By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: The Mountain West Conference has undergone a major facelift heading into the 2012-13 campaign. While the league has lost TCU to the Big 12 Conference, it has added both Nevada and Fresno State from the Western Athletic which should make things very interesting as the new teams try to settle in against programs that have been mainstays in the league for quite some time.
That transition for the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack, along with the Boise State Broncos who are entering their second year in the MWC, probably won't upset the premier teams in this league who are expected to draw most of the attention.
The San Diego State Aztecs have been in this position before, hunted by the rest of the league, but for a team that has won at least 25 games in each of the last four campaigns, they seem to be comfortable with how the polls have broken out yet again.
SDSU has the luxury of bringing back four starters and seven letterwinners overall, not to mention again mining some smaller college programs for quality transfers and picking up top-notch talent right out of high school
The UNLV Runnin' Rebels are always good for an upset or two and could cause quite a disruption if they are able to show the rest of the league how to take down the Lobos and Aztecs. UNLV and SDSU have been identified as the 18th- and 20th-ranked teams in the nation according to the opening Associated Press Poll, and that's reason enough to believe that they, along with New Mexico, will be the teams expected to get caught in a battle for league supremacy.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: San Diego State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. San Diego State; 2. UNLV; 3. New Mexico; 4. Colorado State; 5. Wyoming; 6. Nevada; 7. Boise State; 8. Fresno State; 9. Air Force
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SAN DIEGO STATE: The 2011-12 MWC Player of the Year is back for another go with the Aztecs, as Jamaal Franklin suits up for head coach Steve Fisher once again. The league's leading scorer from a year ago with his 17.4 ppg, it should come as little surprise that Franklin has also been named the MWC Preseason Player of the Year as well considering how much damage he can inflict on the competition each time he steps on the floor. Because of Franklin, the Aztecs were a major force in the MWC a year ago, finishing 10-4 in conference and 26-8 overall, but even he could not keep the squad from making an early exit in the postseason. Franklin was responsible for nearly eight rebounds per game and knocked down 80 percent of his free-throw attempts, which is key for someone who plays so hard in the paint. Not only does SDSU have Franklin coming back, so are three other starters in James Rahon, Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames. Tapley is the man who handles the action out on the perimeter, his 15.8 ppg based quite a bit on his three-point shooting (77-of-178), which was some of the most accurate in the league last year. Thames (10.1 ppg) isn't the sort to light up the scoreboard, instead he's the one to make sure that he is finding teammates in quality scoring situations, leading to his team-high 128 assists. Despite converting just 59.5 percent of his free-throw tries, a more dire 54.5 percent in conference outings, Rahon (8.9 ppg) is still a vital piece to the offensive puzzle for San Diego State. If there were one key area in which the program needed to see some improvement it would be interior defense or, more specifically blocked shots, of which they averaged just 2.3 per game a year ago to rank 288th in the nation.
UNLV: The Rebels had the top scoring offense in the conference and ranked 25th in the country last year with 76.3 ppg, much of that being attributed to someone like Mike Moser, the MWC Newcomer of the Year, who turned out to be a real terror in the paint. As someone who averaged a double-double with 14.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg, both of which were team highs, having Moser return to the program and not test the NBA Draft is a key reason why head coach Dave Rice again has a squad that can be considered a national power. However, just like San Diego State, the Rebels were shown the door in the postseason far too early and that was tough to swallow in Sin City. The team put up a 26-9 record overall and was a perfect 7-0 at home in conference play, but out on the road it was a different story as familiar league foes defeated UNLV five out of seven opportunities, and that may have taken some of the wind out of the team's sails. A starter in all but one game, Moser was often the go-to guy for the Rebels, but with the scoring so evenly balanced he wasn't always the one who had to play big for the team to win. Problem is, this year the Rebels are having to replace a total of three former starters and that will not be an easy task, even with Moser taking the lead in many situations. Teaming with Anthony Marshall once more will certainly take some of the pressure off Moser, with Marshall having averaged some very strong numbers with 12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game a year ago. Senior guard Justin Hawkins (7.9 ppg) will probably have much more on his plate this year since he is one of the more experienced returnees, particularly since there's a total of nine new faces on the roster.
