Player of the Year: Chandler Hutchison, Sr., F, Boise St.
Coach of the Year: Marvin Menzies, UNLV
Newcomer of the Year: Caleb Martin, R Jr., G/F, Nevada
Freshman of the Year: Brandon McCoy, Fr., F, UNLV
Key Returners: Lindsey Drew, Jordan Caroline, Josh Hall, Elijah Foster
Key Losses: Marcus Marshall, Cam Oliver, DJ Fenner, Leland King
Key Newcomers: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Kendall Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Darien Williams
Postseason Projection: 12-13 seed
Outlook: As many college basketball writers mention/whine about, the transfer market has been increasing rapidly over the past few years. Several schools have taken advantage of this talent acquisition route, but perhaps no team has gone to the extreme that Nevada has under Eric Musselman. Of the Wolfpack’s thirteen available scholarships, they will have no freshmen and one sophomore on this season’s roster, instead choosing to feature five newly eligible transfers, one former transfer, and five transfers sitting out the year (plus a sixth that is walking on). That’s 12 players who started at a different school! I’m surprised I can even count that high!
Though the roster may be unconventionally built, that doesn’t mean it isn’t talented. Musselman probably has the MWC’s best rotation (despite so many players sitting out), and his NBA experience has them ahead of the curve in terms of playing positionless basketball. A starting lineup featuring Lindsey Drew, Jordan Caroline, NC State transfers/twins Caleb and Cody Martin plus one of many other options is extremely versatile, though only Caleb is a volume shooter (others can hit open shots, but they don’t take many). That’s where Kendall Stephens will be crucial – at Purdue, Stephens was a gunner from deep before the tragic death of a close friend derailed a promising junior season. In a new setting and with a renewed focus, expect that shooting to return in full force.
The Martin twins are matchup nightmares, two long wings that have complementary games (Caleb is the shooter, Cody prefers to attack the rim), and the former top-50 recruits could both be all-conference players right off the bat. Josh Hall, one of the two “homegrown” Nevada players, looks destined for a breakout on the wing as well after playing extremely well on the team’s foreign tour, and he could start if Musselman feels comfortable with a Martin/Martin/Caroline frontline. Caroline will be the linchpin of the attack – with his diverse abilities to drive, post up, crash the glass, and distribute/shoot a bit, he’ll have an advantage against nearly every defender thrown at him.
My major concerns for Nevada are twofold, one on each side of the ball: 1) a slight lack of shooting on offense and 2) a total dearth of rim protection on defense. Regarding the first point, it’s not that the team doesn’t have skilled shooters – it’s more that few are true volume launchers from deep, which may cramp the team’s precious floor spacing at times. The biggest issue, though, is the lack of shot-blocking – Cam Oliver was a one-man wrecking crew at the rim last year, but without him, the only player with any prayer of disrupting opponents is St. John’s grad transfer Darien Williams.
Bottom Line: Nevada’s transfer pipeline from all over the country continues to bring in quality talent, and the roster’s versatility is a scary challenge for the rest of the conference. With five scholarship players sitting the year out, though, depth might be a concern, and no Oliver leaves a hole in the middle (a healthy Elijah Foster would be very helpful, at least on the glass). Despite these question marks, expect the Pack to again earn the top seed in Las Vegas come March.
2. San Diego St.
Key Returners: Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell, Malik Pope, Max Hoetzel
Key Losses: Zylan Cheatham, Dakarai Allen, Valentine Izundu, Matt Shrigley
Key Newcomers: Devin Watson, Kameron Rooks, Jalen McDaniels, Matt Mitchell
Postseason Projection: NIT, just outside the bubble
Outlook: Oftentimes when a high profile coaching job undergoes a change, I have to spend a little time figuring out how the new coach will utitlize the previous coach’s pieces in his new scheme. With San Diego State, there’s no such challenge – new head man Brian Dutcher takes over for the legendary Steve Fisher after 28 years as his assistant, dating all the way back to Fisher’s years coaching the Fab 5 at Michigan. Needless to say, I feel relatively comfortable guessing that Dutcher will play largely the same style as his mentor, perhaps with a few tweaks (and he said as much on Jon Rothstein’s podcast).
