Player of the Year: Drew Gordon, Sr., New Mexico
Simply put, Gordon is a force on the block for the Lobos. One of the best big men in the country as a high school senior, Gordon never found his rhythm at UCLA. But in Steve Alford’s uptempo offensive system, Gordon flourished. After becoming eligible in December, Gordon finished the season as one of the best big men in a conference with a number of quality front court players. On the season, he averaged 13.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg. While his rebounding numbers may end up taking a hit if Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow see a jump in production as sophomores, Gordon should become a productive offensive force. He will have had a year to learn the system, Steve Alford will have had an offseason to figure out how to run an offense through Gordon and with Dairese Gary gone, someone on the Lobos is going to have to become the offensive focal point.
And a close second goes to…: Chace Stanback, Sr., UNLV
There isn’t much that Stanback can’t do on a basketball court. A 6’8″ wing, he’s extremely valuable to the Runnin’ Rebels spread attack. He’s big enough that he can rebound like a power forward, but his range and perimeter ability make him a matchup nightmare for opposing fours. And believe it or not, Stanback’s DUI arrest over the summer may end up being the reason that he finally puts all of that talent together. Instead of returning home to LA for the summer, Stanback stayed in Vegas and refocused himself towards becoming a better player. He was inconsistent throughout much of conference play a year ago, but if a summer of work can build on his strong finish to the 2010-2011 season, Stanback should finally develop into the star most believed he would be when he first arrived on the UNLV campus.
Breakout Star: Kendall Williams, So., New Mexico
Williams can flat out play. As a third and fourth option for the Lobos as a freshman, Williams — who won the freshman of the year award in the MWC — finished with averages of 11.5 ppg and 4.0 apg despite playing alongside Dairese Gary. Gary graduated in the offseason, which means that Williams, along with Drew Gordon, will become the center of the New Mexico attack. To get an idea of what kind of production can be expected, Williams scored 18 points in both of the Lobo’s NIT games after Gary suffered a season-ending knee injury. Ironically enough, Williams was originally committed to UCLA, which means that Ben Howland actually could have had Gordon, Williams and Stanback on his roster at the same time.
– POY: Drew Gordon, Sr., New Mexico
– G: Hank Thorns, Sr., TCU
– G: Kendall Williams, So., New Mexico
– G: Anthony Marshall, Jr., UNLV
– F: Michael Lyons, Jr., Air Force
– F: Chace Stanback, Sr., UNLV
– G: Oscar Bellfield, Sr., UNLV
– G: Wes Elkmeier, Jr., Colorado State
– G: Chase Tapley, Jr., SDSU
– F: Drew Wiley, Jr., Boise State
– F: Afam Muojeke, Sr., Wyoming
Four summer storylines
– Realignment: The MWC has been in the midst of conference realignment since the first rumors were floated a year and a half ago. They were also the first league to go ahead and make a move. It started with Boise State’s addition to the league, a move made for football that backfired when both Utah (to the Pac-12) and BYU (WCC and Independent) left the conference. The next step was TCU jumping ship to join the Big East, where their football program will reign king while their basketball team may go winless for a decade. Next summer, it will be Nevada and Fresno State coming into the conference. That’s it, well, for now at least. If the Big 12 manages to remain an entity, some believe that the MWC could see a couple of their programs fill in the gaps.
– Key players that aren’t returning: The future of a number of players was up in the air this summer, and unfortunately many of the kids in question will no longer be playing in the Mountain West. Perhaps the most important was the saga of Brian Carlwell, the San Diego State big man. Carlwell, if you remember, was originally a member of Illinois when he was injured when teammate Jamar Smith crashed his car when driving drunk. He applied for a sixth year of eligibility but was denied. TCU’s star guard Ronnie Moss was kicked off the team in January and he will not be returning to the program. Wyoming was able to make a solid hire by bringing in former Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, but that was not enough to keep the Cowboy’s two leading scorers — Desmar Jackson and Amath M’Baye — from transferring out. Emmanuel Negedu’s career is officially over, which may actually be a good thing. He’s the former Tennessee forward that nearly died when his heart gave out during a workout two summers ago. Perhaps the only player whose future was in doubt that returns is Player of the Year candidate Chace Stanback at UNLV, who changed his lifestyle after getting a DUI during the offseason.
