- Ky McKeon
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Caleb Martin, R Sr., Nevada
Coach of the Year: Eric Musselman, Nevada
Newcomer of the Year: JaQuan Lyle, R Jr., New Mexico
Freshman of the Year: Jordan Brown, Nevada
See full preview here: #8 in our Top 40 countdown
2. San Diego State
Key Returners: Devin Watson, Jeremy Hemsley, Matt Mitchell, Jalen McDaniels
Key Losses: Malik Pope, Trey Kell, Max Montana
Key Newcomers: Nathan Mensah, Joel Mensah, Adam Seiko (redshirt), Aguek Arop, Ed Chang
Outlook: Brian Dutcher’s first year as head coach at San Diego State was a smashing success as the Aztecs punched their first ticket to the Big Dance since 2015. Last season may have been Dutcher’s first as a head coach, but he’s no novice in coaching college basketball, having served under Steve Fisher since 1989. SDSU has been a Mountain West power for 15+ years now and looks to have a team in 2018-19 that can compete for an at-large bid come March. Dutcher returns four core rotation players from a season ago and adds a promising group of freshmen to the mix.
SDSU has largely been a defensive basketball program during the Fisher / Dutcher era; it seems the Aztecs always have three or four high-level athletes dotting the perimeter bolstered by a paint anchor inside. Offense has definitely not been a strength of the basketball program since Fisher took over, ranking in the top 65 of KenPom’s offensive rankings only three times in 16 years (the beginning of KenPom).
Dutcher maintained most of the old Fisher style of play last season, but his team did run in transition more than in years past (fastest SDSU team since 2013) and on defense, Dutcher turned down the full court pressure a tad and mixed in more zone.
Shooting has been a particular area of weakness for the Aztecs over the years, but they bring back their two best shooters from 2017-18 in Devin Watson and Matt Mitchell. Watson is set to be the leader of the Aztecs in his senior season after running dual PG with Trey Kell last year. The 6’1” guard is an excellent table setter and can score from deep or by getting to the rack – he led the team in 3P% last year (39.5%) and was second in FT Rate. Mitchell was an immediate impact player after being recruited late in the cycle heading into 2017-18. The 6’6” wing had some eye-opening games, like his 31-point outburst against Eastern Illinois, and he proved he could stroke it from just about anywhere on the floor. He along with fellow rising sophomore Jalen McDaniels are two of the biggest reasons to get excited for Aztecs hoops this year.
McDaniels, like Mitchell, burst onto the scene in his freshman year, racking up 10.5ppg and 7.5ppg on a 64.8% true shooting percentage (top 50 nationally). After flirting with the NBA Draft, expect McDaniels to expand his game as he tries to prove he’s worthy of a first round selection – the 6’10” forward is about as versatile as guys that size come on the offensive end. His length is endless and he’s a tireless worker on the glass:
Senior guard Jeremy Hemsley should join the aforementioned trio in the starting five, holding off playing time competition from incoming freshman Aguek Arop and redshirt frosh Adam Seiko. Hemsley’s outside shooting plummeted last season to 26.6% (career 35%+ shooter otherwise); he’ll need to bring that back up to space the floor for the Aztec creators. Arop fits the SDSU mold to a T; he’s a versatile, long, athletic wing defender with a pretty good mid-range and slashing game on offense.
Look for forwards Nathan Mensah and Ed Chang to make the biggest impacts of the incoming freshmen. Mensah and his 7’4” wingspan can be an imposing force inside the paint on either end and gives SDSU a shot blocking presence in lieu of Malik Pope. Chang, a 4-star recruit like Mensah, doesn’t seem to have much hype around him coming into the year, but rest assured he can ball.
Chang could be a weapon on offense for SDSU with his ability to shoot, drive, and finish above the rim. Mensah and Chang will both push returning junior forward Nolan Narain for minutes up front.
Joel Mensah (unrelated to Nathan), the final incoming freshman, is probably a year or two away from contributing consistently.
Bottom Line: The Mountain West is on its way to becoming a multi-bid league once again with Nevada being a top ten squad and the likes of San Diego State back on the rise. The Aztecs have a ton of talent this year in what should be a competitive top half of the MWC. They’re a good bet to make the Tourney for a second straight season.
3. New Mexico
Key Returners: Makuach Maluach, Anthony Mathis, Dane Kuiper
Key Losses: Antino Jackson, Sam Logwood, Chris McNeal, Troy Simons, Joe Furstinger
Key Newcomers: JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Vance Jackson (UConn), Carlton Bragg (Arizona State)***, Drue Drinnon, Corey Manigault (JUCO), Karim Ezzeddine (JUCO), Tavian Percy, Keith McGee (JUCO)
Outlook: Paul Weir shined in his first season as head coach of the New Mexico Lobos, improving upon Noodles’ 2016-17 finish despite having very little roster continuity. Weir also brought with him a change in style, as the Lobos shifted from a half-court offense that emphasized getting to the rack to a run-and-gun, transition and three-point attack. The Lobos lose quite a few pieces from last year’s surprising squad, but Weir should have the roster completely reloaded with the influx of some high-major transfers and promising JUCO/freshman talent. Nevada and San Diego State may be the clear 1/2 punch at the top of the league, but UNM should be able to compete for its first Tourney bid since 2014.
