The Mountain West brought us arguably the best moment of March – Sam Merrill’s game-winning shot in Vegas to send Utah State dancing was a quintessential March play. Little did we know how different the world would be just one week later. That shot capped what was an incredible season in the Mountain West, one that featured a historically good San Diego State team, some wild comebacks, and tons of parity. The league should be even more balanced and competitive this season, and I can’t wait.
- Boise State – *Braces self for Twitter mentions from San Diego State fans* Yes, I’m picking Boise State to win the Mountain West. Yes, it’s a risk with a lot of new faces. But I can’t help but fall in love with the pieces here, and Leon Rice is one of the most consistently strong coaches in mid-major basketball. The first thing that jumps out is the length: Between potential NBA prospect Derrick Alston at 6-9, high-level slasher Abu Kigab at 6-7, and Arizona transfer Emmanuel Akot at 6-8, Boise looks physically more like a Pac-12 team than their Mountain West counterparts. Akot is one of four key transfers that Rice gets eligible, a former five-star recruit who has struggled with his shot but brings incredible versatility to the mix. Having an elite-level shooter like Alston to pair with him at the combo forward spot should help with spacing concerns. Rice also has a pair of scoring point guards to work with in promising sophomore RayJ Dennis and Portland transfer Marcus Shaver, and should get even more scoring eligible at the midyear mark with another Arizona transfer Devonaire Doutrive joining the fray. Add in a guy who loves the dirty work in rebounding beast Mladen Armus, and Boise has a loaded roster with loads of options at Rice’s disposal. The positional size and athleticism across the board invites the potential for an elite-level defense, but Rice will always be able to have 3-4 guys on the floor at once capable of creating a shot. Building a new-look rotation during the pandemic is without a doubt a challenge, but I don’t think there should be much doubt that this is the best roster in the Mountain West.
- San Diego State – Not far behind are the Aztecs, who had a remarkable year in 2019-20 and deserve all the credit in the world for building the best Mountain West team in close to a decade. So how do they follow up that incredible season? It won’t be easy with the early departure of Malachi Flynn for the pro ranks in addition to graduations of Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin. SDSU’s pack-line defense was incredibly disciplined last season, but it helped to have two incredible perimeter defenders in lockdown point-of-attack guy Feagin and the ballhawking Flynn. While Cal State Northridge transfer Terrell Gomez is a dynamic offensive player thanks to his shooting ability, the drop-off defensively from Flynn or Feagin to him is akin to going from a Corvette to a bicycle. Losing Wetzell won’t be easy either – a healthy Nathan Mensah is amazing news, but Wetzell was so skilled down low and was a nightmare to deal with in ball screens. Still, there is a lot to like here. Matt Mitchell may not post gaudy numbers, but he’s a terrific player who can really score and is also a very good defender, while Jordan Schakel brought key 3&D attributes to last season’s team and could expand his game. Gomez is undersized and not a true point guard, but the guy can absolutely light it up from deep, and Mensah flashed signs of stardom before blood clots ended his season in 2019-20. An x-factor might be Spanish big man Joshua Tomaic, who grad transferred in from Maryland. Tomaic has long been more potential than production at both the collegiate and international level, but after seeing what Dutcher got out of another underperforming skilled high-major big in Wetzell, he’s certainly not worth writing off. The Aztecs absolutely have enough here to win the conference, but withstanding losses of an All-American and two other outstanding players is never as easy as it looks on paper.
- UNLV – Fielding a top-100 KenPom team that finished 12-6 in the league is a definite win for year one under TJ Otzelberger, and several big recruiting wins in the last 12 months solidify my belief that this program is on an upward trajectory. Otzelberger will be able to trot out two of the conference’s best scorers in Bryce Hamilton and South Dakota State transfer David Jenkins, which should fit well in the free-flowing offensive game Otz likes to play. Jenkins is a nuclear-level shooter who hit 112 threes at a 45% clip under Otzelberger with the Jackrabbits, and he’s the type of scoring talent who would average double figures in any conference in America. The chemistry between Hamilton and Jenkins is worth monitoring though: both guys are shoot first, second, and third guys, and Hamilton ranked in the top 25 nationally in shot percentage (percentage of a team’s shots taken when on the floor) last season. Still pairing a duo like that together will make this group really hard to guard, and that’s not even mentioning other talented additions in the backcourt like two-way wing Nick Blake and Iowa State transfer Caleb Grill. I’m also tracking skilled freshman big man Jhaylon Martinez, who could give the Rebels a different look offensively than Chiekh Mbacke Diong. This team might be a year away from its ultimate ceiling with just one senior on the roster and elite recruit Zaon Collins committed, but there’s plenty of reason for excitement in the present in Vegas.
