- Matt Cox
Mountain West Preview
- New Mexico
- San Diego St.
- Utah St.
- Fresno St.
- Colorado St.
- Boise St.
- Air Force
- San Jose St.
All Conference Awards
POY: Elijah Brown, Sr., New Mexico
Coach of the Year: Eric Musselman, Nevada
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Marshall, R Sr., Nevada
Freshman of the Year: William McDowell-White, Fresno St.
1. New Mexico
Key Returners: Elijah Brown, Tim Williams, Obij Aget, Sam Logwood
Key Losses: Cullen Neal
Key Newcomers: Damien Jefferson, Jalen Harris, Connor MacDougall (JUCO), Aher Uguak
Postseason Projection: 9-12 seed
Many Lobo fans were probably outraged when they saw Cullen Neal, son of head coach Craig Neal, listed in the "Key Losses" section above. Many who watched New Mexico closely over the last two seasons would argue that Neal's transfer to Ole Miss will wind up being a prime example of the "addition by subtraction" phenomenon. After injuries kept him on the sidelines next to his daddy for most of his sophomore year, Neal returned last season to join ex-Butler transfer Elijah Brown to form an exceptionally talented perimeter tandem... at least on paper...
Prior to the beginning of last season, I voiced my concerns about a potential "ballhog battle" between Neal and Brown, which I thought would "cannibalize" each other's production. Fast forward 12 months later and it appears I was 50% correct (which I guess means I failed?)... My Neal pessimism was spot-on, but Brown proved me dead wrong with a breakout sophomore campaign.
Not surprisingly, Brown's ball-dominant reputation carried over to his inaugural season at New Mexico, but it was how efficient he was in an alpha-dog role that was eye-opening. While a 116 O-Rating, a 39% 3-point clip and a 20+% assist rate were all impressive figures, it was his "James Harden-esque" foul-line efficiency that made Brown so effective. His relentless pursuit of getting to the rack earned him a whopping 255 free-throws attempts, of which he knocked down a cool 85% (!!!). And now that Neal has been exiled to SEC country, don’t be surprised if Brown flirts with 300 free-throw attempts this season. Just to put that number in perspective, 300 free-throws would equate to an average of 10 free-throws per game, with is borderline insanity for the college level.
While Brown was arguably the Lobos' MVP last season, a strong case could be made for ex-Samford transfer forward Tim Williams. Both Brown and Williams were the new kids on the block last year and neither showed any growing pains adjusting to the MWC caliber of competition. Williams undoubtedly reached the ceiling of his preseason expectations, proving he was in-fact the crafty, efficient low-post scorer, along with steady rim-protector and rebounder, that he was scouted as at Samford. Williams' posted top-50 nationally ranked effective FG% (60%), much of which was due to his robotic finishing ability around the bucket.
The Lobos will surround the 1-2 punch of Brown & Williams with formidable returning veterans, including 6’7 wing Sam Logwood and 7-foot center Obij Aget. Aget and Logwood are both exceptional role pieces because of their high-efficiency, low-volume offensive scoring tendencies, which complement Williams and Brown perfectly. Aget is a versatile shot-blocker, who is capable of anchoring the array of defensive looks Neal likes to throw at opponents, which include straight-up man, a 2-3 zone and a 1-3-1 half-court zone. Logwood’s length and athleticism allow him to guard 4 different positions on the floor, and also proved to be an effective floor spacer offensively, knocking down a respectable 36% of his treys.
The only outstanding question for Neal heading into this season is backcourt depth, specifically at the point guard position. Incoming freshman 3-star recruit Jalen Harris is the only true point guard on this roster, but he'll need to add significant strength to his 6’1, 160 pound frame if he wants to avoid being a liability on the defensive end. An alternative (but less than desirable) option for Neal, is slotting rising sophomore Jordan Hunter to the point guard spot, who failed to capitalize on his opportunities last year (posting a shaky 33% TO rate), specifically when he replaced Neal for a few games in the starting lineup.
With one of the most talented squads in the MWC, which features two of the league's top 5 players, New Mexico is a safe bet to finish in the top-3 of the league, along with San Diego St. and Nevada. However, the Lobos' roster continuity from last year gives them a more defined pecking order on offense, which is a major advantage over both Nevada and San Diego St., both of whom will have to adjust to life without go-to offensive weapons from last season. While I'd like to make an improbable prediction of 3-way tie atop the MWC standings, I give the slightest of edges to the Lobos.
