- Matt Cox
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: Sam Merrill, Utah State
Coach of the Year: Leon Rice, Boise State
Newcomer of the Year: Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
Freshman of the Year: Dischon Thomas, Colorado State
1. Utah State
See full preview here: #24 in our Top 40 countdown
2. San Diego State
Key Returners: Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Nathan Mensah
Key Losses: Jalen McDaniels, Devin Watson, Jeremy Hemsley
Key Newcomers: KJ Feagin, Malachi Flynn, Keshad Johnson, Yanni Wetzell, Trey Pulliam
Outlook: With Nevada on the verge of being overthrown as the Mountain West’s supreme ruler, two of the league’s oldest powers, San Diego State and New Mexico, are each jockeying to reclaim the throne. It all starts with the talent arms race and few are better than Brian Dutcher at reeling in the big fish. As opposed to flexing his muscles on the grassroots trails, he went fishing in the transfer pond and landed two big ‘ol bites in KJ Feagin (Santa Clara) and Malachi Flynn (Washington State). Collectively, this experienced perimeter duo will carry the torch for the Aztecs this season after Jalen McDaniels took his talents to the NBA earlier this summer.
This is actually the second time in three years Dutcher has tapped into the geographically convenient WCC to pluck a proven, veteran guard off the transfer wire. The last two seasons, Devin Watson was the offensive pace-setter for the Aztecs, who now passes the baton to Feagin, another WCC import. A two-time All-Conference performer at Santa Clara, Feagin is a prototypical lead guard who toes the line perfectly between ‘scorer’ and ‘distributor’. Feagin missed all but two games last season with a broken bone in his left hand, but when healthy, his productivity speaks for itself. Surrounding him with established offensive weapons, a luxury he didn’t have at Santa Clara, will allow his true self to shine through – that is, an electric playmaker and table setter for others. He’s a wizard operating in pick-n-roll, far too slippery for most forwards and bigs to corral him off hard hedges, and he routinely locates open shooters and cutters, both in transition and in half court sets.
Much of that same description could be copy-pasted for Flynn, who was forced to run the point in his last season at Washington State, but it’s his deadeye shooting stroke that truly sets him apart from his peers. Sure, the 34% conversion rate from downtown in 2017-18 isn’t anything to boast about, but anyone who followed him at Pullman can attest to how quickly he can heat up. Something tells me Flynn’s heroics back in November of 2017, when he single-handedly dragged Washington State to a stunning 93-86 victory over the Aztecs, got Dutcher’s attention, a game in which Flynn poured in 24 points and dished out 6 assists against a top-30 nationally ranked defense.
While Feagin wasn’t exactly a model of efficiency at Santa Clara, my gut tells me he and Flynn project to be a net upgrade offensively over Watson and Hemsley in the backcourt. Flynn is a much more dynamic offensive threat than Hemsley, who was miscast playing off the ball last year (Hemsley was a non-shooter incapable of diverting defensive attention). This is why Jordan Schakel will once again be paramount to the Aztecs’ offense, a steady and cerebral presence and automatic catch-and-shoot floor spacer. While he isn’t an explosive athlete, his basketball IQ is sharp and it shows on the defensive side of the ball (the Aztecs were 0.08 points per possession better defensively when Schakel was on the floor last year). Rising sophomore Adam Seiko saw his relevance fade into oblivion over the final few weeks of the season, but he could carve out a role as a reliable 3-point sniper off the pine.
Matt Mitchell is back to flank Schakel in Dutcher’s two-wing starting lineup. Both Schakel and Mitchell have sturdy builds, but Mitchell could be confused with a linebacker at 6’6 240 pounds. Many NBA draft scouts had Mitchell on their preseason watch lists, but his nightly production was wildly inconsistent. While he needs to regain his freshman year shooting stroke, his top priority should be finding more ways to leverage his physical frame to get to the free-throw line. Mitchell’s reluctance to exploit smaller, weaker defenders inside was evidenced by a seismic drop-off in his free-throw rate during MWC play. Mitchell attempted only 37 freebies in 18 conference games, which effectively equates to one trip to the charity stripe per game.
I’m still stupefied by how poorly the Aztecs started the season last year and how a team with so much talent could lose to San Diego, Cal and Brown all within a matter of weeks. One of the prevailing excuses was the departure of Justin Hutson to in-conference rival Fresno State, who many thought was the architect of San Diego State’s stifling defenses under Steve Fisher. The Aztecs would eventually tighten up the screws defensively, and the wins started to pile up in February. They knocked off Nevada twice and Utah State once over the final two months of the season, a reassuring sign that their A-game was as good as anyone in the conference.
Still, the Aztec D never reached the elite status routinely achieved under Fisher and the revamped backcourt (Feagin and Flynn) isn’t going to move the needle on this side of the ball (keep in mind that Hemsley was voted to the All-Defensive team last year). Sustaining a top-3 MWC caliber defense will be highly contingent on the maturation of sophomores Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop. Arop crashed the primary rotation party late in the year as a reliable and versatile defensive glue-guy, while Mensah provided back-end support to Jalen McDaniels at the 5. Now entering the launch window of their basketball development curves, both have the individual upside to bloom into defensive disruptors at their respective positions. Mensah’s 7’4 wingspan was a nuisance to opposing drivers last season, so there's reason to believe a high-end outcome of ‘Skyler Spencer 2.0’ is in his future. Nolan Narain is back for what feels like his 10th season in San Diego and Dutcher added Vandy grad transfer Yanni Wetzell to the mix to further bolster the frontline depth.