That means emphasizing a physical, take-no-prisoners defensive system, taking advantage of the team’s seemingly endless stable of athletes to make scoring hell for opponents, both MWC and others. SDSU always has a stout interior defense, and Malik Pope and Cal grad transfer Kameron Rooks should ensure that continues. Neither is at the intimidation level of Skylar Spencer from a couple years back, but Pope brings plenty of vertical athleticism and Rooks is a massive body who will control the boards with his size.
Fisher also always got his perimeter players to play glove-like defense on the perimeter, harassing ball-handlers and shooters into unwanted passes and shots and generally just exerting their will on the offense. The departures of Dakarai Allen (graduation) and Zylan Cheatham (transferred to Arizona State, where he will no longer be required to play any defense) robs Dutcher of two top-of-the-line versatile defenders, so more will be asked of disappointing Mizzou transfer Teki Gill-Caesar, redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels, and late freshman commit Matt Mitchell. The two freshmen are particularly intriguing due to their length and ability to switch onto many different types of offensive players.
Offensively…well, that’s where the tweaks need to be made. Fisher’s teams always struggled to score, and recently the issue has become problematic to the point that the offense is holding back the still-strong defense. Thankfully, Fisher left Dutcher a handy little toy to solve this issue – San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, a dynamic stud who can beat opponents off the dribble or from the outside while also setting up teammates. That will allow Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley to play off the ball more frequently, a welcome respite from being miscast as primary creators. All three are threats to score, though, and with Watson taking the top dog status, the team’s offensive pecking order may make more sense and lead to a more efficient attack.
Bottom Line: The transition from Fisher to Dutcher should be fairly seamless, and Fisher did an admirable job of leaving his pupil a stocked cupboard with which to cook.The late additions of Rooks and Mitchell may be exactly what the Aztecs needed to push them back atop the conference, particularly with all of the turnover on Nevada’s roster. Even if they can’t quite climb the Mountain (West), San Diego State has a decent shot at restoring the league to multi-bid status if they take care of business in the non-conference portion of the year.
Key Returners: Jovan Mooring, Kris Clyburn
Key Losses: Tyrell Green, Christian Jones, Jalen Poyser, Uche Ofoegbu, Dwayne Morgan
Key Newcomers: Brandon McCoy, Shakur Juiston, Jordan Johnson, Amauri Hardy
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: The 2017-18 Runnin’ Rebels are like a box of chocoloates – you never know what you’re gonna get (related hot take: I don’t like Forrest Gump at all!). After a miserable start to the Chris Beard (just kidding) Marvin Menzies rebuild in the desert, the former New Mexico State coach turned the beat around (Gloria Estefan version) this summer, reeling in a top-15 freshman recruit (Brandon McCoy) and the nation’s top-ranked junior college player (Shakur Juiston) to reinforce a young, promising roster. Expectations aren’t *high* in Vegas, per se (I’m likely one of the bigger Rebel optimists), but the program is clearly trending the right way.
Yes, I just referenced a movie AND a song from 1994 in one paragraph. Something is broken in my brain, please help…
McCoy and Juiston fit the Menzies profile perfectly – he’s long been a proponent of attacking the rim and offensive glass and getting to the free throw line, and with what is likely the conference’s best frontcourt combination (plus Cheik Dembele and Dwayne Morgan, if he’s not suspended), that attack will become highly potent this year. Both newcomers can score with their backs to the basket, giving Menzies a “one-on-one” scoring option that the team didn’t really have last year. McCoy in particular is a likely one-and-done guy, already a lottery prospect on many 2018 NBA Draft boards, and the difference he alone will make on both ends elevates UNLV to dark horse contender at the very least.
Editor's note: Despite still being enrolled at UNLV, Dwayne Morgan will not play for the basketball team this year. Hey Runnin' Rebels - update your team roster for 2017-18!
