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_

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.

South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, still ineligible, to declare for draft

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Former Louisville forward and current South Carolina Gamecock Brian Bowen will declare for the NBA draft without signing with an agent as a safety measure in case the NCAA does not clear him to play in the 2018-19 season.

Bowen is the former top 25 prospect that was forced to leave the Louisville program after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college hoops turned up evidence that his family had accepted the first payment of what was supposed to be a $100,000 fee to get him to be a Cardinal.

That investigation was ultimately what got Rick Pitino fired.

“I just felt that it was the right decision,” Bowen told ESPN. “My goal is still to play college basketball, but I felt as though it makes sense to cover my bases.”

Bowen is in a tough spot right now.

On the one hand, he has already missed an entire season of college basketball and there is no guarantee that he will be cleared to play next season, if at all.

On the other hand, the fact that he has not played in a year and that he has not played against any collegiate level competition is one of the reasons that NBA front offices are going to be hesitant to draft him, and that’s not a good thing for a player that was considered a second round pick before he spent a year on the sidelines.

North Carolina’s Cam Johnson undergoes hip surgery

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For the second time in the last six months, North Carolina wing Cam Johnson has undergone the knife.

On Wednesday, North Carolina announced that Johnson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip on Monday, and that he is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson was UNC’s third-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34.1 percent from three. He only played 26 games, however, after missing time due to a surgery to fix a torn meniscus.