Bottom Line: San Diego State basketball feels like it’s at a crossroads now entering year 3 of the Brian Dutcher era. In my opinion, the athletic department was wise to cling to the Steve Fisher safety blanket by hiring his lifelong right hand man in Dutcher. That said, last season’s first half debacle was uncharted waters for a fanbase spoiled by Fisher’s lofty success standards for nearly two decades. Dutcher righted the ship before any irreparable damage was done, but local reports of a recent decline in home attendance certainly isn’t an encouraging sign, especially for what I consider to be one of the most electric home courts in all of college basketball.
There’s no need to panic Aztec nation. The crop of talent here still stands above most Mountain West foes, and while the degree of separation is increasingly shrinking, the Aztecs will be the more gifted team on paper in nearly every league matchup this season, save New Mexico. I love the offensive fit of Feagin and Flynn on the perimeter, and remain optimistic Mitchell has another gear he’s yet to tap into, so I’m betting on an offensive bump in 2019-20 while the defense remains solid (though, not elite).
3. Boise State
Key Returners: Justinian Jessup, Derrick Alston, Alex Hobbs, Roderick ‘RJ’ Williams, Marcus Dickinson, Robin Jorch
Key Losses: Zach Haney, David Wacker, Pat Dembley
Key Newcomers: Emmanuel Akot (eligibility pending), Abu Kigab (eligible at semester)
Outlook: Don’t let that 13-20 record deceive you. The Broncos were far more competitive last year than that sub-500 win percentage indicates and while they hobbled to a 7-11 conference record, the advanced metrics dubbed them a fringe top-5 team in the league. Boise had a knack for winding up on the wrong side of the scoreboard in just about every coin flip game last season, and while part of that is attributable to poor late game execution, Lady Luck clearly had it out for the Broncos.
The only notable losses, Zach Haney and David Wacker, are bigger in height and weight than they are in actual impact. As much as I loved Haney, a grizzled post-up presence inside, his departure paves the way for a new and improved identity to shine through in 2020. The current roster shapes up to be an army of multi-positional troops, coming in the form of bigger guards and hybrid wings / forwards. For the exception of Robin Jorch, just about everyone who will crack the rotation this year possesses the skill and physical makeup to create offensive mismatches.
Returning All-Conference performer Justinian Jessup embodies this package, a hyper-skilled wing at 6’6 who is lethal from downtown. He’s a career 40% 3-point shooter, but has incrementally added to his offensive game over the past three years. As cited in an offseason report in the Idaho Press, the strides Jessup made last year while enduring lingering pain for much of the season is a testament to his toughness - he’ll be a gamechanger once again in 2020. Fellow All-Conference award winner Derrick Alston is back in action, a 6’8 dynamic 3-level scorer who took the league by storm last year. You won’t find a more underappreciated perimeter pair than Marcus Dickinson and Alex Hobbs, two plus-sized guards who consistently play a steady floor game and are automatic from the charity stripe.
The real wildcard is 6’7 RJ Williams, a former JUCO standout who Rice hoped would be a quick fix solution to replace Chandler Hutchinson on the wing last season. Williams entered Boise as a top-15 JUCO prospect, but recurring injuries derailed any sort of momentum once conference play rolled around. In the non-con portion of the schedule, two performances against Creighton and Grand Canyon stood out in particular, in which Williams abused weaker and less physical frontlines with bruising post-ups and short to mid-range drives. What Williams lacks in vertical height, he makes up for in precise footwork, a tenacious pursuit of the rim, and an uncanny finishing touch from a multitude of angles.
Speaking of wildcards, the Broncos were dealt a pair of ‘Jokers’ with the additions of two former top-100 recruits Emmanuel Akot (Arizona) and Abu Kigab (Oregon). Kigab’s eligibility status has already been determined (set to return at the beginning of second semester), but Akot’s readiness remains up in the air. Few teams in America will receive a talent injection as potent as Akot and Kigab, so bear in mind that the Broncos could look a whole lot different in January than at the start of the season.
If you thought I was done with wildcards, you were wrong! According to some local reports, Chicago native RayJ Dennis could be thrust into the primary rotation from day 1. The Broncos seem to have a minor blank space in the individual, isolation shot creation department, and Dennis has that innate ability to go get his own off the dribble. I would not be surprised to see his name emerge in the starting lineup at some point this season.
With the roster depleted of big time muscle inside, I’m anxious to see how Rice alters his defensive tendencies to maximize the impact of all the position-less athleticism. Rice has always been partial to mixing in some zone schemes and his timing on pulling that trigger is what makes it so effective. On two specific occasions last year against Colorado State and Nevada, I witnessed that zone audible work to perfection. Personally, I’d prefer to see the Broncos shift to a more switchable man-to-man defensive approach, but Rice should continue to use that zone as an ‘ace up his sleeve’ when opposing offenses get into a groove.
Bottom Line: Position-less fluidity is the defining trait of this roster, with Jorch sticking out like a sore thumb next to the stable of guards, wings and forwards. Rice should double-down on that versatility in 2020 and with so much proven production back in the fold, along with a well-timed insertion of two 4-star transfers (Kigab and Akot), Boise is in store for one of the biggest turnarounds in America from a win-loss improvement lens. Competition is fierce at the upper-end of the MWC totem pole, but don’t be surprised to see Boise nipping on the heels of reigning conference champ Utah State by next March.
4. New Mexico
Key Returners: Vance Jackson, Carlton Bragg, Makuach Maluach, Corey Manigault, Keith McGee, Drue Drinnon
Key Losses: Anthony Mathis, Dane Kuiper
Key Newcomers: JaQuan Lyle, Zane Martin, JJ Caldwell, Vante Hendrix (eligible at semester)
Outlook: Sigh, shame on me and my stubborn belief in Paul Weir as an unflappable coaching mastermind, capable of curing any and all personnel defects with the simple wave of a wand. To be clear, I’m still a staunch believer that Weir is a razor sharp coaching tactician, but last year’s free fall into MWC irrelevancy was a teensy bit concerning. The Lobos effectively regressed in Weir’s second season in Albuquerque, as I routinely donated money to my bookie by way of betting (and losing) on New Mexico.