– Kevin Young vs. Steve Fisher: With Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, Kawhi Leonard and Brian Carlwell all leaving the program this offseason, Steve Fisher knew that he needed to bring in some front line players that would be able to contribute immediately. So Fisher recruited former Loyola Marymount power forward Kevin Young, who committed to SDSU only to change his mind in June and opt to transfer to Kansas. It was a no-brainer for Young to make the move — when a top-six program of all-time offers you a scholarship and has minutes available, you go there — but it put Fisher in a terrible position. He didn’t have any big men because he stopped recruiting them when Young committed. Fisher spouted off in the media, Bill Self responded, and that was the end of it, at least publicly. I have to admit, I was happy to hear about this decision by Young. If Fisher had been taken a job at one of the high-major openings this offseason, would he have been concerned about Young’s commitment?
– Old faces back at UNLV: Rice is a former player at UNLV. He was a member of Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebel teams of the early 90’s, warming the bench for the likes of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. Rice will be attempting to bring UNLV back to their glory years, and what better way to do that than by creating as many ties to those great teams. He added Stacey Augmon to his coaching staff. His next move should be to make amends with Grandmama.
Four storylines heading into the season
– The holdover season?: In many ways, the 2011-2012 season seems like one where the Mountain West will be playing the waiting game. For starters, the league is down to just eight members this year with BYU and Utah leaving and Boise State joining the fray. With Nevada and Fresno State on the way for the 2012-2013 season, the league moves back to ten teams — well, at least that’s the plan — while also bolstering their basketball product. Nevada and Fresno State both have solid basketball programs with some national relevance. The Wolfpack were down last season, but they have a talented young nucleus while Fresno State is just a year removed from sending Paul George to the lottery.
But its more than just what programs the league is waiting for. Boise State is a young team, but Leon Rice has done a good job bringing in some young talent. They may need a year to gel, but don’t be surprised if they are competing for conference titles sooner rather than later, especially if he is able to tap the Australian pipeline he started by bringing in freshmen imports Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic. Colorado State also seems to be in a holding pattern this season. Most of their core are juniors, and with Colton Iverson (a Minnesota transfer) and Daniel Bejarano (an Arizona transfer) sitting out this season, they may be competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament in a year. San Diego State’s core will be in the fold for two more seasons — Chase Tapley and James Rahon are juniors and Xavier Thames is a sophomore — that will be joined by Dwayne Polee (a St. John’s transfer) and JJ O’Brien (a Utah transfer) in a year.
– Who is third?: New Mexico and UNLV are the clear favorites to win the Mountain West. Both are borderline top 25 teams and, barring something unforeseen, both will be playing in the NCAA Tournament come March. After that? Who knows. San Diego State has a talented back court but they will struggle to fill the void in their front court. Boise State brings in quite a bit of talent, but their roster is has 10 freshmen and sophomores. Colorado State has an experienced team, but they lack a go-to scorer. Air Force and TCU have two of the best players in the conference in Michael Lyons and Hank Thorns, respectively, while Wyoming might have the third most overall talent on their roster if they can keep their players healthy. The MWC is going to be a two-horse race for the top spot, but the battle to finish in third may end up being more exciting.
– Shabazz Muhammad: UNLV has always been able to mix-it-up with the big boys when it comes to recruiting. They’ve been an ideal landing spot for transfers that fizzled out at some major programs — Tre’Von Willis transferred in from Memphis, Quintrel Thomas began his career at Kansas and Mike Moser and Chace Stanback are both former UCLA Bruins. Bryce Jones (a USC transfer) will be sitting out this season per NCAA rules while Reggie Smith (a Marquette transfer) won’t become eligible until December. Katin Reinhardt is a top 100 point guard currently committed to the Rebels, but perhaps their biggest splash will be if they can land Shabazz Muhammad. With Andre Drummond now a member of the Class of 2011, Muhammad is hands down the best high school senior in the country. He also happens to hail from Vegas. Will Rice and company be able to keep him home?
– How long does Jim Christian have?: TCU may be on their way out of the MWC, but it will be interesting to see if head coach Jim Christian makes it through the season. The Horned Frogs have gone a combined 24-41 the last two seasons and just 6-26 in league play. With leading scorer Ronnie Moss now out of the program, TCU doesn’t look like they will be getting much better this year, and that’s coming off of a 1-15 campaign in league play. If you can’t win in the Mountain West, what makes you think you will be relevant in the Big East?
