Five offseason questions
1. What are the chances the Mountain West duplicates its four bids in 2013? High. UNLV is a virtual lock. The talent is too rich, the newcomers too tantalizing and the schedule too manageable to blow a bid. San Diego State has its key pieces returning and one of the top home courts in the country. New Mexico losing Drew Gordon makes one pause, but the Lobos play a decent schedule and have plenty of chances. Colorado State has the core of the team returning and a highly successful coach in Larry Eustachy. The chances exist that the MWC could send more than half of its teams, with a fifth bid possibly coming from Nevada. The Wolf Pack enter the Mountain West as a legit contender, with one of the top players in Deonte Burton.
2. What summer storyline has to change by the fall? UNLV needs Anthony Bennett to become eligible. While coach Dave Rice doesn't seem to be fretting the situation too much, Bennett is still getting through the NCAA eligibility center. If he has any hiccups, that would disrupt what should be a sensational season for the Rebels. This team needs to be whole at the beginning for UNLV to have smooth season. There are a few key pieces the Rebs have to incorporate, so getting Bennett cleared is paramount to UNLV's success.
3. Who will be the most important transfer in the MWC? Eustachy is walking into a ready-made team in Fort Collins. He gets to coach a potential space-eater in Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, who will fill the void for the Rams in the middle. Colorado State returns four starters but needed size in the post. Iverson could be the difference-maker for a team that isn't getting much publicity but has a legit shot to exceed last season's success.
4. How will the league's fans handle the departures of Boise State and San Diego State? No offense to Boise, but the Mountain West basketball fan base probably hasn't drummed up much animosity toward the Broncos. They will leave without too much fanfare. San Diego State, meanwhile, doesn't draw the ire of BYU, but the Aztecs have become a winner and a road stop that is one of the most daunting in the country. They have developed legitimate rivalries in this league, and it will be an intriguing watch to see how SDSU will be treated. San Diego State leaves the MWC on a high and should depart pushing for a conference title. Leaving MWC hoops for the Big West could make the Aztecs an easy target.
5. Will the Mountain West be glad it didn't go through with the Conference USA merger? Yes. The MWC/C-USA partnership would have been made for football reasons and wasn't going to produce two automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. The departure of San Diego State will hurt, but the addition of Utah State (along with San Jose State) in 2013 gives the league another quality program capable of earning a berth. The MWC can be a stable 10-team conference with a chance to have four bids on an annual basis. That's a percentage that will be hard for most conferences to match.
Best-case scenario: 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, four of whom (Michael Lyons, Todd Fletcher, Taylor Broekhuis and Mike Fitzgerald) are seniors. This team wasn't as good as its 11-4 start, but it wasn't as bad as its 2-12 finish either. An 18- or 19-win season is within reason.
Worst-case scenario: 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 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 scenario: This team needs an identity. Last season, coach Leon Rice spread the minutes among 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 back for another season, Rice can find his core group of guys and build a rotation designed less around rebuilding and discovery and more around a cohesive, consistent unit.
Worst-case scenario: If Marks, Drmic, Buckner and Elorriaga don't solidify their roles, this team could be right back where it was in 2011-12 -- a mediocre offensive team with strange defensive characteristics. Boise State was actually a great defensive rebounding team last season, allowing the fourth-lowest opponent rebounding percentage in the country. Weirdly, it also allowed a 53.0 percent effective field goal rate. (If shots are going in like that, who needs offensive rebounds?) Much of Boise State'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 scenario: 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, as well as six of last season's top eight. Dorian Green can shoot, Pierce Hornung is an efficient interior scorer, and Wes Eikmeier leads the way in the backcourt.
Worst-case scenario: The Rams still have the coterie of guards who 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. Top recruit Jermaine Morgan didn't academically qualify and asked out of his letter of intent, so the frontcourt could be hurting and this team might finish similarly to 2012. It could be worse, I suppose, but it may not be the step forward expected of this accomplished and experienced group.
Best-case scenario: Whatever success the 2011-12 Bulldogs had came in fits and bursts. They posted five 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 State's sterling low turnover rate while improving every other facet of an ugly offense.