However, the buzz surrounding this 2019-20 Lobos squad is so palpable, not even Jon Rothstein can overhype it. Weir has shifted his player sourcing approach to the ‘external hire’ model, opting to compile a batch of ultra-talented defectors from other schools.
Former transfers Vance Jackson and Carlton Bragg will now be joined by the next wave of transfer talent in combo guard Zane Martin (Towson), rangy lead guard JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State) and 6’1 dynamo JJ Caldwell (Texas A&M). While background checks on both Lyle and Caldwell don’t return stellar reviews from a maturity perspective, there’s no denying what they can do on the basketball court. I got a chance to watch Lyle play before he took his talents to Ohio State at a high school showcase in St. Louis and I instantly fell head over heels for his smooth-operating fluidity at the point guard position. His crafty creation ability was on full display in his first two seasons in Columbus, where he became a human highlight reel with his jaw-dropping dribble-and-dish sequences. While his Buckeyes were stuck in the mud hovering around .500, Lyle quietly improved his outside jumper, and checked in with the highest 3PT% in the Big Ten in 2017.
A fascinating dynamic will be how Weir shares the ball handing and offensive initiation responsibilities between Lyle and Martin. Lyle has always been a ball dominant lead guard, who loves to probe the defense with the rock in his hands. The problem is that there’s only one basketball on the floor at any given time, and Lyle will now have to rub elbows with one of the most trigger-happy guards in the country in Martin, who ranked 25th nationally in usage rate and 8th nationally in shot attempt rate two years ago at Towson. Granted, the key word in that last sentence is ‘Towson’, a place where Martin had every right to chuck with no restrictions. So, while on paper it seems like there could be substantial friction in the backcourt, I think both are malleable enough to play with and without the ball - the question is are they both willing to share the rock.
While the guards are being infused with some fresh blood, the wings and forwards will for the most part be the same cast of characters as last year. 6’7 Makuach Maluach will be the biggest beneficiary of the Martin, Lyle and Caldwell influx, a prototypical ‘3-and-D’ wing who had his role stretched last season during New Mexico’s season-long skid. I’m not a qualified NBA draft assessor, but Maluach is oozing with potential. Maluach’s length and defensive instincts are impressive, so as long as he can fine tune his outside jumper and compile a more robust array of offensive counter moves, a long professional basketball career seems to be in his future.
I’ve seen some folks project Maluach coming off the bench, but I sincerely hope Weir doesn’t try to force Caldwell into the starting lineup at the expense of Maluach’s role comfort and familiarity. Caldwell is no doubt talented, but his services may be best used as a super-sub off the bench, given Maluach’s game projects to be more consistent now entering his third full collegiate season. It’s also worth mentioning that Zane Martin reportedly suffers from asthma, so Caldwell will be needed to spell him from time to time, especially if Weir wants to keep his foot on the gas offensively and extend pressure all over the floor defensively.
Other notable returners include Drue Drinnon and Keith McGee, a forgotten pair of glue guys who seem to be overshadowed by the marquee transfer names. Drinnon is much more capable than his sporadic minutes indicate, but it won’t be easy to crack the rotation this year with such a crowded compilation of top-flight talent on the perimeter. McGee should remain a key cog in the rotation, but like Drinnon, will have his work cut out for him to stay ahead of the newcomers, despite starting 12 games at point last season as a sophomore.
When you factor in the big boys up front, Jackson, Bragg and Corey Manigault, the Lobos’ size and strength is simply overwhelming across all five positions (imagine a potential lineup combination of Jackson, Bragg, Maluach, Martin and Lyle). On the surface, this should translate into a devastating defensive unit, but Weir nearly lost his mind trying to push the right buttons on defense last year. As a devout believer in high-pressure, man-to-man defense, Weir was forced to throw the baby out with bathwater about midway through last season and implemented a brand new zone scheme. For context, New Mexico played zone on 40% of all defensive possessions last season (40th highest rate in the country) and continued to extend pressure well beyond the timeline, pressing on 31% of all defensive possessions (8th highest rate in the country). This acceptance of zone had some initial success (see wins over Air Force and Nevada to start the conference season), but it never panned out as a long-term solution and the Lobos checked in with a mediocre 6th ranked defensive unit in the MWC last year.
Bottom Line: As much as I love Weir and this roster on paper, I can’t seem to shake the collective chemistry concerns hovering over this team. Anthony Mathis was unquestionably the most electric and efficient offensive option last season, yet ranked 3rd and 6th on his own team in percentage of shots taken and usage rate, respectively. If shot allocation issue was a lingering problem last year, I’m not sure inputting three high-usage scorers in the backcourt all at once is the best remedy. That’s not even considering the reputational baggage Lyle and Caldwell each carry from their last stops, both of whom were cancerous to their prior locker rooms and are labeled by some as “me-first” guys.
That said, I’m placing a helluva lot more stock in the simple fact that there isn’t a more talented roster in the league top-to-bottom. Four of the primary contributors are former top-100 recruits, and that doesn’t even include Martin, arguably the most established commodity in the core rotation. From everything I’ve read this summer, Martin and Lyle appear to be all hunky-dory and have bonded as best buds off the floor. Hopefully this honeymoon phase withstands the test of time, particularly when the first signs of adversity set in.
