. It’s a transition year in the Mountain West before Fresno State and Nevada arrive and TCU departs, so teams will be fighting it out to establish themselves in the top tier of the conference.
Tim Miles appears to have Colorado State best positioned to once again challenge to be in the upper half and put a scare into the frontrunners. The Rams have an opportunity for an early-season confidence booster if they can advance to the NIT Season Tip-Off semfinals at Madison Square Garden. Miles has improved the team’s win total in each of his four seasons, with the Rams now knocking on the door for an NCAA tournament bid.
Air Force has experienced an NCAA tournament as recently as 2006 and also the depths of the Mountain West cellar before being respectable last season. Boise State loses a lot in Leon Rice’s second season, but the Broncos are recruiting well and could continue to improve. We’ll have to see if either team can be a threat.
5. What to expect from Wyoming?
Larry Shyatt returns to Wyoming with few expectations in his first season back, but there’s actually a good amount of talent on his initial roster. USC transfer Leonard Washington becomes eligible and has the ability to be a force in the middle. Senior Afam Muojeke has proven that when healthy, he can be one of the top scorers in the conference, but knee injuries have hampered him through the years. The Cowboys have six seniors on their roster in all, including top returning scorer Francisco Cruz and point guard JayDee Luster.
Can Wyoming be a sleeper team in this league? It’s not easy to tell because the Cowboys disappointed so many times under previous coach Heath Schroyer. A new coaching staff providing a different voice could be just what this team needs.