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.

No. 11 Michigan State’s win over Ohio State overshadowed by Nick Ward injury

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No. 11 Michigan State used a 20-2 run over the course of the final eight minutes on Saturday afternoon, sending Ohio State back to Columbus with a 62-44 loss to keep pace with Purdue and Michigan atop the Big Ten standings, but no one is going to be talking about that today.

They’re going to be talking about Nick Ward.

The 6-foot-9 junior center for the Spartans emerged from halftime with his left hand — shooting hand — heavily bandaged and played just four second half minutes because of the injury. At this point, it is unclear what the severity of the injury is or how the injury was actually suffered, but what is clear is that the Spartans are not the same team without him.

Michigan State is already down their second-best scorer with Josh Langford injured. Losing Ward would mean losing their best low-post scorer and a guy that gets them a couple of easy buckets every night because of his ability to run the floor and the way Cassius Winston can find him in transition.

With Langford out of commission, Michigan State is going to have a tough enough time with Michigan in two of their last four game.

Without Ward?

It’s hard to see the Spartans winning much of anything if this injury ends up being serious.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Barrett shines, Kentucky rolls, Kansas’ time is a flat circle

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: R.J. Barrett, Duke

Barrett has been something of a disappointment this season considering what the expectations for him were coming into the year. He was the No. 1 prospect in the class, the guy we thought was going to the No. 1 pick, and he’s been … just an all-american?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, I guess.

One of the knocks on Barrett throughout the year has been that he can be too selfish and that he’s an inefficient gunner. Well, on Saturday, as Zion Williamson poured in 32 points while battling foul trouble in a 94-78 win over N.C. State, Barrett completed just the fourth triple-double in the history of the Duke program. He had 23 points (8-for-16 shooting), 11 boards and 10 assists, and he did it without committing a turnover.

Not bad.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Kentucky Wildcats

No. 5 Kentucky smacked around the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday, beating Tennessee, 86-69, in Lexington. It was their ceiling game. We wrote 1,000 words all about it here.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Joe Wieskamp, Iowa

After Geo Baker hit a go-ahead three with 3.3 seconds left, Iowa answered with one of the wildest shots of the season. Check this out:

EXTRA ONIONS: David Jenkins, South Dakota State

Jenkins capped off a comeback from 17 points down in the second half as the Jackrabbits knocked off North Dakota State with a buzzer-beater from halfcourt:

WINNERS

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines kept a hold on first place in the Big Ten race by rolling over No. 24 Maryland in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

AVERY BENSON AND ANDREW SORRELLS: No. 15 Texas Tech steam-rolled another Big 12 opponent on Saturday, beating Baylor by 25 points. And while the win didn’t make all that much noise, Texas Tech did make some headlines thanks to a pair of walk-ons who through an alley-oop in the final seconds of a blowout win. Chris Beard was not happy:

My take?

Whatever the punishment ends up being — the suicides, the wall-sits, whatever it is — it was worth it. Walk-ons only get so many shots at glory. If you have a chance to throw a lob or catch a lob and dunk it as a walk-on, you take it. Those two already are legends on campus.

Like I said, it was worth it.

LSU: The Tigers hung on to beat Georgia on the road, their second road win of the week. This is significant because Kentucky knocked off Tennessee on Saturday as well, and that Wildcat win means that LSU is now tied with Tennessee for first place in the league standings. The best news? Four of LSU’s final six games are at home, including hosting a game against the Vols. And the Vols also have to play Kentucky against. Is … is LSU the odds-on favorite to win the SEC now?

LOSERS

INDIANA: This has to be rock bottom for the Hoosiers, right?

Not only have they now lost 10 out of their last 11 games, but this loss was a total and complete humiliation. The Hoosiers lost by 21 points at Minnesota. They trailed by as many as 30. With an NCAA tournament bid still up in the air, Indiana played as if they didn’t even want to make the trip up to Minneapolis. This has not been the sophomore season that Archie Miller wanted.

DEAN WADE’S FOOT: No. 18 Kansas State lost to No. 23 Iowa State at home on Saturday, which cost them the cushion they had in the Big 12 title race, but that might not be their biggest loss of the day. Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Dean Wade suffered another foot injury. It does not appear to be all that serious, but for a guy that has missed long stretches of each of the last two seasons with foot injuries, everything is serious.

CLEMSON: The Tigers lost their second straight game in demoralizing fashion on Saturday. Against Louisville, the Tigers erased a seven point deficit in less than 15 seconds and, with 3.5 seconds left in a one-point game, forced a turnover and had two shots two win it at the buzzer. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. On Wednesday, it was Miami — one of the worst teams in the ACC — hitting a last-second jumper that bounced off the backboard twice before going in. There’s only a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line here.

