Ahhh, college basketball is right around the corner, which means it’s time to preview the conferences for the upcoming season. We’re starting a three week period during which we’ll do conference previews for the Mountain West, Colonial, A-10, Missouri Valley, WCC, Big 12, Big 10 and SEC as well as in-depth looks at the ACC, Pac 10 and Big East. I’m kicking it off with the preview of the Mountain West, one of the most under-appreciated conferences in all of college basketball. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the publicity it deserves from the major sports networks like ESPN and FSN and is often seen on networks like CSTV and Versus. This lack of media coverage permits the high quality teams in the MWC to fly under the national radar even if they do deserve to be nationally recognized. I’ll start off with a rundown of each team in the conference from best to worst and then preview the First Team All-Conference players.
1. UNLV Rebels: Coach Lon Kruger and the Rebels have found themselves atop of the MWC the past couple of years and look to make it three straight seasons in the field of 65. One fact that I found astounding is that UNLV’s program has a winning percentage of .716, third in the country behind Kentucky and North Carolina. Kruger is one of the best coaches in the country and will have another great team for the 08-09 campaign. Explosive guard Wink Adams, the favorite to win conference POY, returns to Vegas to provide plenty of scoring as well as strong senior leadership. Fellow senior Rene Rougeau does all the dirty work for the Rebels. He may not put up the biggest numbers, but he has a nose for the ball on defense as well as when he crashes the boards. UNLV will be a team to watch come March because coach Kruger always seems to have his players ready for the big games.
2. Utah Utes: One of the traditional MWC powerhouses looks to return to the top of the league after going 7-9 within the conference last season. The Utes will have to give big man Luke Neville (15.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG in 07-08, which was down from his 06-07 production) plenty of touches in the paint if the Utes are to succeed. Jim Boylen returns all five starters, which is always a plus, but outside of Neville none of those starters have made too big of contributions in the past. Johnnie Bryant was the second leading scorer behind Neville with 14.2 PPG off the bench, but his departure leaves a pretty big hole to fill in the scoring column. Despite the loss of Bryant, the Utes will be much improved from last season and will use their experience and depth to out-play opponents. The Utes could sneak up on UNLV to contend for the MWC crown and possibly get a NCAA tournament bid if everything goes well.
3. San Diego State Aztecs: The Aztecs are going to be a team to look out for in the MWC this season. They return their top eight scorers from last year, they have six seniors on the roster, and boast plenty of athleticism. The scoring was spread around pretty nicely over the course of last season with 4 players in double-digits and their 8th leading scorer averaged almost 6 points per game. After taking his name out of the draft, Louisville transfer Lorrenzo Wade is going to be the Aztecs’ go to guy and Kyle Spain along with Ryan Amoroso will provide plenty of support in the scoring column. SDSU looks like a legitimate contender for the MWC title on paper, but they always seem to under-perform expectations. They could finish anywhere from second (first is a slight stretch) to fifth in the conference, and that’s saying a lot with the weak bottom half of the MWC.
4. BYU Cougars: Unlike Utah and SDSU, the Cougars lost several key contributors from last year’s squad, which was arguably the best team from last year’s version of the MWC. BYU is going to have a tough time making up for the losses of big man Trent Plaisted and guards Ben Murdock and Sam Burgess who combined for 28.2 PPG, 13.6 RPG and 7 APG last year. The Cougars do return leading scorer Lee Cummard as well as Jonathon Taverneri who contributed 13.1 PPG, but the big question is whether these guys can make up for the losses of their big man and point guard, two key components to any good basketball team. Cummard is a great player, but him and Taverneri will have to create a lot of offense on their own, and the Cougars seem to be a little soft on the defensive side of the ball.
5. New Mexico Lobos: The loss of high-flying J.R Giddens is certainly going to hurt the Lobos, but they have a good amount of talent to bring to the table for the 08-09 campaign in Albuquerque. The team is fairly young with only four upperclassmen, but these four players are big contributors for coach Steve Alford. Tony Danridge, who didn’t play at all last season because of a broken leg, returns this season as a senior and will be a key to success for the Lobos. In addition to Danridge, Chad Toppert and Daniel Faris will provide plenty of scoring, and point guard Dairese Gary returns as a sophomore with a year of experience as the starter. I really like the makeup of this team, they all shoot good percentages from the field and there isn’t a standout star requiring all the attention. One problem is the lack of experience on the roster. There are six true freshman on the roster, including SG Phillip McDonald, who could become a key contributor come mid-season, and PF AJ Hardeman, another frosh that will have to step up his game for the Lobos.
6. Air Force Falcons: The Falcons finished in 5th place in the MWC last year, the first under coach Jeff Reynolds. The Falcons may not always have the most talented teams, but they play terrific defense and do the little things to perfection. The team returns just three starters, but sixth-man Andrew Henke, who will be a senior, was the team’s second leading scorer. Fellow seniors Matt Holland and Anwar Johnson will look to improve on their 7-9 record in the MWC from last season, which may be a reach. It’s always tough to succeed under a first year coach, so I think the Falcons will be a good team despite the loss of their heart and soul in Tim Anderson. The ceiling of this team’s success is 7-9 within the conference.
7. Wyoming Cowboys: Heath Schroyer and the Cowboys fell victim to an upset at the hands of Colorado State (0-16 in conference play) in the first round of last year’s MWC tournament. Brandon Ewing, the MWC’s leading scorer from last year, returns in hopes to improve on their disappointing season last year. Ryan Dermody and 7-footer Mikhail Linskens are returning starters from last year and will have to step up their game if the Cowboys want to make some noise in the MWC. Schroyer has brought in several transfers, three if whom are eligible to play in 08-09. The most notable of these transfers is former Wichita State guard Sean Ogirri. Ogirri will combine with Ewing to make up a very strong backcourt for Wyoming. This team’s season is going to ride mostly on the shoulders of Brandon Ewing, and unless they get big contributions from role players, I don’t see them doing too well in the Mountain West.
8. Colorado State Rams: The Rams move up one spot in the rankings after going 0-16 within the conference last season. Like Wyoming, the Rams are going to have to rely a lot on guard Marcus Walker, who was runner up to Ewing in scoring in the conference. The Rams are returning four of their starters from last season and are entering their second year under coach Tim Miles. Things are looking up for the Rams when compared to their winless season in the MWC last year, but don’t expect anything better than a 6th place finish.
9. TCU Horned Frogs: Leading scorer and rebounder Kevin Langford returns to TCU in 08-09, but will his contributions in the paint be enough to propel TCU up the ranks? I really don’t think so. The Horned Frogs only return two starters from last year’s team, Langford and junior guard Jason Elbi. Coach Jim Christian has started to rebuild the program by bringing in five new players, including three JUCO transfers, but his efforts won’t be enough for his team to succeed this season.
First Team All-Mountain West Conference:
G- Wink Adams, UNLV
G- Brandon Ewing, Wyoming
F- Lee Cummard, BYU
F- Lorrenzo Wade, SDSU
C- Luke Neville, Utah