The Lobos were an “unbalanced” squad last year, featuring a top 50 national offense to go along with a bottom 150 defense. Offensively, UNM was brilliant, executing Weir’s run-and-gun style to perfection. When given the opportunity, the Lobos looked to get out in transition, ranking 2nd in the MWC in tempo. While in transition, or in the half-court, UNM looked to bomb it from deep, ranking 11th in the country in 3PA / FGA, eschewing shots near the rim or from mid-range. This style was made possible by the roster makeup – New Mexico was (and is still) loaded with capable outside shooters, and also lacked much of a frontcourt punch.
Defense was a different story. While the Lobos did rank 15th in the country in forcing turnovers, they were often torched in transition and near the rim, a consequence of gambling in their high pressure scheme.
Only two teams in the country pressed more than New Mexico, but this defensive setup either led to feast or famine. With a year under his belt and a good crop of capable athletes, Weir should be able to improve his squad’s defensive performance this season and even help it evolve into a dominant force.
Shooting should once again be a strength for UNM in 2018-19, as the Lobos return Makuach Maluach, Anthony Mathis, and Dane Kuiper to the wing. Maluach was superb in his freshman season, turning in a shooting slash of .574/.460/.811 (2P/3P/FT) and his length and body composition screams two-way versatility. Look for the 6’7” sophomore to blossom in his second season as he takes on a more natural wing role and is given more rope and responsibility offensively.
Mathis returns as New Mexico’s best perimeter shooter, nailing 47% of his 198 attempts as a junior. In MWC play, Mathis ranked #1 in eFG% (72.2%) and TS% (75.1%), which are absolutely ridiculous numbers for anyone let alone a guard. Check out his shot chart from last year:
Kuiper can play either the 3 or 4 spot and add space to the offense. While he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last year, he’s a capable shooter and driver on the wing and will provide value as a role player.
Two of the main reasons to buy in to the Lobo hype this season are eligible transfers JaQuan Lyle and Vance Jackson, both of whom will be in the starting lineup on day one. Lyle, formerly of Ohio State, turned in an impressive sophomore year with the Buckeyes before being suspended from the team. He’s turned in high assist rates during his first two collegiate seasons while keeping a manageable turnover rate, and can get to the bucket at will against smaller lead guards. To boot, the 6’5” junior shoots it about 40% from outside the arc and can play bully ball on the block when mismatched. Lyle should be one of the best players in the MWC this season and could evolve into a Conference Player of the Year candidate.
Jackson, a former top 100 recruit, enjoyed a highly efficient freshman year at UConn before opting to transfer for a chance at a larger role. His 48.4% three-point clip in AAC play led the conference back in 2016-17 and he’ll look to add even more outside shooting to a team stacked with shooters. Look for Jackson to be more aggressive for the Lobos penetrating on the wing than he was for UConn – he has the potential to fill it up on a nightly basis.
Freshman Drue Drinnon and JUCO import Keith McGee will provide depth at the PG slot. Drinnon, an ESPN 4-star recruit, appears to be the long-term point guard solution; he can thrive in transition and shoot it from deep, a perfect fit for Weir’s offense. Freshman Tavian Percy will add defensive versatility at the wing position.
As alluded to above, frontcourt play and depth was a major issue for the Lobos in 2017-18. Weir hopes to solve that issue by bringing in three impact big men in Carlton Bragg, Corey Manigault, and Karim Ezzeddine. Incumbent big man Vladimiar Pinchuk will see his role increase without Joe Furstinger around, but he’s yet to prove to be more than just a tall body. Bragg, a former McDonald’s All-American, is the mystery man that could either grab a starting spot and average a double-double, or fade away into nothingness and never even see the floor. At Kansas, Bragg’s potential and talent was obvious, but he never played for Arizona State after transferring there following the 2017 season. Currently, Bragg is not on scholarship, so it remains to be seen if he’ll suit up for the Lobos in 2018-19.
Manigault and Ezzeddine should both play a rotational role up front. Manigault played limited minutes for Pitt as a freshman before playing JUCO ball last season. He’s a post player that will add size and athleticism to the 4 or 5 spot. Ezzeddine runs the floor well for a 6’9” guy, has a high motor, and has good touch from about 15-feet out.
Bottom Line: New Mexico has potential to crash the presumably 2-bid MWC NCAA Tourney party. Lyle and Jackson should immediately be two of the better talents in the conference and Weir already has a roster that can shoot the lights out. A focus on defensive discipline within the high-pressure full-court scheme will serve the Lobos well as they try to end their Big Dance drought.
