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Musselman-led Nevada still best in Mountain West

Greg Peterson
VSiN.com

November 2, 2017 03:27 AM
ericmuss
Nevada finished 28-7 last season and has won 52 games in fiery coach Eric Musselman's first two years in Reno.
© USA Today Sports Images

This is the first in a series of 32 college basketball conference previews.

For the second straight year, the Mountain West was a one-bid league in the NCAA Tournament, which was a first for the conference. San Diego State has missed the dance each of the past two years, and as a result coach Eric Musselman has built a Nevada program that is considered the current gold standard of the conference.

Musselman, who went 28-7 last season and has won 52 games in his first two years at Nevada, has had loads of success with transfers and has quite the haul ready to hit the floor for the 2017-18 season.

Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, 6-foot-7 twin wings, did not fit North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried's system and, after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules, both are ready to show their worth.  Caleb was more productive in the ACC, going for 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore, but Cody who was more efficient from the floor. With Musselman's great track record with wings and tweener players, the duo should see immediate success.

With the departures of Cameron Oliver and Marcus Marshall — the Wolf Pack’s top two scorers from a season ago combined for 35.7 points per game, with Oliver also contributing 8.7 rebounds per game — it's important that the Martin twins both score and rebound.

Musselman has another big man entering the program in.6-foot-8 Darien Williams. The team got big-time production from 6-foot-7 Jordan Caroline, who averaged 15 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds, and will hope Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens can have a similar impact, but in a different aspect of the game.

While with the Boilermakers, Stephens was a 3-point specialist, knocking down at least 37 percent of his shots from downtown in two of his three seasons in the Big Ten. He struggled in his junior year at Purdue, but sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules gave him a chance to work on his game. Stephens figures to be plugged into D.J. Fenner's spot in the lineup after he registered 13.7 points per game while knocking down 43.5 percent of his 3s as a 6-foot-6 guard.

Nevada is set at the point guard spot with Lindsey Drew back for his junior year. He does not look to shoot a lot, totaling 5.9 points per game last year, but made over 45 percent of his field goals and added 1.2 steals, 4.1 assist, and 4.7 rebounds per game.

With one of the better junior-college transfers in the nation arriving in forward Shawntrez Davis, it's obvious Musselman has reloaded.

With so much length and athleticism, good luck to any team in this conference trying to slow down the Wolf Pack freight train. This is a power-five roster in a rebuilding Mountain West, so a 25-win season should be expected, and with a signature win or two in the non-conference slate, the Wolf Pack could find the Top 25.

For several years under the guidance of Steve Fisher, San Diego State ruled the conference with an iron fist. That changed last year, when the Aztecs went 9-9 and finished sixth in the conference, and during the offseason Fisher elected to retire. His top assistant, Brian Dutcher, takes up the task of filling his shoes and getting a talented team back on track toward the NCAA Tournament.

While he could not keep power forward Zylan Cheatham on campus, Dutcher is bringing in former California big man Kameron Rooks. Cheatham did average 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds, but he was not the best fit defensively and looked out of place on the court at times. The added size of Rooks could give the team a more reliable post presence.

If senior Malik Pope continues to progress, Pope and Rooks could form a great down low duo. The 6-foot-10 forward was one of the most highly coveted recruits in the class of 2014 but did not develop the way many thought he would and finally began playing to his potential last year. He had 11 points, 6.1 rebounds and one block per game all while hitting over 39 percent of his shots from long range.

Dutcher also has the luxury of guards and last year's leading scorers Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley returning.  They combined to register 26.1 points per game, though Kell's 3-point shooting efficiency (27.3 percent) needs a lot of work.

The team will also have the services of San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, who went for 20.3 points and 4.9 assists per game as a sophomore during the 2015-16 season. The Aztecs were 285th in the nation in points per game, and this is the addition needed in an effort to change that.

If stretch player Max Hoetzel and guard Montaque Gill-Caesar can be priority reserves along with four-star recruit Jordan Schakel, the Aztecs have a good chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament. Of the three, Indiana transfer Hoetzel has the most upside. He’s 6-foot-8, shoots nearly 35 percent from 3 and had 7.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in just under 20 minutes per contest.

If San Diego State meshes as a team under Dutcher, the Aztecs could challenge Nevada at the top or at least find themselves on the bubble for an at-large bid to the field of 68.