Key Returners: Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew (missed all of last season), Nisre Zouzoua
Key Losses: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Tre'Shawn Thurman, Jordan Brown
Key Newcomers: Jalen Harris, Eric Parrish, Johncarlos Reyes
Outlook: From the ‘Mussel-man’ to the man who was muscled out of town. Eric Musselman and his shirt-shredding ways bolted for a new challenge in America’s heartland (Arkansas), parting the seas for none other than longtime Mountain West tenant Steve Alford, who was pushed out of Westwood by an increasingly antsy UCLA fanbase. Musselman’s departure was a well-timed sinora with the Wolfpack’s senior-laden transfer core from last season all graduating, which leaves a fresh slate for Alford to rewrite a new chapter in his coaching memoirs.
On Jon Rothstein's podcast earlier this summer, Alford cited his recruiting pitch to former 5-star freshman Jordan Brown, who he hoped would return as the focal point of Nevada’s offense. Putting myself in Brown’s shoes, this seemed like it would be an enticing proposal, especially after being buried behind the likes of Trey Porter, Tre'Shawn Thurman and Jordan Caroline last season. Unfortunately, Brown didn't bite and Alford was left with an enormous vacancy in the front court, forcing him to seek part-time help on the transfer wire. Alford went all the way to the east coast to find a proven post-up presence, where he nabbed Johncarlos Reyes from Boston College on a one-year rental. Reyes' is nothing more than a big-bodied minutes eater, but he could play a sneaky critical role as a likely back-up to the more lean, more skilled redshirt freshman KJ Hymes. 6'9 true freshman Zane Meeks will also be in the mix, but all accounts point to Hymes being the day-1 starter at the 5.
Regardless of how Alford shuffles the minutes in the frontcourt, it's abundantly clear that he'll have to lean on a faster, quicker, smaller lineup this season and let the perimeter troops carry the load. Luckily, he inherits a formidable rebuild starter kid coming in the form of a now healthy Lindsey Drew (a lockdown defender and serviceable offensive creator who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury), along with Jazz 'the human microwave' Johnson and Louisiana Tech import Jalen Harris.
Assuming Drew is back to full strength, Wolfpack fans know what they’re getting with the Drew and Johnson duo. Harris, on the other hand, is the real conundrum, who had a stellar freshman campaign before abruptly leaving the team just 11 games into his sophomore season. If Harris is mentally bought in to the process, I have no doubts he’ll be an immediate asset as the third prong in the supposed to be perimeter triumvirate (Drew / Johnson / Harris). When asked about his odd-timed departure in a local report back in January 2018, Harris simply said “it wasn’t the right fit for me”. He gushed about the transfer-friendly culture Nevada had established, and how he felt primed for success under the Musselman regime. I can’t help but wonder if Harris’ psyche isn’t at least a little bit shook with the sudden coaching swap, but I’ll table any bearish speculation for now. All I know is that he’s a blur off the bounce and an explosive leaper, which culminates in highlight reel throw down like this:
Harris and Johnson will provide plenty of fireworks for the Reno faithful as a high-octane scoring duo flanking Drew at the point, but it’s Eric Parrish, the reigning Louisiana JUCO Player of the Year, who I see as the real X-factor for the Wolfpack this year. Parrish is a college hoops journeyman, with pit stops at both Akron and TCU before settling at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana last season. His production on the JUCO circuit was bonkers, posting 18 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 1 block per game average while shooting 54% from the field. Parrish will be a weapon as a positional small-ball 4, but he’s got the handle and guard instincts to slide down the line up if Alford opts to throw out two true bigs at the 4 and the 5. The only minor hole in his offensive arsenal is long range shooting, as Parrish knocked down just 32% from distance last season. However, an 87% conversion rate from the charity stripe is a blinking red light which indicates a spike in that 3-point shooting clip is well within grasp.
A fun subplot worth calling attention to is Alford's reunion with his longtime Chief of Staff Craig 'Noodles' Neal. Once upon a time, Alford and Neal had the Pit rockin’ in Albuquerque, fueled by a suffocating defense that routinely smothered conference foes whenever they came to town. I know it’s been a while, but there was actually a time when Steve Alford's reputation wasn't characterized as ‘apathetic towards defense’:
Quick Tangent! Remember that absurd 2006 Northwestern upset over Iowa, made famous by this redonkulous step back buzzer beater?
Interestingly enough, that was Alford's best team during his Iowa tenure, which finished the year as kenpom's top-ranked overall defense.
Bottom Line: Alford and Neal's return to the Mountain West bodes well for the Wolfpack’s near and long-term outlook, a tandem who knows the conference terrain as well as anyone in the league (Neal has over a decade of coaching experience in the MWC, six of which were alongside Alford). From both an external scouting perspective and an internal operations perspective, Alford and Neal's combined experience and familiarity working together alleviates the first year turbulence most programs typically experience immediately following a coaching change. While they got a late start on the 2019 recruiting cycle, Harris and Parrish are big time talents with multiple years of Division-1 experience under their belts.
Johnson (shoulder) and Drew (achilles / hip) were both just recently cleared to practice, so there’s certainly some health concerns there, but Nisre Zouzoua, a forgotten member of the Musselman transfer invasion, is a solid security blanket. While depth is the obvious question mark this season, Alford has enough ammo in the top-6 of his rotation to keep the Pack competitive in his first year at the helm.
6. Fresno State
Key Returners: Nate Grimes, Noah Blackwell, New Williams
Key Losses: Braxton Huggins, DeShon Taylor, Sam Bittner
Key Newcomers: Chris Seeley, Orlando Robinson, Jordan Campbell (eligible at semester), Niven Hart, Jarred Hyder, Anthony Holland
Outlook: Justin Huston skipped the obligatory ‘transitional year’ or ‘retooling phase’ in his first season on the sidelines in Fresno, leaning on two do-everything guards (Braxton Huggins and DeShon Taylor) and his own defensive wizardry to propel the Bulldogs to a 23-win season. While postseason plans were canceled after some soul-crushing league losses, the Bulldogs’ played like a top-75 team all year long and checked in at 71st overall in kenpom.com’s national rankings when the season concluded - this marked the highest finish of any Fresno State team since the Jerry Tarkanian days.