1. New Mexico: The Lobos just never seemed to find a rhythm as a team last season. Whether it was the result of Emmanuel Negedu having his career end in December or the mid-season addition of UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, New Mexico just never quite became the team that many of us expected them to be heading into the season. After starting the season out 10-1, New Mexico lost six of their next nine games — including four of five to start out MWC play — before finishing at 8-8 in league play. In addition, they had two four game winning streaks and one four game losing streak in league play, twice beating BYU while getting swept by Utah and losing to Wyoming.
The good news for the Lobos is that they return essentially everyone from last year’s team. Drew Gordon, who turned into a double-double machine by the end of the season, will be back and should be the best big man in the conference. Joining him up front will be fellow senior AJ Hardeman and talented sophomores Alex Kirk (Ed. Note: Kirk had surgery on his back in August)and Cameron Bairstow, giving the Lobos one of the best front lines out west if the young guys can grow into the potential they displayed as freshmen. Shooting guard Kendall Williams is back after earning MWC Freshman of the Year last season. He’ll be joined on the perimeter by Philip McDonald, who averaged double figures as a junior, and Tony Snell, a promising sophomore that had a couple of big games as a freshman. Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker, whose name should sound familiar to you, will become eligible this season, and don’t be surprised when freshmen Dominique Dunning and Hugh Greenwood crack the back court rotation as well. There are two keys to the season for Steve Alford’s club. The first is how well the young guys develop. Will Kirk, Snell and Bairstow be more consistent this season? Can Walker, Dunning and Greenwood have an impact immediately? The second, and more important, factor will be at the point. The only player New Mexico loses is Dairese Gary, who was one of the most underrated point guards in the country. He could score, he was a tough defender and he was a leader for this club. Junior Jamal Fenton will get first crack as his replacement. After Gary blew out his knee in the MWC Tournament, Fenton shot 3-14 in the NIT but did have 12 assists to just four turnovers. New Mexico has the potential to be a top 25 team and will contend for the league title.
2. UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels had a bit of disappointing season in 2010-2011. Most people had them pegged as the third best team in the conference heading into the season, and that’s exactly where they finished, the margin between them and co-champs BYU and SDSU was significant. It seemed like UNLV, at times, struggled with a lack of leadership. They didn’t have a go-to player offensively with Tre’Von Willis battling knee problems. And while there were times when the Rebels looked borderline unstoppable offensively — they had a litany of options — there were times were it seemed apparent no one wanted to take a big shot.
This season, Willis is gone. He graduated along with Derrick Jasper. Lon Kruger left for the opening at Oklahoma. But the core of this team returns to play for Dave Rice, a former BYU assistant and a member of UNLV’s teams in the early ’90’s. As was the case last season, UNLV’s back court is going to be their stretch. Oscar Bellfield will probably be listed as the team’s point guard — and most likely will be their primary ball-handler — but he will share playmaking duties with Anthony Marshall, an athletic, left-handed junior that does a little bit of everything. Sharpshooter Kendall Wallace is back after tearing his acl and missing the 2010-2011 season, as is defensive stopper Justin Hawkins. Marquette transfer Reggie Smith may also see some minutes once he gets eligible in December. Up front, Quintrel Thomas will be counted on to have a big season. The former Kansas big man is capable of putting up big numbers, but struggles with his consistency. Sophomore Carlos Lopez and senior Brice Massamba, who both provided quality minutes off the bench, return to the rotation and will be joined by UCLA transfer Mike Moser. The x-factor is going to be Chace Stanback. With much of the MWC’s star power gone from last season, Stanback has a real shot at being the Player of the Year in the conference. A 6’8″ wing, he can do a lot of different things on the floor — shoot from deep, score, rebound, defend multiple positions — but is he ready to become “the man”? Will he take that next step towards being a star? If he does, UNLV has a very good chance of winning the MWC.
3. San Diego State: The Aztecs had, without a doubt, the best season in the program’s history in 2010-2011. They won 34 games. They were ranked in the top ten for much of the season. They won their first ever NCAA Tournament game, advancing to the Sweet 16 before succumbing to the powers of Kemba Walker. It will be tough for Steve Fisher’s club to build on that success, however. They lost their entire front line — Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and Brian Carlwell all graduated while Kawhi Leonard went pro — and their starting point guard in DJ Gay. That is a lot of talent and production to replace.