Key Returners: Shakur Juiston, Kris Clyburn, Tervell Beck, Amauri Hardy
Key Losses: Brandon McCoy, Jordan Johnson, Jovan Mooring
Key Newcomers: Noah Robotham (Akron), Trey Woodbury, Bryce Hamilton, Joel Ntambwe, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua
Outlook: After a rough first year in Las Vegas, former New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies enjoyed some success in his second season. The Rebels won 20 games for the first time since 2014 and appear to finally be gaining momentum on the recruiting trail, suggesting a resurgence to the once-great UNLV basketball program.
Menzies cranked the pace up in his second year, taking the Rebels from the 169th ranked adjusted tempo to 22nd in 2017-18. The Runnin’ Rebels’ goal on offense is to get the ball quickly down the length of the floor, pushing off the glass and opponent makes and slash towards the rim in an effort to draw a foul or put through an easy deuce. UNLV ranked 6th in the country in FT rate, a testament to their focus on attacking the basket, aided by the 20th-best offensive rebounding percentage in the country. Departed one-and-done center Brandon McCoy was a large part of this rebound and rim attack scheme, but UNLV was actually better offensively when the big man sat, per Hoop Lens:
More important to UNLV’s success last season, particularly on defense, was forward Shakur Juiston, who returns to the lineup to follow-up on a spectacular first season. Juiston was one of 20 players in Division I to average a double-double last year, and proved to be a great finisher, good jump shooter, and fierce rebounder. Defensively, UNLV allowed 0.14ppp less when Juiston was on the floor per Hoop Lens, primarily a result of his superior rebounding ability.
Flanking Juiston in the frontcourt this season will primarily be a combination of sophomore Tervell Beck, senior Cheikh Mbacke Diong, and one of either Joel Ntambwe or Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (both freshmen). Djordjije Sljivancanin and Cheickna Dembele are two more near-7-footers at Menzies’ disposal, but neither has proven to be a source of production. (Also, I don’t know how the UNLV PA announcer does it... yikes). Beck is by far the one to watch of this group, he was uber-efficient as a freshman, finishing on 70.1% of his shot attempts near the rim, ranking #1 in 2PFG% in conference play. Menzies will be hard pressed not to “go small” and play with Juiston and Beck at the 4 and 5 most of the time. The remaining options are all still somewhat raw on either end.
The backcourt features familiar faces in Kris Clyburn and Amauri Hardy, but also adds the services of Noah Robotham and two promising recruits to replace Jordan Johnson and Jovan Mooring. Clyburn showed significant improvement last year, increasing his 2PFG% and 3PFG% from 41% and 29.1% to 49.5% and 32.7%, respectively, but saw a dramatic decrease in his FT% (70.1% to 56.5%). He’ll be looked upon as a leader and source of offense in his senior season. Robotham will be the starting point guard after serving three years as Akron’s primary ball handler. The 6’1” lead guard is a good facilitator and knockdown outside shooter, hitting 38.5% of his career threes at Akron. Hardy will look for a big improvement on a sub-par freshman season after coming into UNLV as a highly regarded 4-star prospect. Confidence will be key for him as he takes a bigger role within the offense.
Freshmen Bryce Hamilton and Trey Woodbury figure to make an impact on the rotation in their first seasons in Vegas. Woodbury is a skilled wing that can shoot and get to the bucket and Hamilton is a sizable 2-guard with high scoring ability. One of the two likely grabs a starting spot next to Clyburn and Robotham unless Menzies decides to go smaller with Hardy.
UNLV’s defense should be at least as good (average) as it was last season. McCoy’s departure takes away rim protection, but Beck and Juiston have the muscle to defend the paint. The Rebels were stout on the interior last season, moving away from Menzies’ zone looks of 2016-17, but they were often burned on wild closeouts on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: The Rebels should be right in the middle of the pack of the MWC with the likes of Boise State, Wyoming, and Fresno State. 20+ wins is an attainable goal for Menzies and crew, but players like Robotham, Clyburn, and Hamilton will have to make up for the lost shooting of Johnson and Mooring.
5. Boise State
Key Returners: Alex Hobbs, Justinian Jessup, Zach Haney, Marcus Dickinson
Key Losses: Chandler Hutchison, Christian Sengfelder, Lexus Williams
Key Newcomers: Pat Dembley (JUCO), Jaycson Bereal, Riley Abercrombie, Mikey Frazier, Roderick Williams (JUCO)
Outlook: Leon Rice has done wonders as the head coach of the Boise State basketball program. In his eight years at the helm, Rice has led the Broncos to seven 20+ win seasons, matching the total Boise State had from 1970 to 2010. This season, Rice faces a challenge with the departure of one of the best Broncos of all time, Chandler Hutchison, and two other major impact 2017-18 pieces.
Usually known as an offensive power, Boise’s defense was actually its strong point last season, ranking 1st in the Mountain West in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. Rice always has superb defensive rebounding teams – last year his Broncos ranked #1 in the country in DR%, a perfect complement to Rice’s switching man-to-man, 1-3-1, and 2-3 zone schemes. Offensively, Boise is primarily a jump-shot reliant squad, getting most of its buckets from beyond the arc and the mid-range versus near the rim. With Hutchison and Christian Sengfelder gone, the Broncos will need a new source of production to lead the way.