2. San Diego St.
Key Returners: Trey Kell, Jeremy Hemsley, Dakari Allen, Malik Pope, Nolan Narain (redshirt)
Key Losses: Skylar Spencer, Winston Shepard
Key Newcomers: Valentine Izundu (Washington St. transfer), Teki Gill-Caesar (Missouri transfer), Max Hoetzel (Indiana transfer), Jalen McDaniels
Postseason Projection: 9-12 seed
At 71 years young Steve Fisher’s Aztec empire continues to reign over the Mountain West Conference. San Diego State is coming off its 3rd straight MWC regular season title, but failed to reach the Big Dance after being clipped by Fresno St. in the MWC conference championship game. Minor tangent alert! - Last season marked the 2nd straight year the MWC was a one-bid league, a significant demise from 2013 when the conference put 5 teams in the field.
Anyone else that shares my (slightly biased) affection for west coast as hoops has also bled from their eyes on countless occasions watching San Diego St. attempt to play offense. Over the last two seasons, the Aztecs have been one of the most imbalanced teams in the country, living by their consistently elite defense, but dying by their uncanny ability to NOT put the ball in the basket. After ranking 166th in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency two seasons ago, the Aztecs somehow got worse offensively and better defensively last year!
One of the few positives offensively last year was the emergence of Trey Kell, who was far and away the Aztecs most consistent outside shooter. If Kell hadn’t knocked down 39% of his 181 3-pointers, the Aztecs 285th nationally ranked team effective FG% could’ve been especially gross. The entire Aztec backcourt, including Kell, have shown zero ability to score efficiently from anywhere inside the arc. To put this in perspective, last season five different players shot under 50% on over 100+ 2-point field goal attempts each. Similar to my “addition by subtraction” theory on Cullen Neal, Winston Shepard finally graduates, who posted a dismal sub 40% effective FG% on a whopping 350 attempts all by himself! With Shepard now gone, Kell is now the clear go-to offensive option, especially when San Diego St. is forced to play in the half-court. Kell doesn’t possess elite quickness, but is a crafty penetrator and effectively changes pace to create the space he needs to score.
Starting next to Kell will be rising sophomore Jeremy Hemsley, who, unlike Kell, is a human roadrunner in the open-floor. The challenge for Hemsley this year, and even into next year, will be becoming more comfortable playing in a snail’s paced game. Despite the laundry list of athletes that have rolled through San Diego St. over the last 5 years, Fisher continues to be adamant on controlling the tempo to his liking, which hinders Hemsley’s ability to thrive out on the break. However, the more immediate challenge for Hemsley will be maturing into an everyday point guard, as he will no longer defer the primary ball handling duties to Shepard.
With Kell and Hemsley solidifying the 1 & 2 spots on the perimeter, Fisher has a TON of versatile pieces he can throw out at the 3 and 4 positions, which will give him almost limitless lineup flexibility. If he needs to call upon a lockdown, bulldog defender to shut down an elite scoring guard (i.e Elijah Brown), Fisher will look to 6’5 senior Dakarai Allen. If he wants to space the floor offensively, he’ll throw in Matt Shrigley, who is a very capable long-range shooter, despite struggling to knock down 3s last season. If Fisher needs an elite athlete and an Energizer-bunny motor to provide an immediate spark off-the-bench, Zylan Cheatham is a sure bet to provide rebounding and defense, to go along with the occasional rim-shattering dunk on the break. Finally, Fisher may call upon his enigma X-factor, Malik Pope, who continues to be one of the more interesting case studies in all of college basketball. After an atrocious freshman campaign, Pope made significant strides in his offensive development, evidenced by an improvement in almost every offensive category last year. Despite being 6’10, Pope’s skillset resembles that of a rangy NBA wing, with comparisons like Rashard Lewis and even Kevin Durant immediately coming to mind (clarification: a very poor man’s Kevin Durant). Pope has a silky smooth shooting stroke and is way too comfortable putting the ball on the floor at his size, which is why scouts at the next level will continue to keep tabs on him this season. To top it off, I almost forgot to mention two incoming transfers who should provide even more punch to an already deep rotation. The 1st is from my alma-mater (Indiana), 6’8 Max Hoetzel, who will bring a polished offensive skillset to a San Diego St. team desperate for efficient scoring options. The 2nd is Teki Gill-Caesar, an uber-talented top-100 recruit transferring in from Missouri, who Fisher will surely mold into an elite perimeter defender.
The biggest question mark this season will be how well Washington St. transfer Valentine Izundu replaces Skylar Spencer, who anchored the Aztec’s interior defense for the last 3 years. Despite playing barely 10 minutes a contest last year for the Wazzu, Izundu posted an astronomical 13.9% block rate, which was good for over 2 blocks a game. His conditioning and ability to stay out of foul trouble will be critical for the Aztecs to remain a top-10 defense, and to keep in them in contention for their 4th straight conference crown.
