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Mountain West Conference Preview: Can the league get back to being a multi-bid conference?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West Conference.

Five or six years ago, the Mountain West was one of the most entertaining conferences in college basketball.

Maybe it was Kawhi Leonard leading the upstart San Diego State Aztecs to a top five ranking while competing for a league title with BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who became must-see TV despite never actually playing on TV. Or maybe it was the Steve Alford-led New Mexico teams loaded with Pac-12 talent like Drew Gordon, or Kendall Williams, or Darington Hobson, or Tony Snell. Dave Rice had UNLV rolling, Leon Rice was just starting to build Boise State into something that could match the football program and Larry Eustachy took over from Tim Miles at Colorado State and kept the Rams squarely in the NCAA tournament picture. Fresno State had Paul George. Wyoming had Larry Nance.

The MWC had years where they rated as a top four basketball conference in the sport. There were years that they sent five teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2011, both BYU and SDSU were top three seeds.

And now?

It looks like the league will once again be a one-bid league come March.

So what happened?

Some of it is cyclical. Colorado State and Boise State aren’t always going to be NCAA tournament teams, and Fresno State and Wyoming aren’t always going to find late-bloomers with first round potential that often. Some of it was also luck. San Diego State just so happened to land the best coach they’ve ever had, who happened to land a future top five player in the NBA, at the same time that Alford was mining the Pac-12 for their castoffs and Jimmer, a once-in-a-decade player, was doing Jimmer things at BYU.

And maybe it was just as simple as all ships rising with the tide. Mastery of the RPI combined with an influx of coaching talent, a run of promising recruits outperforming expectations and an impressive amount of home court advantage keeping anyone at the top from running away with league titles meant their were balanced races where the teams in fourth and fifth place were landing themselves wins that looked great on a tournament resume.

The league today is not what it was then, not with three of the most successful programs in the conference over the last decade in the midst of regime changes.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t get back to that level one day.

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1. Nevada has it rolling: Things are still rolling for the Wolfpack under Eric Musselman has his ability to attract talented recruits has not slowed down yet. In addition to Jordan Caroline, who may just be the best player in the MWC this season, and Lindsay Drew, the son of NBA head coach Larry Drew, four former high-major transfers will be eligible this fall after redshirting last season in Reno: Kendall Stephens (Purdue), Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Cody and Caleb Martin (N.C. State). That doesn’t include Darien Williams, a grad transfer from St. John’s.

Nevada lost a ton of talent from last season – Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, D.J. Fenner – but with the influx of players that Musselman has coming in combined with a returning star in Caroline and a veteran point guard in Drew, this team will enter the season as the heavy favorite to win the league and a team with the potential to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.

2. San Diego State replacing the man that built the program: When Steve Fisher took over the San Diego State basketball program in 1999, the Aztecs had been to just one NCAA tournament in the modern era (the first one) and three since becoming a Division I program in 1970. Fisher built SDSU into a Mountain West powerhouse with a rabid fanbase that could compete with some of the biggest names out west for recruits. He retired, and longtime assistant Brian Dutcher took over.

Dutcher was not left with the cupboard bare. The Aztecs probably have one of the best back courts in the league, as Trey Kell, Jeremy Helmsly and Montaque Gill-Cesear will be joined by San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, who could end up starting at the point. The enigmatic Malik Pope is back as well, while Max Montana – formerly Max Hoetzel – and Kameron Rooks, a grad transfer from Cal, join him up front.

The question isn’t the talent. It’s Dutcher. Can he right the ship for a program that has missed the last two NCAA tournaments after reaching the dance six years in a row?

Jordan Caroline (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3. Can Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison make up for the loss of key pieces?: Hutchison is a very, very good basketball player, one that looks like he will lead the league in scoring this season. But he is also going to be the focal point for a team that just lost three of their four best players, including starting point guard Paris Austin. If the Broncos want to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Justinian Jacob and Zach Haney to have big years.

4. Can the basketball program survive New Mexico going through a regime change: The carnage runs deep at New Mexico, where scandal after scandal is getting exposed and it’s unclear what decision-makers are actually going to be left by the time the dust settles. Craig Neal already lost his job. In his stead is Paul Weir, who will have to try and find a way to earn back the fanbase’s trust. It might take a while, as a Lobo team with no depth lost their two best players last season. That’s why they had to go out and hire the coach from archrival New Mexico State.

The good news? There is talent transferring in; JaQuan Lyle, Vance Jackson, Antino Jackson. The bad news? That talent will have to sit a year.

5. Marvin Menzies might have something at UNLV: Menzies managed to win four MWC games last season after having to essentially rebuild the entire roster when he took over, and while he lost a number of key pieces from that team, he did get Jovan Mooring, the team’s leading scorer, back. More importantly, he landed a commitment from Brandon McCoy, a top 15 prospect and a potential one-and-done talent at the center spot. Whether or not there are pieces around McCoy to make a run is arguable. But there is McCoy, and he is good.

