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Mountain West Conference Preview: Can the league get back to being a multi-bid conference?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West Conference.

Five or six years ago, the Mountain West was one of the most entertaining conferences in college basketball.

Maybe it was Kawhi Leonard leading the upstart San Diego State Aztecs to a top five ranking while competing for a league title with BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who became must-see TV despite never actually playing on TV. Or maybe it was the Steve Alford-led New Mexico teams loaded with Pac-12 talent like Drew Gordon, or Kendall Williams, or Darington Hobson, or Tony Snell. Dave Rice had UNLV rolling, Leon Rice was just starting to build Boise State into something that could match the football program and Larry Eustachy took over from Tim Miles at Colorado State and kept the Rams squarely in the NCAA tournament picture. Fresno State had Paul George. Wyoming had Larry Nance.

The MWC had years where they rated as a top four basketball conference in the sport. There were years that they sent five teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2011, both BYU and SDSU were top three seeds.

And now?

It looks like the league will once again be a one-bid league come March.

So what happened?

Some of it is cyclical. Colorado State and Boise State aren’t always going to be NCAA tournament teams, and Fresno State and Wyoming aren’t always going to find late-bloomers with first round potential that often. Some of it was also luck. San Diego State just so happened to land the best coach they’ve ever had, who happened to land a future top five player in the NBA, at the same time that Alford was mining the Pac-12 for their castoffs and Jimmer, a once-in-a-decade player, was doing Jimmer things at BYU.

And maybe it was just as simple as all ships rising with the tide. Mastery of the RPI combined with an influx of coaching talent, a run of promising recruits outperforming expectations and an impressive amount of home court advantage keeping anyone at the top from running away with league titles meant their were balanced races where the teams in fourth and fifth place were landing themselves wins that looked great on a tournament resume.

The league today is not what it was then, not with three of the most successful programs in the conference over the last decade in the midst of regime changes.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t get back to that level one day.

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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Nevada has it rolling: Things are still rolling for the Wolfpack under Eric Musselman has his ability to attract talented recruits has not slowed down yet. In addition to Jordan Caroline, who may just be the best player in the MWC this season, and Lindsay Drew, the son of NBA head coach Larry Drew, four former high-major transfers will be eligible this fall after redshirting last season in Reno: Kendall Stephens (Purdue), Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Cody and Caleb Martin (N.C. State). That doesn’t include Darien Williams, a grad transfer from St. John’s.

Nevada lost a ton of talent from last season – Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, D.J. Fenner – but with the influx of players that Musselman has coming in combined with a returning star in Caroline and a veteran point guard in Drew, this team will enter the season as the heavy favorite to win the league and a team with the potential to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.

2. San Diego State replacing the man that built the program: When Steve Fisher took over the San Diego State basketball program in 1999, the Aztecs had been to just one NCAA tournament in the modern era (the first one) and three since becoming a Division I program in 1970. Fisher built SDSU into a Mountain West powerhouse with a rabid fanbase that could compete with some of the biggest names out west for recruits. He retired, and longtime assistant Brian Dutcher took over.

Dutcher was not left with the cupboard bare. The Aztecs probably have one of the best back courts in the league, as Trey Kell, Jeremy Helmsly and Montaque Gill-Cesear will be joined by San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, who could end up starting at the point. The enigmatic Malik Pope is back as well, while Max Montana – formerly Max Hoetzel – and Kameron Rooks, a grad transfer from Cal, join him up front.

The question isn’t the talent. It’s Dutcher. Can he right the ship for a program that has missed the last two NCAA tournaments after reaching the dance six years in a row?

Jordan Caroline (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3. Can Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison make up for the loss of key pieces?: Hutchison is a very, very good basketball player, one that looks like he will lead the league in scoring this season. But he is also going to be the focal point for a team that just lost three of their four best players, including starting point guard Paris Austin. If the Broncos want to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Justinian Jacob and Zach Haney to have big years.

