Mountain West Preview: Boise State, SDSU to contend

San Diego State's Skylar Spencer (AP Photo)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West.

While the Mountain West did manage to get three teams into the NCAA tournament a season ago, 2014-15 also served as a wakeup call of sorts. The league put together an out of conference strength of schedule that was ranked 25th out of 33 leagues, and there was a price to be paid Selection Sunday. San Diego State received an eight-seed and Boise State, which shared the regular season title with SDSU and was the top seed in the Mountain West tournament, landed in the First Four where they got to take on Dayton, whose home arena hosted those games.

The Broncos and Aztecs are two of the teams expected to contend this season, with a talented UNLV squad looking to get into the mix and Fresno State and Utah State also capable of making a run. But even with the amount of talent possessed by those programs, what they do in November and December will have a major impact on how much respect they’re given in March. The Mountain West learned this the hard way last season.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. UNLV brings in the conference’s top recruiting class in what is a big season for Dave Rice: According to Rivals.com the Runnin’ Rebels have a class that’s the 11th-best in the country, with big man Stephen Zimmerman being the crown jewel of that group. Add in transfers such as Jerome Seagears (Rutgers), Ben Carter (Oregon) and Ike Nwamu (Mercer), and a sophomore class expected to take a step forward, and there’s no denying that Dave Rice and his staff have a lot to work with. But can they take advantage of it? Not only will the answer impact this season, but it could also impact the direction of UNLV basketball in seasons to come.

2. Nevada and Utah State made head coaching changes: There were two head coaching changes in the Mountain West this offseason, and the two hires are in far different situations. Eric Musselman, who has plenty of experience at both the college and NBA levels, takes over at Nevada and he’s already had success on the recruiting trail. The other move occurred at Utah State, where longtime assistant Tim Duryea slides over a seat to take over for the retired Stew Morrill. And with all five starters back, led by Player of the Year candidate Jalen Moore, Duryea could have a Mountain West contender on his hands.

3. San Diego State has some issues to sort out offensively: You know that Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are going to bring it defensively; that hasn’t been in question for a long time on Montezuma Mesa. But what is up for questioning is this group’s productivity on the offensive end, with their best perimeter shooter from last season out of eligibility (Aqeel Quinn) and the player expected to be that option (Matt Shrigley) sidelined with a torn ACL. Can Malik Pope develop into the talent that has some NBA Draft types discussing him as a possible first round pick? Is freshman Jeremy Hemsley the answer at the point? Those are two key questions SDSU faces heading into the season.

4. Anthony Drmic returns to the court after redshirting last season: When Boise State lost Anthony Drmic for the season in January due to a back injury, it was assumed that the Broncos were in trouble. Well everyone else got healthy, Derrick Marks emerged as the conference’s best player and James Webb III took off in conference play. While Marks is now playing professionally, Drmic returns for his final season, joining a highly experienced perimeter rotation on a team that can win another Mountain West title.

James Webb III
AP Photo

5. Colorado State, Wyoming looking to account for major personnel losses: Colorado State had a good case that it should have been in the NCAA tournament last season, as they won 26 games and finished third in the conference. But that senior-laden group landed in the NIT, and now Larry Eustachy has to account for the loss of his top three scorers from a season ago (J.J. Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano). As for Wyoming, Larry Shyatt has just one starter returning (Josh Adams) from a team that got hot in Las Vegas and won the Mountain West tournament.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “I think you have to start two places. I think you have to start with Boise State, being the defending champs and having three elite players back in Webb, Duncan and Drmic. Those are three of the better players in the league on the team that won it. And I think the other place you have to start in this league is San Diego State. They’re the most physically gifted team in the league in terms of size and athleticism and length, and defensively they are the gold standard in this league.”
  • Sleeper: “I think that has to be Fresno State. Marvelle Harris, one of the top two or three players in the league is back, and Paul Watson’s good as well. I think they have a chance to be really good. They started out last year without their full contingent of players, and once they got everyone back they were extremely hard to guard. I think they’ll be (in the race) all year because they’re explosive offensively and put a lot of pressure on you defensively. They’re very athletic. I know they took a foreign tour this summer that I’m sure they think puts them in a good spot experience-wise.”
  • Best player: “I think, for the effect that they have on the game and for the efficiency they plays with, James Webb III from Boise State and Marvelle Harris from Fresno State. One of those guys is “1A” and the other’s “1B” because  they both have a huge impact on the game. In different ways, but both really affect the game so those are the two guys who come to mind right away.”
  • Most underrated player: “I thought Marvelle Harris (was underrated last year). There are a lot of similarities between he and Derrick Marks, and I think he’s a guy who could have a breakout year this year. I think he’s as good as anybody in the league, is a pro prospect and could have a special year.”

