Originally Published: August 14, 2013

Five Biggest Offseason Storylines

By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Mountain West logo Jake Roth-USA TODAY SportsThe MWC received five tourney bids in 2013 and now adds Utah State and San Jose State to the fold.

1. Bigger: The past three years of conference realignment have been especially tricky for the Mountain West. For a while there -- when Utah and BYU bolted, and San Diego State and Boise State were set to -- it looked as if the MWC was going to have to do something drastic to survive. That would have been a shame; few basketball leagues have been so consistently entertaining in recent years. You know what happened next: The Big East imploded, splintering into a "new" basketball-oriented version and the newly formed American Athletic Conference. Retrenchment soon turned into expansion. Boise and SDSU remained, joined by new members San Jose State and Utah State, and the end result is a league that remains in excellent basketball shape.

2. Better? Perhaps the most appealing feature of the Mountain West in recent seasons has been its relative dearth of bad teams. This was the case in 2010-11, BYU's (and Jimmer Fredette's) final season, but it was more true than ever in 2012-13. Five of the MWC's nine teams ranked in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency top 60. All five made the NCAA tournament, a ratio you won't find in many other conferences, and just two teams (Fresno State and Nevada) finished with sub.-500 overall records. What will the encore look like? San Diego State lost its two best players in Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley; Colorado State waves farewell to five senior starters. San Jose State looks like an immediate doormat, and Nevada and Utah State -- two quality programs in the midst of retooling -- might still be a year away. Given all that, it's hard to imagine the 2013-14 MWC commanding quite as much collective respect as it has in the past. But the league's future seems secure.

Craig Neal
Steve Conner/Icon SMINeal was a very popular assistant among UNM players and many of them campaigned for him to get the head-coaching gig.

3. New Mexico stays the course: UNM brass probably didn't see it coming. After all, they were in the midst of a major renegotiation with coach Steve Alford; Alford had already signed a 10-year term sheet. And then UCLA, a blue blood frustrated by the lack of interest from the Brad Stevens and Shaka Smarts of the world, came knocking, and all of a sudden, the Lobos needed to replace the man who had revitalized their program (albeit with only minimal NCAA tournament success) in the past six seasons.

This could have been an anxious process; you would have forgiven New Mexico for trying to soothe its poachee's wounds with a big-time hire. Instead, it made the easy play, hiring Alford's top assistant, Craig Neal. Neal might not have the name recognition of many, but (A) New Mexico probably wasn't going to do better on the open market, and (B) his hire provided the continuity the program needed. Now guard Kendall Williams and forward Alex Kirk (as well as Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood) are all back, and UNM looks like the favorite atop the expanded Mountain West. This offseason could have gone a lot worse.

4. Wyoming nightlife alternatives: Last season, Larry Shyatt's second at Wyoming, began with 13 straight wins, including tidy victories over Colorado, Denver and a then-imposing Illinois State. The Cowboys went 7-14 the rest of the way. The dividing line between the first sentence and the second is actually not that hard to pinpoint: In January, senior guard Luke Martinez was charged with aggravated battery and assault stemming from a bar brawl in downtown Laramie, Wyo. Shyatt had to suspend Martinez from the team, and as the Mountain West schedule ramped up, the Cowboys were overwhelmed. This offseason, a pair of Shyatt's players (Derek Cooke Jr. and Charles Hankerson Jr.) have taken steps to avoid any repeat offenses, turning their apartment (which they creatively dubbed "624") into a come-one-come-all team hangout apart from the risks that accompany alcohol and high-profile athletes in public. Wyoming has a lot to replace personnel-wise this season, but it seems well ahead of the chemistry curve.

5. Running in place? UNLV coach Dave Rice has accomplished much in his first two seasons at the program. He has recruited well. He helped one of those recruits (Anthony Bennett) become UNLV's first No. 1 pick in the NBA draft since "Grandmama." He has stuck to his promise to play fast; he has managed to play fast while also playing great defense, which is never an easy thing to pull off. But for all of these positive signs, UNLV's success on the court has been mixed, and the turnover this offseason -- losing seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, would-be senior Mike Moser (who transferred to Oregon) and rising sophomore Katin Reinhardt (who transferred to USC) -- has left gaping holes where a diverse group of talents used to be. Rice has a couple of top-100 players arriving and troubled-but-gifted shooting guard Jelan Kendrick making his way from Indian Hills Community College (after stops at Memphis and Ole Miss). Khem Birch, the No. 1 center (and No. 12-ranked player) in the class of 2011, is the biggest key; if Birch can play up to his potential, UNLV might not miss a beat. Getting these pieces to work in short order is Rice's most pressing challenge. Maintaining program momentum in the years to come will be his most fascinating.

Best-Case/Worst-Case Scenarios

By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Air Force

Best case: Air Force had a nice season last year, finishing strong and even pushing NCAA tournament bubble consideration here and there. But Dave Pilipovich must replace five seniors with a group of now-sophomores and juniors, none of whom earned more than fractional minutes last season. It's a rebuilding year, plain and simple.

Worst case: Not really an issue. Perhaps if AFA falls totally off the map, but that seems unlikely, and even then, when you lose five senior starters from an 18-14 team, what do you expect?