There are some pieces at Fisher’s disposal, however. For starters, he does get back the perimeter tandem of Chase Tapley and James Rahon. Throw in Washington State transfer Xavier Thames, who averaged 4.6 ppg and started four games as a freshman, and the Aztecs have a solid core in their back court. It will be interested to see if Jamaal Franklin or LaBradford Franklin can handle an expanded role as well, paticularly LaBradford, who will have a shot at significant minutes at the point. The front court will be a much different story. Fisher caught a break when Garrett Green, a 6’11” forward who started for LSU, opted to transfer to SDSU for his final season. He will be eligible immediately. Where the rest of the help comes from up front will be interesting to watch, however. Tim Shelton is an injury-prone senior. Alec Williams played all of 10 games as a junior. DeShawn Stephens is a JuCo transfer. Seeing the lack of size up front should tell you why Steve Fisher was so upset with Kevin Young changed his mind and transferred to Kansas. SDSU should have enough talent to finish above .500 and in the top half of the league, but they likely won’t be competing for the MWC crown.
4. Colorado State: Its hard to call Colorado State’s 2010-2011 campaign anything but disappointing. At least the finish, that is. After starting the year 18-7 overall and 8-3 in the MWC and finding themselves firmly in the bubble conversation, the Rams lost four of their last five in the regular season — including an inexcusable 17-point loss to Air Force — and fell in the first round of both the conference tournament and the NIT. To make matters worse, Tim Miles’ club will lose first-team all-conference forward Andy Ogide and his front court mate Travis Franklin to graduation.
The strength of Colorado State’s team this season is going to be the back court. They return Dorian Green, a junior point guard that has started every game since he’s been on campus, and sharpshooting junior Wes Eikmeier, a transfer from Iowa State that averaged 9.1 ppg last season. Throw in junior Jessie Carr — a kid that has all kinds of potential as a freshman before getting injured and missing most of the 2009-2010 season — and freshman Cody Mann, and the Rams have a solid group in their back court. The issue is going to be replacing the production up front, where they lose 29.0 ppg and 12.2 rpg in Ogide and Franklin. The two most likely replacements will be Greg Smith and Paul Hornung. Hornung is a more physical presence on the block and while Smith is a more dangerous offensive option, he did grab 15 boards against Fairfield in the NIT. Both are a bit undersized, however, which raises the importance of the development of redshirt freshman Chad Calcaterra and redshirt sophomore Trevor Williams. Can either provide minutes inside this season? There are a number of solid pieces that Tim Miles has at his disposal, but without a real go-to scorer on the roster and a lack of size inside, Colorado State’s upside is limited.
5. Boise State: The Broncos, under the tutelage of former Gonzaga assistant coach Leon Rice, finished second in the WAC a year ago. And while a late-season eight-game winning streak vaulted Boise into second-place and carried them to the WAC Tournament final and the CBI semis, their move to a new conference next season is going to come with a new-look team. Boise graduates their top four scorers from a year ago, including star guard La’Shard Anderson.
Boise is going to be very young this season. In addition to the seven freshmen and three sophomores on the roster, junior Drew Wiley is a transfer from Oregon that sat out last season and the two seniors — Westly Perryman and Tre Nichols — are both Juco transfers in their second year in the program. There is some reason to be optimistic about the Broncos next season, however. Both Perryman, who started last season, and Nichols, who came off the bench, had some big games late in the year and will provide as experienced of a back court as you can hope for on this roster. Sophomore forwards Ryan Watkins and Thomas Bropleh both had promising freshmen campaigns, as did sharpshooter Jeff Elloriaga. Throw in the 6’7″ Wiley, who played in 46 games with Oregon in his two years there, and Rice has some pieces to build around. The biggest question mark is at the point. Can Perryman and Nichols become playmakers and facilitators, replacing the production BSU got from Anderson? The x-factor are the newcomers. Rice has an incoming class of eight kids — including two JuCo transfers — that can make an impact. Point guard Mikey Thompson and big man Darrious Hamilton are the two most highly-regarded players in the class, but the two to keep an eye on are Aussie-imports Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic, both of whom are 6’5″ wings that can score. If everything clicks for the Broncos, there’s a shot this team could finish in the top three in the league, although they are probably a year or two away from contending.