Key Returners: DJ Fenner, Cameron Oliver
Key Losses: Marqueze Coleman, Tyron Criswell, AJ West
Key Newcomers: Marcus Marshall (Missouri St. transfer), Jordan Caroline (SIU-Carbondale transfer), Leland King (Brown transfer), Devearl Ramsey
Postseason Projection: 11-seed to NIT
The athletic department at Nevada may be slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to NBA-ifying college programs. The Wolfpack brought in NBA journeyman Eric Mussleman to the head coaching helm, who wasted no time turning a 9-win team into a 24-win team last season. While it’s worth noting that the bulk of Nevada’s players were former head coach David Carter recruits, an uptick of 15 wins from the year prior shows Musselman did something right from a pure xs and os perspective. The good news for Wolfpack nation is that the momentum from last year’s ascension should keep rolling into the 2016-2017 campaign, especially with the addition of two impact transfers from the Missouri Valley Conference, Jordan Caroline and Marcus Marshall.
Despite the fact that the Pack return two dudes that averaged 14 points a game last year, Marshall is my bet to lead this team in scoring this season, assuming he stays healthy. In each of his last two seasons at Missouri St., Marshall has come out blazing in non-conference play, only to see his season ended by mid-January. Just weeks before playing what would inevitably be his last game in a Missouri St. uniform, Marshall went into Tulsa and torched a top-20 nationally ranked defensive unit for 36 points, including a blistering 7/9 performance from the land of plenty, and a flawless 7/7 from the charity stripe. This performance is a microcosm of what makes Marshall such an efficient lead guard. He has the rare ability to burn you with an onslaught of threes AND blow by you on off the bounce just when you begin to over-respect his deep shooting range. Since I'm on a roll with player comps so far in this preview (see Kevin Durant above), I'll take this time to mention that Marshall reminds me a ton of Stefan Moody from Ole Miss last season. Before Marshall’s season-ending knee injury, he was quietly putting together one of the more efficient seasons in the entire country, shooting 90% from the foul-line and 45% from behind the arc. Given only 10 teams in all of division 1 shot worse than Nevada did last year from 3-point land, Marshall appears to be just what the doctor ordered.
Despite finishing the year with a respectable 55th nationally ranked overall defense last year, the Wolfpack still struggled to control the defensive boards on a consistent basis. That should likely change this season with the insertion of newcomer Jordan Caroline to the interior mix. In his first year at Southern Illinois, the 6’7 235 lbs Caroline was an animal on both the offensive and defensive glass, posting a top-150 offensive AND rebounding rate AS A FRESHMAN. With Caroline sitting out last season, he’s now had over a year to add additional muscle to his already stout frame, which should make him more than prepared to bang down low with veteran bigs in the MWC. Caroline’s fondness for physical contact is probably why no one (literally) in the Missouri Valley got to the line more than he did two years ago on a per minute basis.
The scary part for MWC opponents is that Caroline is just one of three multi-talented forwards that make up 'Pack's frontline unit, which features incoming Brown transfer Leland King and rising sophomore Cameron Oliver. Despite being marginally undersized, King's rebounding production was actually comparable to Caroline during his tenure at Brown. The key difference is that King is a more assertive offensive player, but he’ll need to accept a lower usage role this season, especially playing with a much more talented roster than his Brown team in 2014-2015. While both Caroline and King will play big minutes for Musselman this season, Oliver is undoubtedly the leader of the Wolfpack frontcourt. At 6’8, 225, Oliver is the biggest and most athletic of the three Wolfpack bigs, and is distinguished by his elite shot-blocking prowess. His 8.2% block rate only led the entire conference, but it's his ability to protect the rim without fouling that's so valuable and why that colossal block rate translated into almost 3 blocks a contest last season.
On the perimeter, Nevada loses their floor leader in Marqueze Coleman, which means sophomore Lindsey Drew will likely assume the full-time point guard duties. While Drew was a menace on the defensive end, he certainly struggled offensively, posting a careless 26% TO rate and an ice cold 39% effective FG%. Drew’s decision-making in his 2nd year will be a key determinant to how much Nevada improves offensively. Drew isn't the only Wolfpack guard under the microscope, as much of the responsibility lies with Nevada's go-to perimeter scoring option, senior DJ Fenner. Just like Drew, Fenner shot the ball poorly from the field last year, but was oddly enough money from the charity stripe, knocking down 85% of his 136 attempts.
Similar to Fresno St. last season, the talent and athleticism of this Wolfpack roster will raise expectations to unprecedented heights in Reno this year. While the defense should continue to be outstanding, a big burden rests on Marcus Marshall’s shoulders to provide consistent perimeter scoring and outside shooting, which is precisely what this team was missing last year.
