By Kevin Sweeney
I must say, the Mountain West is probably my favorite league to cover in college basketball. Even though the conference as a whole is a bit down from what it has been in the past, it is an incredibly entertaining league to watch and is always full of interesting storylines. This season should be no different, with plenty of interesting clubs at that top that should make the Mountain West one of the most intriguing leagues in the country.
- Nevada- This Nevada team will have a much different look from the squad that won the conference a season ago, but the talent is still very much present for Eric Musselman’s team. A quintet of transfers (Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Kendall Stephens, Hallice Cooke, and Darien Williams) are eligible to play after departing from high-major programs to compliment a returning core that includes star forward Jordan Caroline.
- San Diego State- There are certainly some question marks surrounding SDSU this season, especially given the departure of long-time head coach Steve Fisher. That said, this Aztec team gets a huge boost in the offensive department with the addition of San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, a talented scorer who can play both guard spots.
- Fresno State- The Bulldogs sneakily have one of the better backcourts in college basketball, with Pacific transfer Ray Bowles joining veteran cogs Deshon Taylor, Jahmel Taylor, and Jaron Hopkins. If Bryson Williams can take the next step after a strong freshman season in the frontcourt, Fresno State is a legit MW title contender.
- Wyoming- The Cowboys are a team I’m very high on. Coming off a deep postseason run culminating in a CBI title, Wyoming returns 4 starters and several other key cogs, including a superstar in Justin James (16 ppg, 5 rpg a season ago). A team many are calling a sleeper title contender, don’t forget about the Cowboys in this crowded Mountain West race.
- Boise State- The loss of Paris Austin is a huge blow for Boise, but the Broncos still have the best player in the conference in Chandler Hutchison and a solid core complimenting him. A pair of grad transfers in Lexus Williams (Valpo) and Christian Sengfelder (Fordham) should see action immediately for Leon Rice’s club.
- UNLV- This feels like the right spot to have the Running Rebels in the preseason, but things could go any number of ways for UNLV this season. With a top-15 recruiting class coming in, Marvin Menzies has stocked up with high-level talent. Still, this team is inexperienced and I just don’t know how well the pieces will fit together.
- Colorado State- Larry Eustachy is faced with the near-impossible task of replacing two superstars in Emmanuel Omogbo and Gian Clavell. Still, the pieces are there to make a run, with a budding star in guard Prentiss Nixon in tow as well as one of the conference’s biggest breakout candidates in big man Nico Carvacho. This team should be a factor come conference tourney time.
- New Mexico- This is a bit higher than many of my colleagues have the Lobos finishing in the first year of the Paul Weir era, but I think UNM will be feisty despite the cupboard being seemingly pretty bare. Look for Weir’s club to implement a fast-paced style that fans in “The Pit” will love and for the Lobos to steal some games on their home floor.
- Utah State- The Aggies have one of the most talented players in the conference in sophomore guard Koby McEwen, who averaged almost 15 ppg a season ago. However, an already-thin frontcourt took a big hit when likely starting center Norbert Janicek suffered a season-ending knee injury this summer. McEwen will have to dominate if the Aggies are going to make noise in the Mountain West.
- San Jose State- SJSU was a team I really believed could surprise until the departure of head coach Dave Wojcik and subsequently the transfer of superstar forward Brandon Clarke. Jean Prioleau inherits a roster with a few solid pieces, but I’m just not sold on it winning in the Mountain West without their centerpiece in Clarke.
- Air Force- A 6-man senior class headlined by center Joe Toohey will look to climb the Mountain West standings, but the departures of a pair of talented guards in Hayden Graham and Zach Kocur will make that difficult.
One really can’t say enough about the job that Eric Musselman has done since he arrived in Reno two years ago. In that short time, he’s built a roster that can stand toe-to-toe from a talent perspective with many Power 5 programs. Up and down the roster are versatile offensive weapons who can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. However, what I really like about the Wolf Pack this season is their defensive potential. With the addition of the Martin twins and Kendall Stephens, the team has so many long athletes who can defend multiple positions. They should be able switch everything on screens and use their length to get into passing lanes. The catalyst on that end of the floor is Josh Hall, the unsung hero of this Nevada squad. Hall doesn’t score a ton, but is an excellent floor general and an outstanding defender. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolf Pack wind up in the top 25 at some point this season.
Dark Horse: UNLV
I could have went a lot of different ways here, but I went with the team I believe has the highest upside in the conference in UNLV. The additions of talents like 5-star big Brandon McCoy, #1 JUCO prospect Shakur Juiston, and 4-star combo guard Amauri Hardy certainly give this team the talent they will need to win games, but the cohesiveness will be a big concern. The key to this team in my opinion is Milwaukee transfer PG Jordan Johnson, who averaged over 8 assists per game in 2015-16. He’s the type of distributor who can get all these guys involved and help push the tempo, two key aspects if the Running Rebels are to have success this season.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Prentiss Nixon (Colorado State)
- G: Jaron Hopkins (Fresno State)
- G/F: Chandler Hutchison (Boise State)
- G/F: Justin James (Wyoming)
- F: Jordan Caroline (Nevada)
Player of the Year: Chandler Hutchison (Boise State)- Hutchison is as good a player as you will find at the mid-major level. Ranked #1 on my list of the top mid-major small forwards in the country, Hutchison can do a little bit of everything. He’s a hyper-efficient scorer at all 3 levels, fights hard on the glass, and is an excellent defender who can guard multiple positions. Boise State has to feel like they are in every game if Hutchison is playing.
Breakout Player of the Year: Nico Carvacho (Colorado State)- I couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the candidates I was considering, but I believe Carvacho is ready to make a massive leap as a sophomore. After a productive freshman season in which averaged more than 5 points and 5 rebounds per game in just over 20 minutes per game, I’ve heard rave reviews on Carvacho’s improvement throughout the offseason. He could blossom into a double-double machine.
Newcomer of the Year: Devin Watson (San Diego State)- Watson may not wind up being the best newcomer in the conference, but he’s likely the most important. Watson’s elite playmaking ability to create for himself and others will provide a much-needed lift to a SDSU offense that was anemic at times a season ago. If he makes the kind of contribution I believe he can, this SDSU team will be dangerous on a national level this season.