- Utah State – The Aggies were without a doubt the hardest team for me to peg in these rankings. Betting against a Craig Smith team feels like a fool’s errand: Smith is for my money one of the sharpest mid-major coaches in the country and does an unbelievable job schematically to get the most out of his best players. On the other hand, there’s a glaring hole on the roster at point guard, and the backcourt as a whole is as thin as any in the conference. In a league loaded with talent at the guard spots, that’s a major concern. Few teams in America have better frontcourts than USU – Justin Bean was a revelation last season as he blossomed into a double-double machine capable of making plays from the elbows, and Neemias Queta’s size and shot-blocking ability makes him a huge difference-maker on both ends. Queta may never have been fully healthy last season after an offseason knee injury, yet he was still incredibly productive and should have an even better junior season now that he’s fully healthy. But the graduation of a star in Sam Merrill looms large, as does a less talked-about move – the grad transfer of Abel Porter to Ohio State. Porter will most certainly not knock your socks off, but he was a steady-handed distributor who could have kept things organized offensively for the Aggies this season. Now, those duties either lie on a guy who is more of a wing by trade in Virginia transfer Marco Anthony or a freshman in Steven Ashworth. Anthony was in and out of the rotation on Virginia’s national title team, and he’s a unique player for the Mountain West with the size to play 3 positions. Ashworth is an older guy who took an LDS mission out of high school, and the fact that USU didn’t reach for a grad transfer this spring indicates at least some degree of confidence that Ashworth could be the guy at that spot. International import Zakhar Vedischev could also help the backcourt from a shot-making standpoint: he torched the US at the FIBA U19 World Cup in 2019 and is known as a marksman from deep. The lack of proven help at the guard spot limits how high I can be on the Aggies in the preseason, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Smith’s bunch finds its way into the thick of the Mountain West title race despite that.
- Colorado State – Program builder extraordinaire Niko Medved is at it again in Fort Collins after turning around the Furman and Drake programs in previous years. An eight-win improve from year one and the CSU program’s first 20-win season since 2016-17 was without a doubt a success for year two, and last year’s successes with a young team set the foundation for a very bright future for the Rams. The graduation of Nico Carvacho does put a damper on things: Carvacho was the perfect transition piece, a great program guy who dominated the glass and was steady down low. It’s Isaiah Stevens’ and David Roddy’s time now: two guys I pointed out as potential impact freshmen in the conference last season lived up to that billing and more, with each looking the part of future all-leaguers. Roddy averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds per game in Mountain West play, and as he continues to develop as a shooter he’ll become one of the most well-rounded forwards in the league. Meanwhile, Stevens became the floor general and big-shot maker that Medved needed, winning Mountain West ROY honors in the process. An already-deep backcourt gets deeper with the additions of Georgia transfer Ignas Sargiunas and talented freshman Isaiah Rivera – I’m big on Rivera’s game, though his path to minutes is slightly less clear than the paths Stevens and Roddy had last season. The x-factor here: Dischon Thomas, a sophomore big man who was productive in limited minutes during his freshman campaign. He could step into a starting role to replace Carvacho unless Medved elects to go super small with Roddy at the 5.