4. Utah St.
Key Returners: Jalen Moore, Lew Evans, Shane Rector, Julion Pearre
Key Losses: Chris Smith, Darius Perkins
Key Newcomers: Koby McEwen, Daron Henson, Klay Stall, Sam Merrill
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI
Last year was first season since 1997 the Aggies had someone other then big Stew Morrill pacing the sidelines. Over his two decades of work, Morrill built Utah St. in to one of the most underrated mid-major programs in the country, and certainly made the Spectrum a "Spect"acle of a venue (ha) to watch a college basketball game.
Now in his second season at the helm (after spending 14 years as an assistant to Morrill), Tim Duryea gets the luxury of returning 5 of his top 7 players from last year. The two key losses of guards Chris Smith and Darius Perkins means Duryea has a unique option to feature a 3-forward lineup a bunch this season. The talent and offensive versatility of senior and all-conference performer Jalen Moore gives Duryea the option to go big or small, depending on the specific matchups he wants to exploit. Against bigger and more athletic squads (i.e San Diego St.), Duryea can feature the 3-forward look, with 6’9 Lew Evans at the 5 and the gritty Quinn Taylor at the 4. However, Duryea can also throw out a potent small-ball lineup by sliding Moore over to the 4-spot, and inserting a guard in-place of Taylor. This more offensive-minded, smaller lineup was particularly effective last year with Perkins and Smith, which gave the Aggies 4 lethal 3-point shooters on the floor at all times. With both of these veteran guards now gone, it means highly touted freshman Koby McEwen will need fill the outside shooting void right away. A borderline top-100 nationally ranked recruit, McEwen chose Utah St. over a handful of bigger programs, including Baylor, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Along with McEwen, fellow freshman newcomer Sam Merrill is another qualified candidate to emerge as an additional 3-point shooting threat this year. Merrill recently completed his 2-year mission trip to Nicaragua., but was an all-state performer as a senior at Bountiful high in Utah, where he connected on 38% of his treys and knocked down 80% of his free-throws.
While this Aggie team should have no issue scoring efficiently, the defensive side of the ball continues to be a lingering concern. In fact, going back to 2012, Utah St.'s national defensive efficiency ranks year over year has gone as follows:
- 2012: 192nd
- 2013: 205th
- 2014: 184th
- 2015: 166th
- 2016: 263rd
While the combination of Evans and Taylor should provide decent production on the defensive glass, neither are great rim protectors, which will put even more pressure on a relatively slow perimeter unit to limit dribble penetration. Duryea voiced his frustration with the defensive effort a number of times last season, so it will be interesting to see if he considers playing more zone defense this year if the Aggies struggle to get consistent stops in their man-to-man.
5. Fresno St.
Key Returners: Karachi Edo, Paul Watson, Cullen Russo
Key Losses: Marvelle Harris, Julien Lewis, Cezar Guerrero
Key Newcomers: William McDowell-White, Jaron Hopkins (Colorado transfer), Deshon Taylor (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI
Rodney Terry removed a Harambe-sized gorilla off his back last season, as the Bulldogs finally broke through the MWC barrier otherwise known as San Diego St. After finishing 3 games behind the Aztecs in the regular season standings, Fresno finally took down the evil empire when it mattered most, prevailing 68-63 in the championship of the conference tourney. Watching senior Marvelle Harris overcome with emotion when the Bulldogs officially punched their ticket to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001 is one of a bajillion moments that validates college basketball as the best sport on planet Earth. As I hop down from my soapbox, I begin this preview by highlighting how Terry is parlaying this brief moment in the sun into offseason recruiting success.
A prime example is this recruiting momentum is the recent acquisition of incoming Aussie stud 5-star freshman William McDowell-White. At 6’5, 186 pounds, with a facial structure and mini-fro that resembles a 35-year old, it’s hard to believe this kid is barely 18 years of age - and from "studying" 3 quick minutes of his highlight reel, his game actually resembles that of a mid-30s, international pro. His strength and handle on the ball are absurdly impressive, and his pass-first mentality makes him an obvious choice for Terry to pencil in at the point, with the tall task of replacing Mr. All-Everything, Marvelle Harris. Don't be surprised if you see "WMW's" name (not those initials) pop up on NBA Draft boards if he gets off to a hot start.
Starting alongside McDowell-White will likely be another newcomer, incoming Colorado transfer Jaron Hopkins. At 6’5 200 pounds, Hopkins proved to be an excellent perimeter defender in his first two seasons at Boulder, which earned him major minutes right away playing under Tad Boyle. However, Hopkins found himself stuck in a backcourt with legendary ball-hog Askia Booker, which makes projecting the offensive value he'll bring to this Fresno team a total crapshoot.
Outside of McDowell-White and Hopkins, it's tough to tell how Terry will allocate minutes with the other guards, but rising junior Jahmel Taylor is an intriguing piece worth mentioning. Taylor fully embraced the role of a one-trick-pony last year, knocking down 41% of his 51 3s, while attempting only a handful (literally) of shots inside the arc.
