By Kevin Sweeney
The Mountain West is back on the rise. After 2 seasons of getting just one bid to the NCAA Tournament, Nevada earned an at-large bid last season, and the Pack are now national titles this season. Meanwhile, two of the league’s premier programs in New Mexico and San Diego State are back on the rise after short downturns, and the league has a great chance to get multiple bids again in 2018-19.
Perhaps no mid-major (depending on how you classify Gonzaga) has entered a season with better national title hopes than the Wolf Pack, which enters the 2018-19 season a consensus top 10 team. Three stars in the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline return after flirting with the NBA Draft, and Eric Musselman added 5-star big man Jordan Brown along with elite grad transfer center Trey Porter to the mix this offseason. Nevada is deep, absurdly talented, and has tons of size (a weakness last season). Finding minutes for all this talent has been a consistent topic of conversation, but I’m more concerned with the potential floor-spacing issues playing 2 big men raises (though Brown has reportedly been adding a 3-pointer to his repertoire, which would help.
Watching Eric Musselman build this program the way he has in such a short period of time has been a joy, and the Pack will definitely be one of the most exciting teams in the country this season.
#2. San Diego State
After an up-and-down start to MWC play last season, Brian Dutcher’s club rattled off nine straight wins, including a pair of wins over Nevada, to earn the league’s auto-bid and go dancing. Stalwarts Malik Pope and Trey Kell graduate from that group, but optimism is high with the Aztecs this season thanks to the return of athletic big man Jalen McDaniels along with lead guard Devin Watson and swingman Matt Mitchell. The Aztecs got back to playing excellent defense while having plenty of offensive firepower, and the potential improvement of Mitchell and McDaniels has SDSU fans salivating. This team can contend for an at-large bid.
#3. New Mexico
The Lobos were dealt a crushing blow in recent weeks when Ohio State transfer JaQuan Lyle tore his achilles, ending perhaps their best player’s season before it could begin. However, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism in Albuquerque, with a pair of blue-chip transfers in Vance Jackson (UConn) and Carlton Bragg (Arizona State– 2nd SEMESTER ELIGIBLE) joining a strong returning core from a UNM team that overachieved in year one under Paul Weir. Weir now has the personnel to play his pressing defense, which struggled in virtually every facet but forcing turnovers last season. The biggest key will be the point guard spot, where JUCO import Keith McGee appears likely to get the call early. He won’t be what Lyle was, but he’s a highly-regarded prospect who played well down the stretch for one of the nation’s top JUCOs, South Plains College.
#4. Colorado State
Last year, Niko Medved inherited a Drake program with lots of returning talent and took the Bulldogs to a top-4 finish in the Missouri Valley, their best finish since 2011-12. Medved gets a chance to do something similar at CSU, where he spent time as an assistant before getting his first head coaching job at Furman. Left behind from the Larry Eustachy era is one of the conference’s best frontcourt pairings in double-double machine Nico Carvacho and athletic 4-man Alonzo Tyson, while Oral Roberts transfer Kris Martin has earned rave reviews this offseason and should see plenty of time on the wing. Medved will have to fix a defense that was an absolute train wreck last season, but if he can do that, the Rams will surprise.
Year 3 for Marvin Menzies in Las Vegas doesn’t look like the breakout year most programs hope for in a coach’s 3rd year, but this team does have more talent than some are giving them credit for. Shakur Juiston is a beast of a big man despite being overshadowed somewhat by Brandon McCoy last season, and UNLV can give him more space to operate by deploying him as a 5 this season instead of next to McCoy at the 4. The backcourt is unproven but has promise, with Akron transfer Noah Robotham hoping to make a similar impact on the Mountain West as his former running mate Antino Jackson had at New Mexico last season. Sophomore Amauri Hardy was highly-touted out of high school, and freshman Bryce Hamilton can really score the ball. This team has a ton of offensive potential.
