Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Mountain West's most important players
By Andy Katz
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on the Mountain West, click here.
The most important player for each team in the MWC ...
Air Force: The Falcons return four starters and Michael Lyons is the most important of them all. As a junior, he was a second-team all-Mountain West performer who led the Academy in scoring with 15.6 points a game and grabbed four boards a contest. The Falcons have consistently done well with experienced players and AFA will be a factor in this race before the season ends, disrupting a team's position in the pursuit of a top-four finish. Lyons will be a part of the problem for the opponent.
Boise State: Leon Rice's most important player was one of his freshmen a year ago. Rice doesn't hesitate singling out 6-6 Australian Anthony Drmic, who led the Broncos with a dozen points a game. He had a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Boise had its moments last season and if this team is going to make some noise in the Mountain West this season, it will be because Drmic improves his scoring and becomes even more of a factor.
Colorado State:Pierce Hornung has been the glue for the Rams. The core of this team returns after an NCAA tournament berth in Tim Miles' final season. Larry Eustachy takes over and he'll likely love coaching Hornung, who isn't going to dominate a game but will do all the little things and ensure that he's a part of most plays. Hornung shot 65 percent last season and has the chance to be a double-double player as a 6-5 wing.
Fresno State:Kevin Olekaibe averaged 17.8 points a game and he'll need to something similar for the Bulldogs in their first season in the MWC. He's just 6-1 but a high-volume shooter. You can make a strong argument that Tyler Johnson or Kevin Foster are more important, but Fresno wants to push the tempo and get the game going at a high pace. To do that, Olekaibe has to produce. He will have to watch his shot selection, but Olekaibe doesn't shy away from the competition, scoring 30 against Arizona State, 19 against Stanford and 26 against Colorado last season. He won't lack confidence going into the MWC.
Nevada: Guard Deonte Burton is one of the top guards in the country that gets no publicity. He has been a consistent scorer for the Wolf Pack during his first two seasons in Reno and hasn't shied away from the big games, scoring 28 points in a four-point loss at UNLV. Burton was arguably the best player on the court in an overtime win over Washington when he scored 31.
New Mexico:Kendall Williams has become a prolific scorer for the Lobos in each of his first two seasons. He was the Lobos' second-leading scorer behind Drew Gordon and arguably the most consistent producer on the perimeter. Williams is the team's best defender and has emerged as its on-court leader. The offense may funnel a bit more through his hands without Gordon as the anchor.
San Diego State: The easy answer is that Jamaal Franklin is the Aztecs' most important player. He averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. But SDSU needs Chase Tapley to do a bit of everything to challenge for the MWC title. Tapley has played over 100 games for the Aztecs and started in 82. He rarely turns it over and averaged 15.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 steals and made 77 3s at a 43.3 percent clip. He's the type of player that can change the direction of the game and create a run on his own.
UNLV:Mike Moser was a non-factor when he was at UCLA. Then he became one of the best rebounders in the country at UNLV last season. Moser was a 14 and 10 performer last season, shining brightly with an 18-rebound game in a stunning upset win over then-No. 1 North Carolina. He topped that with a 21-board performance in an overtime win at Boise State. Moser will be one of the favorites for player of the year in the conference.
Wyoming:Leonard Washington would have been the team's most important player, but coach Larry Shyatt suspended him on April 4 and then Washington was sentenced on criminal entry and battery charges based on a fight. So he's out. That puts more pressure on rising senior Luke Martinez to become Wyoming's best player. He was a stable 11.8-point and four-rebound a game performer. Martinez had his struggles shooting but he can produce when called upon. He has the ability to put up consistent numbers in the teens if he plays within himself. The Cowboys are much more disciplined under Shyatt and Martinez should be an extension of his coach on the court.