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.

Thursday’s Things To Know: UConn impresses, 3-point record falls and Oregon falters

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We’re closing in on one of the more entertaining stretches of the college basketball season with Thanksgiving tournaments giving us all-day hoops and really interesting non-conference matchups. It’s still early, and the best is yet to come, but Thursday night provided some quality hoops. Oh, and one guy shooting a ton of 3s. Literally more 3s than anyone has ever shot before. Here’s what you need to know:

1. UConn asserts itself against Syracuse.

It’s been a tough few years at UConn. It’s been two really bad years, but it’s mostly been not-great for the Huskies since that 2014 national title. It’s Dan Hurley’s job to change that. His first Big East throwback game certainly looked like it’s one he’ll be up for.

UConn’s quest to change the outlook of its locker room and the culture of its program was evident in the Huskies’ 83-76 win against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.

Changing the culture has become The Thing New Coaches Simply Have To Talk About, but there’s no doubting it needed to happen in Storrs as a program that’s used to winning national titles began to languish in a league that’s simply second tier. UConn in the AAC is a different challenge for a coach than UConn in the Big East. It’s tougher. Hurley has a long way to go, but getting a team to buy in from the outset is a positive signal.

2. Jordan Lyons goes berserk

On Wednesday night, Josh Williams of Robert Morris tied a 23-year-old NCAA record by making 15 3-pointers. It took about 24 hours for that number to be matched again.

Jordan Lyons matched Williams’ 15 makes from distance, but broke an NCAA record with 34 attempts from 3-point range in the Paladins’ win against a Division II opponent on Thursday.

As teams continue to hoist shots from 3-point range at an ever-increasing rate, these types of nights are going to become more typical, but to see two guys tie a record that’s stood for more than two decades on back-to-back nights? I mean, c’mon, that’s a little crazy.

3. Oregon goes down

Give Iowa credit. The Hawkeyes shot just 35.7 percent from the floor, but got to the line 33 times, making 29 of their attempts (87.9 percent) and grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to keep the offense afloat. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a 77-69 neutral site win against a ranked opponent, which will certainly come in handy for a team looking to get back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year drought.

Also, the Big Ten looks like it might be pretty good. Michigan stomped all over Villanova, Indiana blasted Marquette, Wisconsin handled Xavier and now the Hawkeyes bested Oregon. That’s a pretty good week for a league that has been stuck in something of a malaise the last few seasons.

The overwhelming feeling from watching the nightcap at Madison Square Garden, though, was just how underwhelming Oregon looked. There just wasn’t a lot of there there for the Ducks. That’s problematic for a top-15 team that is the heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 this season. They just lost a game to what many would pick to be a middle-of-the-pac B1G while holding them to under 40 percent shooting while only committing eight turnovers themselves. Getting 25 points from Ehab Amin is nice, but otherwise an all around uninspiring performance from Dana Altman’s group.

No More Hangdogs: Husky transformation under Hurley on display in UConn’s win over No. 15 Syracuse

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Danny Hurley knew that he had work to do to get this UConn basketball program back to where it was when the Big East was the best conference in college hoops.

He knew that he was taking over a program that was coming off their second-straight losing season. He knew that three four-star prospects — Vance Jackson, Juwan Durham and Connecticut native Steve Enoch — had transferred out of the program. He knew, going in, that the UConn fanbase wasn’t in the mood for nonsense, that they didn’t want to hear about rebuilds or patience or any of the excuses that new head coaches have at-the-ready.

The son of the most famous high school basketball coach in New Jersey, the younger brother of an All-American and two-time national champion point guard at Duke, he was ready for, even craved, expectation.

“I want to be in a place where greatness is expected,” Hurley said. “If I’m not in a place like that I don’t want to be there.”

He was ready to deal with whatever the fishbowl of UConn basketball had to throw at him.

What he couldn’t deal with was the hangdog faces.

