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_

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.