4. Can the basketball program survive New Mexico going through a regime change: The carnage runs deep at New Mexico, where scandal after scandal is getting exposed and it’s unclear what decision-makers are actually going to be left by the time the dust settles. Craig Neal already lost his job. In his stead is Paul Weir, who will have to try and find a way to earn back the fanbase’s trust. It might take a while, as a Lobo team with no depth lost their two best players last season. That’s why they had to go out and hire the coach from archrival New Mexico State.

The good news? There is talent transferring in; JaQuan Lyle, Vance Jackson, Antino Jackson. The bad news? That talent will have to sit a year.

5. Marvin Menzies might have something at UNLV: Menzies managed to win four MWC games last season after having to essentially rebuild the entire roster when he took over, and while he lost a number of key pieces from that team, he did get Jovan Mooring, the team’s leading scorer, back. More importantly, he landed a commitment from Brandon McCoy, a top 15 prospect and a potential one-and-done talent at the center spot. Whether or not there are pieces around McCoy to make a run is arguable. But there is McCoy, and he is good.

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PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

Boise State got somewhat lucky this offseason, as Hutchison, a 6-foot-7 forward with three-point range that averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 boards, opted not to enter the NBA Draft. He probably was not destined to be a first round pick, but there are plenty of NBA scouts that do believe he has a shot at having a good professional career. Leon Rice’s club lost three of their top four scorers from last year’s team, meaning there are going to be more opportunities for Hutchison this season. If Boise is as good as I expect them to be, it will likely be because Hutchison turns in a phenomenal season.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • Jordan Caroline, Nevada: It’s a toss-up for Player of the Year in the MWC between Hutchison and Caroline. I lean Hutchison personally, mainly because I think that he will put up much bigger numbers for a team that competes for top three in the league, but there’s a valid argument to saying that Caroline is the best basketball player in the conference. Picking him as POY is not the wrong choice.
  • Koby McEwen, Utah State: McEwen had a monster freshman season for the Aggies, and with Jalen Moore and Shane Rector gone, he’ll have that much more on his plate this season.
  • Justin James, Wyoming: James came off the bench for the Pokes last season despite being their best player. This year, Wyoming has a real shot to finish second in the league, and James is a major reason for that.
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV: The 7-foot McCoy is the most talented player in the conference. The talent may not be there around him, but there aren’t any other potential lottery picks in the conference.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Trey Kell, San Diego State
  • Jaron Hopkins, Fresno State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jeremy Helmsly, San Diego State

BREAKOUT STAR: Koby McEwen, Utah State

Down the stretch of the season, McEwen was arguably the best player on the Aggies. Defenses knew how to slow down Jalen Moore after four years in the league. McEwen was a new talent, one that will shine even brighter next season now that Moore and Shane Rector have graduated.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brian Dutcher, San Diego State

Dutcher, by no means, is in danger of losing his job. He literally just got the job. But he is taking over for the greatest coach in the history of the program, a coach in Steve Fisher that built a perennial tournament team where a perennial cellar-dweller had resided. Being the guy to replace The Guy is never going to be easy, particularly when taking over a talented team that has underperformed expectations of late.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Mountain West is a one-bid league once again.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Wyoming can make the push to win a league title. Anyone that’s been to Laramie knows that it is not exactly the easiest place to recruit a player to, not if they visit during the winter.

FOUR NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/13, Rhode Island vs. Nevada
  • 12/1, Boise State at Oregon
  • 12/2, Arizona at UNLV
  • 12/21, Gonzaga at San Diego State