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: James Webb III, Boise State

While Boise State getting healthy was a big factor in them getting hot in conference play, so was the emergence of Webb. In his first season in a Boise State uniform Webb averaged 11.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from three. A versatile offensive weapon at 6-foot-9, Webb could take off in 2015-16.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • Marvelle Harris, Fresno State: The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game last season.
  • Jalen Moore, Utah State: Moore’s added some weight to his frame after playing well enough to earn second team all-conference honors a season ago, and he could be in the Player of the Year conversation in 2015-16.
  • A.J. West, Nevada: One of the nation’s best rebounders, West grabbed 11.0 caroms per contest to go with 12.1 points and 2.6 blocks.
  • Josh Adams, Wyoming: Adams will have a lot on his plate with the Cowboys losing four starters from last season’s team. He averaged 12.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game as a junior.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Stephen Zimmerman and Jaylen Poyser, UNLV
  • Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
  • Anthony Drmic, Boise State
  • Emmanuel Omogbo, Colorado State
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico

BREAKOUT STAR: Malik Pope, San Diego State

After dealing with two major injuries on the tail end of his high school career, Pope showed some flashes of his array of skills as a freshman. The next step for the 6-foot-10 forward is consistency, which could come with a season spent working on his body and game as opposed to having to focus on rehab. If he can do that, SDSU has its feature scorer and Pope’s name will continue to circulate amongst those who put together mock drafts.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Dave Rice, UNLV

Rice is the clear choice here, given UNLV’s underachievement in recent years. While many choose to focus on UNLV’s lack of national success when airing their frustrations, consider this: since Rice took over in 2011 UNLV’s finished no higher than third in the Mountain West in any of the four seasons he’s been in charge. Expectations are high in Las Vegas, with UNLV having the talent to be a factor both within the conference and nationally. Anything less could spell trouble for Rice.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Are any of these teams capable of getting to the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing if a player can step forward in the same manner that Derrick Marks did for Boise State last season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 19, Boise State at Arizona
  • November 26, San Diego State vs. California (Las Vegas Invitational)
  • November 29, Utah State at Duke
  • December 9, UNLV at Wichita State
  • December 22, Kansas at San Diego State

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @GeoffGrammer

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Boise State: Derrick Marks has moved on, but the Broncos have a good mix of experience and newcomers to rely on. And James Webb III is going to be a star this season.
2. San Diego State: If Jeremy Hemsley is the answer at the point the Aztecs can win the league outright. But they still need to find dependable perimeter shooters.
3. UNLV: The raw talent is definitely there for the Runnin’ Rebels. But can Dave Rice make all the pieces fit together?
4. Utah State: With all five starters back longtime assistant Tim Duryea could be in for a big year in his debut as head coach.
5. Fresno State: With their entire rotation back, led by Marvelle Harris, this could be a big year for the Bulldogs.
6. New Mexico: The Lobos enter this season with hopes of avoiding the injury bug that derailed their 2014-15 campaign even before conference play began.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy lost a lot from last season, but they’ve added some quality players to make up for that. One name to remember: Emmanuel Omogbo.
8. Wyoming: Larry Shyatt finds himself in a similar situation personnel-wise, with senior guard Josh Adams being surrounded by many new faces.
9. Nevada: While Eric Musselman’s first season at the helm may not churn out too many wins, he and his staff have done a good job on the recruiting trail thus far.
10. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich’s team was one of the better offensive teams in the league from an efficiency standpoint last year. But they have to get better defensively if they’re to make a move up the standings.
11. San Jose State: Already working with limited talent, losing Rashad Muhammad (transferred to Miami) doesn’t help Dave Wojcik at all as he looks to rebuild.

Minnesota-Illinois postponed for COVID-19 in Gophers program

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota’s game at Illinois that was scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols within the Gophers’ program.

The announcement was made Monday by Minnesota, which didn’t specify how many players would have been unable to play.

The Gophers (7-15, 1-11) had only eight available scholarship players for their last game, an 81-46 loss to Maryland on Saturday. Dawson Garcia (ankle) has missed the last four games, and Braeden Carrington (leg) has missed the last six. Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen will not play this season while recovering from knee injuries.

The game will be rescheduled by the Big Ten, with input from both schools.

Minnesota is next scheduled to host Iowa on Sunday. Illinois (16-7, 7-5) will host No. 24 Rutgers on Saturday.

Purdue stays No. 1 in AP Top 25; NC State in at No. 22

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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Purdue’s unquestioned grip on No. 1 in The Associated Press poll is gone after a weekend loss. That didn’t stop the Boilermakers from remaining at the top anyway.

The Boilermakers earned 38 of 62 first-place votes in the poll to remain at No. 1 for a third straight week and seventh time this season. Purdue was the unanimous choice last week, the first for any team this season, before falling at Indiana over the weekend for only its second loss.

The Boilermakers (22-2, 11-2) have a leading candidate for national player of the year in Zach Edey and KenPom’s No. 1-ranked offense (121.1 points scored per 100 possessions) to go with a top-25 defense. But they got down big, committed 16 turnovers and allowed the Hoosiers — up to No. 18 this week — to shoot nearly 53% in a 79-74 loss Saturday.

