For years, the Mountain West was about Steve Fisher’s San Diego State teams and just how deep those squads might go in March. Steve Fisher is gone, and the balance of power has most certainly switched from San Diego to Reno, Nevada. Eric Musselman has done an amazing job building a powerhouse program. The Wolf Pack reached the Sweet Sixteen last season and enter this year as a legitimate Final Four contender. Nevada’s success should also help the rest of the league, as anyone that knocks them off this year will add a very good win to their resumes. The Mountain West looks like a multi-bid league, and it would not be a shock to see at least three teams dancing from this conference.
Beyond Nevada, the top two candidates to play after Selection Sunday are New Mexico and San Diego State. Paul Weir has the Lobos headed in the right direction after a great first season at the helm. Although he does not return much from last season’s lineup, a couple of key transfers and his ability to meld players together should equal success. San Diego State will be tough again and look to return to the Big Dance. Also keep an eye on UNLV, where head coach Marvin Menzies looks like he has finally sorted things out and has the Rebels headed back to being among the conference’s elite.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Nevada – This is the Mountain West and we are talking about a team that looks like a legitimate Final Four contender. The Wolf Pack are stacked this season, from twins Caleb (MW Player of the Year) and Cody (MW Defensive Player of the Year) Martin, to Jordan Caroline, to freshman Jordan Brown who could have had a spot on pretty much any team in the nation. The frontcourt is even deeper with the addition of Old Dominion graduate transfer Trey Porter (over 13 points per game last season). The only question is the heath of point guard Lindsey Drew, but even if he cannot play, Cody Martin proved last season that he is more than capable of running the point too.
- San Diego State – The Aztecs won 22 games and made the NCAA Tournament in Brian Dutcher’s first season at the helm, and similar results could be on tap for this season. The team does need to find a way to replace Trey Kell in the backcourt and Malik Pope down low, but Jeremy Hemsley should slide back into the starting lineup alongside Devin Watson at guard and having Jalen McDaniels pull his name out of the NBA Draft will help a ton down low.
- New Mexico – Paul Weir inherited a mess at New Mexico last season and promptly found a way to win 19 games and finish in third place. The Lobos only return one player who averaged more than 10 points a game last season, but one should not bet against Weir’s ability to patch a team together, especially with the additions of two key transfers, Vance Jackson (Connecticut) and Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State). Bragg will not be eligible until after the first semester and must stay away from off-court problems that plagued him at his prior two schools. A third transfer, JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State) is out for the season with an injury, which hurts the team’s chances a lot.
- UNLV – The Rebels took a major step forward last season, notching 20 wins after losing 21 games the year before. Two of the top three scorers from last season are gone, but the one that does return, Shakur Juiston, averaged a double-double and should be a force this season as well. The Rebels may not be able to contend for the league title, but they will not be an easy out anymore either.
- Wyoming – Three starters and six other players are all gone from last season’s 20-13 team, making this a bit of a rebuilding year for head coach Allen Edwards. The good news is that Justin James, who tied for the Mountain West scoring lead at 18.9 points per game last season, is back. The Cowboys also add in redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson who, at 6-10 with the ability to knock down 3’s, has a chance to make some serious noise in this conference.
- Boise State – Leon Rice has guided the Broncos to 20 or more wins each of the past six seasons but extending that streak may be difficult this season. Three of the team’s top four scorers are gone including NBA Draft first round pick Chandler Hutchison. Leading returnee Justinian Jessup will need to get immediate help from former bench players and a couple of Juco transfers for this team to have success.
- Fresno State – Rodney Terry somewhat surprisingly left Fresno State for the UTEP job after last season. The Bulldogs now welcome in Justin Hutson, and it looks like a rebuild is ahead with only one double-digit scorer returning. The good news is that one player is Deshon Taylor, who averaged over 17 points per game on route to an All-Mountain West first team selection.
- Colorado State – Last season was a disaster, to say the least, that ended with 12 losses in the final 13 games and head coach Larry Eustachy being placed on administrative leave and eventually stepping down. The Rams need to rebuild almost from the ground up. They may have found the right man to lead the way in former Tim Miles assistant Niko Medved, who more than doubled Drake’s win total in his one year on the job there. Medved has another Niko (or at least Nico) – Nico Carvacho – to help with the rebuild effort. Carvacho is a double-double machine that should cause the Rams’ opponents a ton of headaches.
- Utah State – The Aggies have a new coach in former South Dakota head man Craig Smith. Smith has his work cut out for him especially after star point guard Koby McEwen decided to transfer to Marquette. Keep an eye on guard Sam Merrill this season as he averaged over 16 points per game last year and will be looked on to score even more this season.
- Air Force – The Falcons have veteran leadership. The Falcons also finished 12-19 with these same players last season and are undersized compared to the rest of the conference. In other words, this team may be competitive and pull off an upset or two, but don’t expect them to contend for an upper division finish.
- San Jose State – Jean Prioleau took over the San Jose State head coaching job last August and may be wondering why he did so. The Spartans not only finished a horrible 4-26 last year, but they then saw their top three returning players all transfer out. The cupboard is now empty, so it is time to rebuild from the bottom up. With a roster filled with underclassmen, this season may be more about kids learning to play and, hopefully, things can start looking up in the next few.