Also, for those that tuned into the San Diego State horror story for the first two months of the season, there’s reason to believe Hutson’s absence was as detrimental to the Aztecs as it was beneficial to the Bulldogs. This just serves as a another piece of evidence that Hutson knows what he’s doing with the clipboard.
Hutson’s coaching chops will be tested again in year 2, as he must find a way to replace the insane production of his dynamic backcourt duo (Taylor and Huggins), along with sharpshooting specialist Sam Bittner. Collectively, this trio went scorched earth from long distance last season, as few teams in America did more damage with the 3-ball than the Bulldogs.
As deadly as that trio was, Noah Blackwell actually has the rightful claim to ‘top 3-point shooter on the team’ after leading the Mountain West in 3PT% during conference play (33/74). His running mate will be part-time starter New Williams, who also canned 52 triples last season. With those two returning, there’s still a fair amount of long range marksmanship left on the roster, but the sheer presence of Taylor and Huggins on the floor is what shielded most of the defensive attention away from Blackwell, Williams and Bittner, which in turn led to an abundance of wide open, catch-and-shoot looks from the outside.
Finding those uncontested windows will be far more difficult this season with Blackwell likely to slide over to the full-time point guard spot and defenses now able to key in on Blackwell and Williams. Hutson thought he was receiving some additional guard assistance with homegrown talent and LSU grad transfer Daryl Edwards, but he ultimately landed at UTEP. This means more burn could be in the cards for Aguir Agau, a lanky 6’7 wing who played brilliantly in short stints during the Mountain West tournament.
No matter how bullish you are on the backcourt crew, there’s no denying Fresno will have some soul-searching to do offensively without Huggins and Taylor, which will make the Bulldogs highly leveraged on their ability to get stops defensively. On this end last year, Taylor was a human vice grip, well regarded as one of the premier ball stoppers in the Mountain West, while Huggins was a plus perimeter defender in his own right. Though, as pesky as the Huggins / Taylor duo at heating up the ball, I wouldn’t bet on the Bulldogs defense curtailing too much. Most of that confidence is rooted in my belief in the institutional success Hutson has established as a defensive professor, but he also has an interior safety valve in Nate Grimes back in the fold.
After a promising sophomore campaign in 2017-18, Grimes’ stock rose faster than Bitcoin in 2012. As an underclassmen, he was a monster in limited spurts off the bench, but he maintained that high rate of productivity over more minutes last season. His 19 point, 19 rebound performance against New Mexico, who boasts a Power-6 conference caliber frontline, immediately comes to mind, a night in which he owned the airspace around both rims.
As I’m writing this preview on August 5th, the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the newcomers is staggering. The Edwards backfiring likely moves Oregon State transfer Jordan Campbell into starter contention, while redshirt freshman Assane Diouf could also crack the top-5 if Hutson decides to slide Grimes down to the 4. Utah import Chris Seeley gives Hutson another rangy athletic forward, and he too could be inserted in the starting lineup, depending on how Hutson shakes up the rotations.
At this juncture, it’s hard to pinpoint which of these new faces will make the biggest splash, but I’ll circle one name in particular that’s captured some recent buzz: Niven Hart. From what I gather, this dude has springboard bounce and he’s essentially eye-level with the rim in every dunk in his highlight mixtape. Brian Snow, a basketball recruiting analyst at 247sports.com, confirmed his unrivaled athleticism, but also cited some notable growth areas within his offensive skill set:
“An elite, elite athlete who has a developing jumper ... [He] has improved as a catch-and-shoot guy, and also is showing his explosion attacking with dribbles off the bounce. While his offensive game is continuing to come around, [he] remains a very high potential defender and someone who can really rebound from the guard spot.”
Bottom Line: The Justin Huston variable is a big factor in why I think Fresno stays near the middle of the Mountain West pack, even sans Huggins and Taylor. Just for context, those two accounted for over 40% of all Fresno’s shots last year and just under 44% of total points. That’s a big well of scoring to replenish, but Grimes is ready to become the alpha, while a refurbished backcourt should hold the fort steady on the perimeter.
7. Colorado State
Key Returners: Nico Carvacho, Kris Martin, Adam Thistlewood, Kendle Moore, Hyron Edwards
Key Losses: JD Paige, Anthony Masinton-Bonner
Key Newcomers: Dischon Thomas, David Roddy, PJ Byrd
Outlook: I challenge you to find someone as high as we here at 3MW are on Niko Medved. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat at Furman, and performed that same magic trick in his most recent pit stop at Drake. Unfortunately, Mr. Medved and the Rams limped out of the starting gate last season, as a 5-10 start ultimately doomed the inaugural season in Fort Collins.
Look underneath the hood and you’ll find that the offense was sneaky surgical, though. The Rams ranked in the top-100 nationally in almost every type of play, per Synergy’s ‘Play Style’ breakdown:
The green shaded landscape in the far right column is where you should direct your attention. The Rams’ immaculate offensive balance made them so tough to scout and prepare for. There isn’t one specific set play or action you can key in on, as Medved routinely mixes it up to keep defenses on their heels.
The challenge will be sustaining that offensive precision with a brand new batch of guards. The backcourt will be owned and operated by ‘Moore, Martin and Edwards LLC’ (Kendle Moore, Kris Martin and Hyron Edwards). Efficient freshman point guards aren’t grown on trees, but Medved found one in Moore, a sound initiator and savvy finisher, despite his smaller frame (5’10, 145-pounds). Martin’s a lengthy 6’4 guard / wing blend who can fill it up and find others, while Edwards showed to be flammable during brief spurts last year. Edwards is a big time talent, which nominates him for this year’s 'X-Factor’.