Colorado State has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament each of the past four seasons, but did win 24 games a year ago.

Larry Eustachy's squad had the benefit of fifth-year senior Gian Clavell, who tore it up with 20.4 points per game last year after missing the first nine games of the season. With 6-foot-8 Emmanuel Omogbo also out of eligibility after he had 13.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last year, it leaves the Rams scrambling to replace their two biggest producers. Eustachy is trying to turn some players power-five schools thought were trash and turn them into treasures.

Robbie Berwick, a 6-foot-4 guard, has a similar size and skill set to Clavell, but he could not get consistent minutes at Florida State and struggled with his jumper. Eustachy is hoping he can combine Berwick with Jeremiah Paige and Prentiss Nixon in the backcourt. Nixon averaged 13.2 points, while Paige had 8.8 points. Both need to work on their shooting, as neither hit over 35 percent of their 3s.

For the most part, Colorado State's big men played by committee last year, with forwards Che Bob and Nico Carvacho both getting around 20 minutes per game. With Kimani Jackson and Braden Koelliker transferring, coupled with the fact the team is not bringing in any other true bigs, both should see a boatload of minutes.

The team hopes 6-foot-7 wing Lorenzo Jenkins can help after he played just one game for Arkansas. The hope is Jenkins can space out the floor and give Colorado State an added dimension.

The Rams having X-factor guard Devocio Butler and big man Bob for a full season is critical as both missed half the season due to injury, but even if that happens, the NCAA Tournament is likely not in the cards for this team. Colorado State was a 4-seed in the NIT with Omogbo and Clavell, so without them it’s will be tough for Eustachy to do a much better than .500.

Boise State reached 20 wins for the fifth straight season and has perhaps the most dangerous player in the Mountain West returning in Chandler Hutchinson. The 6-foot-7 senior is coming off a season in which he had 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game while making nearly 38 percent of his 3s.

Much of the starting five around him from last year is gone, as guard Paris Austin decided to transfer to California after he went for 12.3 points as a sophomore. The team lost an additional 19.3 points and 6 rebounds per game with guard James Reid and 6-foot-8 forward Nick Duncan, who hit a team-high 71 3s. Duncan was an extremely streaky shooter, so the team is hoping 6-foot-5 Australian shooting guard Tom Wilson can deliver more consistent results, though he has just 10 games of D-I college basketball experience.

Boise State also will rely on sophomores Justinian Jessup and Alex Hobbs to hit 3s, as both made over 35.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc last year. Casdon Jardine, a 6-foot-7 junior-college transfer, will likely be a part of the main rotation after he had 10.4 points and six rebounds per game while playing at the lower level for Southern Idaho last year.

The Broncos have a solid team that should win 20 games again, but expect Boise to be in the top five of the Mountain West while vying for a trip to the NIT.

New Mexico has been an up-and-down program this decade, and under former coach Craig Neal, the Lobos were mostly down. So after going 47-45 the past three years, Neal was let go and Paul Weir was hired from rival New Mexico State.

Weir has just one year of head coaching experience at the D-I level, leading the Aggies to a 28-6 record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament as a 14-seed.

The team got a couple splashy transfers in former Ohio State guard JaQuan Lyle and Connecticut’s Vance Jackson, but it will take a year to see the fruits of those labors as both have to sit out this season. There were several players who decided to leave the school, too, with Elijah Brown the most notable, and that presents Weir with all sorts of obstacles to overcome in his initial year.

So, 6-foot-7 wings Sam Logwood and Dane Kuiper will have to carry the team as they are the only two players on the roster who averaged more than four points per game at the D-I level last season. The two combined to average 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while both hit over 37.5 percent of their threes. Those are numbers each will likely need to average individually with nearly 70 percent of the Lobos’ total production gone from a season ago.

With all of the departures, point guard Quinn Clinton is the only true recruit remaining in the original 2017 class and might be the starting point guard given the fact that the remaining roster has close to zero experience running the point. The most experienced big, 6-foot-8 Connor MacDougall, logged only 10 minutes per game last season.

Weir's hope is that 6-foot-5 Australian wing Makuach Maluach can provide some rebounding and defensive help with his 6-11 wingspan and can bring some leadership after spending time with Australia's Junior National Team. The Lobos might need 6-foot-9 Joe Furstinger to be the center after he played most of last year as a defensive stopper with 3.3 points and 2.9 boards per game off the bench.