FINAL THOUGHT

Kansas is always going to find a way to win the Big 12.

Right?

I mean, it’s proven to be true for 14 straight years, regardless of what disaster or obstacle gets put in their way.

And after what transpired on Saturday, it looks like we’re heading down that same road again.

Kansas State entered the day holding a two game lead in the loss column in the league title race. But they lost at home to Iowa State and, in the process, lost Dean Wade. The injury does not appear to be serious, but it does appear to be something that will, at the very least, bother him for a little while. We know what Kansas State is without Wade on the floor at 100 percent (not very good), which opens the door for Kansas.

The standings, as of today, look like this:

  • Kansas State (9-3)
  • Texas Tech (9-4)
  • Kansas (9-4)
  • Iowa State (8-4)

Kansas still has to play at Texas Tech next Saturday in the game that appears to be the most likely to keep Kansas from calling themselves Big 12 champions one again. The Jayhawks also host Kansas State while Texas Tech pays a visit to Iowa State on the last day of the regular season.

Those are the games that will decide the Big 12 regular season title.

And despite starting four freshmen, one of whom was supposed to redshirt this season, while playing without Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett and Lagerald Vick, Kansas is very much in the thick of the race.

One win in Lubbock next week, and they might even be the favorites.

Someone once told me, time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re going to do over and over and over again.

No. 5 Kentucky hands No. 1 Tennessee first SEC loss in dominant fashion

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This time, Kentucky made sure that it didn’t come down to a controversial call.

The No. 5 Wildcats used a 14-0 to open the second half, pushing a 37-31 halftime lead to 20 points as they cruised to a 86-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. They were led by 23 points from P.J. Washington, who outplayed Tennessee’s all-american Grant Williams and staked his claim to the title of the SEC’s best player.

Keldon Johnson added 19 points for Kentucky, hitting three first half threes that helped lead Kentucky to an early double-digit lead.

This is the first loss in SEC play for Tennessee, who had not lost a game since they fell to Kansas in overtime in the title game of the Preseason NIT way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The win keeps Kentucky within a game of first place in the league standings. No. 21 LSU, who beat Kentucky in that controversial finish, is now tied with Tennessee for first in the SEC title race after they beat Georgia on Saturday night.

Here are three things we can take away from Saturday night’s top five battle:

1. THIS IS KENTUCKY’S CEILING GAME

We have been talking about the fact that Kentucky is good enough to get to the Final Four and win a national title for a couple of months now, but this game is the first time that was have seen them on the floor make a statement of this magnitude.

There are reasons to be concerned about just how good Tennessee is — and we’ll get to that — but there’s no doubt that they are one of college basketball’s best teams.

And Kentucky absolutely took them behind the woodshed.

P.J. Washington was living his best life and doing so while going up against the man we all thought was the favorite for SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. He finished with 23 points on a cool 9-for-12 fro the floor to go along with five boards, two steals and two blocks. He was a major reason that Tennessee could not find a way to get their offense flowing through Williams.

Keldon Johnson was just as good. He got hot early in the game, which helped the Wildcats shake off some early jitters and jump out to a double-digit lead, and looked every bit the part of a floor-spacer that is a threat to score off the bounce. Tyler Herro didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he did finished with 13 boards and three assists while Ashton Hagans did his usual — pestering defensive to go along with nine points and seven assists.

Even Nick Richards gave Coach Cal terrific minutes, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the play of Reid Travis. He finished with just 11 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks, but he did the job that Kentucky needed him to do, helping to wear down Tennessee’s frontcourt with his bulk.

It’s not all that surprising to see Kentucky come out and win a game like this given what happened on Tuesday night, but the way in which they won should let you know that these Wildcats are going to be a very real threat in March.

(AP Photo/James Crisp)

2. THIS RESULT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH MATCHUP

Tennessee wants to pound the ball in the paint as much as anyone in college basketball. There are only 20 teams in the country that get a higher percentage of their scoring off of two-point field goals and just 21 that get fewer points off of threes. It makes sense when you think about it: Their best player is Grant Williams, their second-best player is Admiral Schofield and those guys earn their keep because they are tougher, stronger and more physical than just about anyone that they come across. They are the nation’s second-most efficient offensive, according to KenPom, without making threes because of the way that their bigs are able to use their strength to their advantage, both in the post and when creating space for drivers.

The problem Tennessee ran into on Saturday night was that they faced off with a team that could match them inch for inch and pound for pound in the post. This was never going to be an ideal matchup for the Vols, but the way it played out sealed their fate.

And perhaps the most surprising thing about what happened on Saturday night is that it was Kentucky, not Tennessee, that was the bully.

