1. San Diego State
2. Fresno State
3. Boise State
5. Utah State
6. Colorado State
8. Air Force
9. New Mexico
11. San Jose State
Player of the Year: Marvelle Haris
Coach of the Year: Rodney Terry
Newcomer of the Year: Stephen Zimmerman
G – Marvelle Harris, Fresno State
G – Winston Shepard, San Diego State
G – Anthony Drmic, Boise State
F – Jalen Moore, Utah State
F - Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV
G – Ike Nwamu, UNLV
G – Julien Lewis, Fresno State
G/F – Malik Pope, San Diego State
F – James Webb III, Boise State
F - David Collette, Utah State
G – Josh Adams, Wyoming
G – Cezar Guerrero, Fresno State
G – Joe De Ciman, Colorado State
F – Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
F - AJ West, Nevada
1. San Diego State
At the ripe old age of 70, Steve Fischer is once finds himself as the Mountain West front-runner entering the 2015-2016 campaign. His success can absolutely NOT be attributed to an enjoyable brand of basketball, but his commitment to excellence on the defensive end has resulted in consistent year-over-year relevance. This year should be no different, with the core defensive personnel returning.
Winston Shepard has been playing major minutes since he was a rail-thin freshman, and now enters his senior year as the go-to offensive weapon & playmaker. At 6’8, Shepard usually runs the point and is noticeably more effective in the open-court than in the half-court. He struggled mightily last year protecting the ball and scoring efficiently. He is a sub 30% shooter from 3, and a low 40% converter from inside the arc for his career, so it’s hard to see him improving too much as an offensive focal point. Couple that with the departure of JJ O’Brien and Aqeel Quinn, the Aztecs most efficient players, I have no idea how this team will improve from a 166th offensive efficiency ranking a year ago. The only real hope for Fischer are the incoming freshman Jeremy Hemsley and Zylan Cheatham (redshirt last year). Hemlsey is highly touted recruit out of LA (65th in ESPN 100) and is lightning-quick off the dribble. He was scoring a first point guard in high-school, so I suspect he’ll share those duties with Winston this year to start. Rising sophomore Trey Kell completes the backcourt, who was another top-100 recruit Fisher landed a year ago. Kell shot the ball terribly from 3 in his freshman year, and is far more effective as a slasher, mid-range scorer. He should be much improved this year, but the lack of consistent shooting last year for the Aztecs clogged up the middle for guard penetration and low-block scoring. Matt Shrigley returns as the token white-guy shooter, who can’t actually shoot. His form tells me he is a much better than the 32% clip he posted a year ago, but it’s hard to ignore the data.
The strength of this team will continue to be inside, with shot-blocking beast Skylar Spencer returning to anchor what should be another top-10 defense (6th last year). His 7th-best block rate in the country last year, along with effective rebounding on both ends, has been a staple for Fisher the last 2 years. Perhaps my favorite thing about Spencer is that he knows his limitations offensively, and will only look to score in pick-n-roll situations or off put-backs. The true low-block scoring is provided by Angelo Chol, the ex-Zona transfer who showed to be a nice piece in his first year as an Aztec. He is atrocious from the free-throw line, but not the only one to blame on a team that finished 339th in FT shooting last year. Chol’s strength and relentlessness on the block, to go-along with a nice left-handed finishing touch, resulted in a respectable 55% conversion rate last year, and I only expect that to improve in his senior year.
The real X-factor for this team also happens to be the most talented player perhaps in the entire conference. Malik Pope got limited minutes a year ago, playing behind a crowded and veteran front court of Spencer, Chol & O’Brien. With O’Brien out of the way, and the flashes of “Woah” Pope showed last year, there is no way Fisher won’t start and play him big minutes. At 6’10, he may be the best shooter on the team, both from deep and from 15-18 feet inside the arc. His handles are way too comfortable for a guy of his size, and he produced some Kevin Durant-esque highlights with some ridiculous mid-range jumpers last year (no I am not saying he is the next Kevin Durant). The bottom line is, Pope gives this squad offensive upside Fisher has yet to have in his tenure in San Diego.
Bottom Line: With the proven defensive prowess, and key defensive pieces in-tact, the floor is high for the Aztecs, and I can’t find a reason why they won’t win the league, especially with the great home court of Viejas. The development of Hemsley and Kell on the perimeter, but the leap that Pope makes will determine whether this team can crack the top 100 in OE for the first time since Kawhi Leonard in 2011.