With dramatic roster turnover, New Mexico could have a year similar to UNLV's 2016-17 disaster, in which the Rebels went 11-21. Weir will get the team heading in the right direction, but the record will not indicate that until 2018-19 at the earliest.

UNLV finished 4-14 in Mountain West play, tied for dead last in the conference. It was the first time in the 48-year history of the program that the Rebels dropped to last place in their conference, as Marvin Menzies was dealt a bad hand and is trying to rebuild the once-proud program. Menzies has done a good job of stopping the bleeding, and the team should take steps in the right direction.

Menzies will have the services of 247Sports' top-rated junior-college transfer in the 2017 class in 6-foot-7 power forward Shakur Juiston. He led Hutchinson (Kansas) to the NJCAA title, averaging 17.3 points and 12.1 rebounds, and was the NJCAA Player of the Year.

The most touted freshman is 6-foot-11 center Brandon McCoy, who should be joining Juiston in the starting lineup. McCoy was the No. 4-rated center in ESPN's recruiting rankings in the 2017 class after logging 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks per game as a McDonald's All-American. He did not sign until late April, but he’s the shot in the arm this program badly needed.

With Troy Baxter Jr., Zion Morgan and Jalen Poyser leaving the program, it leaves the team in need of replacing the minutes those guards and wings played last year. Left-handed four-star point guard Amauri Hardy might push the team's leader in assists last season, Jovan Mooring, to the two-guard spot. Hardy originally committed to Oklahoma State before changing his mind when coach Brad Underwood bolted for Illinois.

Hardy is one of the quickest point guards in the class and is not afraid to drive it to the hole, though his outside shot needs work. Meanwhile, Mooring is a very good jump shooter, leading the team in scoring last year with 12.6 points per game and converting 37.6 percent of his 3s.

The Rebels also have UW-Milwaukee transfer Jordan Johnson eligible after he stared 35 games at point in the Horizon League during the 2015-16 season. With the team being in need of outside shooting with McCoy and Juiston not being stretch players, putting Mooring at shooting guard makes sense. Menzies suddenly has an embarrassment of riches at the point guard position.

This team is full of question marks with so many players entering the program, but one they did not expect to deal with is forward Dwayne Morgan, who played just eight games last year and was suspended indefinitely during the offseason for an arrest during the spring. Morgan elected to reunite with former UNLV interim coach Todd Simon at Southern Utah after averaging 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in an injury-riddled 2016-17.

If 6-foot-6 stretch guard Kris Clyburn can improve his 3 after making under 29 percent a season ago, that would be huge for a squad that made under 30 percent of its 3-pointers in conference play last year. The team's main bigs coming off the bench figure to be 6-foot-11 underclassmen Cheickna Dembele and Chiekh Mbacke Diong.

Menzies’ late recruiting pickups coupled with the seasoning the young guys received last season should elevate UNLV immediately. While an NCAA Tournament appearance seems unlikely, a 20-win season is a realistic goal.

Fresno State took a turn in the right direction the past two years, winning a total of 45 games, including a trip to the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs will be built around 6-foot-6 lead ball-handler Jaron Hopkins, who led the team in four statistical categories. His 3-point shot needs work, but he is essentially the Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Mountain West.

Hopkins will have backcourt mates Deshon Taylor and Jahmel Taylor, who combined for 23 points per game while both made over 40 percent of their 3s.

The Bulldogs added another scoring option in Pacific graduate transfer Ray Bowles, who is coming off a season in which he notched 13.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. His shooting percentage has been spotty as he made 46 percent of his field goals two years ago, but just 35.5 percent last year.

Fresno coach Rodney Terry needs Bowles to be an impact player because the team did not have much low-post play last year and the main two big men from last year are gone. Promising 6-foot-8 forward Bryson Williams is coming off a freshman year in which he had 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.

Former three-star big man Nate Grimes missed the whole 2015-16 season with a torn ACL and played in just 17 games last year. If Grimes can put it together, Fresno will suddenly become a scary team that could sneak into the NCAA Tournament at-large conversation. If he does not, the Bulldogs likely will be what they were last year, a team hovering around 20 wins but without enough zing on the schedule to get consideration for the field of 68.