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Boise State got somewhat lucky this offseason, as Hutchison, a 6-foot-7 forward with three-point range that averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 boards, opted not to enter the NBA Draft. He probably was not destined to be a first round pick, but there are plenty of NBA scouts that do believe he has a shot at having a good professional career. Leon Rice’s club lost three of their top four scorers from last year’s team, meaning there are going to be more opportunities for Hutchison this season. If Boise is as good as I expect them to be, it will likely be because Hutchison turns in a phenomenal season.


  • Jordan Caroline, Nevada: It’s a toss-up for Player of the Year in the MWC between Hutchison and Caroline. I lean Hutchison personally, mainly because I think that he will put up much bigger numbers for a team that competes for top three in the league, but there’s a valid argument to saying that Caroline is the best basketball player in the conference. Picking him as POY is not the wrong choice.
  • Koby McEwen, Utah State: McEwen had a monster freshman season for the Aggies, and with Jalen Moore and Shane Rector gone, he’ll have that much more on his plate this season.
  • Justin James, Wyoming: James came off the bench for the Pokes last season despite being their best player. This year, Wyoming has a real shot to finish second in the league, and James is a major reason for that.
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV: The 7-foot McCoy is the most talented player in the conference. The talent may not be there around him, but there aren’t any other potential lottery picks in the conference.


  • Trey Kell, San Diego State
  • Jaron Hopkins, Fresno State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jeremy Helmsly, San Diego State

BREAKOUT STAR: Koby McEwen, Utah State

Down the stretch of the season, McEwen was arguably the best player on the Aggies. Defenses knew how to slow down Jalen Moore after four years in the league. McEwen was a new talent, one that will shine even brighter next season now that Moore and Shane Rector have graduated.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brian Dutcher, San Diego State

Dutcher, by no means, is in danger of losing his job. He literally just got the job. But he is taking over for the greatest coach in the history of the program, a coach in Steve Fisher that built a perennial tournament team where a perennial cellar-dweller had resided. Being the guy to replace The Guy is never going to be easy, particularly when taking over a talented team that has underperformed expectations of late.


The Mountain West is a one-bid league once again.


Seeing if Wyoming can make the push to win a league title. Anyone that’s been to Laramie knows that it is not exactly the easiest place to recruit a player to, not if they visit during the winter.


  • 11/13, Rhode Island vs. Nevada
  • 12/1, Boise State at Oregon
  • 12/2, Arizona at UNLV
  • 12/21, Gonzaga at San Diego State


1. Nevada: The Wolfpack are the reigning champions of the MWC and will once again be the most talented team in the league. That’s a good combination of things.
2. Wyoming: I’m going out on a limb with this one, but with the Pokes returning all but two of their rotation players, including Justin James and the underrated Hayden Dalton, Wyoming is going to sneak up on some people.
3. Boise State: Leon Rice is going to have to replace a lot of scoring and minutes this year, but the good news is that he will be able to do that while relying on Chandler Hutchison to carry the team.
4. San Diego State: The issue for the Aztecs isn’t going to be talent. As we discussed above, they have the pieces. The question is whether or not those pieces come together. The key may be Devin Watson, the San Francisco transfer. SDSU had three “point guards” that wanted to score last season. Can Watson embrace the role of distributor, or is he going to want to be a scorer as well?
5. Fresno State: Rodney Terry returned arguably his two best players with Jaron Hopkins and DeShon Taylor and has a handful of talented redshirts and transfers around them. If New Williams and Nate Grimes can live up to the hype they had in high school, the Bulldogs are a sleeper to push for the league title.
6. Utah State: This may be too high for a USU team that is losing two of their best players, but the Aggies have a pair of really promising sophomore guards in Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill  that played some of their best basketball late last season.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s teams at CSU have been up and down: He’ll contend for the league one year, finish around .500 the next. They contended for the league last season, lost their two best players and now look destined for the middle of the pack as they reload.
8. UNLV: It’s hard to know what to expect from this group. Brandon McCoy should be awesome, but do they have the supporting cast to push for the top half of the league standings? Is there anyone on the team that can actually feed McCoy the ball where he can be effective?
9. New Mexico: The Lobos needed some new blood running the program, and I fully expect Paul Weir to get things turned around. That said, there is more talent redshirting this season than there will be playing.
10. Air Force: The Falcons have 23 players on their roster. They’re also Air Force. They’ll probably win a few games they shouldn’t – and beat UNLV, since they always do – but that’s about it.
11. San Jose State: Their coach left this summer after their best player transferred to Gonzaga, and now there is a lawsuit alleging the former coach verbally abused players on the team.

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.