The Vols are old, they are tough, they have a roster full of guys that look like they would thrive in the WWE and they’ve won an SEC title already. They were playing a team that is essentially all freshmen and sophomores, and it was the younger guys that treated their elders like little brother. Kentucky was the team that kept knocking Tennessee to the floor. Kentucky was the team that kept getting every loose ball. Kentucky was the team that was able to shake off physical play and continue to execute.

To think that this is the same team that rolled over and died against Duke three months ago is wild.

3. THE CONCERNS ABOUT TENNESSEE’S TALENT ARE REAL

Tennessee isn’t going to blow you away with their talent. They aren’t a one-and-done factory that is stacked with future NBA superstars. They do have some guys that will earn paychecks at the next level, but the truth is that much of the reason that the Vols have been as successful as they have the last two years comes down to effort, execution and intelligence.

That issue was at the forefront on Saturday night.

Tennessee wasn’t getting enough out of their frontcourt on Saturday night, and they needed their guards to step up and carry them. Lamonte Turner finished 2-for-11 from the floor. Admiral Schofield had 17 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there. Jordan Bowden was just 1-for-7 from the floor. Jordan Bone finished with 19 points and six assists, but 11 of those 19 points and four of those six assists can after Tennessee trailed 62-38 with 12 minutes left in the game.

Not everyone has a frontcourt as good as Kentucky’s, and Kyle Alexander is not going to be in foul trouble every game, but this was a perfect example of why there are concerns about whether or not this team can win six in March.

Waters, Smart lead No. 19 LSU over Georgia, 83-79

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ATHENS, Ga. — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Ja’vonte Smart added 19 and No. 19 LSU won its fourth straight game, holding off Georgia for an 83-79 victory Saturday night.

The Tigers (21-4, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) are off to their best start in league play since the 1981 Final Four team was 11-0. They never trailed after Smart’s 3-pointer midway through the second half, but Georgia stayed close and didn’t allow LSU to lead by more than eight the rest of the way.

LSU was down six midway through the first half, but went on a 17-2 run to take a 31-22 lead on Skylar Mays’ layup. Georgia remained in the game, thanks in part to a sixth straight sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum making it tough on the Tigers.

Nicolas Claxton finished with 17 points and Rayshaun Hammonds had 13 for Georgia (10-15, 1-11). The Bulldogs have lost six straight in their first season under coach Tom Crean.

TIP-INS

LSU: The Tigers keep finding ways to win on the road. They sneaked out of Rupp Arena this week with an upset victory on Kavel Bigby-Williams’ last-second tip-in against Kentucky, and they’ve won three times in overtime. It’s a big turnaround after LSU lost its final seven SEC road games last season and dropped nine in a row away from Baton Rouge before starting league play this year. The Tigers are 7-0 on the road in the SEC for the first time since 1981.

Georgia: In 24 SEC halves played this season, the Bulldogs have been outscored 20 times. … Crean went with a three-guard starting lineup, sitting forward Derek Ogbeide and guard Teshaun Hightower in favor of Turtle Jackson, Jordan Harris and walk-on redshirt senior Christian Harrison. … The Bulldogs have struggled all season off the dribble and in giving help, so Crean mostly used a 2/3 zone in hopes to jump-starting the defense. It didn’t help much as LSU, the SEC’s best free-throw shooting team, still made it to the rim to draw fouls and score 18 points from the foul line.

R.J. Barrett’s triple-double, Zion Williamson’s 32 points lead No. 2 Duke past N.C. State

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DURHAM, N.C. — RJ Barrett had Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ 94-78 victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night.

Zion Williamson scored 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Tre Jones added 13 to help the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) win their ninth straight.

Barrett became the fourth Duke player with a triple-double and the first since Shelden Williams in January 2006. He completed it in the final minute, hitting Williamson for a layup that put Duke up 90-74.

Duke overcame 19 percent shooting from 3-point range by building a 44-26 rebounding advantage and scoring 22 points off N.C. State’s 12 turnovers.

Markell Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists, Torin Dorn scored 17 points and C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (18-8, 6-7), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack played like a team that believed it could beat Duke — because they had, winning each of the last two meetings — and kept coming up with an answer when the Blue Devils tried to pull away. But their struggles to keep Duke from scoring in the paint — the Blue Devils had 58 points there — kept them from their first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-88.

Duke: The Blue Devils didn’t need a rally in this one, unlike their victory at Louisville four nights earlier in which they stormed back after trailing by 23 with less than 10 minutes left. They kept one neighborhood rival at arm’s length all night — though they never really delivered a knockout blow — and now they can focus on a bigger one: No. 8 North Carolina, which comes in Wednesday night.

IN THE SEATS

There was even more buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for this one, with boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among the handful of other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star who was in the stands with NBA All-Star Weekend taking place 2 hours away in Charlotte.