Previewing Mountain West basketball

After an astounding season in which San Diego State won its first 26 games before finishing 30-2, the Aztecs are the rightful favorites to win the Mountain West. However, the gap between San Diego State and the rest of the conference has closed dramatically. Gone is Mountain West Player of the Year Malachi Flynn and running mate KJ Feagin. Coach Brian Dutcher still has arguably the best player in the conference in forward Matt Mitchell, but the roster around him is nowhere near as strong or deep as last year. Behind the Aztecs is a glut of teams with similar power ratings, making this a fascinating season for the Mountain West. Boise State returns just two starters, but one is 6-foot-9 Derrick Alston, who averaged 17.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Leon Rice, much like Dutcher from a season ago, is relying on high-level transfers like former Portland guard Marcus Shaver to make up for the loss of key role players. Shaver, a 14.8 scorer for the Pilots in his last season there, and former Arizona forward Emmanuel Akot thrust Boise State near the top of the pecking order in this conference. In fact, transfers are really the name of the game in the Mountain West. UNLV is looking to build on coach T.J. Otzelberger’s fantastic debut season, and to do so David Jenkins must be everything he was under Otzelberger at South Dakota. Jenkins and first-team All-Mountain West player Bryce Hamilton give the Runnin’ Rebels one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. UNLV showed real improvement as last season progressed, winning six of seven, including a road victory that ended San Diego State’s bid for an undefeated season. Then there are Utah State and Colorado State. The Aggies lose Sam Merrill, who led the league in individual offensive rating, but still have the most pro-ready prospect in center Neemias Queta. Colorado State is a young team that returns four starters, but the lone loss is a big one, literally, in double-double machine Nico Carvacho. San Diego State has the inside track, but it will be no shock to see a different team win the regular-season title.
 
Top 10 Players
 
 
Matt Mitchell, Senior, F, San Diego State
Neemias Queta, Junior, C, Utah State
Derrick Alston, Senior, G, Boise State
Bryce Hamilton, Junior, G, UNLV
Isaiah Stevens, Sophomore, G, Colorado State
Orlando Robinson, Sophomore, F, Fresno State
Seneca Knight, Junior, G, San Jose State
Hunter Maldonado, Junior, G, Wyoming
Justin Bean, Junior, F, Utah State
A.J. Walker, Junior, G, Air Force
 
 
 
1. San Diego State
 
Matt Mitchell will have a massive offensive load on his shoulders now that Malachi Flynn is gone. If Brian Dutcher catches lightning in a bottle once more with transfer Terrell Gomez, this team can win the league. But what are the chances that will happen two seasons in a row?
 
2. Boise State
 
Leon Rice has led Boise State to 20 wins in six of his last seven seasons. While a shortened schedule will make it nearly impossible to make it seven of eight, he does have a talented team capable of winning this league. 
 
3. UNLV
 
The Rebels are the most intriguing team in the conference. T.J. Otzelberger really impressed with his coaching ability last season, and he has one of the best players in the conference in Bryce Hamilton. However, quite a few freshmen make up the depth of this team, which could be shaky.
 
4. Utah State
 
Having two of the top 10 players in the conference will carry Utah State into the top four of the Mountain West, but the Aggies lost a lot from last year’s team. Can Brock Miller and Alphonso Anderson be enough to win a piece of the Mountain West title for the third consecutive year?
 
5. Colorado State
 
Niko Medved has done a phenomenal job in Fort Collins, and this year he has four of five starters back. They have to replace one of the best players in program history, but the Rams, with their shooting ability, are capable of beating every team in this league.
 
6. New Mexico
 
Paul Weir’s time with New Mexico has not gone as some expected. He tried to plug holes in the roster last year with transfers but failed miserably, and he has one of the youngest teams in the conference.
 
7. Wyoming
 
Their uniforms might be ugly, but the play of their best player, Hunter Maldonado, is not. The Cowboys will not compete for the Mountain West title this year, but they won two games in the conference tournament last season and have three starters back.
 
8. Nevada
 
It is go time for Steve Alford in Reno. The Wolf Pack must replace four starters and five of their top six scorers. With only two upperclassmen on the roster, Nevada seems primed for a down year.
 
9. San Jose State
 
Jean Prioleau’s squad was feisty last season, with the crowning achievement a last-second loss to San Diego State on the road. Seneca Knight is a legitimate scoring threat, and the Spartans might actually push for five or more conference wins.
 
 
10. Fresno State
 
Orlando Robinson might be the only thing to like about Fresno State this season. Justin Hutson lost four starters, three of whom were seniors. Relying on sophomores who barely played is never a recipe for success.
 
11. Air Force
 
It is never a good sign when a program is so desperate that it goes back to the well and hires its former coach. That is the situation with the Falcons, who bring back Joe Scott. He last coached here in 2004.
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