Adam Thistlewood, ‘the Baby Faced Assassin’ likely resumes his spot at the quasi-4 position, a crafty 6’6 wing who can drill it from distance. With human basketball vacuum Nico Carvacho patrolling the paint down low…
… Medved can prioritize shooting over rebounding at the other forward spot, precisely why Thistlewood fits in nicely next to Carvacho. Additional frontline muscle is on the way in a pair of stud freshman prospects, Dischon Thomas and David Roddy, who headline one of the league’s top recruiting classes. Roddy is built like an ox and should make an impact of some kind this season, but Thomas is the horse you want to bet on for the Rams’ best breakout candidate.
What will ultimately separate Thomas, Roddy or any one of the other newcomers from the crowd, is a commitment to defending, an emphasis that was not apparent at times last season. Despite having two members of the All-Defensive team in Carvacho and Paige, the Rams’ defense graded out as 3rd worst in the Mountain West last season. Even with a rebounding robot in Carvacho, the Rams were merely pedestrian as a team on the glass, checking in at 6th in defensive rebounding rate during league play. Playing two freshmen big time minutes (Thistlewood and Moore) probably didn’t help matters, but my attention will be diverted to Thomas, specifically in how well he can protect the rim and support Carvacho up front.
Bottom Line: For coaches I devoutly believe in, years 2-3 are when I expect to see noticeable improvements. While I have CSU slotted in the heart of Tier 2, the separation between the Rams and the bottom of Tier 1 isn’t that far, a resounding vote of confidence for Medved and this nice mix of established performers and youthful talent.
Key Returners: Amauri Hardy, Chiekh Mbacke Diong, Bryce Hamilton
Key Losses: Shakur Juiston, Kris Clyburn, Joel Ntambwe, Noah Robotham
Key Newcomers: Donnie Tillman*, Elijah Mitrou-Long, Vitaliy Shibel, Jonah Antonio
*As of 7/29, Tillman is expected to receive a waiver, which would allow him to play immediately
Outlook: Since the UNLV Athletic Department opted to remove Marvin Menzies of his head coaching duties in March, the Runnin’ Rebel roster deck of cards has been reshuffled 10 times over, leaving new sheriff in town, TJ Otzelberger, left to play ‘52 pickup’. Many of the players were caught off guard by the Menzies firing, prompting them to pack up and head for greener pastures. With only a few contributors choosing to stay loyal to the new regime, Otz already has his hands tied as he prepares for this inaugural campaign in the desert.
“At this point, we haven’t had enough guys to go 5-on-5,” he said in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun. “I think more than anything, we’ve learned that it’s a group that wants to continue to get better. They have really embraced player development.”
With so much still in flux, Otz will call upon Amauri Hardy to be the offensive engine this season. With the departure of veteran floor general Noah Robotham (Sorry Mr. Boston) and All-Conference caliber guard Kris Clyburn, Hardy now moves into the driver’s seat. Despite playing in a rather chaotic and unstructured system last year - I would consider Menzies’ more of ‘hands off coach’ - Hardy did not fall prey to careless decision making or poor shot selection. Instead, he elevated his game in all phases and shined the brightest against the stiffest competition. While my initial inclination is rather cynical on teams with first year head coaches, having a sound lead guard in place typically alleviates a lot of the transition turbulence.
Hardy is primed to thrive in Otz spread offense, which aims to dot the 3-point arc with an array of shooters. Last season at South Dakota State, 21% of all offensive possessions ended with pick-n-roll action, the 43rd highest rate in the country, per Synergy. Elijah Mitrou-Long steps into replace Clyburn as Hardy’s primary running mate in the backcourt, another adept offensive initiator with extensive experience operating in pick-n-roll (both at Mount St. Mary’s and last year at Texas under Shaka Smart’s PnR-centric offense). The former Longhorn was in for a rude awakening last year when he took the gargantuan step up in competition from the NEC to the SEC, as his efficiency plummeted against longer and more athletic defenders. Thus, I’d be more comfortable having Hardy run the show and reducing Long to more of a floor-spacing shooter.
With how much Coach Otz’ offense is predicated on spreading the floor to create drive and kick action, a premium will be placed on outside shooting in the battle for minutes amongst the incumbents and newcomers. This bodes well for Jonah Antonio (top-100 JUCO prospect) and Vitaliy Shibel (Ukranian-born grad transfer from Arizona State), both of whom are touted as deadeye shooters from behind the arc. Competition for minutes on the wing will be fierce when you factor in two rotational pieces from last season, Nick Blair and Bryce Hamilton, but all of the aforementioned names will stand in line behind UNLV transfer Donnie Tillman, assuming he is deemed eligible by the NCAA. Last year’s Pac-12 6th Man of the Year is a bonafide stat-sheet stuffer, a versatile defender and plus rebounder at his position, who also cashed in on 42% of his trey balls during league play. If he’s cleared for combat from Day 1, there’s no question he immediately becomes one of Otzelberger’s key cogs in the rotation.
Otz has somewhat of a shaky track record when it comes to designing an effective defense, apart from the fact that he was undoubtedly hamstrung with mediocre athletes at his former stop. We routinely cited (and confirmed with Mike Daum himself at the Final Four in March) the annoyance with his zone trial period back in 2017-18, during which the Jackbunnies looked like human manikins on defense. However, this botched experiment was short lived and, to Otz’ credit, he made the proper adjustments in a timely manner (which resulted in an immediate improvement).