“When we go to Zach and we make some perimeter shots, the defense gets better sometimes when the offense flows,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said at his postgame news conference. “And you can’t do that. You can always rebound, you can always take care of the ball, you can always make your free throws, those things there.”

The loss meant Houston collected 22 first-place votes as it rose one spot to No. 2, followed by No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Arizona in each claiming one.

THE TOP TIER

Texas jumped five spots to No. 5, shooting past Tennessee, which fell four spots to No. 6 after losing last week at Florida.

UCLA, Virginia, Kansas and Marquette rounded out the top 10, with Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles cracking the top 10 for the first time since 2019.

RISING

The Longhorns’ jump marked the biggest of the week, followed by Marquette and Miami each rising four spots. No. 13 Xavier, No. 15 Saint Mary’s and No. 21 UConn joined Indiana in each moving up three positions.

In all, 12 teams rose from last week’s rankings.

SLIDING

Kansas State took the week’s biggest tumble, falling five spots to No. 12 after losing at Kansas and at home to Texas last week. No. 16 Gonzaga joined Tennessee in falling four spots after its overtime loss at Saint Mary’s.

In all, nine teams fell from last week’s rankings.

STATUS QUO

Purdue was the only team to remain in the same position this week.

WELCOME

North Carolina State earned its first AP Top 25 ranking in four years, checking in at No. 22.

The Wolfpack (19-5, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) spent six weeks in the poll during the 2018-19 season. N.C. State already has surpassed the win total for each of the last two seasons and is in contention for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018.

Creighton and Rutgers joined N.C. State as this week’s new additions to the poll, though both were ranked earlier this season. The Bluejays were No. 9 in the preseason poll and peaked at No. 7 before falling out by mid-December, while the Scarlet Knights spent a week at No. 23 in mid-January.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

Florida Atlantic (No. 19), Clemson (No. 20) and Auburn (No. 25) fell out of this week’s poll.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Big 12 leads all leagues with six ranked teams, including No. 11 Iowa State, No. 14 Baylor and No. 17 TCU. The Big East is next with five ranked teams, followed by the Big Ten and ACC with three each.

The Pac-12, Southeastern and West Coast conferences each have two ranked teams, while the American Athletic and Mountain West each have one.

Indiana reaches No. 2 in women’s AP Top 25; South Carolina still No. 1

Noe Padilla/Journal & Courier/USA TODAY NETWORK
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South Carolina beat a top opponent to remain No. 1 in the women’s poll and now has a showdown with another one looming this weekend.

The Gamecocks (23-0) topped then- No. 5 UConn 81-77 to remain unbeaten and stay the unanimous choice atop the poll from the 28-member national media panel. After facing Auburn, South Carolina will play No. 3 LSU in a matchup of the last two unbeatens in Division I women’s college basketball.

Dawn Staley’s team has won 29 consecutive games and has been No. 1 in the poll for 33 consecutive weeks. That’s one week short of tying the Huskies for the third-longest streak atop the poll. Only UConn (51 weeks) and Louisiana Tech (36) have had longer runs at No. 1.

While South Carolina has had a stranglehold on No. 1 for more than a year, Indiana is making its first appearance ever at No. 2 after Stanford lost to Washington.

“I’m going to relish this for a minute, knowing where the program was to where it is,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “We’ve made a lot of history since we’ve been here in our nine seasons and it’s one of the more historical things we’ve been able to accomplish. Give our players credit, I don’t want to discount what a big achievement this is. We’re more than humbled to be No. 2.”

Indiana has won 10 straight since suffering its lone loss of the season to Michigan State. The Hoosiers have a tough stretch coming up, starting with a home game against No. 5 Iowa. Indiana, which hadn’t been ranked higher than fourth, then plays No. 13 Ohio State and 12th-ranked Michigan.

“That’s why we take it one game at a time, but you understand the magnitude of what’s ahead of us. I tell the kids all the time we’re in control of our own destiny,” Moren said.

LSU remained at No. 3 after close wins over Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers have a week to prepare for the Gamecocks.

UConn moved up one spot to fourth after its close loss to the Gamecocks and Iowa was fifth.

The Cardinal fell to sixth with Utah, Maryland, Duke and Notre Dame rounding out the top 10. The Blue Devils beat the Irish to take over sole possession of first in the ACC and vault up six spots in the poll. It’s Duke’s best ranking since the team finished the 2017 season ranked ninth.

FALLING CYCLONES

It was a rough week for Iowa State, which lost to Kansas by one point and Baylor by six. The Cyclones fell nine spots in the poll from 12th to 21st.

RE-ENTRY

Colorado came back into the poll at No. 25 after beating Oregon and Oregon State over the weekend. The Buffaloes were ranked for four weeks before falling out last week. Middle Tennessee dropped out of the poll after losing both its games last week.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

SUPERB SUBS

Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.