2. Fresno State
The Bulldogs saw what life was like without Tyler Johnson last year. A lot more was expected of the returning backcourt, along with other key role players, but Fresno never rebounded from a 1-6 start to begin last year. With that said, the primary theme in my high projections for both Fresno and Utah State this year is proven, steady, veteran backcourts. And it certainly helps when you also return preseason POTY Marvelle Harris (according to three-man-weave.com). Harris led the ‘Dawgs in points, rebounds and assists last year, and heads a solid group of senior guards, along with Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis. Guerrero’s injury early last year really gutted this team of more perimeter support and put a ton of pressure on Harris & Lewis. While Harris was outstanding, Lewis struggled a bit in his more exposed role, posting a poor 89 O-Rating and hitting an abysmal 20% of his 94 3-point attempts. Lewis MUST improve on this clip to give Harris the space he needs to get in the paint and score in the mid-range. Harris is outstanding at using his big 210-pound frame to get space and score over undersized perimeter defenders, and is an outstanding finisher at the rim. Harris is more consistent outside shooter than Lewis, connecting on 33% of his 160 attempts a year ago. This is exactly why having Guerrero for a whole year (knock on wood) will be huge, as he is a much more consistent bomber, evidenced by the 27-64 (42%) he drained from 3-land last year. The one semi-positive from Guerrero injury was it allowed an opportunity for rising junior Emmanuel Owootoah to develop quicker as a sophomore at the third starting guard slot. EO (I’m sure this is what he goes by) showed he was not ready for the immediate exposure, turning it over 29% of his possessions and shooting 35% from the field. His lone bright spot was his fit alongside Harris & Lewis in forcing turnovers in the extended, high-pressure defense Rodney Terry likes to play. All 3 guards ranked in the top 200 in steal percentage.
While the guards will be the heavy focus of the Bulldog attack, wing Paul Watson will also be hugely important this year, specifically on the defensive end. With starting center Alex Davis graduating, the lack of size for Fresno is semi-glaring, with no player over 6’8 returning from a year ago. Watson and 6’6 shot-blocking Karachi Edo (top-100 block rate) will have to guard bigger 4s for much of the year. Watson is uber versatile on the offensive end, a rangy slasher with a decent shot from the outside. After hitting 39% of his treys 2 years ago, he regressed with an uptick in usage last year. He has the ability to return to an efficient form, but it will be tough given the high effort he’ll be expending on defense. In addition to Watson, the interior void will need to be filled by incoming JuCo stud Torren Jones, who transferred from the land of Mizzou. A 6’9 freak athlete, Jones was ranked just outside the top 100 coming out of high-school and was dismissed from Mizzou as a sophomore. He just needs to rebound and rebound some more to provide more than his expected value for this squad. This is especially important for a team that ranked 320th and 252nd in offensive and defensive rebounding respectively a year ago.
Bottom Line: With the talented backcourt applying disruptive defensive pressure, I’d like to see Fresno play faster than their 137th tempo rank last year. Getting in to a half-court, slow-down type of game will expose their lack of interior presence. The combination of Jones, Edo & Watson are all athletic enough to protect the rim against penetration, but they will still struggle defending true post scoring bigs. If the guard talent can effectively mesh together, and I believe it should with an extra year of continuity, this is my pick for second in the league. Projecting their tournament placement is tricky given that this is a down MWC year, but Fresno should be on the bubble list at some point this year.
5. Utah State:
Big Stew Morrill is still on the sidelines going at it, and executing half-court motion offenses better than Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. However, the past 3-years ole Stew has not participated in playoff basketball, and he must’ve peaked in frustration last year dealing with the most inexperienced roster he’s ever had. That all changes this year with all 5 starters returning and the top 4 bench minute getters back as well.