Worst-case scenario: Terry hasn't had more than a year to build this program, and now he is charged with moving from the WAC to the much more difficult confines of the Mountain West. This team was 13-20 in 2011-12 with a 3-11 WAC record that featured two losses to Hawaii and two losses to Louisiana Tech, among others. All due respect, but the Mountain West is no WAC. This season could be rough.
Best-case scenario: Fresno State 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 Washington proved mediocre and Arizona State proved awful, so Nevada didn't have much on its NCAA tournament at-large résumé and found itself in the NIT. Provided this deep team can make up for the losses of Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt (it can), the better conference competition should pay off. The Big Dance is well within reach.
Worst-case scenario: It's a bit difficult to envision, but Nevada could struggle in the transition. UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico are 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.
Best-case scenario: Another exciting season awaits for Steve Alford's resurgent program. All but two players (Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman) return to the lineup, including guards Kendall Williams and Demetrius Walker and swingman Tony Snell. Snell is especially intriguing. He didn't get many touches, but with Gordon gone, he could develop into a major inside-outside threat. With a merely OK recruiting class coming in, UNM won't have the elite, top-end talent of UNLV or SDSU, but it will be in the title chase nonetheless.
Worst-case scenario: Gordon meant more to this team than we're accounting for, and we're accounting for a lot. He was, after all, UNM's most consistent scoring and rebounding threat, and there is no clear successor to that role waiting in the wings. Gordon made the Lobos a great rebounding team. A drop-off could hurt them on both ends of the floor, and Alford's team would take a step back, most likely to fringe bubble territory.
San Diego State
Best-case scenario: Given everything SDSU lost after 2010-11's 32-2 dream season (a ton of seniors and NBA lottery pick Kawhi Leonard), 2011-12's 26-8 mark was a fantastic result. Now the expectations will grow. Sharpshooter Chase Tapley is set for a big final season, while star swingman Jamaal Franklin does a little bit of everything, and does it well. Who will step up around them? Incoming star recruits SG Winston Shepard and SF Matt Shrigley are likely suspects. If both are ready to contribute right away, Fisher will have another deep, versatile, defensively tough group on his hands.
Worst-case scenario: If the freshmen aren't ready right away, SDSU could essentially be the same team it was last season -- a good but not great team held back by an average offense. Franklin could improve his efficiency as a go-to scorer, but the Aztecs need a variety of complementary players to help him out. If that doesn't happen, this is still a solid team -- just not necessarily one that can run with the Rebels at the top of the standings.
Best-case scenario: The sky really is the limit. Second-year coach Dave Rice has sped up the Rebels again, and he has recruited like the glory days, landing highly touted power forward prospect Anthony Bennett, shooting guard Katin Reinhardt, Pittsburgh transfer center Khem Birch (2011's No. 1-ranked center) and potential-rich small forward Savon Goodman. The thought of Bennett, Birch and junior NBA prospect Mike Moser along the front line is a terrifying one for fellow MWC coaches, and that's before you talk about the experienced seniors (Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins) in the backcourt or the depth provided by junior center Carlos Lopez. A conference title is the baseline expectation. Best case? How about a trip to the Final Four?
Worst-case scenario: UNLV has talent, no question, but basketball is always about so much more than that. Will Birch, who essentially bailed on his former teammates after 11 games, come ready to work? Can he, Bennett and Moser coexist in the frontcourt? Can that lineup push the pace, and can Marshall and Hawkins run the up-tempo show with arguably minimal backcourt depth? There is so much potential, but with potential comes questions. We have to see it all in action before we can get too excited -- Birch especially.
Best-case scenario: Larry Shyatt did a magnificent job with last season's team, which, despite minimal personnel changes, improved by 11 wins in his first season on the job. Shyatt will have to hope once-redeemed, again-troubled forward Leonard Washington is OK to play come November, because much of Wyoming's hopes will rest on his individual excellence. If Shyatt is forced to suspend or dismiss Washington for his role in a battery and criminal entry charge this offseason, it will be a young rebuilding year in Laramie.