Derrick Marks
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDerrick Marks is part of a loaded BSU team that should contend for the Mountain West title.

Boise State

Best case: The Broncos broke through to the NCAA tournament last season for just the second time since 1994, and they bring back eight of their nine best players, including star volume-scorer Derrick Marks and efficient, versatile wing Anthony Drmic. The tournament is now the baseline goal; a Mountain West title seems within reach.

Worst case: This is always the conundrum with emerging low-turnover teams: We expect them to get better for intangible reasons (cohesion, chemistry, experience), and they often disappoint us. Sometimes teams just are what they are. If Marks doesn't rein things in and be more consistent, that could be Boise's fate.

Colorado State

Best case: Larry Eustachy has a bit of a rebuild on his hands after losing the pack of seniors left over from Tim Miles' tenure, but freshman David Cohn, junior wing Daniel Bejarano and senior forward Gerson Santo represent a solid nucleus moving forward.

Worst case: A tournament bid seems like a stretch even as a best-case scenario here; the worst case would be a drop-off so significant it erases much of the program momentum established in excellent back-to-back seasons.

Fresno State

Best case: Even if the Bulldogs get the Robert Upshaw they recruited (and not the one who posted a 77.2 offensive rating in 22 games last season), this outfit looks at least a year away from the NCAA tournament. Until then, a top-half finish in the conference would suffice.

Worst case: Another sub.-500, so-so season marked primarily by Fresno's inability to shoot (last season's unit made just 39.9 percent of its shots inside the arc, third-worst in the nation).


Best case: Barring some surprises from unexpected young players (Cole Huff? Marqueze Coleman?), David Carter's program should close the 16-win gap between its 2011-12 and 2012-13 performances (which had a lot to do with conference strength) but remain far below the tournament bid threshold.

Worst case: It is still just Nevada's second season in the Mountain West, which almost certainly means more .500-ish (or worse) growing pains for at least another season.

New Mexico

Best case: The Final Four? That might be too lofty, considering this team ended last season at the hands of 14-seed Harvard (and lost defensive star Tony Snell to the NBA draft). But Craig Neal's ability to keep his stars around after Steve Alford's departure makes New Mexico the obvious favorite to repeat as Mountain West champ. At that point, any best-case scenario must include a deep tournament run.

Worst case: If Alex Kirk (or even Kendall Williams) doesn't add to his production this season and UNM suffers noticeably from the loss of Snell on the defensive end, the Lobos will undershoot their lofty 2013-14 expectations. The question is by how much.

Steve Fisher
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenSteve Fisher is aiming for his fifth straight NCAA tourney appearance at San Diego State.

San Diego State

Best case: Steve Fisher has put good teams on the floor in each of the past four seasons, but many fans might not realize how long it took the 11-year veteran to get the Aztecs (and their insane fans) humming. Having lost Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, SDSU's best-case scenario is probably short of the recent success and something more like 2009-10's 25-9 squad -- a group that set the table for the delicious feast to come.

Worst case: Fisher hasn't won fewer than 20 games since 2005, back when San Diego State was almost nonexistent as a basketball entity, and he still has enough talent to avoid that sort of slip this season. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

San Jose State

Best case: Merely playing good, hard, sound fundamental basketball while this struggling program acclimates to a more brutal life in the MWC.

Worst case: Playing bad, disengaged, fundamentally unsound basketball while this struggling program acclimates to a more brutal life in the MWC.


Best case: With a talent such as Khem Birch taking center stage, and given Dave Rice's relative skill in blending quirky lineups in recent seasons (Rice got Katin Reinhardt 324 shots on a team with the No. 1 draft pick, and Reinhardt transferred anyway), it's silly to limit the Rebels' potential here. A tournament bid is probably a safe enough bet, but beyond that?

Worst case: You know you need talent when you place a bet that you can be the first coach to get through to the well-traveled Jelan Kendrick. Sure, Rice still has some pieces, but a coherent whole? The point is this UNLV season can go any number of ways; I'm not sure there's a bigger boom-or-bust group in the country.

Utah State

Best case: Lest we forget, Utah State ranked No. 57, No. 25 and No. 20 in the season's end Pomeroy rankings from 2009 to '11; the relative struggles of the past two seasons are not Stew Morrill's M.O. If everyone (especially Preston Medlin) stays healthy, the Aggies are well-positioned to compete with the rest of the Mountain West and -- by getting some marquee games on the conference calendar -- even benefit from the exchange.

Worst case: Injuries. Or a MWC campaign that proves too daunting for immediate success. As long as Utah State acquits itself well enough in its first MWC season, its fans should be happy for now.


Best case: Luke Martinez's untimely arrest and suspension squandered a 13-0 start that everyone around Wyoming must surely regret. Now Martinez and rebounding menace Leonard Washington are gone, and unless Larry Nance morphs into his dad this summer, aiming for a tourney bid is probably a little too ambitious.

Worst case: Larry Shyatt has won 41 games in two years at UW, but now he must begin filling out his squad with fresh recruits, which is never particularly easy in Laramie. Losing momentum off the court could affect momentum on it; deep lag must be avoided at all costs.


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