The recipe for Morrill’s success in the past has been smart, good-shooting guards surrounding a go-to post scorer on the block, whom most recently was Jarret Shaw 2 years ago. Morrill may have found that next gem big in rising sophomore David Collette, who made immediate impacts on both ends of the ball. At 6’8, 220, Collette was in the top 50 in the country in EFG% (61%), and posted an outstanding 8% Block rate, good for top 70 in the nation (!). The one area where he’ll have to get better this year in on the glass; he hauled in only 5 boards a game as the only real big on the roster (ranked outside top 500 in both O/D Reb%). As a result, the glass cleaning slack was picked up by the Aggies' alpha, Jalen Moore. At a lean 6’8, 215 Moore gained notoriety by leading his team in scoring and rebounding, but true publicity was a result of this modeling effort published prior to last year…
Similar to Collette, Moore was outstanding at protecting the ball, and shot an outstanding 41/54/74 from 3, 2 & FT line respectively. He provides a much more dynamic and creative scoring option than the typical Stew Morrill cookie-cutter shooters and low-post scorers.
The guard play is the underrated part of this team - with that theme of veteran continuity that I love to overvalue. Darius Perkins, Chris Smith and Julion Pearre started the majority of last year's games, and they are cemented as the starters this year. Perkins and Smith are the senior leaders, both of whom are absolutely cash from deep (43% and 46% respectively last year). Perkins dominates the ball a little more, while Smith is more of the spot-up shooter. Julion Peare is the rising sophomore and was more inconsistent than the other 2, but Morrill thinks his talent is too promising to keep off the floor. Morrill also gets additional guard depth with JuCo Shane Rector, who is more of a true point and may take some pressure off of Perkins controlling the ball handling duties. The last key piece to this team is JoJo McGaston, who saw significant regression in his outside shooting from the 9-21 from 3 he teased us with as a freshman.
Bottom Line: Similar to my Fresno State concerns with size, Utah State also has many gaps to fill on the boards, as they come off a year ranking in the bottom 300 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. Just for perspective on how much Jarret Shaw meant to this team, they were in the top 20 in both departments 2 years prior. Collette must take a step forward on the glass, in addition to the other perimeter guys rebounding by committee. Besides the rebounding concerns, this is an absolutely complete team with multiple scoring weapons and elite shooting, all of which is molded together by a fantastic basketball coach. With one of the best home courts in the nation, the Aggies should crack the top 5 of the league standings when it's all said and done, and pushing higher is certainly possible.
Because it’s a Saturday evening prior to a lovely night out on the town, I’ll save my bashing of Dave Rice for when I’m in a less chipper mood than I am right now. The key takeaway is that Rice has maintained his coaching position and marginal success in Vegas with great recruiting, but has turned it into literally 0 postseason success. Failing to make the big dance a year ago with 2 pros in your starting lineup is somewhat inexcusable, but a lot of this disappointment can be attributed to inconsistent guard play.
The high roster turnover on this team is glaring when you watch them play, and every year the combination of highly touted freshman & incoming transfers results in minimal ball sharing. The same tale will be told this year, with potentially 2-3 transfers expected to play major roles, alongside a few blue-chip prospects. If the talented freshman and sophomores can show some consistency, the ceiling for this team is definitely higher than the 4th place finish I’m projecting.
The perimeter will have a unique mix of styles, with rising sophomore Patrick McCaw (CBC & STL shoutout) and transfers Ike Nwamu (Mercer) & Jerome Seagears (Rutgers). McCaw was steady in his first year and was the Rebs most consistent outside shooter (38% on 151 chucks) playing mostly the 2, but he’ll get more looks at the point this year with the departure of Cody Doolin. McCaw shouldn’t be relied on as a big scorer, but that’s exactly where running back Ike Nwamu comes in. Ike scored 15 a game for Mercer last year, and you may remember him torching the Duke Blue Devils a year prior in Round 1 of the tourney. You won’t find a stronger guard in college basketball, and he is a nightmare to keep out of the lane.
Jerome Seagears is the only senior on this team and was solid as a role player for Rutgers two years back. The fourth key perimeter guy is Jordan Cornish, who Rice gave major minutes down the stretch last year. Cornish was projected as more of a slasher, but proved to be a consistent shooter from deep in his freshman year (34/71 48%). While Seagears is the veteran captain, I do think Cornish will get end up getting the starting nod next to Nwamu & McCaw.
The true talent for the Runnin Rebs is on the interior, led by top 10 froshie Stephen Zimmerman. He may be the most skilled big in this class (or #2 behind Henry Ellenson of Marquette), with proven low block and mid-range touch. He is also an exceptional passer from the high-post, and may prove to be a reliable distributor, if Rice decides to run the offense through him. Though he is unproven as a defender, rim protection shouldn't be an issue with Goodluck Okonoboh patrolling the paint. Okonoboh earned first-team all MWC defense honors as a freshman, thanks to a top-25 block rate in the country. Him and Zimmerman should be a good offensive/defense balance inside.
