Friday, September 27, 2013

32 In 32: Mountain West

Boise State guard Anthony Drmic is latest in a long line of prolific Mountain West shooters, and returns to hopefully lead Broncos back to NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Our "32 In 32" series profiles its final mid-major tonight before opening the anchor leg of our previews with the six BCS conferences starting this Monday, and tonight's subject is a mid-major that has produced some of the best basketball in the nation on an annual basis for the last several years.

The Mountain West again figures to be a multiple-bid league, with a handful of teams sure to be on the positive side of the bubble in what now becomes an eleven-team conference with the arrivals of Utah State and San Jose State from the Western Athletic Conference. After much deliberation with friend of the site and Mountain West aficionado David Rochford earlier in the week on how the MWC would ultimately play out, the following is our conclusion of where we see the reigning RPI kings of college hoops:

1) New Mexico - Tony Snell's decision to enter the NBA Draft, where he was subsequently selected 20th overall by the Chicago Bulls this past June, leaves Los Lobos with four returning starters in their first year under new head coach Craig Neal, who moved one chair over on the bench after Steve Alford left for UCLA. Snell's departure will not have much of an effect on the backcourt, as senior point guard Kendall Williams returns following a season where he led New Mexico in scoring while also averaging nearly five assists per game and had an assist to turnover ratio of more than 2:1. Williams' partner in the backcourt, Australian junior Hugh Greenwood, should come close to doubling last year's seven points per game as he seeks to improve his 36 percent clip from three-point range, prompting more tweets like this one from one of his biggest fans in Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner:

Up front for the Lobos, seven-foot junior Alex Kirk will be a double-double per game player with just the slightest improvement on the glass, and 6-9 Australian senior Cameron Bairstow could make a similar progression after posting nearly ten points and six rebounds per contest last year. The UNM bench is not as deep as last season, but still sufficient enough with sophomore guard Cleveland Thomas teaming with a trio of freshmen that includes 6-7 swingman Devon Williams and Neal's oldest son, Cullen.

2) Boise State - Remember this name for the Broncos: Anthony Drmic. A 6-6 junior swingman, the Australian "Drmictologist" had a breakout sophomore season, averaging almost eighteen points per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range on his 80 treys during Boise State's run to the NCAA Tournament. 

Point guard Derrick Marks will be Drmic's running mate and biggest supporter, returning off a sixteen-plus point per game average that included nearly four assists per contest, and senior marksman Jeff Elorriaga completes Leon Rice's trio of starting guards with a lethal weapon of an outside shot that made 88 three-pointers at a 45 percent rate last season. Igor Hadziomerovic is a deceptively strong scoring guard who could allow Drmic to create more opportunities on the wing for the Broncos, who will run a "four out, one in" offense that features 6-9 senior Ryan Watkins as the go-to guy in the paint. Sophomore guard Mikey Thompson is the top incumbent reserve on a Boise bench that is deeper than some others in the MWC.

3) UNLV - Dave Rice has a bigger challenge after the Rebels' latest early exit in the NCAA Tournament, as he must now lead UNLV back to the field of 68 without the best point guard in the league last season in Anthony Marshall, as well as No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Anthony Bennett, whose time in Las Vegas ended after just one season. Rice's roster, which has been historically deep and loaded with mounds of talent since he arrived in Sin City, is still a championship-caliber unit that is now led by junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who now mentors a youthful backcourt that got even younger when Katin Reinhardt transferred to USC, but one that also picks up Jelan Kendrick, once a highly regarded recruit that was unable to stick at Memphis or Mississippi due to a litany of problems off the hardwood. Up front, UConn expatriate Roscoe Smith is now eligible, and helps create an ex-Big East interior duo as he joins Pittsburgh castoff Khem Birch in the paint. With Mike Moser having transferred to Oregon, expect swingman Savon Goodman and 6-11 senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa to see significant minutes this season.

4) Utah State - Stew Morrill brings an Aggies team that was a WAC powerhouse for the past several years right into the fire for their Mountain West debut, and their returning core should give their vocal and supportive fans reason to cheer early and often alongside one of the best student sections in the nation. Seniors Jarred Shaw and Spencer Butterfield combine to form an inside/outside scoring duo that can score and rebound in equal parts, as evidenced by their combined 26 points and 15 rebounds per game last season. After being limited to only sixteen games last year, leading scorer Preston Medlin returns for the full campaign as he enters his senior year on the wing, joined by Marcel Davis, who should have a breakout sophomore season as the Aggie point guard. In the frontcourt, junior forward Ben Clifford and 6-10 center Jordan Stone will see frequent opportunities to increase their offensive output while joining Shaw in the lane.