“That’s an old cartoon,” Hurley said last month, elaborating after lamenting how The Horde, as UConn’s pack of beat writers is known, “knows everything.” The story goes like this: Early on, back before he really knew his players and his players really knew him, Hurley sent the team’s group-text a picture of that cartoon — a weathered, sad-looking old hound dog — and told the team that this is what he could not tolerate.

“I don’t want hangdog looks,” he said. “I want guys that are smiling, happy to be on the court. If you’re a real baller, when you get on the practice floor, that should be the best part of your day. You’re doing the thing you love the most.”

As Hurley told this story, Jalen Adams, UConn’s star point guard, yelled, with a smile stretching from ear-to-ear, “No hangdogs!”

Hurley, in the lobby of the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, surrounded by cameras and reporters with recorders shoved in his face, flashed a dimpled smile of his own; I’m not entirely sure he could actually see Adams.

“Yessir!”


Jalen Adams (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

A month later, and UConn is unrecognizable to anyone that watched the program play in the final years of Ollie’s tenure.

The energy and the effort level matched every drop of intensity that Hurley had on the sideline. Alterique Gilbert, finally healthy after two seasons lost to shoulder surgeries, is hawking Syracuse ball-handlers for 94-feet. So is Adams. So is Christian Vital, and Tarin Smith, and Brendan Adams. Eric Cobb, who was 40 pounds overweight and all-but off the team by the end of last season, was posting the first double-double of his career while Tyler Polley was banging home big threes.

The Huskies, playing for the right to call Madison Square Garden their own, handed No. 15 Syracuse their first loss of the season, 83-76.

They were dogs, not a hangdog in sight.

Getting this program from where it was when Hurley took over to this point was not an easy task. He was demanding. He did not look past any mistake that was made in practice, no matter how small. He created a practice environment that was chaotic, hectic and uncomfortable. He wanted intensity. He wanted stress. He wanted his guys to get used being tired, to working themselves past the point of what they thought was exhaustion. He wanted them to think game-night was the easiest night of the week.

But to do that, he also had to reinvigorate that passion.

Losing in an insidious force within a locker room. Your confidence disappears. Your enthusiasm for the game withers. Basketball stops being enjoyable. The longer the losing lasts, the most desperate and hopeless the situation seems. The comparison that Hurley made was to a pet that has lived in a shelter. All it takes to turn them back into the loving, carefree pet they were is a stable, loving home, an environment they can thrive.

That started with going back to the basics.

Hurley made everything a competition.

Win in a drill, whether it was spot-shooting or shell or 4-on-4-on-4, you get a point. Lose, and you’re on the baseline, but if you win the sprint, you get that point back. Keep a leaderboard throughout a practice, then throughout a week, then throughout the preseason. Making winning matter again.

Once that happened, the next step was turning Adams, his senior star, into the best player he could be. Becoming a more consistent shooter was key, but the priority was Adams’ leadership. He was as guilty of the hangdog mentality as anyone on the roster, a problem because of his role as the star. When things are going bad during a game, Adams needs to be the guy to lift their spirits.

He wasn’t.

“He can’t get deflated when the other team goes on a run,” Hurley said, and this is where those stressful, uncomfortable practices come into play. If his team is down in practice, fight back and find a way to win the drill. If he’s tired, stay on the floor and gut through it. If you lose, get on guys to be better. Demand more of himself so that he can demand more of the players around him.

“He’s put me in situations in practice where I’m just like, ‘Yo, I can’t do this anymore,'” Adams said. “In practice, it’s so intense. Everyone is tired. Sometimes we’ll sub off for one rep, and that’s one of the things that he challenged me on. And don’t just be out there, be out there and be active. Go hard the whole time.”

“Guys will follow his lead,” Hurley said. “If he’s more determined and grittier this year on game night, especially when teams are on runs or late in games, he’ll change the narrative of his career.”

This was not something that made Adams comfortable. As he put it, “I don’t want to be ‘that guy.'” He didn’t want to be the player that teammates thought was annoying, or the guy everyone thinks is showing off for the coach. There’s a fine line between ‘my teammate cares about me, and the team, and winning’ and ‘yo, this dude cares too much.’ That was the balancing act Adams had to master, and it’s something that is still a work in progress.