Of course, any good frontcourt needs someone to get them the ball, and Menzies has just the solution for that issue as well – Milwaukee transfer Jordan Johnson. One of the nation’s truly elite passers two years ago, Johnson is a lightning bug who can get into the lane with ease and find the open option on drop-offs and kickouts alike. That said, UNLV will need improved shooting from Kris Clyburn and freshman Amauri Hardy to give the Rebels more deep threats apart from Jovan Mooring. With Johnson (and Hardy, at times) creating far better looks, expect an uptick in the team’s three-point percentages.
Defensively, the best Menzies defenses are extremely disruptive on the perimeter, forcing teams to attack via isolation and drive into the intimidating shot-blockers in the paint. Johnson and McCoy will again be crucial here, as Johnson’s quickness makes him a pest on the ball and McCoy’s athleticism gives him elite potential as a shot-blocker.
Bottom Line: The “Rebellion” in Las Vegas will attempt to take down the “Galactic Empires” of Nevada and San Diego State this season, and with the influx of talent Menzies has assembled, the powers that be would be smart not to discount the upstarts in the desert. McCoy and Johnson both have a chance at Newcomer of the Year (and McCoy could even compete for Player of the Year), so if Menzies gets the level of defensive intensity he traditionally demands, UNLV’s hiatus from national relevance could be very short-lived.
4. Fresno St.
Key Returners: Jahmel Taylor, Jaron Hopkins, Deshon Taylor, Bryson Williams, Terrell Carter
Key Losses: Paul Watson, Cullen Russo, Karachi Edo
Key Newcomers: Ray Bowles, New Williams, Myles Fitzgerald-Warren
Postseason Projection: CBI
Outlook: After a rough start in Fresno (8-22 in conference play), Rodney Terry has vaulted the Bulldogs into top-half finishes each of the last three years, including conquering the conference tournament beast in 2016 and making the Big Dance. He has another talented roster this year, led by a skilled and deep backcourt, and with luck, Fresno could turn into a dark horse title contender.
Terry’s teams consistently have quality guards, and this year’s team will be no different. The starting trio of Deshon Taylor, Jahmel Taylor (no relation), and Jaron Hopkins all return, and after a year where those three were the only rotation guards, Terry added Ray Bowles as a grad transfer from Pacific, and Auburn transfer New Williams will be eligible in December. The added depth will be huge – one of Terry’s greatest historical team strengths has been avoiding turnovers, but last year’s team struggled with that when only two guards were on the floor. The offense only truly thrived with all three guards together:
With the additions of Williams and Bowles (plus graduation losses in the frontcourt), the Bulldogs should play three-guard lineups nearly at all times.
One issue with the reliance on guardplay is that the offense too often devolves into isolation. Terry’s teams always have low assist rates, emphasizing the lack of ball movement that can occur as each guard tries to “get his,” as the kids say. Only Jahmel Taylor is a proven shooter, and if the defense disrupts driving lanes while sagging off the other guards, the team could be forced into inefficient two-point jumpers.
Defensively, Fresno also emphasizes its guards – they want to force turnovers, and most of the time, that leads to an inordinate amount of fouls (another area where the depth will help). Hopkins is one of the nation’s best ballhawks, and he’ll be the linchpin for the man-to-man pressure scheme. Fresno played zone on a hefty 1% of defensive possessions last season, (obviously) one of the smallest shares in the country, and the three-guard lineups will lend themselves to plenty of switching on the perimeter.
Terry has bodies to protect the paint – the monstrous Terrell Carter (6’10, 290) is a little slow and foul-prone like the rest of the team, while Bryson Williams is the team’s most promising forward – but the defense will go as the perimeter goes. Carter hurts the man-to-man scheme due to his inability to slide or help in pick-and-roll situations, so Terry will have to find coverages that hide Carter within the team’s scheme and emphasize rotations from the guards.
Bottom Line: One of the most underrated defensive pieces in the country was Cullen Russo, kind of an Ethan Happ Lite with his propensity for steals as a big man. Without him, the defensive scheme will need to adapt, and despite the Bulldogs’ excellent talent and depth combo, Fresno will likely lag slightly behind the conference’s big guns.