Two likely candidates for an increased scoring load are junior guards Marcus Dickinson and Alex Hobbs. The pair will likely make up the starting backcourt, sharing ball handling and table-setting responsibilities. Hobbs struggled with his shot last season but shined in a few contests early in the year. He’ll need to step up into a go-to scorer this season. Both Dickinson and Hobbs will have to hold off incoming JUCO transfer Pat Dembley for minutes in the backcourt. Dembley is a pure scoring point guard that averaged 19.9ppg last year and comes in as a top 40 JUCO recruit.
Justinian Jessup will continue to provide the Broncos with plenty of outside shooting. Last year, the 6’6” junior scorched the nets with a 45.8% shooting clip from downtown. Look for Jessup to expand his role beyond catch-and-shoot in year three.
One area on defense the Broncos weren’t particularly strong in was rim protection and preventing shots near the bucket. That’ll likely be the case again in 2018-19, but Rice at least has several big bodies to fill the 4 and 5 spots. Zach Haney should start at the 5 again; he ranked #2 in the MWC in offensive rebounding rate last year and is a pretty good finisher around the cup. He’ll be spelled by returning bigs Robin Jorch and David Wacker, and incoming freshmen Riley Abercrombie and Mikey Frazier. Abercrombie (no Fitch), an Australian native, is a power forward that can pass, shoot a bit, and finish well inside. Frazier is a 6’10” center with floor spacing potential and a high basketball IQ.
Rice’s other newcomers, freshman Jaycson Bereal and JUCO transfer Roderick Williams, should make immediate impacts on the wing. Both players project as slashing-style perimeter players with their athleticism and ability to rise up through traffic. Williams in particular is a big get for Boise; he’s ranked as the #14 JUCO recruit in the country and led his team in scoring and rebounding last season.
Bottom Line: With the Mountain West’s top-heavy nature, it’ll be difficult for Boise to crack the top four without Hutchison and Sengfelder. Leon Rice is a hell of a coach though and his teams should never be underestimated. The defense should still be pretty good with the incoming athletes – the Broncos will just need to find someone to give them a consistent spark on the offensive end.
6. Fresno State
Key Returners: Deshon Taylor, Nate Grimes, Sam Bittner
Key Losses: Bryson Williams, Jaron Hopkins, Terrell Carter, Ray Bowles, Jahmel Taylor
Key Newcomers: Braxton Huggins (New Mexico State), Noah Blackwell (Long Beach State), Assane Diouf, Aguir Agau
Outlook: Seven-year Fresno State coach Rodney Terry called it quits following the end of last season, choosing to take his talents to the greener pastures of… El Paso, Texas? Whatever Terry’s reasons may be for leaving FSU for the seemingly downward move to UTEP, the Bulldogs now face the 2018-19 season with a brand new coach and a team filled with mostly newcomers. Justin Hutson, a Steve Fisher protege, takes over as Fresno head coach, his first year as a head man after spending 20 years on the sidelines as an assistant.
In the early offseason, the Dogs looked like a sure bet to finish somewhere in the top three or four of the MWC in 2018-19, but then stud forward Bryson Williams elected to follow Terry to UTEP, leaving Fresno with only one proven offensive weapon. Deshon Taylor, a 2017-18 1st Team All-MWC member, is that one offensive weapon. Fresno’s offense should revolve around Taylor and his ultra-funky-looking jump shot:
Despite the ugliness of Taylor’s release, he makes a very high percentage of his outside shots (39.2% over his three-year career), which makes for a nice complement to his rim attack game. Taylor will play on and off the ball this year, as he did previously, but will likely need to handle an even bigger load of possessions in his senior season.
Fresno has not been known as a three-point shooting team in recent years, but that could change in 2018-19. Aside from Taylor, returning forward Sam Bittner and transfers Braxton Huggins and Noah Blackwell, all shot around 40% from deep during their last seasons on the court. Bittner fills a stretch-four role on offense and spaces the floor for a potential 4-out, 1-in look. Huggins, a New Mexico State transfer, will be looked upon to provide secondary playmaking alongside Taylor. At NMSU, Huggins proved he could score form all three levels of the floor and should make an immediate impact despite the jump in competition from the WAC to the MWC. Likewise, Blackwell, a Long Beach State import, should be able to provide meaningful minutes in the MWC. Blackwell is primarily a shooting threat on offense, but he’s a point guard by trade, so playing him next to Taylor could make for an intriguing backcourt duo of facilitating and shooting.
Nate Grimes will likely be the Bulldogs’ starting center this season, but he’ll be pushed for minutes by the likes of freshman Assane Diouf and returning big Lazaro Rojas. Grimes’s per 40-minute stats are impressive, and when he was given a chance last season, he shined. Case in point – the big man put up 20 and 12 in 25 minutes against Wyoming on February 3rd. The 6’8” junior’s rebounding rates are off the charts and his block rate is sky high as well. He should be pegged as a potential breakout candidate this season in the MWC.