A big uncertainty on this roster is a group of 6’6-6’8 wings, who will each be competing for time at the 3 & 4 spots. The most consistent of this bunch is Oregon transfer Ben Carter, who got lost in the Oregon depth shuffle under Dana Altman. The more elite talent lies in sophomore Dwyane Morgan and freshman Derrick Jones. Morgan was a top 50 recruit coming out 2 years ago, but was disastrous offensively in his opening year, posting a trash 85 O rating, mostly a result of shooting 50-140 from 2-point land (35%). Jones is a top 30 incoming freshman stud that will most certainly make a few ESPN top-10s with posterizations. It’ll be interesting to see how Rice juggles the logjam between the 2, 3 & 4 positions, and I suspect the starting lineup will change often throughout the year.
Bottom Line: As I began writing this, I wanted to find ways to not like the Rebels, but it’s hard to see this team finishing below Fresno and Utah State, given their superior talent. However, I will stick true to my “against-the-grain” nature and project them to finish behind Fresno, but ahead of Utah State.
3. Boise State:
Not sure why I waited 5 teams to start hammering out Boise, a team I have adored over the past few years. The primary reason for this affection was Derrick Marks, who was a master craftsmen for the Broncos late in games last year, making big-shot after big-shot. However, the “blue-turf” nation got a massive redshirt clearance for Aussie stud Anthony Drmic, whom was arguably their best player 2 years ago.
Drmic has the typical “f-you” Aussie demeanor, and he uses his size at 6’6, 210 effectively to score over smaller defenders inside the arc. Despite the fact that he attempted 175 threes 2 years ago (34%) and is a good shooter, it seems his true strength is getting in the lane and getting to the line. Playing next to him in the backcourt will be a rotation of solid candidates to provide good defense and consistent ball handling. The first of this bunch is Mikey Thompson, who I think has been at Boise for a decade. He’s a bigger combo guard who is super quick and, like Drmic, also loves to penetrate. He sometimes appears out of control, but the numbers show he is actually not that turnover prone. He is a great free throw shooter, so getting to the line is where he is by far most efficient, given he was sub 40% from 2 and sub 30% from 3. The question is whether he will run the point or play more off the ball, and the answer depends on how effective little Montigo Alford is. At 5’9, Alford is a true point who played about 15 minutes a game last year in his first D1 season after playing JuCo ball. He proved to be semi-effective as a distributor and was also a competent shooter from the outside (44% on 41 treys). Without Marks dominating the ball, I suspect Alford’s 21% Assist rate will see a spike, but hopefully not at the expense of his 22% TO rate. It seems the right fit is to have Thompson start at the point next to Drmic, with Alford spelling Thompson off the bench. Drmic & Thompson's size will certainly give Boise a more versatile defensive look, with each being able to guard any of the 3 perimeter positions.
Given this dilemma at point, head coach Leon Rice (who appears to be more of a cheerleader than coach at times) will have some interesting decisions on whether or not go small or big late in games. At his disposal, he has two tweener wings/bigs, each of which provide polar opposite value. Nick Duncan is one of my favorite players in college basketball, mostly because of how perfectly he fits the mold of the overachieving, shooting, white hype guy. Nothing is more enjoyable than watching a barrage of Nick Duncan 3s and then a subsequent barrage of yells to the crowd in a Boise late game run (which I enjoyed twice last year). Not to mention he’s also Australian, so for all of the three-man-weave Aussie supporters, this squad is the official team of the Land Down Under. On the flip side, Chandler Hutchinson provides much less shooting (and hype), but played a significant role in the second half of last year. His defense was one of two reasons why Boise saw a massive uptick in defensive prowess from the prior year, and Rice took notice quickly. The final and larger reason for the Boise leap in defensive efficiency from 2014 (169th to 56th) was James Webb III, who makes my prestigious all man-crush team. His is adored by the KenPom player section stats, and perhaps even more adored by my eye-test model. When you watch him, his Rodman-esque energy on the defensive glass (perhaps too much praise there) is immediately obvious, and he defends pick-n-roll on the perimeter as well as any big in the country. What’s less obvious is his exceptional shooting touch and even better awareness of good shot-selection. He is not a low-post, back to the basket scorer, but an excellent face-up shooter, both from 12 feet and out beyond the arc. His finishing around the basket from either putbacks or dishes is elite, and I mean ELITE. I figured I’d just post a picture of his KP statbox rather than rambling on.