Wyoming went 8-10 in Mountain West play last year yet accrued 23 total wins thanks to a long run to the CBI Championship. With nearly everyone back from last year, coach Allen Edwards is hoping to parlay that experience into a big run for the 2017-18 season.

The team was built on taking massive amounts of 3s last year, ranking fourth in the nation in both triples made and attempted, and this year does not look to be any different. The Cowboys have three players returning in Justin James, Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon who all averaged at least 11 points per game, with James topping the list at 16 while hitting nearly 42 percent of his 3s. The 6-foot-8 Dalton was one of the team's primary 3-point shooters while still getting a team-high 8.3 rebounds.

The forward position is a bit thinner than expected for Wyoming with 6-foot-10 junior Jordan Naughton electing to transfer. That makes the addition of former UTEP center Broderick Jones all the more crucial. Jones, who also stands 6-foot-10, is not a stretch player but is a gifted rebounder and a capable shot blocker.

The NIT is more likely for the Cowboys, but they have one of the most experienced groups in the country and ended the year on a high note. Keep in mind, Nevada won the 2016 CBI and picked up where it left off during the 2016-17 season with 28 wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Utah State was a juggernaut in the WAC and Big West during the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, but the Aggies have yet to break through in the Mountain West. They went 15-17 last season, the first losing season since 1992-93.

The team is not bringing into the program much of anything while losing two playmakers from last season. The loss of leading scorer Jalen Moore is tough, as he had 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while hitting 42.5 percent of his 3s. The good news is Utah State found two guards in Sam Merrill and Koby McEwen who can fill up the stat sheet and provided instant production as freshmen. Merrill and McEwen both hit over 41.5 percent of their 3s last year, with each contributing 3.1 assists per game. McEwan averaged 14.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while Merrill notched 9.7 points.

The Aggies ranked 309th in total offensive rebounds last year, and they need players like 6-foot-11 Slovakian big Norbert Janicek and Martinique big man Alexis Dargenton to give their shooting guards more second-chance opportunities. Dwayne Brown Jr., a 6-foot-7 forward from the junior college ranks, could contribute but is probably just a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy.

If Utah State can get something out of its post players, it could contend for a top-three finish in the conference and get to about 23 wins. That seems unlikely, though.

After failing to get a victory over a single D-I opponent during the 2014-15 season, San Jose State has shown pretty big improvement the past two years, getting its record to 14-16 last season. After losing a major contributor from last year, the Spartans likely missed a shot at their first 20-win season since 1980-81.

San Jose had one of the top players in the conference in 6-foot-7 forward Brandon Clarke, who averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.5 blocks. But later in the summer, Clarke announced he was exiting for Gonzaga. So the top returning player is 6-foot-9 Ryan Welage, who averaged 13.2 points and 4.4 rebounds.

The unexpected resignation of coach Dave Wojcik in July could derail this team. San Jose brought in Colorado assistant Jean Prioleau to replace him, and that could a blessing in disguise as he was a talented guard at Fordham, leading the way to the 1992 NCAA Tournament.

The guard trio of Terrell Brown, Jalen James and Jaycee Hillsman need someone to step up. A key cog could be sophomore Isaiah Nichols.

The key to this team is not having more players bolt with the coaching change. The Spartans have come a long way in a short period of time, and it would be a shame to see that go to waste.

Air Force finished tied with UNLV for last place in the conference last year and will likely take sole possession of last this year. The Falcons do not have a guy on the roster who can step up and get buckets at will when the team needs it. That can explain a 3-8 record in games decided by eight points or fewer last season.

The Falcons will need loads of production from center Frank Toohey, who is the team's leading returning scorer at 10.5 points per game. The guard tandem of Jacob Van and Trevor Lyons needs to elevate their output with stretch player Hayden Graham and shooting guard Zach Kocar gone.

A total of 19 different players saw minutes for Air Force last year due to a mix of not being able to find a solid starting five and being involved in a number of blowouts. This season will be a lot of the same, only UNLV will not join the Falcons at the bottom of the league.

Greg Peterson’s Mountain West forecast:
1. Nevada
2. San Diego State
3. UNLV
4. Wyoming
5. Boise State
6. Fresno State
7. Utah State
8. Colorado State
9. San Jose State
10. New Mexico
11. Air Force

Other conference previews:

Florida Gulf Coast rising again in Atlantic Sun: https://www.vsin.com/florida-gulf-coast-rising-again-in-atlantic-sun/

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