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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.

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

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Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.

Monday’s Overreactions: Naji Marshall owns Cincinnati, Ohio State is No. 1, Joel Ayayi

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Naji Marshall, Xavier

Marshall has lived up to the hype through the first month of the season, but the biggest and best game that he has played in 2019 happened on Saturday. Squaring off with archrival Cincinnati, Marshall went off for 31 points, eight boards, five steals and three assists, hitting four threes and totally outplaying his Bearcat counterpart, Jarron Cumberland.

As a team, Xavier has been a little bit up and down this season. Their issues shooting the ball have been prevalent all season long, and as good as the likes of Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin and Paul Scruggs – hell, and Marshall himself – can be, there has been some inconsistency to date.

There was not any on Saturday.

Marshall took over and led Xavier to their biggest win of the season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Ohio State Buckeyes

Can we even consider anyone else?

On Wednesday, the Buckeyes went into Chapel Hill and ran North Carolina out of their own gym, leaving with a 74-49 win. On Saturday, Chris Holtmann’s club hosted Penn State, and that did not go well for the Nittany Lions, who lost by 32 points while giving up 106.

This team is starting to look scary, and there’s a valid argument to make that they should be sitting at No. 1 in the AP poll this morning.

Speaking of which …

OVERREACTIONS

1. OHIO STATE HAS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE RESUME IN THE COUNTRY

If we ranked teams solely based on resume at this point in the season, I don’t think there is any way to leave the Buckeyes out of the top spot.

They are undefeated. They have beaten Villanova by 25 at home. They have beaten North Carolina by 25 on the road. They have beaten Penn State by 32 at home. Those are three of the top 24 teams in the country, according to KenPom. No one else can match that. Hell, the Buckeyes are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings.

To put those wins into context, consider this, via Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision: There have been six instances this season of a top 50 KenPom team losing by 20 or more points. Ohio State is responsible for three of them.

To be honest, I’m not ready to actually call Ohio State the best team in college basketball – I explain why in the podcast below at the 11:20 mark – but they are certainly playing like it.

2. WE FINALLY SAW THE ANTHONY COWAN WE NEED TO SEE FOR MARYLAND TO REACH THEIR POTENTIAL

Look, I know how ridiculous this is going to sound.

Coming off of a performance where Anthony Cowan shot 6-for-14 from the floor in a game where Maryland needed something bordering on a miracle to erase a 15 point second half deficit at home against unranked Illinois, I’m finally convinced?

Well, kinda?

Here’s my logic: I am not sold on Mark Turgeon being the best coach in college basketball, and I am hardly alone in that sentiment. But he does have a roster with some talent, and it is always a good sign when a team’s talent takes over and wins a game where, frankly, they played like crap. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. In the past, Cowan would not have taken over. In the past, he would not have put the team on his back, scored 20 points in the final 23 minutes and finished with seven boards, six assists and the game-tying and winning points in the final 20 seconds.

All-Americans bail their team out in games they are not supposed to win. Final Four teams win games where they don’t show up until they are getting thoroughly embarrassed. The Terps did both of those things.

Now, would I like to see them finally figure out how to win without sleepwalking through the first half of games?

Absolutely!

But it’s hardly a bad sign to be sitting at 10-0 as you’re still figuring things out.

3. BUTLER IS THE MOST UNDERRATED TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

After taking down Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, Butler has a surprisingly impressive crop of wins this season. They beat Minnesota at home. They beat Missouri in Kansas City. They beat Stanford on a neutral. They won at Ole Miss. And now they have that win over the Gators, who we just can’t quite seem to quit.

Either way, the Bulldogs play at Baylor on Tuesday night and then take on Purdue in the Crossroads Classic next Saturday.

We’ll know more about them then, but for now, this is a team that we have to talk about.

That said …

4. … NO ONE HAS MADE US A BELIEVER IN MORE TEAMS THAN FLORIDA

Florida State beat Florida in Gainesville?

The Seminoles must be awesome!

UConn beat Florida in Storrs?

The Huskies are back, baby!

Butler knocks off the Gators in Hinkle?

The Bulldogs are the most underrated team in the country?

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5. JOEL AYAYI IS THE X-FACTOR THAT WILL MAKE GONZAGA A TITLE CONTENDER

Listen, I’m not saying that Ayayi is the best player on this Gonzaga roster.

I think that he’s probably their third-best player, and even that might be generous.