Bottom Line: This team is primed to finish in the top 3 of the league, and they have more chops than everyone else not named San Diego State. If Drmic can keep his production cruising from where he left off early last year, the rest of the cast each fit nicely in to their role, with shooting, defense, ball-handling & rebounding boxes all being checked. James Webb III should emerge as an all-MWC performer, and I have him now comfortably on the first team in a league that has some elite interior players. The Buckin Broncos should sneak their way in to the Big Dance and hopefully avenge the crushing & partially BS tourney loss from a year ago, in which they played a true road game against Dayton.
6. Colorado State:
Larry Eustachy is hard guy to like, but he is perhaps an even harder guy to hate (huh?). The smug and annoyed demeanor he displays literally all the time is just old and tiring. On the other hand, the dude gives so few Fs and continues to carry out his coaching sideline antics with no apology, whether it be with his peasantry clothing choices or hysterical referee rants.
Regardless, he continues to have a relevant and competent squad each year, and on paper this year’s team should be no different. He returns his two of his three starting guards from a year ago, with Joe De Ciman and Gian Clavell back for their senior years. Both are very steady, but neither has been relied upon to score in a feature role, which is exactly what they’ll have to do this year. De Ciman is a good shooter from deep (37% on 113 attempts), but will need to do more than float on the perimeter with the departure of Daniel Bejanro and JJ Avila. Where De Ciman is known commodity as a third year starter, Clavell is much less proven, with only one full year in D1 hoops under his belt (transfer from Northwest Tech College). Much like De Ciman, he prefers to stay outside the arc and shoot 3s, but he’ll need to hit more than the 30% of the 137 attempts he took a year ago, especially in a higher usage role. The third key guard is the younger but more talented John Gillon, who was featured as the Rams sixth man a year ago. He was excellent in his sophomore year, particularly as a playmaker and getting to the line, where he shot 80%, and actually led the Sun Belt conference during his time at UALR a year prior. Gillon also knocked down 40% of his 82 treys, so his free throw and 3-point line dependency makes me think he understands advanced hoop statistics and is probably a 3-man-weave subscriber. He’s a no brainer to run the show at point this year, and rounds out a backcourt that should be a solid and steady commodity for Eustachy. The big question mark is combo guard Antwan Scott, who scored 15 a game for Grambling State 2 years ago but had his season cut short last year due a broken foot last year. He should provide potent depth, but I doubt he will start over the aforementioned dudes.
The frontcourt comes with a bit of upside as well, with the return of offensive rebounding specialist Tiel Daniels, who at 6’7 posted an impressive top 80 offensive rebounding rate. He’ll be joined by incoming juCo stud Kimani Jackson. Eustachy has historically been a big player in the JuCo domain, so I trust he sees something special in the number 7 player in the JuCo ranks (number 1 PF). He also snagged Emmanuel Omogbo, who was a second team NJCAA All-American, so both should make a major impact right away.
Bottom Line: Colorado State was picked to finish 7th in the media poll, which feels like a mini slap to Eustachy’s face, especially given his pedigree. I will personally pencil them to finish 6th, but I fully expect this team to surprise both myself and others, just as they did two years ago in Eustachy’s first year.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the boys from Laramie is the eye-gauging, gut-wrenching offensive dumpster fire performance they displayed at San Diego State last year. Their 14 point first half effort defined the Achilles heal that persisted all year, though they still were able to sneak in to the big dance behind their NBA-bound stud Larry Nance. With Nance now gone, along with 3 other starters, the ‘Boys have a ton of offensive production to replace. The only notable returner is Josh Adams, who is an uber-athletic 2-guard, and will be the sole playmaker for Larry Shyatt’s squad this year. He has been turnover prone in the past, but counters that with a fantastic 28% assist rate, good for top 150 in the nation. He’s also their most disruptive defender, so I suspect he’ll be among the nation leaders in minutes played, after logging 85% of all minutes a year ago.