#6. Fresno State
The good news for Fresno State is that they return one of the conference’s best guards in Deshon Taylor. The bad news? He’s the only returner who averaged more than 5.3 points per game, and the Bulldogs also lost coach Rodney Terry to UTEP this offseason. New head man Justin Hutson has earned a reputation as a prolific recruiter in the region, and he got to work immediately by landing a pair of high-upside freshmen in Aguir Agau and Assane Diouf, though Diouf has to sit this season for academics. In year one, Hutson’s team will be extremely guard-oriented, with transfers Noah Blackwell (LBSU) and Braxton Huggins (NMSU) complimenting Taylor to form a dynamic backcourt. The frontcourt will be very thin, however.
#7. Boise State
This feels a little low for a program as good as this Boise State team under Leon Rice, but I’m taking a cautious approach with this club as they deal with the departure of Chandler Hutchison. Hutchison did everything for the Broncos– he led them in points, rebounds, assists, and steals last season. Replacing him in the offense will be no easy task, with elite shooter Justinian Jessup likely to have to create more of his own offense and a pair of well-regarded JUCO players in RJ Williams and Pat Dembley taking on big roles on offense as well.
#8. Utah State
I loved USU’s hire of Craig Smith this offseason, as Smith comes to Logan after doing a terrific job at South Dakota. He inherits the outstanding Sam Merrill, a hyper-efficient combo guard who can be deployed similar to how Smith used Matt Mooney at USD. There are some question marks beyond Merrill thanks to the early departures of Koby McEwen and DeAngelo Isby, but Smith brings in a major x-factor in Portuguese big man Neemias Queta, who posted big numbers for his U20 national team at the European Championships this summer.
It’s an extremely young Wyoming roster beyond star senior Justin James, with 9 newcomers trying to buoy a group that loses 5 of its top 6 scorers. James is positioned for a monster senior season, reportedly gaining muscle this offseason as he continues his development as a dynamic 3-level scorer. He’ll need lots of help around him though, and the class Allen Edwards brings in isn’t exceedingly well-regarded by most recruiting services. Redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson is the easiest to project featuring right away, as he was a former 4-star prospect who chose the Cowboys over Creighton and Colorado, among others. If he can star out of the gate up front, Wyoming could sneak up the standings.
#10. Air Force
Dave Pilipovich hasn’t been able to build much momentum at Air Force, and this doesn’t look like the year the Falcons climb the standings. The wing duo of Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan-Ford is solid, but they just don’t have enough scoring firepower to consistently win Mountain West games. Luckily, they should stay out of the cellar in the Mountain West given SJSU’s struggles.
#11. San Jose State
SJSU was one of the nation’s worst teams last season, earning just 3 D1 wins all season in year one under Jean Prioleau. To make matters worse, Prioleau’s club loses its top 3 scorers from last season, a group that accounted for well over half the team’s scoring last year. SJSU is a really tough job, and Prioleau needs time to have a chance to build things. Right now, it’s not going to be fun.
All-Conference First Team:
- Deshon Taylor– Fresno State (17.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, .439/.386/.833)
- Cody Martin– Nevada (14.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, .516/.294/.701)
- Caleb Martin– Nevada (18.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, .454/.403/.749)
- Justin James– Wyoming (18.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, .472/.308/.726)
- Jordan Caroline– Nevada (17.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, .474/.324/.709)
Player of the Year: Caleb Martin (Nevada)
Caleb won the award last season, and the All-American candidate should be seen as the clear favorite again this season. He’s a high-level shooter and shot-creator whose ability to space the floor will be massive for Nevada with their move to bigger lineups.
Breakout Player: Jalen McDaniels (San Diego State)
McDaniels probably deserves to be considered having already broken out, but I expect a big jump in production from him in his sophomore campaign. He’ll now be featured far more prominently in the offense with Kell and Pope having graduated, and McDaniels flashed an improved offensive game during NBA Draft workouts while he tested the waters. I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up a first-teamer this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Trey Porter (Nevada)
Porter has earned rave reviews since arriving in Reno from Old Dominion this offseason, showing off absurd athleticism and instincts at the center position. He completely transforms the Wolf Pack defense with his rim protection ability, and should be the recipient of plenty of lobs when the Pack gets out in transition.