NEW MEXICO: Head coach Steve Alford has always put together a great combination of players at New Mexico and this year is no exception, even though many think he and the Lobos will be trying to keep pace with SDSU and UNLV throughout the campaign. New Mexico has every reason to believe it can keep up with the Aztecs and Rebels, especially since the Lobos tied for the regular-season title last season, won the tournament crown and turned out to be the only MWC squad to win in the NCAA Tournament. Playing in The Pit was again a huge boost for the Lobos, who finished 14-2 in the building in 2011-12, and figures to be yet again as the fan base in Albuquerque gives visitors more than just the players on the floor something to think about. This time around the UNM roster is quite a mixed bag, but most notably there are just two seniors (Jamal Fenton and Chad Adams) and together they didn't even average double digits in scoring so the Lobos will have to reach a bit deeper into that bag in order to keep up with the other elite teams in the league. Getting much of the attention will be sophomore guard Kendall Williams who is the top returning scorer after putting up 12.1 ppg. As someone who made it to the free-throw line more often than anyone else last season, Williams wasn't afraid to get physical but this time around he can't play so tough that it forces him to take a seat on the bench because the Lobos also need his passing ability which resulted in a team-high 142 assists. The days of beating opponents on the glass by more than six rebounds per game might be gone with the departure of Drew Gordon (13.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg), but that just means someone like Hugh Greenwood and/or Cameron Bairstow will have to make even more of a contribution on the glass. Junior guard Tony Snell (10.5 ppg) will again be a perimeter threat for a squad that knocked down close to 38.0 percent beyond the arc.
COLORADO STATE: Despite finishing last season with a record of 20-12 overall and 8-6 in conference play, the Rams begin the 2012-13 campaign with a new coaching staff led by Larry Eustachy who has come over from Southern Miss where he led the Golden Eagles to a 25-9 record a year ago and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Eustachy has seven players returning that lettered last season for Colorado State, the most important of those being Wes Eikmeier who earned First-Team All-MWC honors when he led CSU in scoring with 15.5 ppg. Eikmeier is also the top returning three-point threat for the program after knocking down 55 triples last season, converting long-distance shots at a 36.9 percent clip. As a team, while the Rams were rather frugal in their attempts to light up the scoreboard from beyond the arc, they did shoot the ball well enough to convert 40.0 percent of their tries which was seventh- best in the entire nation. As a group, the Rams were also sixth in the country in free-throw shooting (.768) and 32nd from the floor overall (.471). Dorian Green, who along with Eikmeier was the only player to start all 32 games a season ago, was also the only other double-digit scorer with 13.1 ppg, thanks in large part to his 42.6 percent accuracy out on the perimeter. While those two handle the action on the outside, Pierce Hornung (8.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg) will be asked to bull his way around in the paint in order to give Colorado State a presence on the glass.
WYOMING: Youth will rule in Laramie this season as the Cowboys get ready to start the 2012-13 campaign with a host of new faces and just three seniors on a squad that last year finished 21-12 in one of their most successful campaigns in the last decade. Head coach Larry Shyatt returns with a Wyoming squad that began last season with 14 wins in the first 16 outings, but the team wasn't given much credit due to most of the victims on that schedule and perhaps the wait-and-see approach was warranted due to the fact that the Cowboys finished conference play just 6-8. Coming back for another season are Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez, the two seniors who have the most experience among a very young roster. Washington played just 26 minutes per game, but during that time he was able to generate a team-high 12.9 ppg and was also the top man on the glass with close to seven rebounds per outing. Remaining close to the basket is key for Washington who, in addition to blocking a team-best 37 shots, he shot 56.0 percent from the floor which helped to offset his mere 30.4 percent effort behind the three-point line. Martinez (11.8 ppg) accounted for 81 of the unit's 197 three-point baskets, but knocking that defenses will probably pressure him a bit more out on the perimeter this year. Above all, the program will again be defensively driven after holding opponents to just 56.2 ppg last season, which was not only tops in the league but it was also sixth-best nationally.
NEVADA: The Wolf Pack took a couple of missteps coming out of the gate last season, losing immediately to Missouri State and UNLV, but the team was able to right the ship rather quickly under head coach David Carter, eventually putting together a 16-game win streak in order to take control of the Western Athletic Conference. The team finished with a glistening 13-1 mark in conference play and was 28-7 overall. Unfortunately, the Pack lost in the conference tournament and was relegated to the NIT where it defeated both Oral Roberts and Bucknell before being downed by Stanford in an ugly 84-56 decision. Not only does Nevada have to pick up where it left off last year after so much success during the regular season, it must do so in a new conference with a new group of foes. The good news is that the Pack returns three starters in junior guard Deonte Burton, senior guard Malik Story and junior guard Jerry Evans, Jr., each of whom started all 35 games for the program and were equally as valuable in one capacity or another. But the focal point of the program will again be Burton who was named the WAC Player of the Year, a First-Team All-WAC performer and AP honorable mention All-America as he delivered 14.8 ppg and handed out 148 assists. Burton also made good on 79.7 percent of his free-throw attempts which is rather significant given that the team as a whole made good on just 65.0 percent at the charity stripe which was 288th in Division I. Story (14.1 ppg) is the three-point threat for the team after hitting 94-of-226 (.416), which means the squad has the perimeter locked down, but now they need to find suitable replacements for Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt who combined to pull down more than 16 rebounds per contest.