The frontcourt continuity from last year will be almost seamless, with the exception of Torren Jones, who was dismissed from the team this offseason. The Bulldogs bring back the other 3 members of a 4-man frontline rotation last year, including swingman Paul Watson, hyper-athlete Cullen Russo and linebacker Karachi Edo. Each of these three fit nicely into their respective 3, 4 and 5 positions, with the 6’7 Watson as a prototypical 3 playing primarily on the perimeter, while Russo and Edo are interchangeable at the 4 and 5 slots. One of the more bizarre advanced statistics of last season belongs to the 6’9 Russo, who posted an unheard of top-25th nationally ranked steal rate. To put the absurdity of that figure in context, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ was the only other player above 6’8 to rank in the top-50 for steal rate. Much like Happ, Russo is exceptionally an agile defender who routinely snags entry passes into the post, and he won't hesitate to jump a nonchalant pass on the perimeter. His paint partner Edo is undersized from a height perspective (6’6), but utilizes his brickhouse frame at 230 pounds to wreak havoc on the offensive glass.
Despite three starting guards graduating, including Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, Fresno St. should remain right in the thick of the Mountain West’s top 5-6 teams this year. The development of Harris’s replacement, McDowell-Williams, will ultimately determine the fate of this squad, given the role he must fulfill and the abundance of talent he possesses.
6. Colorado St.
Key Returners: Emmanuel Omogbo, Gian Clavell
Key Losses: John Gillon (transfer), Antwan Scott, Joe De Diman, Tiel Daniels
Key Newcomers: Devocio Butler (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Larry Eustachy’s first four years in Fort Collins have been an up-and-down roller coaster with exactly two peaks and two valleys. Last season marked the second of those valleys, as the Rams proved to be incapable of guarding anybody, as the they plummeted from an 129th ranked overall defense in 2014-2015 combined to the 256th ranked defense last year. To make matters worse, Eustachy lost his most dynamic playmaker, Gian Clavell, early in the season, gutting the Rams of any go-to scorers on the offensive end.
Before going down with a season ending leg injury, Clavell was simply dominant in the first 10 games of the year, averaging a cool 26 points and 6 boards a contest. Clavell was a major reason why Colorado St. came storming out of the games with a 6-0 start, which included an impressive season-opening win at Northern Iowa. With John Gillon transferring this offseason, expect Clavell to have the ball even more in his hands than he did last year, especially with two young sophomores, Prentiss Nixon and Jeremiah (“JD”) Paige, likely to start next to him in the backcourt.
Both Nixon and Paige certainly had their share of growing pains as freshmen last season. Paige was particularly inefficient, shooting a poor 34% from inside the arc and 29% from 3. While Nixon did shoot the ball much better from the outside (39% on 77 attempts), both struggled to take care of the ball, even in limited minutes and lower usage roles. This will be a major area to watch this season, given that the Rams steady ball handling last year was a major reason they were a top-60 ranked offense.
While Clavell is the clear floor general on this team, he is #blessed that a walking double-double in Emmanuel Omogbo returns to anchor the paint. Omogbo is an absolute menace on the glass, ranking in the top-100 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate last year. The loss of Tiel Daniels will certainly mean, ex-juco transfer Kimani Jackson will need to step-up big time for Eustachy this season. After coming into Fort Collins with relatively high expectations last year, "KJ" had a tough time adjusting to D1 competition. He’s an exceptional athlete, but needs to improve at pretty much every single relevant basketball skill, including rebounding, finishing at the rim, free throw shooting and not turning the ball over.… because he was so bad last year, Eustachy may go with a smaller lineup, which would feature incoming JUCO transfer Devocio Butler at the 4th guard, or start big with 6’10 freshman Nico Carvacho.
Eustachy is an excellent offensive mind, whose teams always execute well in the half-court. During his tenure at Colorado St., the Rams have ranked 7th, 83rd, 60th and 57th nationally in overall offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. However, he has to be losing some sleep at night, wondering how well the returning backcourt can replace the production of John Gillon, Antwan Scott and Joe De Ciman, even with Clavell returning. Assuming Eustachy can get a full year out of Clavell, this feels like the best of the middle-tier teams in the Mountain West.
Key Returners: Dwayne Morgan
Key Losses: Patrick McCaw, Derrick Jones Jr., Ike Nwamu, Stephen Zimmerman, Jerome Seagers
Key Newcomers: JoJo Mooring (JUCO), Uche Ofoegbu (San Francisco transfer), Christian Jones (St. John’s transfer), Zion Morgan, Ben Coupet, Kris Clyburn (JUCO), Djordjije Slijvancanin
Postseason Projection: None
If there were a Hard Knocks for college basketball (which there absolutely should be), I would be lobbying HARD for UNLV. Not only would the continuous dysfunction in Las Vegas be wildly entertaining, but the UNLV athletic department could actually use the money (a true win-win!).