The difference now is that he’s armed with two supreme shot swatters inside, Chiekh Mbacke Diong and Cheickna Dembele, to insert at the 5 position, both of whom are far more intimidating as interior backstops than Daum was. It will be curious to see if and how he redesigns his typical defensive structure, but I don’t expect a drastic change, given that Otz’ most frequently used lineup projects to be perimeter-oriented with four guards / wings surrounding Diong inside.
Bottom Line: With all the wins Otzelberger has racked up on the recruiting trail this season, UNLV fans are already looking ahead to 2020-21. As for the immediate future, I’m most interested in assessing the stylistic transition from Menzies, especially with a roster that’s slowly starting to look more and more like the teams Otz constructed at South Dakota State (more shooting, lesser athletes). I’m a big time believer in Hardy and I think he’s primed to go gangbusters under Otzelberger’s tutelage, but there aren’t enough proven commodities around him to lead me to believe UNLV can compete at the top of the MWC totem pole - next season, I will surely be signing a different tune.
9. Air Force
Key Returners: Ryan Swan, Lavelle Scottie, AJ Walker, Caleb Morris, Sid Tomes, Chris Joyce, Keaton Van Soelen
Key Losses: Pervis Louder, Ameka Akaya
Key Newcomers: None
Outlook: Despite clocking in at 243rd overall in kenpom.com’s overall rankings last year, Air Force managed to claw their way up to 6th place in the MWC standings. By the numbers, it was the Falcons worst overall team on a net efficiency basis since 2014, yet it was their best Mountain West finish since Pilipovich first took over in 2012-13.
I vividly remember the two week stretch in mid-January when the Falcons strung together four strong outings: a convincing 14-point home win over San Diego State, a shellacking of UNLV (106-88), a feisty performance at Nevada (led by 6 early in 2nd half in Reno) and another double-digit victory over Boise State. Throw in the 3-point win at Fresno a month later and you can see why Air Force enters the 2020 campaign with lofty expectations.
Constrained by high military academy standards, Pilipovich understands he’s never going to ‘out-talent’ his competition. But what his teams lack in size and athleticism, they double down on intelligence and cohesiveness. The shines through brightly on the offensive side of the ball, where the Falcons run one of the more nuanced offenses in the Mountain West. In years past, this emulated the traditional Princeton offense but Pilipovich made a slight adjustment to his foundational system last season. This quote from the Albuquerque Journal on the eve of the 2018-19 campaign revealed Pilipovich’s planned alterations:
“More cutting and screening,” Pilipovich said. “In the Princeton, you don’t set a lot of screens.”
With two lethal inside-out mismatches in Ryan Swan and Lavelle Scottie, I don’t blame Pilipovich for opening up the offense for more individualistic freedom. At 6’7, both Swan and Scottie are balanced scorers, each adept at scoring inside (post-ups or mid-range drives) and out (pick-n-pop and relocation jumpers). Both were deserving All-Conference award winners last season, but their inability to produce against top-flight competition doomed Air Force’s chances at climbing higher in the MWC standings. There was no better example than the last game of the season – Fresno’s stifling defense completely shut down Swan and Scottie, limiting them to just 21 combined points and turning them over 8 total times. The challenge for Lottie and Swan stepping up in competition is a microcosm of Air Force’s lifelong destiny, a program that will almost always be at a talent and athletic disadvantage when facing upper tier competition.
Rising sophomore AJ Walker upshifted the Falcon’s perimeter speed gear last season, a major reason why Pilipovich cited that boost in athleticism prior to last season. Much like his frontcourt counterparts Swan and Lottie, Walker also had his struggles against stiffer competition but it’s abundantly clear he’s got the chops to break out in a big way this season. The lesser known Keaton van Soelen is another multi positional swing man, who Pilipovich declared the most versatile player on the roster in last summer’s Blue Ribbon edition. His consistency just hasn’t been there and he HAS to get stronger to become a viable defender against MWC-caliber forwards, but his 16-point performance at conference champion Utah State last year is proof that he’s capable of having moments. Until his night-to-night impact stabilizes, I’d expect Pilipovich to continue utilizing him as an occasional spark off the bench. With Van Soelen stuck in a rut over the final month of the season, Ameka Akaya pounced on the opportunity to seize significant bench minutes, so his abrupt departure this summer (all I know is that he’s no longer on the roster) will sting more than it might appears on paper.
Take note of the quotations around “big” in the last sentence. The Falcons have no one standing taller than 6’7 so whether Pilipovich plays Lottie and Swan together at the 4 and 5, respectively, out of necessity or out of intent, the effect remains the same: the offensive flexibility upside is often outweighed by the lack of a defensive stopgap inside. Pilipovich tries to counter the interior soft spot by retreating into a shell defensively, which takes the form of an ultra-conservative, switch-heavy, man-to-man scheme (with a dose of zone here and there). This also gives the outer layer of the shell an extra split second to slide their feet and stay in front of quicker drivers on the attack. The off-guard trio of Caleb Morris, Sid Tomes and Chris Joyce are all solid, cerebral players but their lateral burst certainly doesn’t jump off the page.
Bottom Line: The almighty ‘Matt eye test’ loved what it witnessed last year with the Falcons, and I have no reason to believe the 2019-20 rendition will look all that different. Offensively, the motion offense is always harmonious with Pilipovich as the conductor, but there’s some legit individual talent here as well. Pilipovich’s teams will never be terrifying defensively, but the offense has enough spark to push the Falcons to their first .500 conference record since 2012-13.
Key Returners: Hunter Maldonado, Jake Hendricks, Hunter Thompson
Key Losses: Justin James
Key Newcomers: Tyler Morman, Bradley Belt, Kwane Marble
Outlook: From the vantage point of a self-proclaimed degenerate college hoops handicapper, few teams drove me up a wall more than Wyoming last season. I don't know a damn thing about the training and medical staff over there in Laramie, but I'd like to personally lobby for a 20% raise on their behalf. With the slew of injuries that crippled the Cowboys last year, these folks HAD to have worked overtime and weekends just to field a 5-man roster on a nightly basis...