Worst-case scenario: It may be a long rebuilding year anyway. UW loses three vital seniors (Francisco Cruz, Adam Waddell and JayDee Luster) from last season's team, which got the lion's share of its 21 wins thanks to a cupcake-laden 16-3 start. Even if Washington comes back, the Cowboys could take a step back, and Shyatt can begin the long-term process of laying a real basketball foundation for the Cowboys. We'll see.
Most Important Player
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 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 season ago. Rice doesn't hesitate singling out 6-foot-6 Australian Anthony Drmic, who led the Broncos with a dozen points a game and nearly a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Boise State had its moments last season, and if this team is going to make some noise in the Mountain West, 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 will likely love coaching Hornung, who isn't going to dominate a game but will do all the little things and ensure that he is 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 will need to something similar for the Bulldogs in their first season in the MWC. He is 6-1 and a high-volume shooter. You can make a strong argument that Tyler Johnson or Kevin Foster is more important, but Fresno State 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, 26 against Colorado and 19 against Stanford last season. He won't lack confidence going into the MWC.
Nevada: 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 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 more than 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 last season. He is the type of player who can change the direction of the game and create a run on his own.
UNLV: Mike Moser was a nonfactor when he was at UCLA. Then he became one of the best rebounders in the country at UNLV. 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 April 4 before Washington was sentenced on criminal entry and battery charges based on a fight. So he's out. That puts more pressure on senior Luke Martinez to become Wyoming's best player. He was a stable 11.8 points and four rebounds 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.
-- Andy Katz
Cannon: Best Outside Big Six
We continue today by ranking the top 10 teams outside the big six conferences, including programs from Conference USA, the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and Southern Conference.
Where do UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico rank? To find out, click here .
Five freshmen to watch
Anthony Bennett, UNLV: Bennett was the top uncommitted player in the spring when he signed with the Rebels. ESPN's seventh-ranked prospect gives the Rebs an instant scorer who will draw plenty of attention. The Canadian should complement a veteran crew to give the MWC favorites an incoming star.
Katin Reinhardt, UNLV: Another top-50 prospect for Vegas. The Runnin' Rebels will need him to play multiple positions, including point guard. UNLV needed depth on the perimeter, which Reinhardt can deliver.
Winston Shepard, San Diego St.: The 6-foot-8 forward arrives as the Aztecs' top recruit, an elite prospect with unlimited potential. But a June arrest involving possession of a small amount of marijuana puts in judgment in question at the very least. If he can stay on the court, Shepard will be a major contributor.
Skylar Spencer, San Diego St.: The Aztecs desperately needed depth in the post, and Spencer is expected to give them a major contribution there. He was recruited by a number of similar schools and would have been a rotation player in a number of spots.
Robert Upshaw, Fresno State: The Bulldogs have consistently lacked size lately and needed a wide body in their first year in the league. The 6-11 Upshaw is a local product from San Joaquin Memorial High and will have to deal with that pressure in helping Fresno State be a consistent player in a new league.
-- Andy Katz
Katz: Don't overlook Lobos
It's only July, but Steve Alford isn't holding back one bit about the Mountain West Conference race. Pick UNLV or perhaps San Diego State. Go ahead. Most will.
But before you do, Alford would like to remind you of what the Lobos have done in the past four seasons.
"If you're going to list the other favorites," he said, "make sure that you mention three of the last four [titles] have gone to New Mexico in 2009, 2010 and 2012."
Alford has never been one to lack confidence -- as a player or as a coach. There's nothing wrong with that. There needs to be more of that in the business. He's confident, yet not too cocky.
He knows the Lobos have their deficiencies, notably inside after the departure of Drew Gordon and the knee injury to 7-foot incoming freshman center Obij Aget that will sideline him for the season.
That means the onus will be on 6-11 Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow to become contributors as the lone post players. Kirk missed last season with a herniated disc in his back, while Bairstow played just 15.4 minutes a game with seniors Gordon and A.J. Hardeman in front of him.
"We've been 1 or 2 in the league for five straight years, and to lose a guy like Gordon, that's going to be an issue,'' Alford said.
To read the rest of Andy Katz's story on the Lobos, click here.