What he is, however, is a guy that fills a role that the Zags didn’t have anyone to fill. The issue with this Gonzaga team heading into the season was in their backcourt. We wondered if they had enough point guard play, perimeter shooting and playmaking to be able to compete with the best teams in the country. It’s one thing to have a great frontline with guards that can get them the rock where they need it. It’s another thing to have a great frontline and no one that an initiate offense or keep defenses honest.

Ayayi has done those things to date this season. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 boards and 3.8 assists, which is second on the team to Ryan Woolridge, who is quietly having a solid start to the season as well. He provides length, athleticism, floor-spacing, a second ball-handler and creator. He takes the pressure off of Woolridge to carry the lead guard load.

He is more or less everything that Gonzaga fans were hoping Admon Gilder would turn into.

We’ll see if this lasts, but his performance against Washington on Saturday was really promising. Ayayi didn’t play or shoot particularly well, but he stepped up with 20 seconds left and buried the biggest shot of the game, a three to give the Zags a 82-76 lead and bury U-Dub.

Mamukelashvili breaks wrist as No. 16 Seton Hall loses to Iowa State

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AMES, Iowa — No. 16 Seton Hall lost much more than a game in Ames, as starter Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his right wrist in the first half of a loss at Iowa State.

Tyrese Haliburton scored 17 points, George Conditt had a season-high 17 off the bench and the Cyclones knocked off Seton Hall 76-66 on Sunday for its second straight victory.

Rasir Bolton scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to help the Cyclones avenge an 84-76 loss on Nov. 29 to the Pirates (6-3) in the Bahamas. The rematch was part of the Big East/Big 12 Alliance series.

Mamukelashvili, a 6-foot-11 forward and a facilitator who averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game entering play, went down hard with 15:14 to go in the first half and didn’t return.

Coach Kevin Willard said after the game that it was too soon to know how long Mamukelashvili might be out.

“I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely broken. But we … have to go get an MRI tomorrow and let our doctors and radiologists read it,” Willard said. “There’s definitely a break in there, it’s just that we don’t know where it is.”

Conditt’s free throws pushed Iowa State’s lead to 59-53 with 2:56 left. Haliburton then drew an offensive foul and freed himself for a wide-open 3 at the top of the key. Haliburton drilled it, making it a nine-point game at the 2:23 mark.

Seton Hall fouled Prentiss Nixon from beyond the arc with 1:27 left. Nixon hit all three from the line to push Iowa State back up by nine, and Conditt’s transition dunk sealed the win.

Iowa State won despite shooting just 4 of 19 on 3s.

“Every good team needs a signature win and this was the first one for us,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “It felt really good beat a ranked team, but also a team that beat us before.”

Myles Powell scored 19 points with eight rebounds for Seton Hall. But Powell was 7 of 20 shooting, had five turnovers and fouled out with 54.4 seconds to go on an offensive foul. The Pirates’ previous defeats came against Michigan State and Oregon by just five combined points.

Seton Hall committed 20 turnovers and was outrebounded 43-40 despite having a major size advantage. The Pirates also gave Iowa State 33 tries from the line, and Cyclones made 26 of them.

“We turned the ball over too much and we fouled,” Willard said. “You can’t go on the road against a good team and turn the basketball over and foul.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: On losing Mamukelashvili, Willard said that “it changes things a lot. But the good thing is, we have some guys that need to get comfortable in that role and step up in that role…we’re going to need everyone to step up.”

Iowa State: The Cyclones have been strangely awful at times this season shooting jump shots — even though they supposedly have enough shooters. It’s a problem that Iowa State will need to get sorted out before it threatens to sink their season. On the plus side, the Cyclones were active with their hands in forcing Seton Hall’s bigs to turn it over, and Haliburton delivered yet another signature performance.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Losing on the road to a Big 12 team that had the opportunity to play them 10 days ago shouldn’t cost the Pirates too much. Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum can be a brutal place for opponents — especially one that didn’t necessarily know what it was walking into.

HE SAID IT

“It’s a hell of a win for us.” —- Prohm said.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: At Rutgers on Saturday.

Iowa State: Hosts Iowa on Thursday night.

Monday Overreactions Podcast: Ohio State’s the best, Travis Steele’s the GOAT, is Anthony Cowan good?

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan are back to walk through everything that happened in college basketball this weekend. Is Ohio State the best team in college basketball? Is it actually Maryland? Just how good is Anthony Cowan? Just how bad is Florida? And did Travis Steele do the greatest thing in the history of coaching on Saturday night? He might have.