5. Boise St.
Key Returners: Chandler Hutchison, Justinian Jessup, Zach Haney, David Wacker
Key Losses: Paris Austin, James Reid, Nick Duncan
Key Newcomers: Christian Sengfelder, Lexus Williams, Casdon Jardine, Cameron Christon
Postseason Projection: CBI
Outlook: Since Leon Rice took over at Boise State in 2010-11, the Broncos have had one (1) season in which they failed to win 20 games and finished under .500 in conference play. Prior to that, they’d won 20 games only twice in this millennium – so all in all, Rice’s tenure has been a smashing success. This year, Rice will ride a potential conference player of the year to what should be another 20-win campaign, and if the surrounding pieces gel together, a third trip to the NCAA Tournament is not impossible.
The Broncos attack starts with Chandler Hutchison, a do-it-all wing who became the team’s primary creator at times. Hutchison’s ability to grab a defensive rebound (#5 in the MWC by rate) and immediately start a fast break ignited the Broncos transition attack, opening up opportunities for Boise’s many three-point bombers. James Reid and the legendary Nick Duncan graduated, but Justinian Jessup is back, and Fordham grad transfer Christian Sengfelder should take Duncan’s role of floor-stretching big man without much of a problem.
Coach Rice’s offenses often lean on 1-2 players to make things happen (think Anthony Drmic and James Webb, or Derrick Marks before them). As good as Hutchison is, he’ll need another creator to emerge alongside him for the offense to truly thrive. After the transfer of point guard Paris Austin, that question seemed worrisome, but Rice snagged Valpo grad transfer Lexus Williams late in the offseason as an insurance policy to Marcus Dickinson’s development, which should help the offense stabilize with the presence of a veteran PG.
Historically, Rice’s squads struggle a bit on defense, particularly with interior defense. Last year’s squad at least had some size in Zach Haney and David Wacker to patrol the middle, and those two (along with Hutchison) allowed the Broncos to remain dominant on the defensive glass – as they have been every single season throughout Rice’s tenure.
The 2016-17 Broncos squad noticeably pulled back the reins on forcing turnovers (went from 55th to 287th in percentage of turnovers forced), but they offset that strategic change by allowing significantly fewer three-point attempts, always a Rice bugaboo. The result was forcing opponents into the aforementioned improved interior D (or to take inefficient two-point jumpers), which allowed for the switch in style to remain relatively effective.
Bottom Line: Sengfelder and Williams were crucial adds on the transfer market, and Rice will need to integrate them properly into both the rotation and, perhaps more importantly, the team’s locker room dynamic right off the bat. Hutchison’s abilities alone give the Broncos a chance to be in the Mountain West’s top tier, but securing that finish is a matter of balancing the pieces around him. The Broncos also struggled mightily on the defensve end when Hutchison left the floor last year (gave up 1.10ppp compared to 0.98ppp with him on the court), so the supporting cast needs to lock down on defense as well. There’s upside here (and a lot of variance, given how many threes they shoot), but compared to the other contenders, I’m tempering my optimism.
Key Returners: Justin James, Hayden Dalton, Alan Herndon, Louis Adams, Alex Aka Gorski
Key Losses: Jason McManamen
Key Newcomers: Ny Redding, Anthony Mack, Hunter Thompson, Brodricks Jones
Postseason Projection: CIT
Outlook: After five years playing at the pace of an aging tortoise under Larry Shyatt, new coach Allen Edwards strapped a jetpack to that tortoise and set the speed to “maximum.” The Cowboys never finished higher than 316th nationally in tempo under the previous regime, but under Edwards, that ranking skyrocketed to 14th. Edwards’s “assertive on offense, assertive on defense” mantra permeated throughout the roster, and the team’s depth of offensive options will be on display this year once again with the return of three double-digit scorers and some key additions.
