Best Calls: Bang, bang and bang on my predictions for the top-3 finishers in the Mountain West. While Boise and San Diego St. were seen as 1a and 1b in most folks eyes before the year, my love for Fresno was much more of an "against-the-grain" pick. Most experts had slotted UNLV to finish in the top-3, given the Rebels returned a roster loaded with talent, but they foolishly failed to take the "Dave Rice effect" into consideration. Lucky for them, this dynamic will no longer be in the equation going forward, as ole Dave was fired about midway through the year.
Worst Calls: From a team-specific lens, I was probably most incorrect about New Mexico. Coming in to the year, I thought the backcourt dynamic between Elijah Brown and Cullen Neal would be disastrous, given that both had historical precedents of being high-usage players, which would cause them to both try and dominate the ball. I also had not seen Tim Williams compete against Mountain West-caliber size and athleticism, despite his impressive production at Samford the year before. Both of these assessments proved to be dead wrong, as Brown and Williams both had outstanding offensive years, which played a major role in the Lobos top-100 offensive rank. However, I was more surprised by their letdown on the defensive end, which was incredibly uncharacteristic of a Craig Neal coached team and unlike the defensive prowess recent Lobo-squads have displayed.
From a broader conference lens, I misread how competitive this league would be relative to the broader landscape of college basketball. As it stands currently, San Diego St. and Boise (by 4 spots) are the only two MWC teams ranked in the top-100 of Kenpom.com. What is really telling is that as I began to write this preview, I intended to explain why I was "wrong" about my initial bullish outlook on Boise & Fresno. This is because, despite their 2nd and 3rd place finish in the league, I actually thought both had relatively disappointing years. Fresno State's best non-conference win was at home against Cal St. Bakersfield (ew). And while Boise did clip top-10 Oregon at home way back in December, the buckin Broncs finished conference play 5-6 over their last 11 games, which included two inexplicable losses to Air Force and San Jose St.
Who I want to win, Who I think will win & Who has a chance to make a run: This is one is a no-brainer for me. Fresno was one of my favorite rosters on paper that I previewed before the season, but I truthfully didn't know a ton about Rodney Terry's coaching ability or how well the individual pieces would mesh together coming in to the year. Given that 4 of the 5 starters were returning from 2015, I figured the continuity of playing together for the whole year prior would mitigate my concerns around coaching and roster fit. As it turns out, those two dynamics appear to be exactly what is hindering the upside of what is a very talented squad on paper.
These issues are evidenced when Fresno is forced to play in a slower, half-court style of game. Whenever preseason POTY Marvelle Harris doesn't have the ball in his hands (which is quite rare), the other 4 players insist on playing an isolation, NBA-style offense. The biggest offenders of this are off-guard Julien Lewis and wing Paul Watson, who each consistently take tough pull-up 2-point jumpers with plenty of time left in the shot-clock. Both shot ~40% on their 2-point attempts, and were major reasons way Fresno ranked 243rd effective FG%, and specifically 247th from inside the arc. The only times I've seen Fresno be efficient in slower-paced games is when Harris is relentless attacking the rim, where he almost always draws contact, or draws a 2nd defender for an easy dump-off bucket. Harris is capable of heating up from the outside, but he sometimes settles for tough 3s off the dribble, similar to his supporting cast.
Due to poor half-court execution, Fresno relied heavily on its defense and transition scoring to compete against better competition. The one thing this team does consistently well is force turnovers, which in-turn allows them to get out and run. Both Harris and Lewis are excellent at jumping passing lanes, and each has posted a top-200 steal rate over the past 2 seasons. Even their "bigs" generate turnovers, with 6'9 1st-year starter Cullen Russo actually leading the team in steal rate this year.
Once the Bulldogs do get the ball off a steal (or long-rebound) Harris is outstanding in the open-court, and is impossible to slow down with a full head of steam. This will be the key for the Fresno, if they do draw a date with the Aztecs in the championship game. Fresno split with San Diego State in the regular season, and from the 1st meeting I watched, their success came almost exclusively in transition opportunities. Despite San Diego State's painfully bad offensive performance this year, Jeff Fischer officially has the Aztecs playing elite defense, which currently ranks as the nations best, per Kenpom.com. I think if Rodney Terry and Marvelle Harris can collectively realize that getting in a half-court game with San Diego State is an atrocious idea, I think Fresno will take down the perennial Mountain West power in the title game, and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.