As for Grimes’s primary backup, Diouf is a 3-star 7-footer with pretty good skill and mobility for his size. At the very least, Diouf should be able to be a formidable post presence on either side of the floor.
Hutson only has one more freshman coming in outside of Diouf: 6’6” wing Aguir Agau. Agau projects as a versatile defender with his impressive leaping ability and 7-foot wingspan. Look for him to make his mark over the next couple years.
Defensively, there’s no reason why Fresno can’t once again be one of the better units in the MWC. Grimes should be one of the best shot blockers in the league, anchoring a perimeter shell that features high steal rate guys in Taylor, Blackwell, and possibly Agau. The Dogs pressed at a top 30 rate last season, something Hutson may choose to continue given SDSU was often wont to show some press of their own.
Bottom Line: Outside of the top couple teams, the Mountain West is pretty wide open. Fresno has as good as shot as most teams to make a push for a top four finish. Having a Conference Player of the Year candidate in Taylor certainly helps this cause, and the incoming transfers should provide enough production to keep the Dogs competitive.
Key Returners: Justin James, Nyaires Redding, Hunter Maldonado
Key Losses: Hayden Dalton, Alex Herndon, Alexander Aka Gorski, Cody Kelley, Louis Adams
Key Newcomers: Trace Young, TJ Taylor, Bradley Belt, Tariq Johnson, Brandon Porter, AJ Banks (JUCO), Lwal Dung (JUCO), Jake Hendricks (JUCO), Hunter Thompson (redshirt)
Outlook: Before we start – shout out to Wyoming’s strength coach, Marcus Edwards. We played Club Ball together at Mizzou... keep up the good work!
Preview time. Wyoming should be one of the more “wild card” teams in the Mountain West this season with the return of an All-League performer offset by a significant loss of production. Allen Edwards (no relation to my bud Marcus up there) came into Laramie two years ago and immediately shook things up, taking Wyoming basketball from a slow, half-court driven offense under Larry Shyatt to an exciting run-and-gun attack. In two seasons under Edwards, the Pokes have ranked 14th and 13th, respectively, in adjusted tempo – Wyoming never finished in the top 320 under Shyatt.
Transition and trey balls are the name of the game for Wyoming. Most possessions last under 15 seconds as the Cowboys look for the first available good look, pushing off the glass and after opponent scores. Interestingly enough, Wyoming isn’t looking to speed up the opposing team on defense, and in fact played nearly a third of their possessions in zone in 2017-18. Once the ball comes off the rim or goes through the hoop though, it’s off to the races.
Senior Justin James, a 6’7” “point wing” and a 2017-18 1st Team All-MWC member, will lead the Pokes this year. James was one of the highest used players in the conference last season and figures to increase that mark in his final season with the loss of key contributors Hayden Dalton and Alex Herndon. James excels at what Edwards aims to do on the floor – he’s great in transition, can handle and facilitate the rock, and score from all three levels.
One statistical oddity last season with James was his three-point percentage. As a sophomore, James knocked down 42.3% of his 111 attempts from the Land of Plenty but hit only 31.2% of his 128 attempts last season. The hope will be for James to right the ship from deep, as the Pokes should launch threes at a top-30 national rate.
Aside from James, Wyoming is a team mostly made up of unknowns. Ny Redding and Hunter Maldonado are the only two major contributors returning to the squad outside of James. Redding, a former Washington State Cougar, should see the lion’s share of the minutes at the point guard spot, assuming ball-handling duties alongside James, who will certainly initiate the offense a fair amount. Redding improved his outside shot last year, but he’ll need to be a more all-around contributor with the depth at PG being so razor thin. Maldonado, a 19-game starter last year, is a promising rising sophomore who’s high on intangibles. His 6’7” frame makes him a tough matchup from the 2 or 3 spot, and he’ll look to build on a solid freshman season and carve out a larger role in the rotation.
That leaves us with all the newcomers. Edwards has been quoted numerous times this offseason praising his incoming class of JUCO transfers and freshmen, saying they all have the essential tools tailor made for Wyoming’s style of play. The JUCO newbies are 6’7 forward Lwal Dung, 6’5” guard Jake Hendricks, and 6’2” point guard AJ Banks. All three should make immediate impacts. Dung can play the 3 or 4 and projects mainly as a defensive stopper and rebounder. Hendricks is a lights-out shooter that set his JUCO’s school record for most three-pointers made in a season a year ago. Banks, another potential defensive stopper and a threat in the pick-n-roll, will serve as the backup PG.
The freshman frontcourt faces include Hunter Thompson (a redshirt last season), Brandon Porter, and Trace Young. Thompson was a 4-star recruit in the class of 2017 and originally committed to Creighton before pledging allegiance to Edwards. He missed all of last year with an ankle injury but should be a key piece in the lineup this season. Porter is a versatile forward that can, like several other newcomers, guard multiple positions on the floor. Young might be the most promising of all the freshmen; like James, Young can handle the ball and be a “point wing” out on the perimeter and his 6’9” frame makes his skillset that more impactful. Look for Young to crack the starting five at some point this season and be a really good MWC player down the road.
