Mountain West Preview 2012-13: San Diego State and UNLV fight it out at the top

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Mountain West sent a record four teams to the NCAA tournament in 2011-12, but, despite high expectations, saw only one advance out of the Round of 64 and claimed no Sweet 16 berths.

But the conference is back in 2012-13 with another strong group of contenders. Take a look below at NBCSports.com’s Mountain West Preview:

Five Things to Know

1.The top of the conference will be a fight between two teams that should be in the national Top 25 to begin the season, UNLV and San Diego State. The Runnin’ Rebels, with their strong recruiting class and returners Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall, will be going toe-to-toe with Jamaal Frankin, Chase Tapley, and the Aztecs down the stretch.

2. New Mexico will have to compensate for the loss of Drew Gordon, who averaged 13.7 points and 11.1 points per game last season, but the Lobos do return Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, who together combined for close to 23 points per game.

3. Colorado State, coming off a run to the NCAA tournament last season, is now without coach Tim Miles, who moved on to take the head coaching spot at Nebraska. Former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy is now at the helm.

4. Nevada and Fresno State join the conference and begin their first season in the Mountain West. The conference says goodbye to TCU, who meant more to MWC football than basketball, and actually upgrades in basketball with Nevada, who should compete in the middle of the conference.

5. Boise State, we hardly knew ye. The Broncos, who just joined the conference, will be spending their final season in the MWC before heading off to the Big West. Not a big loss for basketball, but football calls the shots at Boise.

Impact Newcomers

Anthony Bennett, Katin Reinhardt, Khem Birch (UNLV)

UNLV got an impressive recruiting haul this off-season, capped off by Bennett’s commitment in the spring. Reinhardt, formerly a USC commit, showed his versatility over the summer and should be able to contribute for a team that will be shuffling the cards in its backcourt. Birch becomes eligible in December.

Winston Shepard (San Diego State)

Shepard is the crown jewel of a three-man recruiting class for coach Steve Fisher and the Aztecs. He brings athleticism to an already-athletic team, but can also settle down into the mid-range and hit shots.

Robert Upshaw (Fresno State)

When Frank Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina, Upshaw reopened his recruitment and fell right into Fresno State’s lap. He brings size and a big body down low. As a Top-50 recruit, Fresno State grabbed a gem.

Colton Iverson (Colorado State)

The Minnesota transfer becomes eligible this season and brings a big body to a conference where he has a chance to make an impact. He averaged 5.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in his last season with Minnesota.

Marqueze Coleman (Nevada)

Coleman averaged 21.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season for Alemany High School (Calif.) and will have a very good backcourt to learn from at Nevada.

Breakout Players

Michael Lyons (Air Force)

Lyons was a Second Team All-MWC selection last season after averaging 15.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, so perhaps that doesn’t make him a breakout player, but he is certainly under the radar. The Falcons will likely remain toward the bottom of the conference in 2012-13, but keep an eye on this senior.

Malik Story and Deonte Burton (Nevada)

This solid backcourt combo gets a shot at proving itself against tougher competition after averaging 14.1 and 14.8 points respectively last season when Nevada was a member of the WAC.

Kevin Olekaibe (Fresno State)

Olekaibe is another player who will get a chance to prove himself against competition in a more difficult conference. He was the second leading scorer in the WAC last season with 17.8 points per game.

Coaching Situation: Lots of Fresh Faces

The Mountain West is a solid split between coaches who have established themselves and coaches who are just getting into the swing of things at their new schools. Eustachy is new at Colorado State and Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich took over in-season after the firing of Jeff Reynolds. Leon Rice is entering his second season at Boise State.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, which includes Dave Rice and Steve Fisher, who should have their teams competing in March.

Player of the Year: Mike Moser (UNLV)

Moser’s decision to return to UNLV gives the Runnin’ Rebels a legitimate shot at making noise deep into March. Jamaal Franklin will contend for Player of the Year honors as well, but Moser is NBCSports.com’s pick for this season.

All-Conference Team

G Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)

G Wes Eikmeier (Colorado State)

G Kendall Williams (New Mexico)

F Mike Moser (UNLV)

F Anthony Bennett (UNLV)

Predicted Finish

1. UNLV—Moser, Marshall, and Bennett will have Rebels in the mix in March

2. San Diego State—Franklin and Tapley lead the group, but solid newcomers and transfers supplement the attack

3. New Mexico—Losing Gordon is difficult, but Kendall Williams and Tony Snell should step up for the Lobos

4. Nevada—MWC newcomers will rely on backcourt duo Story and Burton for production after losing frontcourt piece Dario Hunt to graduation

5. Colorado State—Eikmeier is the biggest key for the Rams, who will also be adjusting to adding Larry Eustachy at head coach.

6. Wyoming- Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez return from a team that won 20 games last season.

7. Fresno State—Expect Robert Upshaw to be an immediate contributor, but the former WAC members will likely struggle against tougher competition at the top of the conference.

8. Air Force—The Falcons tied for last in the conference last season and even with another strong year from Lyons, they will likely finish near the bottom again.

9. Boise State—This will be Boise’s last season in the MWC and they’ll try to make it memorable, but will likely run into difficulties. Their three wins last season came against Air Force, Colorado State, and TCU.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.