- Nevada – The Mountain West’s other big NBA Draft departure was without a doubt Jalen Harris, a guy who I think has an incredibly bright pro future but may not even get drafted this year. It’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to get paid, particularly with questions of exactly what the college season might look like. But in virtually any other year, Harris would have been the MWC POY in 2019-20 after going on a two-month tour of the west coast wrecking opponent after opponent. While replacing a guy like that like-for-like is far from easy, Steve Alford brings in a more than suitable replacement in Wichita State transfer Grant Sherfield, who received a waiver to play right away. Sherfield originally committed to Alford at UCLA before opening up following the coaching change. He’s capable of playing with or without the ball, is tough at the rim, and will continue to improve as a shot-maker. He’ll pair with dynamic wing scorer Desmond Cambridge, who sat out last season after transferring from Brown. A third transfer that will play a big role is 7-foot big man Warren Washington (Oregon State), who Alford has spoken highly of since he committed last spring. But this is a very unproven roster: Zane Meeks and KJ Hymes showed flashes as freshmen, but neither are guaranteed to make the jump. Meanwhile, a 4-man freshman class is full of long-term pieces rather than instant-impact guys. With no seniors on the roster, this is a team that’s likely a year away. But the waiver for Sherfield keeps the Pack relevant this season, and if Washington and Cambridge have big years a top three finish seems possible.
- New Mexico – Talent hasn’t been the problem in Albuquerque since Paul Weir arrived, but back-to-back mid-season implosions have turned the tide in a negative direction for the Weir era as a whole. The Canadian head coach hopes to change that narrative this season with a reshuffled roster that still has plenty of talent. The Lobos hit the JUCO market hard this spring with the additions of Saquan Singleton, Rod Brown, Valdir Manuel, and Assane Ndiaye, and it’s possible that at least three of those guys start from day one. Manuel is the most talented of the bunch and finally gets his D1 crack at UNM after several false alarms – if he arrives healthy (I’ve heard he dealt with a non-basketball injury that led to Penn State backing off) and with his head on straight, he could make a huge impact. Brown was in the rotation at Wichita State and brings toughness, while Singleton is the epitome of a glue guy who should be an impact defender whether Weir elects to play more zone or press more often. A big-time add from both a talent and program culture standpoint is Jeremiah Francis, a transfer from North Carolina known as a super hard worker and great kid who has the chance to be a really good point guard for the Lobos. And don’t count out talented freshman wing Javonte Johnson either. For my money, this group has a better shot of making it work chemistry-wise than the UNM teams we’ve seen in the last two seasons. But I still need to see it with my own eyes before hopelessly buying into the hype yet again.
- Wyoming – He’s not a flashy name, but Wyoming made one of the best coaching hires anywhere this spring by landing Northern Colorado HC Jeff Linder. Linder has worked under a few terrific mid-major coaches in Grant McCasland, Randy Rahe, and Leon Rice, recruited Damian Lillard to Weber, and took Northern Colorado from the bottom of D1 with NCAA violations swirling to a top-75 KenPom finish and three 20-win seasons in four years. In short: the dude can flat-out coach ball. Linder inherits at least one clear building block in Laramie In skilled forward Hunter Maldonado, a playmaking PF who can do pretty much everything on the basketball court. The new head man also brings in a strong late recruiting class: gifted point guard Marcus Williams shifted his commitment from Northern Colorado to follow Linder despite a late push from several other great programs, high-upside wing/forward Jeremiah Oden joins the fray from the Chicago area, and a trio of JUCO imports in Drake Jeffries, Drew LaMont, and Eoin Nelson all should play roles. While Linder has had teams that have played ultra-fast (2017-18) and super slow (2019-20), the one constant has been an emphasis on the 3-ball – on both ends. Linder’s teams LOVE to fire away from deep, and adding a pair of elite shooters in Jeffries and LaMont should help there. However, they have also consistently been among the best nationally at running teams off the three-point line. Finding edges around the margins like that is huge, particularly in stealing some games during a rebuild. Inheriting a young team with few seniors and building something up quickly to be legit in year two was how Linder did it at UNC, and I expect he’ll turn things around quickly at Wyoming. And with a great transition piece in Maldonado and plenty of talented newcomers, trips to Laramie certainly won’t be easy for opposing teams in 2020-21.