After impulsively canning Dave Rice in the middle of last season, the Rebs have been riding the world’s fastest coaching carousel over the last 6 months. Todd Simon finished out the year as interim head coach last season, before leaving for a more secure long-term position at Southern Utah. UNLV then quickly snatched up the NCAA tournament head coach darling in Chris Beard, who led Arkansas Little Rock to one of the wildest opening round upsets in recent memory...
The Beard era in Las Vegas lasted all of one month after he decided to pursue his “dream job” at Texas Tech. While the endless tradition of college basketball in Lubbock, TX, would be appealing to any coach, my suspicion is that the incompetency of UNLV’s athletic department, the same department that barely approved Beard’s $900K annual salary and also prevented him from hiring a coaching staff for over two weeks, mayyyy have played a role in his decision.
This summer has brought back nightmares of the 2011 summer, when the Runnin Rebs foolishly tossed Lon Kruger to curb. In the months following that episode, UNLV went from irrational optimists to desperate beggars, as they saw their top targets to replace Kruger, Rick Pitino and Mick Cronin, both slip away, leaving them with the leftovers that are now famously known as... Dave Rice.
Fast forward 5 years and who would’ve thought there would be a sequel to Summer 2011 - except it is now Rice playing the role of antagonist.
While virtually none of the preceding dialogue is relevant for UNLV this season, it provides an overly detailed prologue to the Rebs current head coach, Marvin Menzies. Despite my condescending views of the UNLV basketball program, Menzies actually appears to be a great fit in Vegas! He has proven to recruit relatively well in a forgotten conference, consistently putting together teams with pockets of talent and athleticism that have, in-turn, dominated the WAC over the past two seasons. Unfortunately for Menzies, he will inherit a UNLV roster that was absolutely gutted this summer, including the departure of all 5 starters from a year ago.
Menzies will lean heavily on three key transfers this season, particularly Jovan "JoJo" Mooring, the reigning D2 JUCO player of the year last season. The 6’1 combo guard put up monster numbers at South Suburban College in Chicago, averaging 27 points, 7 boards and just under 4 dimes a game. However, Mooring struggled in UNLV’s summer trip to the Bahama’s, scoring just 6 points in 40 minutes of action throughout the tournament.
It was actually Mooring's likely backcourt sidekick, Jalen Poyser, who was much more impressive at the Bahamas showcase. He started all three contests, and finished with a 28 point, 5 assist and 3 rebound effort to in the final game of the trip. Now entering his sophomore year, Poyser was inconsistent in the limited clock he got last season, both as an efficient scorer and ball-handler, which makes this news from the Caribbean all the more encouraging for UNLV fans.
The two other key perimeter pieces worth noting are San Francisco transfer Uche Ofoegbu and JUCO transfer Kris Clyburn, both of whom could be thrown into the starting lineup at some point this season. Ofoegbu was a low-volume but absurdly efficient shooter/scorer at San Francisco, posting a top-100 nationally ranked effective FG% of just under 60% (57% from 2, 43% from 3). His veteran presence and acute understanding of his role should make him immediately valuable in the Rebel backcourt. UNLV's forte this season will once again be their depth in the front court. The headliners of this group are a pair of versatile swing-forwards, Dwyane Morgan and St. John's transfer Christian Jones. While the majority of this roster is composed of young and unproven players, Jones and Morgan have both played significant minutes at the D1 level. Morgan started 22 games for the Rebels last season games, and Jones clocked in 25 minutes a game last year for the Johnnies. While it's likely both Jones and Morgan will start at the two forward spots, don't be surprised if Menzies throws Lithuanian freshman Djordjije Slijvancanin into the fire up front, who is much more of a true center at 6'11.
Sorry Rebel nation, but this season will officially be year 1 of a rebuilding project. Menzies will likely play a ton of guys throughout the year as he evaluates which pieces are capable of forming the core of this team's future.
8. Boise St.
Key Returners: Nick Duncan, Chandler Hutchinson
Key Losses: James Webb III, Anthony Drmic
Key Newcomers: James Reid (UALR transfer), Justinian Jessup, Alex Hobbs
Postseason Projection: None
After 2 NCAA tournament appearances over the last 4 seasons at Boise, Leon Rice’s best days in the Potato state are likely in his rear view mirror. When Boise’s do-everything maestro Derrick Marks graduated two years ago, the Broncs fell 60 spots in kenpom.com’s overall rankings last year, despite a respectable 3rd place finish in the league, which further proves how much this league has regressed. Rice will once again have to replace his best player from last year, James Webb, who opted to leave Idaho to make money playing professional basketball (with all due respect to "Idahoians", it seems like the obvious decision on paper). In fact, Rice will be without 4 of his 5 starters from last year, which raises major question marks on who is going to keep the Broncos competitive in 2017.