The stylistic shift led to an overall increase of nine wins, although the team’s MWC record only moved one game (from 7-11 to 8-10). The actual shot distribution and strategy to score didn’t actually change much, only the rate at which the Cowboys took shots – they still bombed away from deep, got to the line when possible, and ignored the offensive glass, all carry-over traits from Shyatt’s tenure. Wyoming’s most prolific shooter, volume-wise, is gone, but Justin James, Hayden Dalton, and Alan Herndon (the team’s starting frontline) all hit roughly 50 threes last year, and Cody Kelley and Alexander Aka Gorski will also fire away if they’re open.
The roster’s biggest question is point guard, a crucial spot for a tranisiton-oriented attack. The scheme demands a strong decision-maker and tempo-pusher that can set up teammates. While Jeremy Lieberman was generally effective in that role last year, his shaky shot and sub-100 O-rating were blemishes on the team’s offensive efficiency, and Kelley and Washington State transfer Ny Redding will push for minutes at that spot. Kelley’s potential for the common “freshman to sophomore leap” and Redding’s prolific passing pedigree in Pullman (ranked 64th in the country in assist rate in 2014-15) are further threats to Lieberman’s hold on the position.
The “assertive on defense” part of Edwards’s slogan was far less obvious last year, though. Wyoming continued to play conservatively on that end, getting back in transition and not gambling to force turnovers. They did, however, play significantly more man-to-man – Shyatt’s last team played zone 20% of the time, but that number fell to only 7% last year. That allowed the Cowboys to extend more onto perimeter shooters, instead forcing opponents into tough twos. Herndon was one of the MWC’s best rim protectors last year (and Jordan Naughton is developing behind him), so the Cowboys’ interior defense should remain stout, as well.
Bottom Line: Edwards unlocked a potent transition offense last year, and with so many pieces returning for a second year in the “assertive” scheme, Wyoming could be a dark horse to threaten the conference’s top dogs. A lot depends on if the jumpers are falling – with the homecourt advantage that Laramie provides (due to awful travel just to get there plus some altitude), expect a few impressive home scalps when the shooters get cookin’ from downtown.
7. Colorado St.
Key Returners: Che Bob, Prentiss Nixon, JD Paige
Key Losses: Gian Clavell, Emmanuel Omogbo, Devocio Butler
Key Newcomers: Lorenzo Jenkins, Robbie Berwick, Raquan Mitchell, Deion James
Postseason Projection: CIT
Outlook: I love two things about this Colorado State team right off the bat: 1) Larry “Party Boy” Eustachy is the head coach, and 2) one of its key returning players goes by the name Che Bob. Those two facts alone make the Rams a team to watch, but returning several key pieces from a second-place Mountain West finisher while adding a talented group of newcomers actually bears real basketball intrigue.
On the court, Eustachy is best known for his distinctive offenses – they take care of the ball and pound the offensive glass, using their aggression towards the rim to consistently put together efficient offensive units. With the return of Nico Carvacho as the man in the middle, Eustachy boasts one of the best offensive rebounders in the country to lead that rim attack, and Bob and JUCO transfers Deion James and Zo Tyson should give him some solid reinforcements.
In the last two years, CSU has been a little more perimeter-oriented behind Gian Clavell, but with his graduation, JD Paige and Prentiss Nixon will need to step further into the limelight. Eustachy’s teams at Southern Miss treated the three-point line with disgust, but Nixon and Paige won’t shy away from open shots (nor will Florida State transfer Robbie Berwick). Both guys will also need to facilitate more – too often last year, the offense devolved into isolation sets for Clavell with the rest of the team standing and watching, evidenced by the Rams’ 326th-ranked assist rate. The ball movement just wasn’t there for them to truly thrive
Defensively, Eustachy squads again value the rim. They’ll play almost exclusive man-to-man (as in, 98% of the time) and go under screens to take away the paint, making them vulnerable to hot shooting teams who can take advantage of the plethora of open shots the Rams give up. They also will be maniacal in taking away the defensive glass, instead sacrificing their transition offense to send all five guys to the boards. Last year’s team was actually Eustachy’s first in Fort Collins to finish outside of the top 20 nationally in defensive rebound rate, so it will be interesting to see if that becomes a trend.