- Fresno State – Things have stalled somewhat quickly at Fresno after an awesome year one for Justin Hutson, and the Bulldogs appear to be in something of a rebuild after the departures of six of their top seven scorers from a season ago. Early exits by Jarred Hyder (Cal) and Niven Hart (pro) hurt, given each had the potential to be backcourt building blocks around a star big man in Orlando Robinson. Robinson is a stud and likely a future all-league player: he needs to continue to get more efficient, but to be capable of carrying an offense as a young big man is impressive, and he has some playmaking and defensive instincts that could bring his game to the next level. Hutson hit the portal to help add to the backcourt: DePaul grad transfer Devin Gage should be a good one after playing a ton of minutes in the Big East over the years, and a waiver for either (or both) of Junior Ballard (Cal Poly) and Isaiah Hill (Tulsa) would help add depth there as well. But as I wrote with Utah State, this is a guard-driven league, and the Bulldogs are guard-poor. And while Hutson is a good coach and Robinson is a talented big, they don’t match their USU counterparts in that regard.
- Air Force – Once upon a time, Joe Scott led Air Force to the NCAA Tournament, quite the achievement at a place that is very difficult to win. Scott leveraged that into a head coaching job at Princeton and then at Denver before going back to the assistant coaching ranks. Now, he’s back in Colorado Springs with an understanding of what it takes to be a winner there, and we’ll see if he can recreate the magic. It all starts with AJ Walker, an incredibly talented scoring guard who should see the ball early and often for the Falcons. Walker earned significant high-major interest after testing the transfer waters this spring, but elected to return and should be the centerpiece of everything AF does on offense. Scott’s teams are easily identifiable: a Pete Carril disciple, Scott runs about as pure a form of the Princeton offense as you’ll find these days, with slow, slow tempos and lots and lots of cutting. Defensively, Scott has often used funky zones to create tons of turnovers, which helps make up for the lack of athleticism his team will deal with in most Mountain West games. Between the grind-it-out pace and the unique style of play on both ends, Air Force will be quite the menace to have to prepare for. And while the Princeton offense is difficult to learn, Scott is lucky in that the team he inherits has experience running a form of it under Dave Pilipovich. It may not be seamless, but any edge you can get is a good one in this pandemic-impacted offseason.
- San Jose State – Alas, the Fordham of the West. 7-24 isn’t anything to celebrate, but wins over Hofstra, New Mexico, and Nevada were nice moments for a program that hasn’t done much winning and something that can be built upon if you’re Jean Prioleau. Prioleau really revved up the pace, as the Spartans were the fastest team in the Mountain West last season. But significant improvement on both ends will be necessary to climb the conference ladder. Finding a guard to build around was a good start: Seneca Knight shined as a sophomore, though turnovers were a problem at times for the Louisiana native. Meanwhile, a breakout season could be in the cards for sophomore wing Omari Moore, who showed flashes as a freshman and has plenty of upside. But the defense was a major problem last season, particularly at the rim, and I don’t see a clear solution to solve those woes on the roster.
All-Conference First Team:
- David Jenkins (UNLV)
- Derrick Alston (Boise State)
- Matt Mitchell (San Diego State)
- Justin Bean (Utah State)
- Neemias Queta (Utah State)
Player of the Year: Matt Mitchell (San Diego State) – Alston and Queta were also great choices here, but Mitchell seems poised for a massive year in the spotlight. I’m excited to see how Brian Dutcher runs offense through Mitchell, who isn’t a point guard by trade but has the ability to create for himself and make smart passes off drives. He’s a capable shooter, smart defender, and gets to the line frequently. Expect a huge senior season for Mitchell.
Breakout Player: RayJ Dennis (Boise State) – There are so many good options here, but I’m a big fan of Dennis’ game. His numbers last season were somewhat non-descript, but he made an impact when on the floor thanks to his shiftiness and confidence to fire away from deep. The best reason not to bet on a breakthrough year is that his minutes are far from guaranteed, particularly once Devonaire Doutrive is gets eligible. But Dennis has all the makings of a guy who will continue to improve as his career goes on and will be one of the many reasons why this Boise State team wins the Mountain West title.
Newcomer of the Year: David Jenkins (UNLV) – Jenkins is going to have a dynamite junior season in Las Vegas. TJ Otzelberger will put the ball in his hands early and often, freeing him up to go hunt shots and make plays. He’ll also have the benefit of being paired with another guy you need to circle on the scouting report in Bryce Hamilton, a gifted scorer in his own right.