POWER RANKINGS

1. Nevada: The Wolfpack are the reigning champions of the MWC and will once again be the most talented team in the league. That’s a good combination of things.
2. Wyoming: I’m going out on a limb with this one, but with the Pokes returning all but two of their rotation players, including Justin James and the underrated Hayden Dalton, Wyoming is going to sneak up on some people.
3. Boise State: Leon Rice is going to have to replace a lot of scoring and minutes this year, but the good news is that he will be able to do that while relying on Chandler Hutchison to carry the team.
4. San Diego State: The issue for the Aztecs isn’t going to be talent. As we discussed above, they have the pieces. The question is whether or not those pieces come together. The key may be Devin Watson, the San Francisco transfer. SDSU had three “point guards” that wanted to score last season. Can Watson embrace the role of distributor, or is he going to want to be a scorer as well?
5. Fresno State: Rodney Terry returned arguably his two best players with Jaron Hopkins and DeShon Taylor and has a handful of talented redshirts and transfers around them. If New Williams and Nate Grimes can live up to the hype they had in high school, the Bulldogs are a sleeper to push for the league title.
6. Utah State: This may be too high for a USU team that is losing two of their best players, but the Aggies have a pair of really promising sophomore guards in Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill  that played some of their best basketball late last season.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s teams at CSU have been up and down: He’ll contend for the league one year, finish around .500 the next. They contended for the league last season, lost their two best players and now look destined for the middle of the pack as they reload.
8. UNLV: It’s hard to know what to expect from this group. Brandon McCoy should be awesome, but do they have the supporting cast to push for the top half of the league standings? Is there anyone on the team that can actually feed McCoy the ball where he can be effective?
9. New Mexico: The Lobos needed some new blood running the program, and I fully expect Paul Weir to get things turned around. That said, there is more talent redshirting this season than there will be playing.
10. Air Force: The Falcons have 23 players on their roster. They’re also Air Force. They’ll probably win a few games they shouldn’t – and beat UNLV, since they always do – but that’s about it.
11. San Jose State: Their coach left this summer after their best player transferred to Gonzaga, and now there is a lawsuit alleging the former coach verbally abused players on the team.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the posterchild for both sides of the one-and-done debate

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The NBA’s age-limit seems all but assured to disappear at some point.

The NBA sent out a memo this spring indicating that the age limit, the restriction of players under the age of 19 being drafted by NBA teams that created the one-and-done rule in college basketball, will be in effect through at least the 2021 draft. Last week reports suggested that the 2022 draft is more likely. The question isn’t if the rule will be changed, but when, which will be sure to create a contentious debate in the coming years over whether or not the one-and-done rule, which will have sent more than 100 stars through the college basketball ranks since its 2007 inception, was actually a good one.

If you’ve read this space over the years, you should know my stance by now: I’m staunchly against the idea of those in power — who are often old, rich and white — creating barriers to entry for young, often black, people from being able to capitalize monetarily on their value. It’s why I believe amateurism in college sports is reprehensible, and it’s why, with that rule in mind, I believe that the one-and-done rule should be abolished.

But I’m also not naïve.

Three months before the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball opened the eyes of some folks that wanted to remain in the dark I took a deep-dive into amateurism, the one-and-done rule and why going to college was still a pretty damn good option for college kids even with the knowledge that the money they accept could get them into trouble.

Read that before you read this, because I’m not here to today to talk about whether or not the one-and-done rule works.

I’m here to talk about Michael Porter Jr., who has managed to become the posterchild for people on both sides of this debate.

Heading into his freshman season at Missouri, Porter was considered by many to be a contender, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. A 6-foot-11 athlete that plays the wing, that in theory has the tools to be a multi-positional defender and that is known for his ability to shoot the rock? Of course he’s going to ride that hype train in an NBA dominated by small-ball, pace-and-space and 7-footers trying to be Kevin Durant.

We all know what happened.

Porter had surgery on his back in November. He tried to return in March and it was clear he wasn’t back to being himself. He went through some workouts this spring, but suffered setbacks — at one point he reportedly couldn’t get out of bed — and has since undergone a second surgery on his back, according to a report for NBA.com.

That surgery came after Porter fell all the way to 14th in June’s draft, after Boston College’s Jerome Robinson.

If you’re an advocate for the players, Porter is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the one-and-done rule. He lost nearly $20 million in guaranteed money dropping from the No. 1 pick to the No. 14 pick, which bloated NBA salaries might have made you forget is, quite literally, a fortune. You could make the argument that, if his back was so messed up, he would have fallen in the draft once NBA teams got a glance at his medicals, but he also could have withheld those medicals. He’s not required to give anyone anything pre-draft, and also ignores the red flags that were raised as intel leaked out about the kind of teammate he was at Missouri. Would he have been drafted higher than 14 had people close to the Missouri program called him something other than entitled and arrogant? Maybe? Probably?