Bottom Line: Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo are both big losses, although two other JUCO imports, Raquan Mitchell and Deion James, plus Arkansas transfer Lorenzo Jenkins, give the Rams some talented depth. Eustachy has some decisions to make – go back to how his older teams succeeded (focus wholeheartedly on the rim on both ends), or continue with the shift towards a more perimeter-oriented game? I’m concerned this team won’t have a go-to scorer or a strong enough identity, causing them to tumble down the standings a bit.
8. Utah St.
Key Returners: Koby McEwen, Sam Merrill, Norbert Janicek, Alexis Dargenton
Key Losses: Jalen Moore, Shane Rector, Quinn Taylor
Key Newcomers: DeAngelo Isby, Dwayne Brown, Crew Ainge, Brock Miller, Daron Henson
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: At the start of Year 3 of the post-Stew Morrill Era, the Aggies sit at an uninspiring 31-32 (14-22) overall. That pales in comparison to Morrill’s 402-156 (204-80) record in Provo, but it’s worth noting that he only managed 36-27 (18-18) in his final two years – which coincided with the shift to the far-more-challenging Mountain West Conference. Tim Duryea is Morrill’s longtime assistant, and while he should have a fairly long leash given his connection to the Utah State legend, he’d like to kickstart the Aggies’ momentum in the new league.
That momentum starts with the promising young backcourt of Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill, two sophomores who give the team a relatively high offensive ceiling. McEwen in particular is the key – he was a do-it-all contributor as a freshman, leading the team in both usage and assist rate and drawing some pretty impressive statistical comparisons from our old pal Ken Pomeroy’s algorithm (click photo to enlarge):
J.P. Kuhlman was a skilled guard at Davidson who came immediately after Steph Curry; most college basketball fans have heard of the other four. One is an NBA star, and the other three are having/had standout college careers – Duryea would be thrilled if McEwen followed the same developmental path as Lillard or even Hanlan.
The two guards exemplify the Aggies’ longtime offensive style – excellent ball movement, deadeye shooting, but perhaps lacking in some physicality inside. The addition of scoring guards DeAngelo Isby (JUCO), Brock Miller, and Crew Ainge (Danny’s youngest offspring) increases the offense’s perimeter potency, which actually gives the Aggies’ offense quite a bit of upside. Morrill/Duryea teams have struggled with some of the more vicious defenses in the league (San Diego State comes to mind – 0-9 against them since entering the MWC), but teams that let them fire away from deep will get burned in a hurry.
Norbert Janicek, Quinn Taylor, and Alexis Dargenton will again attempt to give USU some semblance of an inside attack. Dargenton specifically was a rugged force on the boards and on the defensive end, while Janicek didn’t quite match his size (6’11, 240) with interior production (only 3.6rpg and 0.1bpg). Duryea (and Morrill before him) plays a solid chunk of zone defensively, mostly due to the athleticism deficit they face against many MWC teams, making the Aggies vulnerable to offenses similar to theirs (ball movement and shooting).
Bottom Line: All of this is to say that, yes, Utah State fits the stereotypical perception of a team from Utah – shooters who can get hot from deep, but lacking in high-level athleticism. For years, Morrill succeeded by leaning right into that playing style, but then step up in athletic competition to the MWC has derailed that success a bit. McEwen, another excellent young Canadian player, presents Utah St. with the upside to emerge from that rut – but will that happen already during his sophomore season, or sometime later?
9. New Mexico
Key Returners: Sam Logwood, Dane Kuiper
Key Losses: Elijah Brown, Tim Williams, Obij Ajet, Jordan Hunter, Jalen Harris
Key Newcomers: Troy Simons, Chris McNeal, Jachai Simmons, Matt Vail
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Question: What’s the difference between the New Mexico Lobos basketball program and the strip mall closest to where I grew up?
Answer: The strip mall still has Noodles!
That’s right folks, Craig “Noodles” Neal is out in Albuquerque after a rocky four-year tenure that saw him fail to sustain success after the departure of Steve Alford’s players (shout out to the Wisconsin Mac 'n Cheese I got probably 500 times at that Noodles and Company in New Berlin, WI). An exodus of transfers quickly followed the Neal firing, as six Lobos left the squad (and Sam Logwood changed his mind after initially deciding to join them).
