Mountain West Conference Preview: It’s San Diego State and everyone else … again

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West Conference.

The Mountain West has long been a haven for cast-offs. Coaches that ran afoul of the law or the NCAA could find a home and transfers that couldn’t cut it at bigger schools would get a chance to thrive. There was a stretch were the MWC was as strong as the Pac-12, getting as many as four bids to the NCAA tournament. In the last couple of years, however, the league has slid. It’s a step below the Power 5 conferences and has arguably fallen behind the Big East, the AAC and the Atlantic 10 in terms of conference strength.

It’ll bounce back at some point, but on paper, that doesn’t seem to be this year, the power atop the conference is condensed to one team.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. There is a ton of turnover in the league: Wyoming’s Josh Adams graduated. So did Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris. Boise State’s James Webb III is now in the NBA. SDSU’s front line graduated, as did Winston Shepard, while Colorado State lost their three best perimeter players. And all that comes before discussing UNLV, who saw Dave Rice get fired January, interim head coach Todd Simon leave for Southern Utah and Chris Beard take the job and leave for Texas Tech in the span of two weeks. That left Marvin Menzies to take over a program that had just two scholarship players.

2. San Diego State will be favored once again: To get an idea of where, exactly, the MWC was in the hierarchy of college hoops, think about this: San Diego State won the MWC regular season title by three full games. They went 28-10 overall on the season. And yet, the Aztecs found themselves in the NIT come Selection Sunday. The Aztecs should once again dominate the conference this season, as they bring back a loaded perimeter attack. Junior Trey Kell was sensational in MWC play, averaging 16.4 points and 4.4 boards while shooting 39.3 percent from three, and he’ll have plenty of help in the back court. Dakarai Allen is back. Jeremy Helmsley is back. Teki Gill-Cesear, a former top 50 recruit, is eligible. Throw in Matt Shrigley’s return from an ACL tear, and the competition for back court minutes will be fierce.

The ceiling for the Aztecs will be determined by their front court, where the graduation of Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol will hurt what turned into one of the nation’s best defensive teams. Junior Malik Pope has all the talent in the world but has yet to find any kind of consistency. Sophomore Zylan Cheatham is another guy with potential that battled injuries last year. Throw in Indiana transfer Max Hoetzel and redshirt freshman Nolan Narain, and there are pieces there for SDSU to repeat in the MWC.

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - DECEMBER 5: Elijah Brown #4 of the New Mexico Lobos dribbles to the hoop as Dakota Mathias #31 and P.J. Thompson #3 of the Purdue Boilermakers defend at Mackey Arena on December 5, 2015 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated New Mexico 70-58. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Elijah Brown of New Mexico (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

3. New Mexico lose Cullen Neal but will still be competitive: The only starter that the Lobos lost this offseason was Neal, the coach’s son, who left as a redshirt sophomore and graduate transfer due to the abuse he received from Lobo fans. But Elijah Brown, the league’s second-leading scorer, is back. So is Tim Williams, who was arguably the best offensive big man in the conference. Sam Logwood and Obij Aget both started every game last season and, presumably, will this year, too. There are some questions in the back court, but overall, this is the roster that is probably best-suited to push SDSU for the league crown.

4. Nevada is the program to keep an eye on: The year before Eric Musselman arrived, Nevada won nine games. In Musselman’s first year, they won 24 games and the CBI title. They lost Marqueze Coleman in the offseason, but that’s really it. They return D.J. Fenner and Lindsay Drew. They add a slew of talented freshmen and transfers to the mix. And, most importantly, they brought back Cam Oliver, a 6-foot-9 big man with legitimate NBA potential. As a freshman, Oliver averaged 13.4 points, 9.1 boards and 2.6 blocks. The Wolf Pack not only look like a top three team in the league this season, the program’s future is as strong as it has been since Mark Fox was still in town. Dave Rice and Yanni Hufnagel give Musselman elite west coast recruiters to bring in talent for the former NBA head coach to mold. If this staff can stay together for a few years, Nevada can do some big things.