BOISE STATE: The change over from the Western Athletic to the Mountain West Conference wasn't nearly as smooth as the Broncos would have liked last season. The team's non-league slate proved to be easy enough in the early going as they opened the campaign with eight wins in their first nine outings, but then reality set in, as did the defeats. Boise State ended up just 3-11 in league action and carries a five-game losing streak into this year as a result. Entering his third year in Idaho, head coach Leon Rice has the luxury of bringing back four starters from a year ago which should ensure that the team doesn't bottom out in the standings, but nothing is ever written in stone. Leading the way for the Broncos will against be Anthony Drmic who made a huge contribution as a first-year player in 2011-12 with 12.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 2.1 apg. Also one of the team leaders with 33 steals, Drmic often carried the program even as he shot just 38.1 percent from the field and 31.7 percent behind the three-point line. Fellow sophomore Derrick Marks (9.4 ppg) tied for the team lead in assists with 62, but at the same time he was guilty of 69 turnovers so the trade-off wasn't quite as equitable as coach Rice would have liked. Marks also led the team in blocked shots with a grand total of 12, a disappointing number for sure as the team ranked 316th in the country with a mere 1.9 rejections per contest. A part-time starter a year ago, Kenny Buckner (8.4 ppg) must get off to a fast start to be effective and the team also needs a healthy Jeff Elorriaga (6.0 ppg) to boost his scoring numbers as well.
FRESNO STATE: Head coach Rodney Terry has his hands full as he enters his second season with the Bulldogs. Not only has Fresno State made the move to the Mountain West Conference from the Western Athletic, generating a new set of league rivalries that the team will have to grasp over the next several months, but he also has to whip a huge number of new players into shape in order for them to assist in the transition this season. Fresno State has seven freshmen on the roster, compared to just six combined juniors and seniors, so there is bound to be some growing pains over at the Save Mart Center. Most notable among the returnees is junior guard Kevin Olekaibe who never met a shot he didn't like. Playing in excess of 36 minutes per game, Olekaibe led the team in scoring a year ago with 17.8 ppg, but one should expect him to have big numbers given the fact that he let fly with a staggering 508 shots from the floor. To put it in perspective, Olekaibe attempted 272 shots from three-point range, making 92 of them, and his attempt total from beyond the arc was four more than anyone else on the team had attempted from the floor overall. What the Bulldogs came to find out was that having just one player who was so determined to shoot the ball all of the time wasn't the way to put tallies in the win column, since FSU finished 13-20 overall and just 3-11 in conference play. Olekaibe needs to give up some of his selfishness in order for teammates like Jerry Brown (8.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Kevin Foster (8.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) to feel as though they have a significant role on the team moving forward.
AIR FORCE: As is always the case with the service academies, the list of quality players is quite limited due to the standards set by the school and as such, a team like Air Force is constantly being billed as one of the cellar dwellers in the Mountain West. Last year, the team performed quite well in non-conference action, posting a 10-5 mark, but a mere 3-11 effort in league play forced the squad to make a change in head coach which means Dave Pilipovich is now set to begin his first full season as the man in charge at the Academy. The good news for the Falcons is that they have four starters returning this season, one of whom is senior Michael Lyons who needs just three more points to become the program's 23rd 1,000-point scorer. Lyons, a Second-Team All-MWC performer, was often at the top of the scoring list for Air Force and as such led the team with an average of 15.6 ppg, although he did miss a handful of games during the non-conference portion of the schedule. Senior Mike Fitzgerald (10.4 ppg) was the only other player to average double figures a season ago and figures to be another important piece of the puzzle on offense moving forward since he is one of the top three-point threats the school has ever had. Taylor Broekhuis (9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) gave the team a presence in the paint that always seems to be lacking, but still the Falcons ranked 316th in the country in rebound margin with minus-5.4 board per outing. Slowing down the tempo has often been the key to success for this group and keeping scoring low will again be a focal point heading into the 2012-13 campaign.