TJ Taylor, Bradley Belt, and Tariq Johnson represent the freshman backcourt brigade. Taylor, a 3-star prospect, is a floor spacer that can dribble, pass, and defend multiple spots. Belt, a high school teammate of Porter’s, is a dynamite shooter and scorer, averaging nearly 30ppg as a high school senior. Johnson is already built like a D1 basketball player; he’ll add depth to the wing rotation.
Bottom Line: Coach Edwards has plenty to work with to build a successful basketball team. He already has his star player lined up in James, now all he has to do is make the new pieces fit into his uptempo system. Wyoming is one of those teams that could finish top 4 or bottom 4 in the MWC this year – either way the Pokes will be a highly entertaining team to watch in 2018-19.
8. Colorado State
Key Returners: Deion James, JD Paige, Nico Carvacho, Anthony Bonner
Key Losses: Prentiss Nixon, Che Bob, Raquan Mitchell
Key Newcomers: Kris Martin (Oral Roberts), Hyron Edwards (Texas Tech), Kendle Moore, Adam Thistlewood, Zo Tyson (redshirt)
Outlook: Call him George Jefferson because Niko Medved is movin’ on up! Medved takes over as the new head coach of the Colorado State basketball program, replacing six-year coach Larry Eustachy. The 44-year old Minnesota grad has risen up the coaching ranks fast, spending four years at Furman and one year at Drake before taking the reins in Fort Collins. Medved previously served on the CSU coaching staff under current Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, and now looks to bring a new culture to the Ram program and a return to MWC competitiveness.
Last season was Colorado State’s worst performance since 2009 (under Tim Miles). The Rams finished 10th in the Mountain West and had the dishonorable distinction of sporting the worst defense in the league. Youth and inexperience may have played a role in the decline from a 2016-17 squad that went 24-12, and certainly the loss Gian Clavell (perhaps the best player in the MWC that year) made an enormous impact. This year should be different in the experience realm, as the Rams should start five upperclassmen, and the energy Medved can bring to the program projects positively for the future.
Medved’s teams at Furman and Drake were perimeter oriented and relied on the three-ball and playmaking of a few go-to combo guards to score. CSU’s strength this season, though, will be its frontcourt. Deion James, a former NC A&T Bulldog and the former NJCAA DII Player of the Year, returns for his second and final season in a Ram uniform to man the 4-spot. James could be a dangerous player this year in the MWC after a year of high-major experience under his belt. He had a few scoring outbursts last season, was a top ten conference offensive rebounder by rate, and a pretty good interior defender. Look for him to blossom in his senior year and threaten for a double-double on a nightly occasion.
Nico Carvacho, another nightly double-double threat, returns as the starting five-man. Carvacho was probably CSU’s most valuable player a year ago, leading the MWC in rebounding rate on both ends of the floor and rebounds per game. Offensively, Carvacho demonstrated good footwork in the post and proved to be a cognitive passer and mobile 6’11” center. With James, he’ll form one of the better frontcourt tandems in the conference this season. Here’s Carvacho scoring off a nice pin on Nevada forward Jordan Caroline:
Frontcourt depth was a huge problem for CSU last season, which is why Zo Tyson’s health is crucial in 2018-19. Tyson came in as a highly regarded JUCO recruit last year, but unfortunately didn’t suit up due to an ankle injury. He’ll be relied on to provide key minutes off the bench in a forward role.
On the wing, Medved will run out Kris Martin, a 6’6” junior transfer from Oral Roberts. Martin nearly left CSU in the offseason for Oklahoma but chose instead to stick it out under Medved, which is big news for a Rams team in need of scoring. Martin can be a creator and playmaker on offense and provide solid perimeter defense on the other end. He’ll be backed up by returning wing Lorenzo Jenkins and freshman Adam Thistlewood, both of whom should provide shooting off the pine.
In the backcourt, look for senior JD Paige to get the first crack at the starting point guard spot. Paige was a volume scorer last season (aka he scored a lot of points but his percentages were crap) and missed several games near the end of the year due to injury and suspension. CSU will need Paige to provide consistency on the ball in his final season. If he fails to uphold his duties, look for JUCO transfer Hyron Edwards, a former Texas Tech commit and top 100 high school recruit, to step in. Kendle Moore, a former Drake commit under Medved with Thistlewood, could also be an option at the lead guard spot with his quickness, shooting, and ability to pressure ball handlers.
Anthony Bonner, a 6’2” junior shooting guard, rounds out the Ram rotation. Bonner could be in for a big jump in his third year in Fort Collins – he has a good-looking jumper and a quick first step. Without Nixon in the backcourt, Bonner will be asked to chip in more with the scoring load alongside Paige and Martin.
Bottom Line: Colorado State is a bit of a wild card team in the MWC this year. Offensively, the Rams could be one of the better teams in the conference with their array of talent, improved depth, and coaching change. CSU will have to show it can play defense, though, in order to truly compete near the top of the league. A middle-of-the-pack finish feels about right for Medved in his first season.