Porter is the perfect example of the risk, for players, that comes with giving NBA decision-makers more information to make a decision.

And he’s also precisely why NBA owners wanted this rule in the first place, and why they likely wouldn’t complain about keeping players in college for another year if they could get that rule passed.

The one-and-done rule exists because NBA owners were tired of drafting high school kids that they couldn’t properly evaluate. Giving them a year to compete in college, where they play on national television every night against 22-year olds that have been coached by some great basketball minds, gives owners more data to analyze. Can the kid play a role? What happens when they play people the same size with comparable athleticism? Can they handle the rigors of league play? In Porter’s case, are they actually healthy?

Owners also didn’t want to give an 18-year old millions of dollars and let then loose in America’s best party cities with NBA celebrity attached to his name, and they didn’t want to pay a seven-figure salary to develop these kids as players only to see them bolt for greener pastures when they hit their prime. By delaying things for a year on the front end they are able to keep those players under contract and reap the benefits of their investment for an extra year on the back end. In other words, instead of paying an 18-year old to learn, put on weight and ride the bench, you send them to college for a year and then pay them to, hopefully, help your team win a lot of games as a 27-year old.

But it’s the former that was arguably the most important, because so much can be determined at the top of an NBA draft, especially for small-market teams that can’t attract big free agents. If, say, Milwaukee doesn’t draft Giannis Antetokounmpo, would they ever be able to sign a player of his talent? It’s why Sam Hinkie developed The Process. Drafting accuracy is so important in the NBA (see: Warriors, Golden State), and by sending the best prospects in the world to college for a year, NBA teams believe they will be more accurate.

And I can’t blame them for that.

The NBA is a business, and that’s just good business sense.

It’s why I’m starting to come around on the one-and-done rule.

I don’t want to see it go because I don’t think it’s necessarily the problem. Don’t listen to what Mark Emmert or Condoleeza Rice tries to tell you, college basketball is better for having the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton on campus for a year. NBA teams are probably better off getting another 12 months to evaluate those prospects.

The issue, to me, isn’t that the kids have to go to college.

The issue is that they can’t get paid (legally) in college, and that heading to the G League is, by just about any measure imaginable, a lesser option.

Porter was compensated with one-year’s worth of an education that he may never actually use for a season that cost him $20 million.

It’s amazing how much in the sport of basketball can be solved if we stopped pretending that players getting paid was a bad thing.

Clemson, Brad Brownell agree to six-year contract

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Fresh off of leading the Tigers to the Sweet 16, Clemson agreed to a six-year contract extension with head coach Brownell that is worth $15 million.

“I want to thank Dan Radakovich, President Jim Clements and the Board of Trustees for continuing to support my leadership of our Clemson basketball program,” said Brownell. “I’m extremely thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to coach at this great University. I’m also grateful for the outstanding young men I’ve coached and for the dedicated assistant coaches and staff who’ve worked alongside me the past eight years. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, both on and off the court, and look forward to building upon the success of last season.”

Brownell was on the hot seat entering the 2018-19 season, but the Tigers, who were picked 13th in the 15-team ACC, finished third in the conference, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Brownell will also bring back a team talented enough to enter the year ranked in the preseason top 25.

Prior to last year’s run to the NCAA tournament, Brownell had gone six years — since his first season at Clemson back in 2010-11 — without reaching the Big Dance.

Nevada faces challenging non-conference schedule

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Nevada will likely be a preseason top 10 team as the Wolf Pack have major expectations following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

With head coach Eric Musselman returning most of last season’s roster, while adding some key new pieces, Nevada has huge expectations entering the 2018-19 season. That means a proper non-conference schedule to challenge this team, which was released on Wednesday.

