Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Best-case/Worst-case: Mountain West
By Eamonn Brennan
As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in the Mountain West:
Best-case: In the past five years, the Falcons have failed to win more than 16 games in any season. Could 2012-13 be the breakthrough season? All five Air Force starters return this season, four of which (Michael Lyons, Todd Fletcher, Taylor Broekhuis and Mike Fitzgerald) are seniors. This team wasn't as good as its 11-4 start, but I don't think it was as bad as its 2-12 finish either. A 18- or 19-win season is within reason.
Worst-case: The Falcons return everyone of note from a team that retrieved just 20.1 percent of its available misses in 2011-12, good for the worst -- yes, the worst -- OR% ranking in all of Division I basketball. Dave Pilipovich's team has to get better on the glass, or its offense (ranked No. 229 in efficiency) will struggle again, and the Falcons will finish around the 10-13 win mark, another totally expected and not-very-fun Air Force basketball season.
Best-case: This team needs an identity. Last season, coach Leon Rice spread the minutes between a 12-man rotation, giving 11 players at least 20 percent of the team's available minutes. The five starters averaged a 59.08 minutes percentage. That's low. With starters Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic, Kenny Buckner and Jeff Elorriaga all back for another season, Rice can find his core group of guys and build a rotation designed less around rebuilding-year discovery and more around a cohesive and consistent unit.
Worst-case: If Marks, Drmic, Buckner and Elorriaga don't solidify their roles, this team could be right back where it was in 2012 -- a mediocre offensive team with strange defensive characteristics. Boise was actually a great defensive rebounding team last season; the Broncos allowed the fourth-lowest opponent rebounding percentage in the country. Weirdly, they also allowed a 53.0 percent effective field goal rate. (If shots are going in like that, who needs offensive rebounds anyway?) Much of Boise's evolution will come down to defense -- whether the Broncos can lock down and make life difficult before the opponent's shot goes in the air.
Best-case: Losing Tim Miles to Nebraska hurts, but landing Larry Eustachy -- a proven and redemptive figure -- counts as a major offseason coup for the Rams. It's actually a win-win, because Miles left behind an experienced, NCAA tournament-seasoned team. Five of CSU's top six rotation members will be seniors this season, and six of last year's top eight. Dorian Green can really shoot it, Pierce Hornung is an efficient interior scorer, and Wes Eikmeier leads the way in the backcourt. If 6-foot-8 Chicago prep prospect Jermaine Morgan shows up ready to help on the low block, this team could be a MWC contender.
Worst-case: The Rams still have the coterie of guards that got them to the tournament last season, and Hornung is still an admirable player -- a 6-foot-5 guy who has somehow made himself into a power forward. But the Rams desperately need size. If Morgan isn't ready yet (and he may be a project for at least a year), then this team will finish similarly to 2012, and that's assuming the coaching transition works out. It could be worse, I suppose, but it may not be the step forward expected of this accomplished and experienced group.
Best-case: Whatever success the 2011-12 Bulldogs had came in fits and bursts. They posted five different sets of back-to-back wins, which were always followed up with at least two (and often times three or four) consecutive losses. Can former Texas assistant Rodney Terry build more consistency in his second year? If so, it will likely come thanks to rising juniors Kevin Olekaibe, Jerry Brown and Tyler Johnson (along with touted freshman Robert Upshaw), who will be charged with maintaining Fresno's sterling low turnover rate while improving every other facet of an awfully ugly offense.
Worst-case: Terry hasn't had more than a year to build this program yet, and now he's charged with moving from the WAC to the much more difficult confines of the Mountain West. This team was 13-20 in 2012, with a 3-11 WAC record that featured two losses to Hawaii and two losses to Louisiana Tech, among others. All due respect, the Mountain West is no WAC. This season could be rough.
Best-case: Fresno might not be helped by the move to the Mountain West, but you can bet Nevada coach David Carter is champing at the bit. His Wolf Pack went 28-7 last season and didn't lose a game from Nov. 26 to Feb. 4. But because Washington proved mediocre and Arizona State proved awful, Nevada didn't have much on its NCAA tournament at-large resume, and instead found itself in the NIT. Provided this very deep team can make up for the losses of Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt (and it can), the better conference competition should pay off. The Big Dance is well within reach.
Worst-case: It's a bit difficult to envision, but Nevada could struggle in the transition. UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico are all viable tournament teams, and if Nevada slips up early or fails to find its MWC footing, it could finish fifth in a league that will have a hard time convincing the committee that more than half of the league deserves to get in.
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Mountain West, click here.