The rest of the roster will be composed of incoming JuCo guys, or role players who played less than 20 minutes a game last year. The most notable of the returners is Jason McManamen, who provided some depth off the bench, as a respectable ball-handler and shooter, knocking in 33% of his 75 3-point attempts last year. He’ll see that number probably spike to 125 this year, making his efficiency critical given the lack of other perimeter shooting left on the roster. The only other place consistent shooting may come from is Trey Washington, who enters the year as a redshirt sophomore. Washington missed all last year with a foot injury, but knocked in a solid 17 of 51 treys (33%) a year before. These 3 should compose the core of backcourt for the Cowboys.
Another key returner is rising sophomore big Alan Herndon, who played 40% of minutes a year ago, and posted a solid 61% from the floor. He wasn’t a great rebounder, which is another huge question mark for this team, given Nance & Derek Cooke will no longer be in the picture.
Shyatt is hoping to find some immediate production from two key JuCo guys in Morris Marshall and Hayden Dalton. Dalton appears to weigh less than me, but is a typical stretch 4 with good skill for his 6’8 height. Morris is a stronger, athletic 6’4 wing, that may in fact start right away, given that his talent pedigree supercedes that of both McManamen and Washington.
Bottom Line: This will be an uber frustrating year for Shyatt’s squad, who will most likely regress significantly from the big dance crashing the Cowboys did a year ago. This is a bottom-tier team in this league, with no real signs of any upside or future hope. This is clearly a transition year for Shyatt to work in the young, unproven freshman, and I expect many names unmentioned in this preview to play real minutes as the season progresses, but guessing who that will be is a crapshoot at this point.
8. Air Force:
When I first glanced at the returning roster, I had to pinch/remind myself that Trevor Lyons is not his older brother Michael. Michael Lyons was an exceptional MWC guard a few years back that made traveling to Colorado Springs a nightmare for all other teams in the league. His younger brother Trevor had a very solid freshman campaign, playing alongside their leading scorer Max Yon in the backcourt (who graduates). Lyons posted a 108 player rating playing 25-30 minutes a night, including 42% from 3 on 55 attempts, and was their best perimeter defender (top 150 steal rate). He will play off the ball next to rising junior point guard Zach Kocur. Kocur was actually more efficient than Lyons, and he was an effective ball handler & facilitator in the motion offense. He also thrived shooting off screens from deep. He hit 54/115 bombs last year, for an elite 47% (only 10 players shot it better). These two will complement the third backcourt member Hayden Graham, who will probably lead this team in scoring. A 6’5 lefty with good touch, Graham was super efficient from the mid-range area (54% from 2), but shockingly poor from beyond the arc (15% from deep … ew). If there is anyone who needs to look at their splits to understand what their strengths are, in terms of spots on the floor, it's Graham. His form tells me there’s no way he can’t hit at least 30% of his threes this year, but with Lyons and Kocur already providing good spacing, he shouldn’t need to settle for treys. Additional shooting this year should’ve been provided by Matt Mooney, who knocked down 26-70 (37%) from 3-land last year, but he will not be playing basketball at Air Force anymore. This summer, he indicated he would be transferring due to excessive bullying from upperclassmen. The interview of Mooney is pretty fascinating, and from my very little knowledge of situation, I 100% side with the Academy on this one.
The real intriguing dynamic for the Falcons this year will be the development and role of Malik Abbott, who is one of the more talented freshman in the league. He sat just outside the top 100 recruiting ranks, and is a silky smooth 6’4 scorer. He projects to be the most talented player Air Force has had since the older Lyons brother graduated a few years back.
The frontcourt is scary uncertain for the Falcons, especially on the defensive glass. The 3 best rebounders graduate from a team that ranked 227th and 247th in offensive and defensive rebounding respectively a year ago. The zone Air Force traditionally plays has some role in this, but the lack of personnel down low could be a major issue. The only notable piece is 6’11 Zach Moer, who played less than 10 minutes a game last year and will have to start at the 5, unless head man Dave Pilipovich decides to go small (and I mean very small).