It's concerning that the leading returning scorer for the Broncs is Nick "the-not-so-quick" Duncan, who lives by knocking down 3's of pick-n-pop action in the half-court. With no elite creator for this team, the burly 6'8 260 pound Duncan will struggle to get the open looks he's gotten in recent years.
The only other returner who clocked significant minutes last season is Chandler Hutchinson. Hutchinson is relatively limited on the offensive end, but is the prototypically glue guy that makes the right play at the right time, and is arguably this team's most versatile defender.
The bottom-line is that Dave Rice will need to get massive leaps from players that have yet to make any impact at the D1 level. Keep an eye on Malek Harwell and Zach Haney, who are two in-house guys that could effectively step into bigger roles this season. Harwell unfortunately missed all of last season with an ACL injury, but is certainly one of the more talented players on this roster. Haney was noted as one of the more impressive performers in the Broncos summer trip to Costa Rica, and will own the burden of picking up the slack that Webb left behind.
A few newcomers worth mentioning are ... 1) James Reid, a UALR transfer, and a decent shooter/scorer (35% from 3 and 9ppg) ... 2) Alex Hobbs, a freshman from La Porte Texas, who averaged 31 ppg in high school ... 3) Justinian Jessup, another freshman, who was all all-state player in Colorado.
The two things to track this year will be Boise's offensive pace and outside shooting. The Broncos have ranked in the top-40 each of the last 2 seasons in 3-point attempts, which backfired last year when went ice cold, posting the 264th ranked 3-point % as a team. Another noticeable delta from two years ago to last year was how much faster Boise played offensively. The Broncos jumped from 255th to 103rd in adjusted tempo, much of which can be explained by Derrick Marks no longer with the ball in his hands 95% of the time. The young and unproven backcourt will be the main influencers on both the pace and 3-point shooting uncertainties, which makes their development pivotal to the destiny of this years squad.
9. Air Force
Key Returners: Hayden Graham, Trevor Lyons, Zach Kocur
Key Losses: Zach Moer
Key Newcomers: Ameka Akaya
Postseason Projection: None
The high-powered Falcons offense from two years ago was completely non-existent last year, as Air force fell almost 200 spots in kenpom.com’s overall offensive efficiency rankings (96th to 290th nationally). Unfortunately for head coach Dave Pilipovich, injuries to key contributors plagued the military academy all-year long.
One of these losses was Trevor Lyons, who was the Falcons 2nd leading scorer last year, but dealt with a hand injury throughout the 2nd half of the season. He returns as the go-to scoring option on the perimeter, and anchors a solid veteran backcourt, alongside with CJ Siples and Zach Kocur. Kocur had a particularly tough year shooting the ball from the outside, especially after leading the conference with a blistering hot 47% clip from 3 as a sophomore. However, his teammate Spiles picked up right where Kocur left off two years ago, draining a cool 49% of his trey bombs last year, albeit in a much smaller sample size (41 attempts). If both can get hot at the same time for large stretches of this season, this Air Force half court offense suddenly looks a lot more competent, especially with Lyons as an effective penetrator and creator.
While the backcourt must be more consistent this year, leading scorer Hayden Graham will continue to be the focal point of the opposition’s scouting report. At 6’5, the long, rangy Graham brings a rare dose of athleticism to this Air Force roster. His lefty pull-up from the mid-range area is no doubt his offensive bread-and-butter, especially when he draws favorable matchups against slower defensive 4’s.
Air Force will once again have some nice pieces in their starting lineup, but will again be significantly undersized, compared to other MWC competition. With that said, they were an effective team rebounding group last season, placing in the nation’s top-100 for defensive rebounding rate. Expect to see the same molasses-pace offensively, which relies on non-stop offensive half-court ball movement to mentally wear down more athletic defensive opponents. If Pilipovich can get some consistent offensive production from what is now a much more experienced backcourt, the Falcons may compete in the middle-tier of this conference.
Key Returners: Jason McManamen, Alan Herndon
Key Losses: Josh Adams
Key Newcomers: Austin Mueller
Postseason Projection: None
The mighty Pokes were on cloud 9 two years ago after Larry Nance Jr. and his trusted sidekick at the time, Josh Adams, led Wyoming to its first NCAA tournament appearance in over a decade. Soon after, Nance was off to Hollywood to play for the Lakers, which thrusted Adams right into the leading role last year. Given the lack of any legitimate supporting actors around him, it was no surprise that Adams posted the 2nd highest usage rate in the entire country. With Adams now gone, the Pokes must find a way to replace his 25, 5 and 3 per game averages, as well as the invaluable leadership he brought to this squad. The Pokes will also be replacing their leader on the sidelines, as former coach Larry Shyatt chose to pursue an opportunity with the Dallas Mavericks, where he ironically will now be coaching his former player Larry Nance. So now in steps Shyatt's replacement, a Kentucky alum and longtime collegiate assistant, Allen Edwards. Edwards has already been particularly vocal about his intentions to expand Wyoming’s recruiting outreach to a national base, but given the difficulty of traveling to Laramie, Wyoming, I do wish him the best in this effort.
