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.

Indiana’s late-run beats No. 11 Michigan State 67-63

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Joey Brunk scored 14 points, including a key layup with 1 minute left to play, and Jerome Hunter made two late free throws Thursday night to close out Indiana’s 67-63 victory over No. 11 Michigan State.

The Hoosiers (15-4, 5-3 Big Ten) have won two straight and four of their last five. It was coach Archie Miller’s 50th win since taking the job three seasons ago.

Cassius Winston had 13 of his 17 points in the second half to lead the Spartans (14-5, 6-2), who lost their third straight in the series.

Michigan State had a chance to force overtime after forcing a turnover, calling timeout and sending Winston through the lane. He flipped the ball to Xavier Tillman for a layup, but the ball rolled off the rim and Hunter grabbed the rebound.

His free throws sealed the win.

The Hoosiers needed everything they had to earn this one after blowing a seven-point halftime lead.

Michigan State rallied by making its first six 3-point attempts in the second half and finally took a 51-48 lead on Rocket Watts’ 3 with 11:05 to go.

It remained a one-possession game the rest of the way.

But Aljami Durham finally gave Indiana what it needed – a 3 with 1:52 left – to break a 60-60 tie. Brunk’s layup made it 65-62.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Trips to Indiana just haven’t been kind to the Spartans lately. On Jan. 12, they were routed at Purdue. This time, they got beat in the closing minutes. Clearly, Michigan State performed closer to expectations than it did at Purdue. But another slow start cost them another game. They will return to Indiana for the conference tournament in March.

Indiana: It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Hoosiers struggled to make shots. But they’ve figured out how to limit the 3s and take advantage of their size and athleticism inside, and it’s made a huge difference. If Indiana’s offense stays in sync this weekend, they just might crack the Top 25 for the first time.

STAT PACK

Michigan State: Aaron Henry had 12 points, while Gabe Brown had 10 points and four 3s. Xavier Tillman finished with nine points and 10 rebounds. … The Spartans had 13 turnovers, but only gave up six points off those turnovers. … Michigan State started the game by missing its first nine 3s. It wound up 9 of 21 from beyond the arc.

Indiana: Trayce Jackson-Davis had 12 points and four rebounds, while Durham finished with 11 points and four 3s. … Race Thompson had four points, two blocks and two steals before leaving the game late in the first half after a hard foul. He sat on the bench the entire second half. … Nine of the 10 Hoosiers who appeared in the first half scored. Only Jerome Hunter, who logged four minutes, was shut out. … NBA star Victor Oladipo attended the game. The two-time All-Star is expected to make his season debut with the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: plays two of its next three on the road, including Sunday’s stop at Minnesota.

Indiana: hosts another ranked opponent, No. 17 Maryland, on Sunday.

Three Things To Know: Marcus Carr beats Ohio State, Indiana wins, Yoeli’s back

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There were no brawls, but there is still plenty to talk about after a full slate of games on Thursday night.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. THE BIG TEN STAYS WILD

It was another bonkers night in the toughest conference in the country on Thursday.

Let’s start with the early game.

Ohio State lost for the sixth time in the last seven games, blowing an 11-point second half lead after Marcus Carr, who finished with 21 points, his a three with 3.3 seconds left on the clock to give the Gophers a 62-59 win.

Daniel Oturu added 11 points and six boards, all of which came in the second half, as he shut down Kaleb Wesson to give Minnesota the season-sweep of the Buckeyes.

Minnesota is now 5-4 in the Big Ten and 11-8 on the season, and while this loss drops Ohio State into 12th place in the Big Ten standings, the work that they did in the early part of the season combined with the depth and strength of the conference they play in means that, as of now, this is still a Quad 1 win for Minnesota.

The late game was just as crazy.

No. 11 Michigan State trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before storming back to take a lead in the final four minutes. But Indiana responded, and caught a lucky break as Xavier Tillman missed a wide-open tip-in with less than a second left on the clock that would have forced overtime.

The Spartans are now 6-2 in the Big Ten, putting them in a tie for first place with Illinois, while Indiana an absolutely enormous win for Archie Miller and this program. With No. 17 Maryland coming to town on Saturday, this was critical for Archie Miller, whose lack of success has gotten the locals riled up.

This should give him some breathing room.

2. YOELI CHILDS IS BACK

It hasn’t really been discussed much nationally to this point, but BYU is a really good, really dangerous team this season when they are at full strength.

The problem has been that they’ve barely been at full strength.

Their best player is Yoeli Childs, a 6-foot-9 center with all the tools that make him an intriguing NBA prospect and, in turn, an absolute monster in the WCC. But he missed the first nine games of the season because of a paperwork issue withdrawing from last year’s NBA draft, and then had to sit out the last four after injuring his finger.

But he’s back now.

And he put everyone on notice with a 26 point, nine rebound outburst in a 74-60 win at Pacific.The Cougars are a very real at-large candidate with the size and shot-making to threaten Gonzaga. Keep an eye on them.

3. HOUSTON SURVIVES UCONN

In one of the weirdest end-of-game sequences I can remember seeing, No. 25 Houston managed to find a way to survive UConn’s upset bid.

Here’s what happened: The Cougars, who trailed for the entire game, finally took the lead late in the second half. They had pushed the lead out to six points, when UConn’s Jalen Gaffney scored with 7.3 seconds left to cut it to four. But after he scored, Houston’s DeJon Jarreau said something to Danny Hurley and was given a technical foul. After Gaffney made both free throws, Jarreau then committed a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds.

UConn ball.

But this is the strangest part: Since UConn was in foul trouble, they brought in a walk-on — Temi Aiyegbusy — to commit a foul. But no time went of the clock on the turnover, so he had to remain on the court for the UConn possession. The ball ended up in his hands in the corner, and he passed up on a three took a pull-up that missed.

Houston grabbed the rebound, made their free throws, and that was that.

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure: