2014-15 Season Preview: San Diego State leads what will be a wild Mountain West race

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we focus on the Mountain West.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Last season in the Mountain West provided some surprises, with the team picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll (San Diego State) winning the regular season title outright and Nevada finishing in a tie for third place after being picked to finish ninth last October. Seven teams won at least nine conference games in 2013-14, and heading into the 2014-15 season many hold the belief that seven teams have a realistic chance of winning the Mountain West. Steve Fisher’s team is seen as the favorites despite losing Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames, and the order of the next six teams is anyone’s guess.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Just one first team All-Mountain West selection returns: Thames, New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams, and Nevada’s Deonte Burton have all moved on to the professional ranks. The lone returnee: Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr., who missed the final seven games due to a torn ACL. Nance is back on the floor for the Cowboys, who are in that mix of teams looking to win the conference. If he hits the ground running, Larry Shyatt’s team is capable of contending.

2. The Mountain West also lost its top five rebounders: This fact can’t be glossed over, with UNLV losing Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, Boise State moving on without Ryan Watkins, and San Diego State (Josh Davis) and New Mexico (Alex Kirk) also having to account for the loss of their best rebounders. However, it should be noted that each of these programs has added some solid front court talent in both the freshman and junior college ranks. And when it comes to Boise State, the Broncos got a lot taller inside after going through last season with just one player who stood 6-foot-8.

3. UNLV adds one of the nation’s top freshman classes, and a very important senior transfer: After briefly flirting with the possibility of moving across the country, Dave Rice returned to his alma mater, where he received a new contract and then put the finishing touches on one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Guard Rashad Vaughn may be seen as the jewel of the class, but there’s also big man Goodluck Okonoboh, forward Dwayne Morgan and guards Jordan Cornish and Patrick McCaw to consider as well. UNLV’s most important addition, however, is former San Francisco PG Cody Doolin, who gives them the on-court leader they so desperately needed a season ago.

4. UNLV wasn’t the only Mountain West program that landed a Top 20 recruiting class: Rivals.com ranked two Mountain West recruiting classes in the top 20 of its rankings this spring, with UNLV coming in fifth and San Diego State 17th. Steve Fisher’s class is one reason why many saw last season as a “bridge” year for the program, and we all saw what happened there (31-5, Sweet 16 appearance). Now they add guards Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell and forwards Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham, as well as Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, to an experienced cast led by Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien. SDSU’s deep, athletic and they’ll once again be tough to score points on.

5. Colorado State returns the top scoring tandem in the Mountain West: Forward J.J. Avila (16.6 ppg) and guard Daniel Bejarano (16.3 ppg) are back for their senior seasons, and they’re just two reasons why Larry Eustachy’s Rams will be in the middle of the Mountain West race. Both of those players began their college careers at other schools, and they’ll be joined by a deep group of transfers that includes guard John Gillon (UALR) and Antwan Scott (Grambling State), and forwards Tiel Daniels (Southern Illinois) and Stanton Kidd (North Carolina Central). Of those four three were with the CSU program last season (Scott’s the exception), which should help from a chemistry standpoint.

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming

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Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr. (AP Photo)

While it remains to be seen just how explosive Nance will be following the knee injury that ended his junior season, the fact of the matter is that he can affect the game in a variety of ways. Nance finished last season ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in scoring (tenth- 15.4 ppg), rebounding (sixth- 8.6 rpg), field goal percentage (second- 54.4%), steals (fifth- 1.4 spg) and blocked shots (fourth- 2.1 bpg). He’s certainly capable of putting together a similar season in 2014-15.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • Anthony Drmic, Boise State: Averaged 15.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg last season, and he’s a better perimeter shooter than he showed as a junior (34.1% 3PT).
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: Bejarano followed up his Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013 with a first team All-Mountain West spot as a redshirt junior.
  • Winston Shepard, San Diego State: Shepard will be key for the Aztecs as they look to account for the loss of Xavier Thames. And if Shepard can make opponents at least respect his jump shot, look out.
  • J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila came in and earned third team all-conference honors in his first season at CSU, averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Dwayne Polee II, San Diego State
  • Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
  • Paul Watson, Fresno State
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico

BREAKOUT STAR: Dwayne Polee, San Diego State

Polee may have finished the season averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, but he was a different player from February on. Polee scored in double figures in nine of SDSU’s final 14 games, including a stretch of five straight double-digit outings to end the season. And with Thames gone, there’s room for Polee to take another step forward production-wise.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: David Carter, Nevada

With Dave Rice landing a new deal at UNLV this summer and recruiting well, he’s in good shape for the time being. That brings us to Carter, who despite managing to finish tied for third in the conference last season led his team to an overall record of 15-17. Can the Wolf Pack once again surprise people within the league while also improving their overall record?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Can multiple Mountain West teams reach the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How wide-open this conference race will be.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 17, Utah at San Diego State
  • November 21, UNLV vs. Stanford (in Brooklyn, New York)
  • November 22, Boise State at Wisconsin
  • December 10, Colorado State at Colorado
  • December 23, Arizona at UNLV

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @GeoffGrammer

PREDICTED FINISH

1. San Diego State: Xavier Thames is a big loss, but there’s still plenty of talent at Steve Fisher’s disposal.
2. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s roster is stocked full of transfers ready to contribute immediately.
3. Boise State: Drmic and Derrick Marks lead the way for a team that has more size than it did last season.
4. UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, but will the pieces fit together cohesively?
5. Wyoming: Larry Nance Jr. returns from his torn ACL, and guard Riley Grabau is back as well.
6. New Mexico: The Lobos have some questions to answer, but given their recent run of success it wouldn’t be a surprise if they made another run at the title.
7. Fresno State: Mountain West dark horse? That could be the case, with Julien Lewis joining a group led by Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson.
8. Nevada: The Wolf Pack have the unenviable task of accounting for the loss of electric PG Deonte Burton.
9. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich lost his leading scorer in Tre’ Coggins, but that trip to Colorado Springs can be a tough one.
10. Utah State: Stew Morrill’s system has always been tough to defend, but the personnel losses may be too much to overcome.
11. San Jose State: Another rough year for Dave Wojick, and the Spartans won’t play in the conference tournament either due to APR sanctions.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the posterchild for both sides of the one-and-done debate

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The NBA’s age-limit seems all but assured to disappear at some point.

The NBA sent out a memo this spring indicating that the age limit, the restriction of players under the age of 19 being drafted by NBA teams that created the one-and-done rule in college basketball, will be in effect through at least the 2021 draft. Last week reports suggested that the 2022 draft is more likely. The question isn’t if the rule will be changed, but when, which will be sure to create a contentious debate in the coming years over whether or not the one-and-done rule, which will have sent more than 100 stars through the college basketball ranks since its 2007 inception, was actually a good one.

If you’ve read this space over the years, you should know my stance by now: I’m staunchly against the idea of those in power — who are often old, rich and white — creating barriers to entry for young, often black, people from being able to capitalize monetarily on their value. It’s why I believe amateurism in college sports is reprehensible, and it’s why, with that rule in mind, I believe that the one-and-done rule should be abolished.

But I’m also not naïve.

Three months before the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball opened the eyes of some folks that wanted to remain in the dark I took a deep-dive into amateurism, the one-and-done rule and why going to college was still a pretty damn good option for college kids even with the knowledge that the money they accept could get them into trouble.

Read that before you read this, because I’m not here to today to talk about whether or not the one-and-done rule works.

I’m here to talk about Michael Porter Jr., who has managed to become the posterchild for people on both sides of this debate.

Heading into his freshman season at Missouri, Porter was considered by many to be a contender, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. A 6-foot-11 athlete that plays the wing, that in theory has the tools to be a multi-positional defender and that is known for his ability to shoot the rock? Of course he’s going to ride that hype train in an NBA dominated by small-ball, pace-and-space and 7-footers trying to be Kevin Durant.

We all know what happened.

Porter had surgery on his back in November. He tried to return in March and it was clear he wasn’t back to being himself. He went through some workouts this spring, but suffered setbacks — at one point he reportedly couldn’t get out of bed — and has since undergone a second surgery on his back, according to a report for NBA.com.

That surgery came after Porter fell all the way to 14th in June’s draft, after Boston College’s Jerome Robinson.

If you’re an advocate for the players, Porter is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the one-and-done rule. He lost nearly $20 million in guaranteed money dropping from the No. 1 pick to the No. 14 pick, which bloated NBA salaries might have made you forget is, quite literally, a fortune. You could make the argument that, if his back was so messed up, he would have fallen in the draft once NBA teams got a glance at his medicals, but he also could have withheld those medicals. He’s not required to give anyone anything pre-draft, and also ignores the red flags that were raised as intel leaked out about the kind of teammate he was at Missouri. Would he have been drafted higher than 14 had people close to the Missouri program called him something other than entitled and arrogant? Maybe? Probably?

Porter is the perfect example of the risk, for players, that comes with giving NBA decision-makers more information to make a decision.

And he’s also precisely why NBA owners wanted this rule in the first place, and why they likely wouldn’t complain about keeping players in college for another year if they could get that rule passed.

The one-and-done rule exists because NBA owners were tired of drafting high school kids that they couldn’t properly evaluate. Giving them a year to compete in college, where they play on national television every night against 22-year olds that have been coached by some great basketball minds, gives owners more data to analyze. Can the kid play a role? What happens when they play people the same size with comparable athleticism? Can they handle the rigors of league play? In Porter’s case, are they actually healthy?

Owners also didn’t want to give an 18-year old millions of dollars and let then loose in America’s best party cities with NBA celebrity attached to his name, and they didn’t want to pay a seven-figure salary to develop these kids as players only to see them bolt for greener pastures when they hit their prime. By delaying things for a year on the front end they are able to keep those players under contract and reap the benefits of their investment for an extra year on the back end. In other words, instead of paying an 18-year old to learn, put on weight and ride the bench, you send them to college for a year and then pay them to, hopefully, help your team win a lot of games as a 27-year old.

But it’s the former that was arguably the most important, because so much can be determined at the top of an NBA draft, especially for small-market teams that can’t attract big free agents. If, say, Milwaukee doesn’t draft Giannis Antetokounmpo, would they ever be able to sign a player of his talent? It’s why Sam Hinkie developed The Process. Drafting accuracy is so important in the NBA (see: Warriors, Golden State), and by sending the best prospects in the world to college for a year, NBA teams believe they will be more accurate.

And I can’t blame them for that.

The NBA is a business, and that’s just good business sense.

It’s why I’m starting to come around on the one-and-done rule.

I don’t want to see it go because I don’t think it’s necessarily the problem. Don’t listen to what Mark Emmert or Condoleeza Rice tries to tell you, college basketball is better for having the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton on campus for a year. NBA teams are probably better off getting another 12 months to evaluate those prospects.

The issue, to me, isn’t that the kids have to go to college.

The issue is that they can’t get paid (legally) in college, and that heading to the G League is, by just about any measure imaginable, a lesser option.

Porter was compensated with one-year’s worth of an education that he may never actually use for a season that cost him $20 million.

It’s amazing how much in the sport of basketball can be solved if we stopped pretending that players getting paid was a bad thing.

Clemson, Brad Brownell agree to six-year contract

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Fresh off of leading the Tigers to the Sweet 16, Clemson agreed to a six-year contract extension with head coach Brownell that is worth $15 million.

“I want to thank Dan Radakovich, President Jim Clements and the Board of Trustees for continuing to support my leadership of our Clemson basketball program,” said Brownell. “I’m extremely thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to coach at this great University. I’m also grateful for the outstanding young men I’ve coached and for the dedicated assistant coaches and staff who’ve worked alongside me the past eight years. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, both on and off the court, and look forward to building upon the success of last season.”

Brownell was on the hot seat entering the 2018-19 season, but the Tigers, who were picked 13th in the 15-team ACC, finished third in the conference, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Brownell will also bring back a team talented enough to enter the year ranked in the preseason top 25.

Prior to last year’s run to the NCAA tournament, Brownell had gone six years — since his first season at Clemson back in 2010-11 — without reaching the Big Dance.

Nevada faces challenging non-conference schedule

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Nevada will likely be a preseason top 10 team as the Wolf Pack have major expectations following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

With head coach Eric Musselman returning most of last season’s roster, while adding some key new pieces, Nevada has huge expectations entering the 2018-19 season. That means a proper non-conference schedule to challenge this team, which was released on Wednesday.