6. Air Force: No one expected much of anything out of the Falcons last season. After going 1-31 in the previous two seasons in MWC play, Air Force was once again expected to bring up the rear of the Mountain West. Losing their second game of the season to D-III Colorado College only reinforced that notion. But Air Force clicked during the year, going 9-4 in non-conference play — including a win over Wofford — and finishing 6-10 in league play. While the season as a whole can be seen as mediocre, the Falcons advanced to the CIT where they won a game, just the sixth time in program history that they made a postseason tournament.
There is reason to be optimistic for next season as well. While Air Force loses two starters and three of their top five scorers — including point guard Evan Washington and second-leading scorer Tom Fow — they do return Michael Lyons. The 6’6″ junior is the kind of athlete and explosive scorer (he went for 20 seven times last season) that rarely makes his way through the program. He averaged 13.9 ppg as a sophomore on one of the slowest teams in the country. He has a chance to be one of the better players in the conference next season. The question is where he will get his support. In addition ot the loss of Washington, Fow, and Brooks, Evan Bohannon decided to transfer out of the program and into Wisconsin, where his brother Jason played. Taylor Broekhuis, a slender 6’10” center, returns inside, although he’ll be expected to pick up more of the interior slack. Taylor Stewart, Mike Fitzgerald and Todd Fletcher are all back on the perimeter, although they are going to have to provide more production this season. With a mediocre recruiting class coming in, if Air Force can repeat their success of a year ago, it will be a good season.
7. Wyoming: The Cowboys kicked off the 2011 coaching carousel early, firing head coach Heath Schroyer with seven games remaining after Schoyer coached the team to an 8-15 start and just one win in their first nine conference games. Interim head coach Fred Langley didn’t do much better, as the team went 2-6 in his tenure. Wyoming made a solid hire in Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, but he won’t have much to work with in his first season. His two leading scorers — Desmar Jackson and Amath M’Baye — left the program to transfer to Southern Illinois and Oklahoma, respectively. And Afam Moujeke, who was one of the best young players in the conference two seasons ago, suffered a second catastrophic knee injury in January.
The key to Wyoming’s competitiveness next season is going to be health. Muojeke averaged 13.8 ppg as a freshman and 16.8 ppg as a sophomore, but after suffering a season-ending knee injury as a sophomore, he struggled to get healthy last year before a torn meniscus ended his season early. How much is he going to be able to produce this year? The same can be said for Adam Waddell, who averaged 9.4 ppg as a sophomore but played in just 23 games as a junior. Those two will be joined by USC transfer Leonard Washington — the guy that hit Blake Griffin with this cheap shot — along the front line, which means there is some potential for the Cowboys. Don’t be surprised if freshman Larry Nance, Jr, gets in the mix as well. The back court has some potential as well. Senior point guard JayDee Luster is back, as is Francisco Cruz, who was Wyoming’s third-leading scorer a year ago. The x-factor on the perimeter may end up being JuCo transfer Luke Martinez, a high-scoring guard that missed last season with a broken elbow. Shyatt has some potential on his roster, and if his team can stay healthy and play together, finishing in the top-half of the league isn’t out of the question.
8. TCU: 2010-2011 was a disaster for the TCU program. After a promising, 9-4 start in non-conference play — which included wins over Texas Tech and USC — the Horned Frogs put together one of the worst seasons in Mountain West history. TCU went 1-15 in league play. Their last regular season win came on January 12th, which happened to be 10 days before leading scorer Ronnie Moss was kicked out of the program by head coach Jim Christian. They did beat Wyoming in the play-in game for the MWC Tournament, the second time they beat the Cowboys — who fired their coach midway through the February. Like I said, last season was a disaster.
The cupboard isn’t exactly empty, however. Point guard Hank Thorns led the league in assists (7.0 apg) despite playing on a team that, at times, struggled to score. He’s the team’s leader. Junior forward Garlon Green (not to be confused with this guy) proved to be a consistent scorer last season. Senior swingman JR Cadot came on strong late in the season and should develop into a double-digit scorer this year. Also expect to see a jump in production from Amric Fields, a sophomore big man. Those are all solid pieces for TCU, but there are still going to be a number of issues with this team. They lack a real go-to scoring threat and they don’t have any depth. While Kyan Anderson, a three-star point guard recruit, should help, Ryan Rhoomes getting ruled ineligible by the NCAA is going to hurt. TCU has a ways to go before they are competitive in the MWC, which makes it laughable this team is going to the Big East next season.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.