Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE
Enjoy this season, Mountain West fans.
The return of UNLV to national prominence will take on a bittersweet flavor next season when its primary foil, San Diego State, packs its programs up and heads to the Big West. Except, that is, for the football team, which literally goes the opposite direction and joins the Big East.
For this year, though, the Runnin' Rebels and Aztecs will go toe-to-toe for the regular-season title and strive to avoid embarrassing first-round NCAA tournament losses.
San Diego State trots out a loaded backcourt with All-Conference favorites Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, floor general Xavier Thames and glue guy James Rahon. The frontcourt may be a concern, though.
If transfer forwards Dwayne Polee (St. John's), J.J. O'Brien (Utah) and James Johnson (Virginia) produce, and hyped freshman Winston Shepard keeps his personal habits away from police attention, coach Steve Fisher's lineup will compete with anyone's.
UNLV's frontcourt is the equal of SDSU's backcourt, with a lot of talented players drawing major attention. Returnees Carlos Lopez, Quintrell Thomas and All-America candidate Mike Moser will be supplemented by top-10 recruit Anthony Bennett and Pitt transfer Khem Birch. Philly freshman Savon Goodman should see some time, as well.
Vegas's backcourt puts it in the league driver's seat, though. MWC All-Defensive team member Anthony Marshall and veteran reserve Justin Hawkins are joined by another touted freshman, Californian Katin Reinhardt, and USC transfer Bryce Jones.
We'll hear about these two squads all season, but don't sleep on Nevada, with sensational guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story. Another team to watch will be Colorado State, which returns nearly all of its NCAA tournament team, including defensive warrior Pierce Hornung, and brings in new coach Larry Eustachy to replace Tim Miles.
New Mexico is another team packing a tremendous backcourt, with juniors Kendall Williams and Tony Snell joined by Aussie sophomore Hugh Greenwood.
Five MWC teams in the NCAA tournament? Unlikely, but certainly possible.