In mid-February 2009, the basketball landscape of the Mountain West Conference appeared as rich and healthy as it had in the ten year existence of the conference.
Five of the conference’s nine participants were in legitimate contention for an NCAA tournament bid. Half a dozen seniors were popping up in NBA mock drafts. Coaches, University Presidents, and Conference officials were cheerfully politicking, alleging a perceived lack of respect for a grossly underrated conference.
Five months later, the conference collectively shook its head and shrugged at what can only be described as a collapse.
Utah and BYU quickly flamed out of the NCAA tournament in somewhat embarrassing fashion.
New Mexico blew their chance at an NCAA bid, losing to a CBI bound Wyoming team in the first round of the conference tourney.
UNLV’s promising start was undone by an ignominious four win, six loss stretch to finish the year.
San Diego State finished strong, but few outside of Southern California were enthused by a trip to the Final Four of the NIT (Nationally Irrelevant Tournament, Not Important Tournament, Nobody’s Interested Tournament, etc).
Not a single representative of the MWC heard their name called on draft night.
The conference-wide swoon came at the tail end of what was supposed to be a banner year for the Mountain West. On the heels of a spectacular football campaign, punctuated by a Utah victory in the Sugar Bowl, the basketball season featured a slew of experienced, seemingly talented, senior laden rosters.
Unfortunately, the teams stumbled in March, when it mattered most.
On the doorstep of a new season, the MWC hopes to avoid a repeat performance.
Reasons for optimism abound.
Several programs have reloaded their rosters with transfers. Several coaches are entering their second or third year and looking to build momentum. Several key players return, determined to take the next step.
In just a few short weeks, the journey begins.
A team by team look around the MWC, projected conference record in parentheses:
San Diego State (13-3)
Lorrenzo Wade, Kyle Spain, Richie Williams, and Ryan Amoroso are all gone. Unbelievably, the Aztecs may still have the most talented roster in the MWC.
Steve Fisher has reloaded. Billy White and DJ Gay will be joined by transfers Brian Carlwell, Tyrone Shelley, Malcolm Thomas, and preseason Freshman of the Year Kawhi Leonard.
If all that talent clicks, the Aztecs can be scary good.
They’ll be good enough to overwhelm most of their non-conference opponents with their athleticism, and will be rounding into midseason form just in time for conference play.
Team MVP: Billy White
White is crazy athletic. He’s one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the conference. White will have a bigger role in the offense, and will evolve into one of the conference’s most productive players.
X-Factor: DJ Gay
Gay has gotten lost in the shuffle and the buzz surrounding the influx of talent. Gay will likely be the PG, responsible for leading the team and running the offense. How far the Aztecs go will be directly related to Gay’s ability to run the show.
The Cougars are an obvious favorite to win the conference title. They return their team nearly intact, and they tied for the conference regular season crown last season. Dave Rose is an outstanding coach, and they are near impossible to beat at home.
However, the impact Lee Cummard’s absence will have on this team is being grossly underrated. He was arguably the Cougars’ best shooter, passer, rebounder, defender, and free throw shooter, as well as their leader. He did everything.
Jimmer Fredette is a great offensive player, but Rose needs Jackson Emery or Charles Abuou (or both) to have a breakout year to replace the production of Cummard. If not, the Cougars will take a small step back this year.
Team MVP: Jimmer Freddette
Jimmer can score. He a very good shooter, and a remarkably crafty penetrator. He runs the Cougar offense expertly, and will likely lead the team in points, assists, and possibly steals.
X-Factor: Jonathan Tavernari
Everyone knows Tavernari can light it up, but he can also shoot his team right out of a game. If the streaky Brazilian can improve his shot selection and exercise some control, he can be an all-conference caliber player. If he starts turning in 3-for-11 and 4-for-17 performances with any regularity, the Cougars won’t live up to expectations.
Finally Rebels’ fans get to see Derrick Jasper and Chace Stanback on the court. Coach Lon Kruger has high hopes for his two new weapons. They will team up with Tre’Von Willis to try to erase the disappointing memories of last season.
For my full UNLV preview, click here .
Team MVP: Derrick Jasper
If Jasper is half as good as Rebel fans are hyping him to be, UNLV will be in contention for the conference title. He’s an explosive 6’6” PG who can score, rebound, and distribute the ball.
X-factor: Matt Shaw
The Rebels have been in desperate need of a quality big man for the last two years. Shaw sat out last year after tearing his ACL, and is the most likely candidate to man the post for the UNLV. Without an inside presence, the Rebels won’t be able to compete for the MWC crown.
New Mexico (9-7)
The Lobos, like just about every team in the conference, were hit hard by graduation. Tony Dandridge, Daniel Farris, and Chad Toppert have moved on.