5) San Diego State - Always a force to be reckoned with thanks to a roster that perennially exceeds expectations, a credit to the coaching acumen of Steve Fisher, the Aztecs are an underrated fifth in the preseason picks this year, and must replace a trio of starters headlined by superstar guard Jamaal Franklin, who was a second-round pick in June's NBA Draft. Also gone are point guard Chase Tapley and forward DeShawn Stephens due to graduation, but San Diego State picks up senior forward Josh Davis immediately as a graduate transfer after he averaged a double-double at Tulane last season. At 6-8 and 215 pounds, Davis is a slightly taller version of Kawhi Leonard, who was instrumental in the Aztecs' run to the Sweet 16 in 2011. Fellow senior Xavier Thames will likely replace Tapley at the point guard position, with freshman Dakarai Allen expected to contribute early and often as Fisher looks to replace the void left by Franklin. Junior J.J. O'Brien reprises his role as San Diego State's leading rebounder, and Winston Shepard is on the precipice of a breakout sophomore campaign after the Findlay Prep product displayed exceptional defensive skills as a freshman. Junior forwards James Johnson and Dwayne Polee, the latter of whom was part of an NCAA Tournament team as a freshman at St. John's, headline a deceptively deep bench.

6) Wyoming - Larry Shyatt and the Cowboys got off to a sensational 13-0 start last season before struggling through a Mountain West schedule in which Wyoming came back down to earth by losing all but four of their sixteen conference games. With each of their three top scorers gone this season, the Cowboys will place the bulk of their offensive trust in junior forward Larry Nance Jr., a carbon copy of his former Phoenix Sun and Cleveland Cavalier father, who also wears No. 22 to pay homage to his dad. The younger Nance averaged nearly eleven points and seven rebounds last season, and will get several chances to improve those numbers early on with guards Riley Grabau and Josh Adams; not to be confused with our friend of the same name who does exceptional work for College Hoops Digest, returning to the starting lineup. Expect 6-9 junior Derek Cooke and Australian sharpshooter Nathan Sobey to see increased minutes as they transition into more integral parts of the offense.

7) Fresno State - Senior shooting guard Tyler Johnson, the Bulldogs' lone double-figure scorer last season, comes back to lead the offense for Rodney Terry as Fresno State attempts to jump into the top half of the Mountain West. Fellow senior Allen Huddleston, who shot 32 percent from three-point range last year, should be a more accurate and consistent option as he enters the starting lineup on a full-time basis, as does sophomore Marvelle Harris. A major concern for the Bulldogs will be their front line, which will lean heavily upon 6-11 sophomore Tanner Giddings and fellow second-year forward, 6-9 Canadian import Braeden Anderson.

8) Colorado State - Even though this year's incarnation of the Rams will be much younger than last year's NCAA Tournament round of 32 unit, one thing remains certain, and that is the aggressive and hard-nosed rebounding style that has made Larry Eustachy's team among the nation's most formidable opponents on the glass. With all five Ram starters having graduated, junior guard Daniel Bejarano becomes the hub of the wheel, with Jon Octeus likely replacing Dorian Green at the point guard position. Burgeoning big man Gerson Santo has a huge task ahead of him in replacing one of the nation's best rebounders in Colton Iverson, with 6-10 junior college transfer Marcus Holt expected to make an equally significant impact.

9) Nevada - The alma mater of one of the hardest working men in the business, that being former St. John's University athletic communications staff member Billy Lee, (on that note, any university administrator with an opening in their sports information office should get into contact with Mr. Lee) the Wolf Pack enters the season without sharpshooter Malik Story, but returns point guard Deonte Burton for his senior year after the Los Angeles native averaged over sixteen points and three assists per game. Senior swingman Jerry Evans should approach a double-double per game with just enough improvement on the offensive end, with sophomores Marqueze Coleman and Cole Huff leading Nevada's supporting cast.

10) Air Force - With an unorthodox style that makes them impossible to adequately prepare for, the Falcons rebound from an 18-14 season by having to replace each of their top six scorers. The depth that coach Dave Pilipovich enjoyed last season will now be thrown into the fire this season, with junior forward DeLovell Earls serving as the top source of production despite averaging 3.9 points per game last year. Junior forwards Marek Olesinski and Kamryn Williams will see significant minutes early, as will sophomore Tre' Coggins, who will replace Todd Fletcher at the point for the Academy.

11) San Jose State - Senior forward Chris Cunningham will be the biggest contributor as the Spartans make their Mountain West debut after a 9-20 campaign in the WAC. Cunningham, who averaged almost eleven points to go with his nine rebounds per game, should instantly average a double-double this season in what will be one of the few bright spots as San Jose State makes the transition to their new home. Junior point guard D.J. Brown will have to be equal parts producer and leader this season, as four of the six freshmen on the Spartan roster are guards that the Los Angeles native will mentor.

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