A Sweet 16 rematch with Loyola is one of the key games on the schedule as the Wolf Pack will head to Chicago for a game on Nov. 27. Nevada will also play some Pac-12 opponents with road games at USC and Utah and a neutral court game against Arizona State. BYU, South Dakota State and Grand Canyon are a few of the challenging opponents from mid-major leagues while the team also had neutral court games against Tulsa and either UMass or Southern Illinois.

It seems as though Nevada will only have a few cracks at top-25 caliber opponents during non-conference play, but this schedule doesn’t have a lot of bad games while also including a healthy amount of neutral games. Since Nevada won’t get as many challenges playing in the Mountain West as a typical top-25 team, they’ll have a lot of eyeballs on them during some of these games — particularly the USC and Arizona State matchups.

The rematch with Loyola should be another fun road test as the crowd should be rocking in Chicago for that one.

Former Mizzou tutor plans to reveal ‘full list’ of participants in academic fraud case

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A former Missouri tutor that admitted in 2016 to providing improper academic benefits to multiple Tiger athletes on Monday said that she has been named in a new Notice of Allegations and intends to expose more people attached to the investigation.

Yolanda Kumar tweeted that she is planning on releasing “the full list of students, classes and coordinators on twitter” at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday, adding that she was dropped from the original NOA but was added back into the latest version after she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Missouri responded on Monday by acknowledging they had met with the Committee on Infractions and that the result of the investigation will prove that they acted with “integrity.”

“On June 13, 2018, the University appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to review its investigative findings, and the Committee has since added a previously unnamed involved party and given notice of the Committee’s allegation to that individual,” a statement Missouri released to ESPN said. “While the University may not disclose the names of any involved student due to FERPA, we remain confident that this review will reveal that the University, as well as its student-athletes and staff, have shown great integrity in responding to the allegations raised. In order to protect the investigation’s integrity and in accordance with NCAA rules relative to ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further any part of the process until it is completed.”

In 2016, Kumar told the Kansas City Star that she had been asked to offer special assistance to football and men’s basketball players, and confirmed to compliance officials that she had acquiesced, helping a dozen athletes. That led to the NCAA’s investigation, and as a result, a defensive tackle named A.J. Logan was suspended for six games.

Kumar also tweeted in 2017 that she was willing to sell the information she had involving the case for the $3,000 fee she needed to pay Missouri to get her transcripts from the school. On Monday, she tweeted that her debt was cleared by a couple from Kansas City.

All of this allegedly occurred during the tenure of former Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.

Michigan, John Beilien ink five-year extension

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Michigan announced on Wednesday that head coach John Beilein has signed a five-year contract extension with the school that will keep him in Ann Arbor through the 2023 season, at least.

“I am grateful for the opportunity the University of Michigan has given to me over the past 11 years,” said Beilein. “Kathleen and I love Ann Arbor, our University, our fans and the state of Michigan. We will continue to work very hard in the future to have our basketball team reflect the greatness of this University. I thank Mark Schlissel and Warde Manuel for their faith and commitment to our coaching staff and basketball program. The future of men’s basketball is bright and I am excited to be a part of it.”

The deal that Beilein signed is a rollover deal, which means that the contract will renew every year. In other words, as long as Beilein and Michigan want the option picked up each April, he will have a five-year contract with Michigan regardless of how long he coaches at the school.

This is Beilein’s 12th year with the Wolverines. Last season, they won a program-record 33 games and reached the Final Four, losing in the national title game for the second time in six seasons.

He is already Michigan’s all-time leader in wins with 248, and, through 41 seasons as a college coach, has amassed a career record of 799-461. In 11 seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan has made eight NCAA Tournament appearances with four Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights in addition to the two trips to the Final Four. He was named the he 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year and has won two Big Ten regular-season titles as well as the last two Big Ten Tournament titles.

There was some speculation earlier this month that Beilein would be leaving Michigan after he had an interview with the Detroit Pistons, but he withdrew from that search after the news became public and it seemed likely that Dwayne Casey would be hired.