One season removed from sending four teams to the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West is once again gearing up for a multiple-bid year.
It is entirely reasonable to label the MWC a top-heavy conference as last season great disparity existed between the top four teams and the bottom five. This season's version may turn out the same but the possibility exists that some teams could make a jump while one in particular could slide.
Starting at the bottom, Air Force, Wyoming, and TCU definitely have work to do and will be joined by Utah in this group. Air Force lost their top scorer from a team that won one conference game last season. They should still be slightly better with most of the team returning but not many more wins seem plausible.
Wyoming returns every significant player from a team that can score but has loads of trouble defending. Still, this is a team with a year under their belts, a win over San Diego State last season and the potential to improve on their three conference wins a year ago. Sophomore Desmar Jackson and junior Afam Muojeke will lead the Cowboys.
TCU returns Ronnie Moss, who led the team in scoring and assists (and turnovers) but no other big contributors. Jim Christian's peculiar move from Kent State three seasons ago probably doesn't seem like a great idea. They do, however, have one extremely cool nickname.
Utah, unless they have done some magic recruiting, may be in for a long season. Leading scorer Carlon Brown has transferred and the cupboard appears to be bare. Coach Jim Boylen needs many to step up to make the Utes competitive.
One team that could make things interesting at or near the top of the standings is the Colorado State Rams. They return their top eight scorers from a team that finished 7-9 in conference play and 16-16 overall. The gap between them and the top four was big though, as the Rams were 0-9 against New Mexico, BYU, UNLV and San Diego State, including a 72-71 loss to State in the MWC tournament. They have to close the gap significantly to have a shot at a top four finish this season.
The Lobos of New Mexico took a hit when do-it-all swingman Darington Hobson left early. Hobson was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Roman Martinez, who led the team in three-point shooting percentage and steals, is also gone and his leadership will be missed. Steve Alford has found a way to make this team competitive each year but it may be difficult for the Lobos to stay in the top three.
UNLV and BYU look to be solid once again. UNLV returns four starters and virtually every significant contributor except for Matt Shaw, who failed a drug test in the NCAA tournament and was subsequently given his walking papers. BYU needs to replace Jonathan Tavernari (graduation) and Michael Loyd (transfer) but welcomes Jimmer Fredette back, after he withdrew from the NBA draft. Both squads are solid and look for a return to March Madness.
San Diego State Aztecs are my pick to win the MWC - at least the regular season title. Every significant contributor returns including Conference Player of the Year candidate Kawhi Leonard, a legitimate double-double threat every game. His 12-point and 10-rebound averages should improve this season. Steve Fisher has done a good job of keeping this team relevant over the years, and this could be his best team yet. At the end of day, they will be battling UNLV for the MWC crown.
Overall, the Mountain West will enjoy another fine season. They may be able to match their No. 6 ranking in terms of conference RPI as well. But, despite how much I like this league, they will likely send only three teams to the dance.