That means this year could be a major transition year for new coach Paul Weir. Weir’s a compelling story himself – he switched sides in the Rio Grande Rivalry after coaching a year at hated foe New Mexico State, and the future games between the two schools should be wrought with even more drama following his defection. Matchups with UNLV should also be fun – Weir was an assistant for Marvin Menzies at NMSU, so that will be more of a friendly rivalry.
Weir did a nice job adding talent this offseason, despite the position he was put in. He added some solid talent from the junior college ranks – Troy Simons could be the team’s leading scorer right off the bat, and Jachai Simmons and Chris McNeal should also help hold the fort this year – while also building for the future. Therein lies his greatest offseason successes – nabbing highly-regarded transfers Antino Jackson (Akron), Vance Jackson (UConn), and JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State) positions the Lobos for contention in 2018-19.
As for 2017-18 – my best guess is Weir tries to instill the same rim-attacking system on offense and extended perimeter man-to-man on defense that he ran in Las Cruces. That bodes well for Logwood, a versatile wing who likes to get to the rim. Connor MacDougall and Joe Furstinger may also play key roles due to their proficiency on the offensive glass; both posted O-Reb rates that would have been Top 150 in the country had they played more minutes. Simons and McNeal likely will start right away, because the departures were especially devastating to the team’s backcourt. The two guards’ games complement each other quite well – both can shoot a bit, but Simons is a trueborn scorer while McNeal prefers to create and distribute. Dane Kuiper gives them a shooter on the wing to help space the floor, as well.
Defensively, the two JUCO guards will again be crucial. Weir’s Aggies team consistently ran a full-court man-to-man press, challenging opposing guards and making teams labor just to get into their offensive sets. This led to possessions that extended deep into the shot clock, often ending in isolation and difficult one-on-one three-point heaves. This year’s team won’t quite have the versatility to switch like NMSU did with Jemerrio Jones and Eli Chuha at the forward spots, though, so I expect the defense to suffer a bit. The best defensive lineup will likely be McNeal-Simons-Anthony Mathis-Simmons-Logwood, but that sacrifices some ability on the offensive glass.
Bottom Line: There’s no question that this is a bridge year for New Mexico. Whether that condemns them to the bottom of the MWC, though, is still an open-ended question. Weir was excellent in his one year at NMSU, but he’s very inexperienced, and his roster will rely on a lot of newcomers as well. My best guess is that Simons shows flashes of stardom, and the team returns to prominence next year with the influx of transfer talent.
10. San Jose St.
Key Returners: Ryan Welage, Terrell Brown, Jalen James, Jaycee Hillsman
Key Losses: Brandon Clarke, Isaac Thornton, Terrell Brown (dismissed)
Key Newcomers: Caleb Simmons, Noah Baumann, Nai Carlisle, Oumar Berry
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: San Jose State overall (and conference) wins over the last three years: 1 (0), 9 (4), 14 (7). Pretty good trajectory, right? Well, it was…until an offseason from hell thrashed the Spartans, taking both the coach and the best player in equally shocking and late-in-the-offseason moves, leaving SJSU to scramble to maintain any program momentum.
Dave Wojcik, who seemed on track to get SJSU back to relevancy in his fifth year by the Bay, shockingly resigned on July 10th. This was especially harmful for the team because the coaching carousel had died down considerably at this point, leaving them limited options to hire. The administration settled on Jean Prioleau, a longtime assistant under Tad Boyle at Colorado (and plenty of other D-I stops prior to that).
Prioleau’s immediate concern will be replacing Brandon Clarke, the team’s do-it-all stud who transferred to Gonzaga in late August. San Jose State’s splits with and without Clarke on the floor are stark – without him, the team was worse than MWC last-place team UNLV was overall:
And if that’s not bad enough, Clarke was the only player on the team with a positive net rating:
So how will Prioleau respond to such a glaring absence? For this year, that is hard to say. In some of his first interviews as SJSU coach, he talked about continuing the uptempo style employed by Wojcik, particularly offensively. For a team not gifted with many proven shooters or one-on-one scorers, that makes sense. The likely backcourt of Jalen James, Isaiah Nichols, and Jaycee Hillsman should prove to be more effective in the open court than against set defenses. All three guys took a relative backseat last year, usage-wise, but will be counted on more this year to score and create for teammates.