A Sweet 16 rematch with Loyola is one of the key games on the schedule as the Wolf Pack will head to Chicago for a game on Nov. 27. Nevada will also play some Pac-12 opponents with road games at USC and Utah and a neutral court game against Arizona State. BYU, South Dakota State and Grand Canyon are a few of the challenging opponents from mid-major leagues while the team also had neutral court games against Tulsa and either UMass or Southern Illinois.

It seems as though Nevada will only have a few cracks at top-25 caliber opponents during non-conference play, but this schedule doesn’t have a lot of bad games while also including a healthy amount of neutral games. Since Nevada won’t get as many challenges playing in the Mountain West as a typical top-25 team, they’ll have a lot of eyeballs on them during some of these games — particularly the USC and Arizona State matchups.

The rematch with Loyola should be another fun road test as the crowd should be rocking in Chicago for that one.

Former Mizzou tutor plans to reveal ‘full list’ of participants in academic fraud case

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A former Missouri tutor that admitted in 2016 to providing improper academic benefits to multiple Tiger athletes on Monday said that she has been named in a new Notice of Allegations and intends to expose more people attached to the investigation.

Yolanda Kumar tweeted that she is planning on releasing “the full list of students, classes and coordinators on twitter” at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday, adding that she was dropped from the original NOA but was added back into the latest version after she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Missouri responded on Monday by acknowledging they had met with the Committee on Infractions and that the result of the investigation will prove that they acted with “integrity.”

“On June 13, 2018, the University appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to review its investigative findings, and the Committee has since added a previously unnamed involved party and given notice of the Committee’s allegation to that individual,” a statement Missouri released to ESPN said. “While the University may not disclose the names of any involved student due to FERPA, we remain confident that this review will reveal that the University, as well as its student-athletes and staff, have shown great integrity in responding to the allegations raised. In order to protect the investigation’s integrity and in accordance with NCAA rules relative to ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further any part of the process until it is completed.”

In 2016, Kumar told the Kansas City Star that she had been asked to offer special assistance to football and men’s basketball players, and confirmed to compliance officials that she had acquiesced, helping a dozen athletes. That led to the NCAA’s investigation, and as a result, a defensive tackle named A.J. Logan was suspended for six games.

Kumar also tweeted in 2017 that she was willing to sell the information she had involving the case for the $3,000 fee she needed to pay Missouri to get her transcripts from the school. On Monday, she tweeted that her debt was cleared by a couple from Kansas City.

All of this allegedly occurred during the tenure of former Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.

Michigan, John Beilien ink five-year extension

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Michigan announced on Wednesday that head coach John Beilein has signed a five-year contract extension with the school that will keep him in Ann Arbor through the 2023 season, at least.

“I am grateful for the opportunity the University of Michigan has given to me over the past 11 years,” said Beilein. “Kathleen and I love Ann Arbor, our University, our fans and the state of Michigan. We will continue to work very hard in the future to have our basketball team reflect the greatness of this University. I thank Mark Schlissel and Warde Manuel for their faith and commitment to our coaching staff and basketball program. The future of men’s basketball is bright and I am excited to be a part of it.”

The deal that Beilein signed is a rollover deal, which means that the contract will renew every year. In other words, as long as Beilein and Michigan want the option picked up each April, he will have a five-year contract with Michigan regardless of how long he coaches at the school.

This is Beilein’s 12th year with the Wolverines. Last season, they won a program-record 33 games and reached the Final Four, losing in the national title game for the second time in six seasons.

He is already Michigan’s all-time leader in wins with 248, and, through 41 seasons as a college coach, has amassed a career record of 799-461. In 11 seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan has made eight NCAA Tournament appearances with four Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights in addition to the two trips to the Final Four. He was named the he 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year and has won two Big Ten regular-season titles as well as the last two Big Ten Tournament titles.

There was some speculation earlier this month that Beilein would be leaving Michigan after he had an interview with the Detroit Pistons, but he withdrew from that search after the news became public and it seemed likely that Dwayne Casey would be hired.