The lone senior leader, sharp-shooting Jason McManamen, will no-doubt slide into the alpha role this year, which will be major change from the spot-up shooting role he played last season. Together, him and Adams shot a combined 40+% from beyond the arc on a whopping 450 attempts, which explains why Wyoming took more 3s than any other team in the nation last year. With Adams no longer drawing constant help defense off penetration, McManamen will need to create more of his own looks, especially with other no stand-out returning point guard or playmaker on this roster. Another 3-ball gunner who returns is Alexander Aka Gorski, who connected on 37% of his 90 attempts as a sophomore. Jeremey Liberman is the closest proxy to a point-guard, but provided minimal value on the offensive end last year, and posted the highest turnover rate on the team. Both Gorski and Liberman played ~ 20 minutes a game in starting roles last season, so it’s likely they’ll keep those spots this year.
From an offensive perspective, the Pokes returning frontcourt actually features some respectable depth, led by Alan Herndon, Jordan Naughton and Hayden Dalton. While Herndon’s top-10 ranked effective FG% (58%) in the Mountain West was certainly impressive, the award for "most ridiculous stat line no one knows about" goes to his teammate Jordan Naughton, who somehow shot 83% from the field, but only 49% from the foul-line (?).
The cliché “what-to-watch” with the Pokes this year will be the style of play first-year coach Allen Edwards chooses to instill. If Edwards is even remotely influenced by his playing years at Kentucky under Rick Pitino and/or his early coaching roots as an assistant at VCU, a much faster brand of basketball may be on the horizon for Wyoming. Each of the last 5 years under Shyatt, Wyoming’s adjusted tempo was among the 50 slowest teams in the country, including a sloth-esque 343rd and 345th national ranking in ‘13-‘14 and ‘14-‘15 respectively.
P.S (I’m not sure if “P.S” is the correct use in this context): Click here to read an awesome story on Josh Adams, who was in a serious car accident this offseason, which put an abrupt half to his professional basketball development. Not to worry, this tale has a moderately happy ending, which revolves around the record pace in which Adams was able to raise funding for his astronomical medical expenses from the crash.
11. San Jose St.
Key Returners: Ryan Welage, Brandon Clarke
Key Losses: Frank Rogers, Princeton Owens
Key Newcomers: Keith Fisher, Terrell Brown, Nai Carlisle
Postseason Projection: None
SPARTAAAAAAAAA!!!! The rise of the west coast Spartans has officially commenced, after San Jose St. notched a whopping 4 conference wins last season, their most since 2011! They also tallied their first win away from home in almost three years, with a big-time victory at division II power Alaska Anchorage.
All sarcasm aside, it was a relatively nice year for the Spartans, relative to preseason expectations and the complete incompetence that persisted over the past few years. Its also worth noting two of their conference wins last season came against the league’s 2nd and 3rd place teams (Boise St. and Fresno St.), but they still wound up safely in the MWC cellar when it was all said and done, finishing a game behind Air Force at 4-12.
Unfortunately, the mighty Spartans will lose their two leading scorers from last year’s squad, seniors Frank Rogers and Princeton Ownes. That will put the hopes and dreams of Spartan nation on a trio of sophomore forwards. The first of this bunch is sophomore Brandon Clarke, who was San Jose St.’s most efficient player as a freshman last season. Clarke’s athleticism translated into immediate productivity for the Spartans, particularly in the offensive rebounds and block columns on the stat sheet. The other two more skilled freshmen, Cody Schwartz and Ryan Welage, struggled to shoot the ball consistently last year, but both took good care of the basketball, something young players for this Spartan team have not done in recent years. Schwartz and Welage are similar stylistically, possessing long, skinny 6’8 frames that prefer to do their scoring damage away from the rim. Schwartz resembles more of a true stretch-4, with 141 of his 174 field goal attempts coming from behind the arc, while Welage plays more in the mid-range area inside the arc.
The key for the Spartans this year will be the consistency of their point guard play, most of which will lie in the hands of senior Isaac Thornton. Thornton has lightning-quick feet and hands, which allows him to be a major disruptor on the defensive end (see his top-20 steal rate last year). However, his 25% turnover rate will need to drop this season, especially as he will own the primary ball-handling duties with Owens graduating.