Utah, Air Force picked to finish in top three

DENVER -- With the return of three double-digit scorers including forward Odarty Blankson and the addition of a proven coach in Lon Kruger, coaches and media Sunday picked Nevada-Las Vegas as the favorite to win the Mountain West Conference

UNLV garnered 14 first-place votes and 182 points. Utah (seven and 169) and last year's regular-season champion Air Force (four and 142) were picked to finished second and third, respectively.

New Mexico (122), Brigham Young (92), Colorado State (87), San Diego State (71) and Wyoming (35) completed the choice of finishes.

"This isn't an easy league to play in," Kruger said. "This is a league with good coaches and where road wins are hard to come by."

Kruger makes his return to college basketball after a four-year hiatus. He coached the NBA's Atlanta Hawks from 2001-03 and is a former coach at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois. He took teams to the NCAA Tournament nine times and reached the Final Four with Florida in 1994.

He inherits a nucleus headed by Blankson, who averaged 17.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. Guards Romel Beck (14.2 points) and Jerel Blassingame (11.2 points) provide Kruger a solid backcourt.

The Rebels aren't without deficiencies.

"We just don't have many big guys," Kruger said. "You like to have the perfect combination of inside and outside, but that's rarely the case."

Utah has a new coach, Ray Giacoletti, but needs to replace clutch shooting forward Nick Jacobson and center Tim Frost. What the Utes have is forward Andrew Bogut and guards Richard Chaney and Tim Drisdom on a team that won the Mountain West's postseason tournament.

Air Force will have to defend its regular-season championship without coach Joe Scott. Scott departed for Princeton leaving an experienced group for his assistant Chris Mooney.