5. The Mountain West looks like a one-bid league: The real measure of where the MWC was as a conference last season came on Selection Sunday, when a nationally-relevant program with a famous head coach and an even more famous alumni (Kawhi Leonard) was left out of the NCAA tournament despite winning the league’s regular season title by a full three games. Now, much of that was the result of the Aztecs losing a bunch of ugly games during non-conference play, but that would have been something they could overcome in the conference as a whole offered up potential big wins.

On paper, SDSU looks good enough to earn an at-large bid this season, so even if someone else wins the automatic bid, the Aztecs should be dancing. But they did last year as well, and we saw how that turned out.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON MWC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trey Kell, SDSU

I’m not sure that Trey Kell is the best player in the conference, but I would make the argument that he was the most valuable player on the best team – by far – in the conference last season, and I don’t think anything has changed. Throw in the fact that there isn’t the same kind of borderline NBA-caliber talent in the league this season, and Kell, coming off a year where he averaged 16.4 points in MWC play, is a pretty easy pick here.

THE REST OF THE MWC FIRST TEAM:

  • Cam Oliver, Nevada: If Kell is the most important player in the league, Oliver is the most talented player.
  • Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Along those same lines, Brown is the best player in the league. He should lead the conference in scoring.
  • Tim Williams, New Mexico: Williams is the most dangerous front court scorer in the MWC.
  • Jeremy Helmsley, SDSU: Helmsley had a promising freshman season and is primed to take a step forward as a sophomore.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Jalen Moore, Utah State
  • Dwayne Morgan, UNLV
  • Gian Clavell, Colorado State
  • Nick Duncan, Boise State
  • Marcus Marshall, Nevada
LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11: Angelo Chol #3 of the San Diego State Aztecs drives to the hoop against Cameron Oliver #0 of the Nevada Wolf Pack during a semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
Cameron Oliver (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Cam Oliver, Nevada

Trey Kell already had his breakout, in league play last season. I want to go with Helmsley here, but I’m not sure how much better his numbers can get this year with the way SDSU plays and the clogged back court. So I’ll go with Oliver, who I think has a chance to emerge on the radar of NBA teams this winter.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Craig Neal, New Mexico

I don’t think Neal is in danger of losing his job, but there are expectations at New Mexico. And considering that things got so bad last season that Craig had to ship his son off to the other side of the country, I think it’s safe to say that life in Albuquerque is never going to be easy for the Lobo coach.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The MWC has gotten one bid in back-to-back years.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Wyoming. Not the team or the state, but one day going to a game there. When I was running a site called Ballin’ is a Habit, I took a road trip with a guy named Troy Machir. We were in Lawrence, Kansas, after a Jayhawks game when we found out that SDSU had to spend 24 hours in an airport traveling to Laramie to play Wyoming. Laramie was an 11 hour drive and the game was in 24 hours. Troy was too soft to make the trip. Our friendship was never the same.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @theshowsdsu

PREDICTED FINISH

1. SDSU: They’re the best team in the league. No questions asked.
2. New Mexico: Elijah Brown and Tim Williams are the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the conference. Can they defend well enough to win the league?
3. Nevada: They are one of the most talented teams in the league, but it feels like the Wolf Pack are still a year away.
4. Utah State: Jalen Moore not only has one of the nation’s best heads of hair, but he may be the league’s most underrated star.
5. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy gets Gian Clavell, who averaged 20 points before getting injured, back for a sixth-year and returns Emmanuel Omogbo, who nearly averaged a double-double.
6. Boise State: The Broncos lose a lot from last season, but Leon Rice is a proven winner and I cannot pick against Nick Duncan, a three-point shooting offensive lineman.
7. Fresno State: Replacing Marvelle Harris is just not an easy thing to do.
8. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich returns a lot of pieces from last season, including Trevor Lyons, who injured his hand in a boxing class.
9. San Jose State: The Spartans have averaged six wins the last three years and seven wins the last five.
10. Wyoming: Fresno State lost Marvelle Harris from a team that reached the tournament. Wyoming lost Josh Adams from a team that won 14 games and changed head coaches.
11. UNLV: The Rebs will be back. It won’t be this season.