The injury plague forced head coach Allen Edwards to make some uncharacteric stylistic adjustments to the Nth extreme:
Now the 3rd component of that story, offensive rebounding, doesn't appear all that compelling at first glance, but the magnitude in which he basically went from, "hey guys, when you see the shot go up, get back on defense" to "the moment you see a ball head anywhere near the rim, put your head down and run to the other end like your hair is on fire". The Cowboys had the lowest offensive rebounding rate in the country by nearly 3% points, a precipitous gap between the next closest ‘contender’.
With Wyoming's training room resembling a Chernobyl ICU, Justin James was left on an island. In college basketball, there's impact players. Then there's go-to-guys. Then there's do-everything guys. And then there's Justin James. James was an Iron Man on steroids, playing the 2nd most minutes of any player in the country, while doing everything except drive the bus. There were so few possessions in which he wasn't on the court, there's no use in looking at the advanced on / off numbers, but statistics aren't needed to prove James' worth. Without him, it's a mystery as to what Wyoming basketball will look like, but at least there's some pockets of competence left on the roster. Jake Hendricks is the lone upperclassmen, who will be the de-facto leader responsible for bringing along a deep sophomore class comprised of Trevon Taylor, Hunter Maldonado, Hunter Thompson, Brandon Porter and Austin Mueller.
None of the newcomers stand head and shoulders above the rest, but Tyler Morman was a key rotational piece for one of the top JUCO programs in the nation last year, Florida Southwest. Edwards thinks he has a chance to be immediately inserted into the frontcourt rotation if his rebounding production translates. Bradley Belt is another sleeper to keep an eye on, a former 3-star power guard / wing power hybrid who redshirted last season, and Kwane Marble is an enticing 6’6 lead guard who could blossom into a mini Justin James someday down the road.
Bottom Line: The Cowboys are a mystery box for 2019-20, with an amalgamation of players with no clearly defined roles or responsibilities. There are some natural positional fits, but developing chemistry last season was essentially impossible with the lineup uncertainty game-to-game, and few teams leaned on a single player more than Wyoming did James last year.
As paramount as James was, I actually have the Pokes rated a slight tick above where they crossed the finish line last year. There was just nothing Allen could do to stop the literal bleeding, which manifested in an unprecedented set of circumstances that I just don’t see haunting the Cowboys again in 2019-20.
11. San Jose State
Key Returners: Brae Ivey, Seneca Knight, Craig LeCesne
Key Losses: Michael Steadman, Noah Baumann, Oumar Barry
Key Newcomers: Richard Washington, Sam Japhet-Mathias
Outlook: With San Jose State basketball, the question is never "will they be bad?" - rather, it's "how bad will they be?" As my colleague Ky cited in last year's preview, the Spartans have been the Mountain West's punching bag since joining the league in 2013. Before then, they were consistently 'below the Mendoza line' in the WAC, but last year the program hit rock bottom. The Spartans had a 'banner year' in 2015-16, finishing inside the top-250 in kenpom.com's final overall rankings and notching four conference wins - yes, these are viewed as achievements in San Jose. It's also worth noting that team had Brandon Clarke and Ryan Welage, two soon-to-be up transfers that would play pivotal roles on Gonzaga and Xavier, respectively.
That context is needed to set the stage for any ounce of optimism uttered in this preview. The point here is simple. Everything is relative. Last season, the Spartans finished with nearly an identical record as the year prior, but were DEMONSTRABLY worse, falling within striking distance of the worst team in college basketball. For third year head coach Jean Prioleau, there's nowhere to go but up.
While there are pockets of competence found amongst the incumbents, two former Wake Forest players could be immediate difference makers in their first season on the west coast. JUCO standout Richard Washington started his career in Winston-Salem before making a quick pit stop at Tallahassee Community College, where he averaged 17 / 8 / 3. My quick eye test evaluation leads me to believe he's the best player on this team the moment he steps on the floor. He's a silky smooth 6'6 lefty wing with few holes in his offensive repertoire:
Samuel Japhet-Mathias is the other Wake import, a behemoth at 6'11 265 pounds who almost certainly starts right away at the 5. It's tough to extrapolate what he looks like as a 20-25 minutes a game guy because he was in perpetual foul trouble during his two-year stint at Wake (2016-17 and 2017-18). Prioleau tinkered with a two-big lineup last year, with Ashtin Chastain and Michael Steadman often paired together, but we all saw how that turned out. I'd prefer to see a platoon approach with Chastain and Japhet-Mathias at the 5 and a more fluid forward at the 4, whether it be Washington, 6'9 Craig LeCesne or 6'6 Seneca Knight. The backcourt is gutted of long-range sniper Noah Baumann, but Prioleau did manage to keep Brae Ivey and Zach Chapell in Silicon Valley, who will resume their roles as offensive co-initiators.
After Prioleau preached defensive toughness as one of the pillars of his coaching points of emphasis, last year's switch to a downy soft zone was a bit hypocritical. Perhaps the infusion of what could be a real rim protector in Japhet-Mathias could incentivize Prioleau to revert back to man-to-man after he played zone on 31% of all defensive possessions last year (up from 6% the year before).
Bottom Line: Despite all the eggs I just threw at San Jose State, I actually have the Spartans rated two points higher than where they finished at last season. Once you get past the three key returners and the Demon Deacon duo of Washington and Japhet-Mathias, the talent dries up in a hurry, which effectively locks the Spartans in the Mountain West basement.