Last year, the Mountain West’s regression continued to spiral. For the second straight year, the Mountain West only sent one team to the NCAA Tournament, something the conference had only done twice since the turn of the century.
Now, the conference as a whole is still among the best in mid-major college basketball. It trailed only the Atlantic 10 in KenPom rankings for the second straight year, and still remains a top 10 conference nationally. But sooner or later they’re going to have to start getting more teams into the Big Dance.
It starts with non-conference play. The conference as a whole needs a strong showing in November and December if it has any hopes of getting an at-large on Selection Sunday. There are multiple teams at the top that have the talent to be an at-large team, but those hopes could be crushed by the time conference play starts.
Last year’s champs are the favorites again, thanks in part to some fresh faces. Eric Musselman has become a wizard on the transfer market, and he’ll have the help of some Power 5 talent. Cody and Caleb Martin bring versatility on the wing from NC State. Kendall Stephens is a sharpshooter from Purdue, and Hallice Cooke can provide backcourt help from Iowa State. Add in returning starters Jordan Caroline and Lindsey Drew, and the Wolf Pack have the talent to run wild again.
Under Leon Rice, Boise State has become one of the most consistent teams in the conference. They’ve won 20-plus games in six of his seven years, and have the talent to make it a seventh time. Leading the charge will be Chandler Hutchison, who is a legitimate NBA prospect that was among the nation’s most improved players last year. Christian Sengfelder is a graduate transfer from Fordham who will bolster the frontcourt, and Justinian Jessup provides help on the wing. The key for the Broncos will be who steps in to fill the point guard role after Paris Austin’s departure this offseason.
A new era of Aztec basketball starts this year as Brian Dutcher takes over after Steve Fisher’s retirement. He brings back a talented roster than includes a dynamic duo in the backcourt of Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley. Devin Watson, a transfer from San Francisco, should provide a much-needed scoring punch for the Aztecs. They’ll play tough defense as always, and they’ll have to capitalize on marquee non-conference matchups if they hope to get an at-large bid. Dec. 21 against Gonzaga is a good place to start.
Rodney Terry has the benefit of going into the season knowing he has guys who can score. Jaron Hopkins, Deshon Taylor and Jahmel Taylor all return as double-figure scorers. Ray Bowles, a transfer from Pacific, comes in as another guy who averaged double digits last year as well. The Bulldogs have a roster that is fairly perimeter-heavy, so the biggest question is how they’ll fare down low. Bryson Williams and Terrell Carter will have to take on a lot of responsibility.
The Cowboys are coming off a CBI Title in Allen Edwards’ first season, and return some key pieces from that 23-win team. Justin James returns as one of the best shooters around, and forms one of the league’s best frontcourts with Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon. The backcourt should get solid play from seniors Louis Adams and Alexander Aka Gorski. The biggest question mark for the Cowboys will be point guard play.
6. UNLV Rebels
The Rebels are headlined by Brandon McCoy, a McDonald’s All-American who leads a top-20 recruiting class for Marvin Menzies. In addition to the incoming freshmen, Milwaukee transfer Jordan Johnson should come in and provide a veteran scoring punch at the point guard spot, allowing Jovan Mooring to move off the ball. The odds of UNLV going from worst to first is unlikely, but the talent is there to take a step in the right direction.
The Aggies took a hit this offseason with the losses of Jalen Moore and Shane Rector. Luckily, Koby McEwen returns after a promising freshman campaign. McEwen averaged just under 15 points per game last year, and will almost assuredly see that number increase with a heavier workload. He’s going to need help if Utah State hopes to get back above .500. Sam Merrill provides another option in the backcourt, but the Aggies will need guys like Norbert Janicek and Quinn Taylor to fill the void that Moore left in the frontcourt.
The Rams are probably the team that got hit hardest by roster turnover this offseason. Mountain West POY Gian Clavell has graduated, as has Emmanuel Omogbo. It’s hard to foresee another second-place finish for the Rams after losing their two best players. However, head coach Larry Eustachy still brings back some talent in the backcourt. Prentiss Nixon averaged double figures and Jeremiah Paige should see an uptick in scoring this year with more shots to go around. Look for Arkansas transfer Lorenzo Jenkins to step in and be a key contributor on the wing.
The San Jose State program was caught off guard when Dave Wojcik stepped down in late July for personal reasons. In addition to Wojcik’s departure, star forward Brandon Clarke departed soon after for Gonzaga. Jean Prioleau, who got the job shortly after it opened, has his work cut out for him. A lot of the offensive workload will fall upon Ryan Welage, who provides a mismatch opportunity as a stretch four. The Spartans looked like they were starting to gain momentum under Wojcik, and now it’s up to Prioleau to keep that going.
10. New Mexico Lobos
New Mexico is another team that enters the year with a new head coach as Paul Weir was hired to replace Craig Neal. Weir inherits a gutted roster and his first year in Albuquerque could be a rough one. Dane Kuiper is the leading returning scorer at just 6.0 points per game. Weir will likely look to Antino Jackson, a transfer from Akron who averaged 8.8 points per game, for another source of offense. It’s a rebuilding job for Weir, and the first year could be as rough as they come.
Dave Pilipovich has struggled to build any type of momentum at Air Force, and he’s coming off of his worst season since taking the job in 2012. In order to get above .500 for the first time since he started, the Falcons are going to depend on a backcourt led by Jacob Van and Trevor Lyons. In the frontcourt, the Falcons lack the size that many of their Mountain West counterparts possess. Frank Toohey will have to battle each and every night, and guys like Ryan Manning and Lavelle Scottie will need to chip in when possible.