By Kevin Sweeney
I wrote this preview last season and basically said there was no possible way Nevada didn’t win the Mountain West last season. Even if the Pack disappointed, they were still miles ahead of the rest of what was a down league.
Well, I was wrong.
I was wrong because Utah State and Craig Smith pulled off a fairly remarkable 11-win, 101-spot KenPom jump despite losing two of its three most talented players from a season ago. How? Smith’s terrific coaching, combined by the late add of Neemias Queta changed the game.
It’s a reminder that nothing in college basketball is certain. As we enter this year, the Aggies are the clear favorite. Given the history we just mentioned, it’s far from a guarantee that USU claims the title for the second consecutive year.
#1. Utah State– As I mentioned at the top, USU out-performed any possible expectations last season. That team was perfect– it played together, was terrific on defense, and had some “magic” on its side. I’ve worried this offseason that perhaps Utah State is this season’s Loyola-Chicago… perhaps not quite as precipitous drop (USU loses less), but a team that had it all not quite putting it together after running it back. Improvement could come from a freshman like Sean Bairstow or Liam McChesney, or from sophomore star Neemias Queta taking the next step, and of course, Sam Merrill is one of the best players not just in mid-major basketball but in the country. This should be an at-large-type team with top-25 upside, a slight fall isn’t out of the question.
#2. San Diego State– Brian Dutcher has raided the transfer market hard since taking over for Steve Fisher, and adds a trio of high-major talents to the mix this season. The big additions: a pair of scoring point guards in Malachi Flynn (Washington State) and KJ Feagin (Santa Clara)– two guys who should thrive in ball screens and hit outside shots while helping the Aztecs win the ball control battle. Meanwhile, buzz out of Southern California is that Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzell has shined, and pairing him with steady rim-running 5 Nathan Mensah should make a pretty darn good frontcourt.
#3. New Mexico– The Lobos clearly have the most talented roster in the league. Paul Weir has loaded up with transfers, many of whom have dealt with off-court struggles in the past. Among the new additions to this year’s group: former Towson guard Zane Martin, who gives this team an edge they lacked last season and former Texas A&M PG JJ Caldwell, a high-level passer for whom talent has never been the problem. The other big addition is finally getting JaQuan Lyle available– the former Ohio State guard was ready to impact things before tearing his Achilles in the preseason. Having a true point guard should help things run much smoother than they did a year ago, but UNM’s problems a season ago went beyond PG woes. Paul Weir has to prove he can coach up this talented group and that his patented press can work.
#4. Nevada— I’m absolutely fascinated by the beginning of the Steve Alford era at Nevada. It’s hard to find a more polar opposite to Eric Musselman personality-wise than Alford, who has scaled back the social media craze the program was on in the previous regime. He inherits a strong roster for year one, a terrific backcourt trio in Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson, and Jalen Harris along with talented JUCO product Eric Parrish on the wing. The Wolf Pack will be small– RS freshman KJ Hymes will have to eat minutes at the five, and Parrish may spend most of his time at the four. The bottom line: the Pack and Alford are married for a long time, and his success at UNM is a positive sign he’ll do well in Reno. Still, I’m in somewhat of a wait-and-see mode with this to see how he does with his guys.
#5. Boise State– This group is incredibly hard to peg– the Broncos have a great coach and good returning pieces, plus will add a pair of significant talents (Abu Kigab and Emmanuel Akot) at the semester break. However, they are thin up front, and the track record of midyear transfers impacting winning in year one isn’t good. By conference play, Leon Rice’s group will be absolutely loaded with high-level athletes who are long and can defend multiple positions. That possibility has to scare potential Mountain West foes.
#6. UNLV– Some UNLV fans expressed early frustration about the hire of South Dakota State head coach TJ Otzelberger as underwhelming. That sentiment is hard to find now, as some major recruiting wins both in the prep and transfer markets have given both a short- and long-term jolt to this roster. For this year, the nucleus of Utah transfer Donnie Tillman, scoring guard Amauri Hardy, and Texas grad transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long is a strong one, though the Running Rebels probably lack the depth to creep towards the top of the conference.
#7. Air Force– It wasn’t truly a breakthrough season for Dave Pilipovich’s group, but the Falcons were consistent throughout the 2018-19 and won the games they were supposed to win. They should be similarly pesky this season, as Air Force runs it back with the return of its top eight scorers. Pilipovich’s group already has two stars in Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan-Ford… if AJ Walker breaks out and becomes a third star, watch out.
#8. Fresno State– This is the range where I’m not going to be comfortable putting anyone, but someone has to drop to the eight and nine spots. I’m apprehensive about Fresno State– the Bulldogs rode a pair of superstar guards in Braxton Huggins and Deshon Taylor to a surprising 23-9 mark in year one of Justin Hutson. Now, this team will be reliant on the frontcourt, as stud big Nate Grimes will pair with talented RS-freshman Assane Diouf to attempt to beat teams with their size and athleticism.
#9. Colorado State– This feels like a transition year to me for Niko Medved’s bunch– they still have Nico Carvacho anchoring things up front, but with just three eligible upperclassmen the Rams might be a year or two away. I love what Medved is doing with the roster: he has a great class coming in headlined by multi-talented forward David Roddy. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if CSU outplayed this ranking, but 9th feels like the right spot preseason.
#10. Wyoming– If San Jose State weren’t in this conference, it would be pretty hard not to pick Wyoming last. The Cowboys were brutally bad last season after back-to-back 20+ win seasons to open the Allen Edwards era, and loses an NBA draft pick in Justin James who literally did everything for this team. Getting Hunter Maldonado back healthy will certainly help, but this roster isn’t in good shape at all as Edwards enters year four.
#11. San Jose State– The Spartans won three D1 games last year, lost 13 games by 20 or more points, and see their top two players transfer. Yikes. JUCO import Richard Washington has a chance to be very good, but it wouldn’t matter if he was. Jean Prioleau isn’t the answer here, but I’m not sure who is. This is a very, very tough job.
All-Conference First Team:
- Sam Merrill (Utah State)
- Malachi Flynn (San Diego State)
- Lavelle Scottie (Air Force)
- Neemias Queta (Utah State)
- Nico Carvacho (Colorado State)
Player of the Year: Sam Merrill (Utah State)
The clear choice here, Merrill is as good as there is in college basketball. He’s got everything– craftiness, shooting ability, skill level, and leadership, the perfect guard for Craig Smith’s system. He should have magnificent year as he looks to lead the Aggies to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
Breakout Player: Noah Blackwell (Fresno State):
Blackwell was everything the Bulldogs needed him to be last season– a good game manager who hit outside shots and took care of the ball. I was impressed every time I watched him by his poise at the PG spot. As a senior, he’ll see a much bigger role in shot creation with the crater-sized hole left behind by Taylor and Huggins. I like the Long Beach State transfer to take to it well and star in his final season of CBB.
Newcomer of the Year: Malachi Flynn (San Diego State):
There are too many good ones here to be comfortable only taking one, but Flynn gets my nod. On a team with clearly less talent, Flynn fought Washington State into games time and time again with his fearless shot-making and ability to make plays for the Cougars. Now, he gets help around him and steps down a level, with less long athletes to bother him on offense. Expect a huge year.