Bottom Line: The military boys of Colorado were disastrous on the defensive side a year ago, but they saw their offensive efficiency spike to a top 100 rank after sitting close to 300th in offense a year prior. Their excellent execution on the offensive side will allow them to continue to get easy buckets inside the paint, but the zone de that Dave Pilopovich loves allows a ton of uncontested 3s and even more offensive putbacks. It’s hard to see the rebounding problem being addressed this year, so improvement on this end will come down to how well they can force turnovers - and simply how well their opponents shoot it from deep. It should definitely will be an improved year for the Force, but the defensive woes are hard to ignore, and they may limit their ability to crack the top half of the standings in my not so humble opinion.
9. New Mexico:
Oh how the Lobos miss life with Steve Alford at the helm. Since his departure and inauguration of his longtime friend/assistant Craig Neal to the helm, the Lobos have been bounced round 1 of the tourney (2 years ago) and I guess just watched the tourney at home last year? After a 15-16 showing in 2015-2016 (lol), the 2 most talented pieces graduate in Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney, leaving a house of cards roster on the table for Neal this year. What’s more scary is that he may be heavily relying on significant minutes from his son Cullen, who is perhaps the most polarizing player in college basketball. His on court antics, which include looking really cool taunting both his own fans and other fans, have made him easily hateable by, again, both his own fans and others. He’s actually quite similar to Katin Reindhart of USC, another guard I enjoyed trolling in years past. Both have exceptional skill & good talent, but their irrational brains make them play like boneheads at times.
Cullen returns after missing almost all of last year due to injury, and will joined in the backcourt by Butler transfer Elijah Brown, son of NBA coach Mike Brown. Brown was not at all bashful in his freshman year at Butler, nor was he efficient, hitting 26% of his 104 3 ball attempts, and he was not a willing passer. Watching him and Neal co-exist in the backcourt together could be interesting, and by interesting I mean disastrous. Both will try to dominate the ball, but the true point guard keys will be handed off to Tim Jacobs who, unlike Neal & Brown, is the definition of a “pass-first” guard. He posted a top 100 assist rate last year, but also turned it over 25% of his possessions, and he was abysmal shooting from deep (2/21) and from the line (23/42). If he is going to play major minutes, he must show some ability to hit outside shots, or teams will defend him playing a foot in the paint at all times. The only other relevant backcourt member is incoming freshman Anthony Mathis, a 3-star recruit out of Oregon.
The strength of this team is the defensive versatility, which is provided by wings Sam Logwood and Devon Williams. Both had nearly identical usage and minutes played last year and both stand 6’8 feet tall. While Logwood plays more of a 3, Williams plays more of a 4, but neither provided any sort of significant offensive production a year ago and both posted blah efficiency numbers. Logwood hit 30% of his 56 attempts from 3, while Williams shot 48% of his 145 attempts from 2. Both are solid rebounders for their size, but Neal generally relies on a by-committee approach to the glass, where the Lobos have been incredibly effective, per their top-20 defensive rebounding clip last year.
The X-factor, and only real candidate to provide inside scoring, is Samford transfer Tim Williams. Williams was excellent as Samford’s go-to-guy 2 years ago, posting a 117 O Rating in a significant 23% usage role. He’s a pure low-block scorer, shooting an outstanding 60% from the field, and an even more impressive 75% from the stripe. On the defensive end, he is a proven rebounder, but his true athleticism is evident by a 5% block rate and 2.5% steal rate (both top 500 nationally ranked). His value is apparent in all phases, and I suspect he’ll end up being this team’s leading scorer and perhaps MVP (this is if Neal & Brown ever feel like throwing him the ball).
Bottom Line: Projecting the outlook for the Lobos is tricky, and so much will be determined by players we haven’t seen play in over a year, in this case Neal & Williams. The defensive identity of Neal will always limit this team from free-falling in to the bottom of the league, but a bunch remains undetermined on the offensive side. I’m going to lean toward a bearish outlook for the Lobos, which may or may not be rooted in some bias against both Neals. Their excellent home court should keep them right in the middle of the conference shuffle, but I see them falling closer to the 8-9 range in the final league standings.
The Wolfpack round out the final team of what feels like a distinct “tier 3” group in the MWC, of which any 5 teams could finish 6th through 10th. From scouring the landscape of other previews, I appear to be slightly more bearish on the Pack then others. Ex-head man David Carter was fired in the offseason, so in steps NBA lifer Eric Musselman, who actually spent the last few years as an Arizona State & LSU assistant. He will inherit a group that finished 9-22 a year ago and second to last in the MWC. This can most certainly be attributed to god-awful shooting (349th EFG%) and ball-handling (325th in TOs). I guess the good news is that those same players are all returning again, including 4 of 5 starters and most key bench production.
