Mountain West basketball was riding high last year, putting five teams of what was then an eight-team league into the NCAA Tournament. The league is bigger this season, with eleven teams, but there’s work ahead if similar postseason activity is going to happen. San Diego State is the only team making any kind of mark in the early going.
The Aztecs are ranked 20th in the country, and have wins over Creighton and Marquette. The only loss in a 9-1 start for San Diego State is to Arizona. Steve Fischer’s team has good inside-out balance. It starts with Xavier Thames scoring 16 ppg, and hitting 47 percent from behind the arc. Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien are double-digit scorers at the forward spot, and Josh Davis gets ten rebounds a game in holding down the middle.
San Diego State’s only real weakness is a lack of depth. The Aztecs’ core four players log a lot of minutes and as the grind of conference play starts up on New Year’s Day that could start to wear on them. But if not, Fischer has what it takes to return to the top of the Mountain West.
LAST YEAR’S NCAA TOURNAMENT TEAMS
New Mexico: The Lobos won the conference championship a year ago, but they lost head coach Steve Alford to UCLA and Tony Snell to the first round of the NBA draft. There are still three good players here in Kendall Williams, a prolific scorer and three-point shooter in the backcourt, stud forward Cameron Bairstow (21 points/7 rebounds per game) and seven-foot center Alex Kirk.
UNLV: Vegas saw forward Anthony Bennett taken with the first overall pick in the NBA draft, and it appears both the Cleveland Cavaliers and UNLV are worse off because of it. While Bennett flails away at the pro level, the Rebels have lost to a very good team (Arizona) a pretty good one (Illinois), a decent one (Arizona State) and have an embarrassing defeat (UC-Santa Barbara). Meanwhile, there are no notable wins to point to.
Roscoe Smith is an excellent power forward and worthy heir to Bennett, but the guard play is problematic and the three-point shooting awful. You can never write off UNLV in this conference, but there’s still serious work ahead.
Colorado State: The Rams are similar to UNLV in that the lack of three-point shooting is going to hold them back. Colorado State forward J.J. Avila is averaging 19 points/6 rebounds, while both Daniel Bejarano and Jon Octeus are board-crashing players from the wing. There’s enough here to compete, but whether the Rams can make it back to the dance is another question.
Boise State: Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks can pour in the points from the wings, combining for 35 ppg, while Jeff Elorriaga provides further backcourt help and Ryan Watkins hits the glass underneath. The one weakness is that for all the scoring, none of it comes from behind the arc. We’ll see if opposing defenses start sagging back.
THE REST OF THE MOUNTAIN WEST
Utah State: The Aggies are 9-2 and have a nice backcourt of Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin, each of whom are lights out on the three-ball. Any hopes of competing in conference play are entirely dependent on the return of Jaried Shaw. The power forward is averaging 16 points/8 rebounds, but has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. With Shaw, Utah State can get in the league’s top half. Without him…don’t ask.
Wyoming: If the Cowboys get some depth, they can be an interesting team. Larry Nance Jr. is averaging 17 points/10 rebounds a game at the forward position. Fans who are my age (early forties) might recall Nance’s father and namesake playing in the NBA and winning the first Slam Dunk Contest.
The son gets help from a smallish backcourt in Riley Grabau and Josh Adams. It’s enough to make them a tough out on any given night, but over the long haul, Wyoming needs one or two more guys to step up.
Air Force: A well-balanced lineup has four double-digit scorers, including Tre Coggins who knocks down 17 per game and hits 44 percent from behind the arc. But the Falcons are 6-5, so the numbers aren’t adding up.
Fresno State: There’s a good backcourt in Fresno, with Marvelle Harris, Cesar Guerrero and Tyler Johnson, but the problem is the contributing players are too similar. Paul Watson is a nice option at forward, but he’s another outside shooter rather than the inside help this team needs if they’re going to rise above their current .500 pace.
Nevada: Deonte Burton averages 23 ppg, but on a 5-7 team it doesn’t appear too many people will get to know him.
San Jose State: Another one-man show, with Rashad Muhammad knocking down 17 a night on a losing team.