But he did have 16 points and four assists against the Orange on Thursday night.

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

And he did make critical plays throughout the second half to stem the tide of an Orange run. There was the loose ball he grabbed, which ignited a fast break and ended with Adams finding Smith for a layup to push UConn’s lead back to seven points. There was the pass he made to Gilbert, using his eyes and a ball-fake to move the Cuse zone, for a three-pointer that pushed the lead to ten. There were the seven defensive rebounds he grabbed playing, at times, as the third-biggest guy on the floor.

Most importantly, there was the three he hit with 1:24 left on the clock, a dagger that put the Huskies up 76-66 and sent all of the Orange in the building scurrying for the exits.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Adams made a bee line for his head coach.

Two chest-bumps, a slap to the face and some very loud, very-inappropriate-for-this-setting words later, it was clear that these Huskies, at least on this night, were not hangdogs.

VIDEO: Furman’s Jordan Lyons shoots record 34 3-pointers, ties record with 15 makes

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Where were you for the historic Furman-North Greenville game?

Well, the game wasn’t historic so much as the performance of the Paladins’ Jordan Lyons.

The 5-foot-11 junior tied an NCAA record with 15 made 3-pointers and broke the record for 3-point attempts in the game with 34 as he poured in 54 points in Furman’s 107-67 victory Thursday over their Division II opponents.

Lyons’ 15 made 3s matches the number Keith Veney of Marshall made in 1995. That record was unmatched until, surprisingly enough, it was tied the day prior by Robert Morris’  Josh Williams, who was 15 of 25 against Mt. Aloysius, a D3 school.

The 34 attempts is the most-ever, besting the 27 launched by Manhattan’s Bruce Seals in 2000. He made nine of those.

Lyons is a career 32.7 percent 3-point shooter, and the 15 triples he canned Thursday increased his career total by 15 percent. In a single game.

It’ll be interesting to see how long these types of records stand as teams continue to push the envelope on the 3-point line. Team records are surely set to fall pretty consistently in the near future. Maybe guys shooting 20-plus 3s in a game is going to become relatively commonplace?

Either way, save your ticket stubs if you were in Greenville, S.C. tonight.

Buddy Boeheim’s name misspelled on Syracuse jersey

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As the son of the Hall of Fame coach, Buddy Boeheim can count on a lot of things. He’ll get tons of attention. He’ll be talked about time and again on national television. He’ll be under quite a bit of scrutiny. That’s part of the deal when you’re playing for your dad, a legend in Jim Boeheim.

You’d also think the equipment guys would spell your name right.

The Syracuse freshman was missing an “e” on his jersey in the Orange’s loss Thursday to UConn, leaving maybe the most famous last name in Syracuse, N.Y. misspelled as” Boheim.”

 

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Jim has been a part of the Syracuse program since 1962. Maybe it’ll take a second national title to make sure his kid’s name is spelled right on the jersey.

Or maybe Buddy has to earn that “e” on his own?

Cal, San Francisco cancel games due to smoke from wildfires

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Cal’s men’s basketball program cancelled Thursday night’s game against Detroit due to poor air quality stemming from the wildfires still raging in the area.

The release announcing the cancellation cited air quality that had reached “very unhealthy” levels in the Berkeley area, and that “a significant amount of smoke” had managed to works its way into Haas Pavilion, Cal’s home arena.

According to Cal, the Air Quality Index reached 200, and the teams that play outdoors had practices moved indoors. The Cal-Stanford football game is also in jeopardy of being postponed.

The two programs are working on a possible date to reschedule the game.

San Francisco also cancelled their game against Arizona State on Friday night, a source told NBC Sports, as the Sun Devils are concerned about the air quality in the area. The Dons are looking into ways to charter into Tempe to play Arizona State on the road, although as of this posting it is unclear is that will happen.