9. Utah State
Key Returners: Sam Merrill, Dwayne Brown Jr., Diogo Brito, Quinn Taylor
Key Losses: Koby McEwen, DeAngelo Isby, Alex Dargenton
Key Newcomers: Roche Grootfaam (JUCO), Tauriawn Knight, Ben Fakira, John Knight III (JUCO)
Outlook: Utah State welcomes a new coach into Logan this season as South Dakota’s Craig Smith comes in to replace 3-year headman Tim Duryea. Smith turned the Coyotes into a Summit contender during his 4 years at the helm and now looks to bring the Aggies back to prominence. USU hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since joining the Mountain West back in 2013-14 and was previously a dominant program in the WAC under Stew Morrill.
With the coaching change comes roster turnover as the Aggies lose, among others, their best player from a year ago in point guard Koby McEwen. Replacing his production will likely be Smith’s greatest challenge in his first year as head coach. The prime candidates to start at the empty point guard spot are JUCO import John Knight III and freshman Tauriawn Knight. Knight III is a playmaker on the offensive end and has the ability to elevate in traffic over defenders; on defense, he projects as an intimidating perimeter presence. Freshman Knight is a talented passer and table setter. Both Knights should see plenty of minutes in their first season in Logan.
Not all production was lost this offseason. Sam Merrill, the Aggies’ leading scorer, returns for his junior season looking to expand his ever-developing game into more than just a catch-and-shoot threat. Merrill led all players in MWC play with a scorching 53.4% three-point clip and shot 45.9% overall on the year (25th in the country). He’s already proven to be a money shooter, now we’ll see if Merrill can lead a team in other areas.
Joining Merrill from last year’s squad are senior forward Dwayne Brown Jr. and junior wing Diogo Brito. Brown plays a bit of a point-forward role in that he’s instrumental in breaking full court pressure. His ability to shoot from the outside and drive by defenders makes him a tough matchup at the 4 spot. Brito is a versatile wing that saw his role skyrocket in his second season, starting 23 games and providing consistency on both ends of the floor. Brock Miller, a redshirt freshman that played 5 games last season before going down with a season-ending foot injury, will back up Brown and Brito.
The frontcourt rotation consists of Quinn Taylor, the returning starting 5-man, redshirt sophomore Klay Stall, freshman Ben Fakira, and JUCO import Roche Grootfaam. Taylor is your classic “dirty work” big man, one that grabs boards and “knows his role” within the offensive scheme. Last season, Taylor finished 67% of his shots inside the arc and knocked down 39.4% of them from deep. Fakira, an Australian native, projects as a competent post presence. Grootfaam is nursing a knee injury and may not be ready for the start of the season. If he is, he’ll add toughness inside as a paint bruiser.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of style Smith brings to the Aggies. Last year, USU was a three-point reliant offense that played within the half-court and relied on McEwen to create. At South Dakota, Smith’s squads pushed the pace in transition and attacked the rim via perimeter penetration. With the amount of athleticism USU brings in and returns, the Aggies will be capable of playing an uptempo game and should have a healthy mix of slashing and shooting.
Bottom Line: Word is USU alumni are thrilled with the Craig Smith hire – he brings a fresh start with him to Logan and a high level of energy. It may take a few years for the Aggies to become a perennial MWC contender, but they’re well on their way back to relevance.
10. Air Force
Key Returners: Lavelle Scottie, Ryan Swan, Keaton Van Soelen, Sid Tomes, Pervis Louder, Caleb Morris
Key Losses: Trevor Lyons, Ryan Manning, Frank Toohey, Jacob Van, CJ Siples
Key Newcomers: Your guess is as good as mine…
Outlook: Our site has talked before about the level of difficulty of the Air Force basketball head coaching job. Dave Pilipovich has the deck stacked against him every year with the limitations that come from being a military school in an otherwise normal basketball conference. Given that, Pilipovich has done a pretty good job at the helm of AF, all things considered. The Falcons have consistently been in the bottom tier of the conference, but they’ve always been a competitive bunch capable of a knockout punch.
“Bombs away!” would be an appropriate title to Air Force’s offense, one that focuses on ball movement, clock milking, and the trey ball to score points. Last season, AF shot the 3rd most threes in the MWC, but connected on only 32.5% of their tries, one of the worst marks in the country. Pilipovich’s squads are always unselfish, consistently ranking near the top of A/FGM in the country. They lose their point guard, Trevor Lyons, this year to graduation but the Falcons should still be a team defined by ball movement.
Defensively, Air Force mixes man with a soft zone look. The Falcons were consistently torched from deep last season, but actually forced a fair amount of turnovers. Pilipovich has also been known to deploy a full-court press every now and again, taking advantage of his endless bodies on his bench.
The frontcourt is the best part of the Falcons’ roster and features their two best players, Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan. Scottie is AF’s highest usage player; the 6’7” junior can score from anywhere on the floor, comfortable backing his man down on the block or stroking it from deep. Scottie has a smooth style of play and should be the Falcons’ leader this season on both ends of the floor. Swan is AF’s de facto center, a good rebounder that defends opposing post players. Like Scottie, Swan is a good finisher inside and can also light it up from beyond the arc.
Primary contributors in the backcourt include Keaton Van Soelen, Sid Tomes, and Pervis Louder. Van Soelen is a versatile defender at 6’7” with his ability to guard multiple positions. He was a brick from deep last season on offense, but finished well inside the arc. Tomes is one of the Falcons’ best perimeter defenders, ranking in the top ten in the MWC in steal rate in 2017-18. On offense, Tomes is yet another three-point weapon from the wing. Louder likely takes over point guard duties this season for the departed Lyons. He’s a decent passer, but must improve his shooting and shaky ball handling to help AF stay competitive. Look for Caleb Morris, a 6’4” junior wing, to earn more PT this season. He was one of the more efficient Air Force players last year in limited minutes and can light it up and share ball handling responsibilities.
Bottom Line: Air Force will not win the Mountain West. Pilipovich will have his system working, and he has enough returning talent to be competitive in a lot of conference games, but AF is likely looking at a 10th or 11th place league finish in 2018-19.
11. San Jose State
Key Returners: Oumar Barry, Noah Baumann, Ashtin Chastain, Isaiah Nichols
Key Losses: Ryan Welage, Keith Fisher, Jaycee Hillsman, Jalen James
Key Newcomers: Kaison Hammonds, Seneca Knight, Zach Chappell, Michael Steadman, Brae Ivey, Craig LeCesne, Christian Anigwe
Outlook: If you’re reading this, you’re either a college basketball degenerate, a relative of a current San Jose State team member, or an axe murderer. In any case, thank you, it means a lot.
San Jose State has consistently been one of the worst college basketball programs in the country for about the past 20 years or so. The Spartans have reached three NCAA Tournaments in the school’s 71 seasons, the last one being in 1996. Last year, Jean Prioleau took over as head coach for Dave Wojcik and led the Blue and Gold to a sparkling 4-25 (1-17) record. Four guys transfer from that 2017-18 squad, including leading scorer Ryan Welage, who took his talents to Xavier this offseason. With so much turnover, it’s a pretty safe bet to Sharpie the Spartans into the 11th spot yet again in the MWC standings. The one positive thing about the SJSU’s offseason, though, is the hire of Julius Hodge to the coaching staff – I’m a big fan of that guy.
Honestly, the enormous incoming class isn’t lacking talent, but Prioleau will have to rely heavily on the members of that class for production, which usually doesn’t bode well for a school unless its bringing in top-ranked recruits. One of SJSU’s biggest weaknesses last season was ball handling – the Spartans coughed up the rock more than every other team in the country except for two. Prioleau may have solved that issue long term by bringing in a stable of ball handlers in Kaison Hammonds, Zach Chappell, and Brae Ivey.
Returning sophomore Nai Carlisle might get the early season starting nod at the point, but don’t be surprised to see that fluctuate during the year. Hammonds will likely start somewhere in the lineup, whether at PG or not. The son of NBA player Tom Hammonds, Kaison is a 3-star recruit and a jack-of-all-trades on the offensive end. His shooting range, handle, and defensive instincts could make him a very valuable player for the Spartans this year and down the road. Chappell will definitely carve out a role in the backcourt as well – he’s a bouncy score-first point guard with a deadly shooting stroke.
Wing time will be split amongst Hammonds, freshman Seneca Knight, and returning rotation players Noah Baumann and Isaiah Nichols. Baumann could lead the team in scoring just with his three-point shooting prowess – last season as a freshman, he hit 44.6% of his 83 attempts and ranked 5th in MWC play in 3P%. Knight is an athletic wing that can also handle the rock at 6’6” – he and Hammonds project to be the future of this program (assuming they don’t eventually transfer away).
Inside, Prioleau has several bodies to choose from. Incumbent big men Oumar Barry and Ashtin Chastain figure to split most of the center duties (they rarely play together). Barry is a former DePaul Blue Demon and former opponent / teammate of yours truly at the DePaul Ray Meyer Fitness Center. Barry’s a nice guy, but if he’s your starting center as a D1 basketball program, you may have trouble winning ball games. He’s definitely improved since his DePaul days, but is still just an okay rebounder and shot-blocker (plus that 42% FT clip is gross). Chastain is a big body devoid of any offensive skill. He boards and sometimes blocks shots, and that is his role.
JUCO transfers Craig LeCesne (a former Pepperdine Wave), Michael Steadman, and freshman Christian Anigwe will bolster the interior. LeCesne likely starts at the four; he’s a capable slasher from the perimeter and has the size at 6’9” to guard bigs on the other end.
Bottom Line: SJSU will not be a good team this year, but Jean Prioleau is beginning to build a culture and is bringing in some noteworthy talent. Hopefully in a few years time we’ll be talking about the Spartans as a middling MWC team instead of a bottom feeder.