Mountain West Midseason Catchup: No. 24 Colorado State leads what will be an entertaining race

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J.J. Avila and the Rams are off to the best start in school history (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Mountain West.

MIDSEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: J.J. Avila, Colorado State

Avila (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.2 apg) currently leads CSU in points and rebounds and is second on the team in assists. He’s ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in each of those categories while also shooting 54.8% from the field. There have been a lot of good performers in the conference thus far, but his all-around impact wins Avila this designation.

THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • Avila
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State: Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, the senior guard is also shooting 52.3% from the field and 58.1% from beyond the arc.
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico: Delaney (14.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) ranks in the top ten in both scoring and rebounding, and he’s also shooting nearly 54 percent from the field.
  • Christian Wood, UNLV: Vaughn may be the team’s leading scorer, but Wood (14.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg) is the lone player in the Mountain West averaging a double-double.
  • Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming: The preseason pick to win league POY is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the field.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Colorado State deserved more preseason respect than they received from many pundits. While some had a good idea of what Larry Eustachy’s transfer-laden group was capable of, they were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll (NBCSports.com picked them to finish second). Thus far it’s been thirteen up, thirteen down for the undefeated Rams who are off to the best start in school history. Seniors Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila have been good leaders for this group, and newcomers such as Gian Clavell, Stanton Kidd and John Gillon have contributed as well. The question now is whether or not this group can win the program’s first regular season conference title since 1990, and they’ve shown themselves capable of doing so in non-conference play.

2. San Diego State’s still searching for solutions offensively. While the focus of many has been the Aztecs’ struggles shooting the basketball, their issues on the offensive end of the floor begin with the caliber of shots they’re finding. Obviously accounting for the loss of Xavier Thames wasn’t going to be easy, but thus far the pick and roll game that was so successful last season hasn’t been as effective in 2014-15. What also hasn’t helped San Diego State are their health issues, with Dwayne Polee II now out of the lineup indefinitely and Aqeel Quinn, Matt Shrigley and Malik Pope all having missed time themselves (and Zylan Cheatham looking likely to redshirt). The good news for SDSU is that they still defend at a high level, and that will keep them in the Mountain West race.

3. Larry Nance Jr. is back to full strength for an entertaining Wyoming squad. Nance, who tore his ACL in mid-February, was the preseason pick to win Mountain West POY but there were questions as to whether or not he would hit the ground running for the Cowboys. Averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game he’s been good and so have the Cowboys, who enter conference play with an 11-2 record. For too often people associate “entertaining” basketball with a high tempo, but Wyoming doesn’t run and with high-flyers Nance and Josh Adams they’re incredibly fun to watch. They’ve been more efficient on both ends of the floor than they were last season, and Wyoming also ranks fourth nationally in two-point field goal percentage (58.4%).

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. The growth of UNLV’s underclassmen. Freshman Rashad Vaughn and sophomore Christian Wood have played well for Dave Rice’s team, with Vaughn leading the Mountain West in scoring (18.1 ppg) and Wood (10.0) being the lone player in the league averaging double-digit rebounds per game. But they aren’t the only youngsters to keep an eye on in conference play, as freshmen Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish have also contributed. The growth of these players will determine just how well the Runnin’ Rebels finish in the Mountain West.

2. Anthony Drmic’s back and Derrick Marks’ production at Boise State. Drmic hasn’t played since Boise State’s win over Saint Mary’s on December 6 because of a back injury, but the Broncos are off to a 10-3 start thanks in large part to the play of Marks. Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, Marks is playing the most consistent (and efficient) basketball of his Boise State career. Both missed Boise State’s 48-45 loss to Loyola (IL) two days before Christmas, with Marks nursing a sprained ankle. When will Drmic return? And can he and Marks lead the way for a group expected to contend once back on the court?

UPDATE: Drmic will undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle according to Dave Southorn of the Idaho Statesman.

3. Will Cullen Neal be able to return for New Mexico? Neal suffered a badly sprained ankle during the Puerto Rico Tipoff in mid-November and hasn’t played since, with head coach Craig Neal (also his father for those who somehow didn’t know) stating that a medical redshirt was possible. Neal’s injury was one of many for the Lobos during non-conference play, but despite those personnel issues they went 8-4 thanks in large part to improved play on the defensive end. If Neal can’t return Hugh Greenwood, who was supposed to spend the majority of his time off the ball this season, runs the show and fellow senior Deshawn Delaney will need to continue to score as he has for most of non-conference play.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Colorado State will win the Mountain West. For as well as the Rams have played offensively, with the newcomers giving Avila and Bejarano the consistent help they didn’t have last season, there’s still room for growth defensively. Look for the Rams to get the job done and win their first regular season conference title in 25 years.

2. Utah State manages to finish .500 (or better) in league play. With Fresno State performing as they have (and Cezar Guerrero proving to be even more valuable than imagined in his absence), there’s room for a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference to make a run at a 9-9 (or better) league record. Give me the Aggies, with Jalen Moore (15.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) being the Mountain West’s most improved player and freshman David Collette (58.8% FG) averaging 14.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

3. The Mountain West gets three NCAA tournament bids. Colorado State and, offensive struggles aside, San Diego State should hear their names called Selection Sunday. But who else gets in? Boise State, UNLV and Wyoming will all look to strengthen their respective cases in the next two-plus months, and it may come down to which team performs best in the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: Colorado State, San Diego State, Wyoming
  • NIT: UNLV, New Mexico
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Boise State, Utah State, Air Force, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State (Spartans are ineligible for postseason play)