Prioleau plans to make the most significant changes defensively, which is where he claims Boyle helped whip the Colorado program into shape. He hopes to instill a far more physical mindset, with contesting more shots and continuing to own the defensive glass high on his priority list. Clarke was the team’s best rebounder, though, so JUCO transfer Oumar Berry, Ryan Singer, and stretch-four Ryan Welage will need to pick up the slack in that department.
Bottom Line: Despite Prioleau’s optimism, he faces a tall task at a long-struggling program that just lost its only true all-conference talent. He’s saying the right things (wants to be at SJSU for the long haul, cares about getting the right type of hard-working players, etc.), but putting those claims into practice will be a challenge in a deep Mountain West. The team will still be young this year – only James and Mitchell are rotation seniors – so getting a feel for the MWC and keeping the Spartans out of the cellar are noble Year One goals for Prioleau and his staff.
11. Air Force
Key Returners: Jacob Van, Frank Toohey, Trevor Lyons
Key Losses: Hayden Graham, Zach Kocur
Key Newcomers: Abraham Kinrade
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Let’s be crystal clear – a service academy in a league like the Mountain West is not fair. I don’t feel any shame in saying that, nor do I think most people associated with Air Force basketball would take enormous issue with it. The Falcons recruit to seismically differenct standards than the rest of their competition, factoring in medical history and career aspirations (sup, wanna be a pilot?) in addition to whether or not they’re capable students and basketball players.
If you don’t believe me that Dave Pilipovich (Air Force’s coach since 2012-13) has the toughest job in college basketball, just read Gary Parrish’s article from two years ago on the topic. Pilipovich has to take into insane considerations when recruiting: Are you willing to serve in the US Military in an era of near-wartime after graduation? Do you have a flawless medical history/are you made out of adamantium like Wolverine?
If you were too lazy to click that article, Pilipovich had to a reject a crucial recruit because he had a history of asthma, despite his glaring basketball skill and desire to study aviation. With that preeminent restriction in mind, the Falcons program has to find under-recruited gems to develop and place into a motion system that emphasizes ball movement and shooting. The team’s backcourt returns intact, featuring point guard Jacob Van and defender extraordinaire Trevor Lyons, and Pilipovich will lean on them to anchor a team that will have plenty of turnover elsewhere on the roster. The team’s continuous spread motion is in place to create open shots, which means new perimeter weapons must emerge – the best options include sophomore Sid Tomes, senior Ryan Manning, and sophomore Lavelle Scottie (I would put some $$ on Scottie having a mini-breakout out this year if you could gamble on such things).
The only other crucial returner is quasi-center Frank Toohey, an efficient shooter that can take advantage of mismatches offensively. His lack of size and rim protection will hurt the team’s defense, though. Given the team’s lack of athleticism relative to the rest of the league, Pilipovich plays a ton of zone (50% of the time last year, per Synergy), which means opponents get to fire away from deep nearly uncontested. To wit: Air Force has finished in the bottom three nationally in defensive 3-point rate (threes taken/total shots taken) for three straight years. Put in layman’s terms, playing against the Falcons ultimately becomes like shooting in a practice gym (even I could make threes in that situation!) (alright FINE that’s not true).
Bottom Line: Pilipovich has done yeoman’s work in Colorado Springs, but the insane recruiting restrictions compared to his competition have put him on a drastically uneven playing field. He continues to develop players, but the program’s vulnerability to talented young players transferring will always hamper Air Force’s upside (you don’t have to serve in the Air Force if you don’t take a junior year-level class). The Falcons’ ball movement and shooting may keep them out of the cellar, but the lack of high-level talent caps the team’s ceiling.