Despite my early bashing of the Pack, they have a super intriguing stud in AJ West, who led the entire nation in offensive rebounding and posted a top 30 in block rate on the defensive side. The dude is a monster at 6’9 230, and is shameless both attacking and protecting the rim. He shot 163 throws a year ago and hit a respectable 65%, but needs to improve his conversion on first attempts at the rim, where he was only 47%. With that said, it’d be incredibly unfair for me to call out West’s less than stellar efficiency scoring inside the arc without also shedding light on to some of his teammates' lack of efficiency. Along with West will be 2 rising seniors, Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell. Criswell was somehow the team’s best long range shooter, posting a “scorching” 19-56 (34%) clip from deep. Both Criswell and Coleman are penetration-focused guards who each took over 175 shots inside the arc, but converted at a 39% and 45% rate respectively. They truly are eerily similar in style, and both will dominate the ball sharing responsibilities.
The other key backcourt piece is rising sophomore Eric Cooper, who was incredibly disappointing in his first year. Coming from IMG academy, where he played with Chris McCullough (now in the league) & the younger brother of Enes Kanter, Kerem, he was highly anticipated as building block for the rebuilding era in Reno. Dubbed as a smooth scorer and elite shooter out of high-school (he hit 54% of his threes his senior year), Cooper went ice cold last year from deep (35/141 25%). That type of drop-off is absolutely massive, and the jump from high-school to college clearly played a factor. Even inside the arc, he shot 35%, and provided no playmaking to offset his 21% TO rate. His talent/pedigree gives me some confidence this opening showing is an anomaly, but the data certainly was not kind to Cooper.
The other key frontline pieces supporting West will be 6’6 DJ Fenner, 6’6 Marshall transfer Shawn Smith & a pair of rising sophomores Robyn Missa & Elijah Foster. Fenner played big minutes as a swingman off the bench last year, and you’ll be shocked to hear he was also a trash 3 point shooter (11/54). However, his value is clearly on the defensive end, so I suspect he’ll crack the starting lineup at the 4 spot. Both Missa & Foster emerged to play significant minutes late last year & should see their exposure increase, especially against bigger opponents. While Missa at 6’9 showed no real sign of promise (0.8 assist rate & 26 TO rate is simply hard to do), the 6’7 240 beast Foster was an effective rebounder on both ends, and will probably get more of the true 4 or 5 minutes when West has to sit. Finally, the Marshall alum Smith also brings a good defensive reputation, but like this entire roster, seems to have no offensive bread & butter.
Bottom Line: I think I made my point about the Pack’s offensive limitations, and despite returning almost everyone from last year, I don’t project a significant leap in 2016. AJ West is absolutely entertaining to watch, and immediately reminds me of Tony Mitchell out of North Texas. Both have gifted physiques and athleticism, but the true skill level holds back any real significant potential. Regardless of NBA comps, West still finds himself playing for the 2nd or 3rd worst team in the league, but will safely finish ahead of the not-so-mighty San Jose Spartans.
11. San Jose State:
Dave Wojcik began his second year in San Jose State with bang, routing Bethesda by a score of 67-44 in front of 74 screaming fans at the notorious “Event Center”. Unfortunately, Lady Luck took a turn for the worse and the Spartans found themselves on the short end of the stick a few too many times last year. And by a few too many times, I mean 28 times, including all 18 swings and misses in the Mountain West last, bringing their 2-year conference record to 1-35.
You’d think if you have Shabazz’s Muhammad's little brother, there would be some glimmer of talent. He was again their “best” player for the second year in a row, but not if you asked leading scorer and rising sophomore Darryl Gaynor. Gaynor must’ve walked on to the San Jose State campus with a BMOC-esque swagger, as he took the alpha keys right from little Rashad Muhammad and never looked back. He was top 50 in shot attempts a year ago, draining a whopping 28% of his 111 attempts from deep and 32% of his attempts inside the arc.
I honestly don’t know where you’ll see more red, any of the Saw movies or the San Jose State KenPom page.
This is a bad basketball team. Were you expecting a more insightful take in this section? If so, please refer to other preseason material or the San Jose State school website.