Steve Alford’s squad will be young, and raw. They have enough talent to compete with anyone in the conference, but are likely to endure some growing pains throughout the season.
New Mexico will, as always, be very difficult to be at the Pit, but their youth will show on the road.
Team MVP: Roman Martinez
Martinez is the lone Senior on the Lobos’ roster. He is a very good three point shooter, a good scorer, and a solid rebounder. The leadership burden falls squarely on his shoulders.
X-factor: Philip McDonald
The highly touted recruit showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, but Alford needs him to be consistently productive. Someone has to step up and help Martinez carry the load. McDonald is their best bet.
Coach Jim Christian has the program headed in the right direction. The Frogs are poised to climb a few rungs on the conference ladder.
When Zvonko Buljan keeps his emotions in check, he’s one of the best players in the conference. Edvinas Ruzgas is a terrific shooter, and 'Tuffy' Moss is a great young player.
Last season, TCU was near the bottom of the conference in defense and rebounding. With moderate improvement in those two areas, TCU will make the move into the top half of the standings.
Team MVP: Zvonko Buljan
He’s emotional, but he can play. His versatility will make him one of the most difficult players in the league to guard. He recorded double digit rebounds 10 times last year. It won’t be a surprise if he leads the conference in that category this year.
X-Factor: Ronnie “Tuffy” Moss
Moss needs to step up and form the other half of a 1-2 punch with Buljan. Without help from Moss, even a brilliant season from Buljan will leave TCU near the conference cellar.
The Utes were the best team in the conference last year. They lost conference POY Luke Nevill and three of their other top four players.
He may not be willing to admit it, but coach Jim Boylen is in rebuilding mode.
Carlon Brown and Luka Drca are looking to lead their young teammates to postseason play. The Utes will have to buy in to Boylen’s message and grind out victories with toughness and defense. A lack of offensive firepower will be a recurring issue.
Team MVP: Carlon Brown
Brown is one of the best athletes in the country. He is an explosive finisher, and this year will counted on to score in more traditional ways. With a consistent jumper, he’d be one of the best players in the conference.
X-Factor: David Foster
Foster is really tall, tall enough to dominate the game on defense. He is returning from a two year religious mission, so it remains to be seen whether or not he is ready to play and contribute. If he’s up to speed, he’ll be a difference maker.
The post Brandon Ewing era officially begins.
In Heath Schroyer's third year at the helm, the Cowboys are looking to become a defensive minded squad. They lost some firepower on offense, but Boubacar Sylla gets his opportunity to make an impact after sitting out last year due to transfer rules.
Team MVP: Afam Muojeke
Last year's MWC Freshman of the Year will now be the focal point of the Cowboy's offense. He's a terrific scorer and rebounder, and a definite all-conference candidate.
X-Factor: Boubacar Sylla
At 7'2", and 275 pounds, Sylla will make an immediate impact as the anchor of the defense. If he can be productive offensively and avoid foul trouble, the Cowboys will be in position for a postseason berth.
Colorado State (4-12)
The Rams took a step in the right direction last year. After losing Marcus Walker, they'll find it difficult to take another.
Tim Miles has done a nice job maximizing the talent he has, but unfortunately he doesn't have a whole lot to work with. The leadership load is now Andy Ogide's to carry.
Team MVP: Andy Ogide
He'll have to do a lot for the Rams. They'll run their offense through him, and he'll rack up points and rebounds. He'll need to be very productive for CSU to rack up wins.
X-Factor: Jesse Carr
To be competitive, the Rams need be extremely efficient. Keeping turnovers down and generating easy baskets can lead to upsets. It's Carr's responsibility to make that happen.
Air Force (1-15)
The Falcon's went 0-16 in conference last year. It's possible they could be even worse this year.
Matt Holland, Anwar Johnson, and Andrew Henke are gone. Promising freshman Trevor Noonan transferred. Coach Jeff Reynolds is essentially starting from scratch.
Team MVP: Evan Washington
Washington is one of only a few Falcons with significant experience. He's the best athlete on the team, but must improve his three point shooting to truly excel in the Air Force offense.
X-Factor: Sammy Schafer
The Falcons need an inside presence to be successful. Schafer can provide that and be a building block for the future.
The Mountain West is a conference fighting for respect. Another forgettable March, and they’ll be facing an uphill battle. The conference will ultimately be defined by victories in the NCAA tournament.
This season, the potential is there for several squads to represent the MWC well. The long, arduous trek to postseason glory is underway.
For Tyler Stimson's perspective on the upcoming MWC season, complete with roster breakdowns and postseason predictions, click here .
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