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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.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: Buckeye guards star, Marquette comes back and LSU loses to VCU

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There were top-25 teams in action, the Gavitt Games rolled on and there was something of an awkward homecoming in Richmond.

Here are the most important things you need to know from the action around the country Wednesday.

Ohio State’s guards can elevate the Buckeyes

When we talk about Ohio State, we inevitably start with the Buckeyes’ frontcourt. And with good reason. Kaleb Wesson is a hulking 6-foot-9, 270-pound throwback double-double machine. He’s the type of player we just don’t see as often anymore up front, and as such, few teams have a true counter for him.

What we saw Wednesday in the Buckeyes’ 76-51 dismantling of Villanova, though, was that Chris Holtmann’s guards might hold the key to success in Columbus this season. If nothing else, they certainly opened a lot of eyes against the Wildcats.

Duane Washington Jr (14), Luther Muhammad (11), D.J. Carter (11) and CJ Walker (10) all scored in double-figures while Walker had seven assists, Washington had five rebounds and Carton had five rebounds and five assists. That’s on top of Wesson doing Wesson things like recording 10 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists.

If the Buckeyes’ guards can give them this kind of production, it’s really not much of a leap to consider this team a serious threat to Michigan State in the Big Ten, and maybe even a bigger contender nationally than we’ve given them credit for this preseason. The team that took apart Villanova on Wednesday night looked like a team that could make it to Atlanta in April. It was that complete a performance.

It’s easy to draw a line from this Ohio State performance against Villanova to Michigan’s last year against Jay Wright’s team, which took a 27-point L to John Beilein last November. The ‘Cats ultimately bounced back and found their stride, but that lopsided result probably said more about how good that Wolverines team was as they eventually went on to secure a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Can the Buckeyes replicate that path? That question is probably best answered with another – can their guards replicate the night they had against Villanova?

Marquette erases 18-point deficit to beat Purdue

Marquette is one of the country’s biggest question marks. There were a few fleeting moments last spring when they looked like a national title contender when Markus Howard decided to return to school, but the Golden Eagles were flung into the “mystery” category after the Hauser brothers decided to bolt, leaving Marquette with an interesting albeit uncertain roster.

Steve Wojciechowski’s team looked like it answered some questions Wednesday, coming from 18 behind to defeat Purdue, 65-55, in Milwaukee.

Howard was his dynamic self with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists on 6 of 12 shooting, but it was the play of Kobe McEwen that is perhaps the most promising. The Utah State transfer went for 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal to help Marquette claw back and win the game.

Marquette needs McEwen to be that productive this season as an offensive second option as defenses do everything they can to try to bottle up Howard. If McEwen can not only be a viable No. 2 but make teams truly pay for throwing the kitchen sink at Howard defensively, Marquette can be closer to that upper-echelon Big East team we thought they might be last spring rather than the enigma they became this summer.

Purdue, meanwhile, saw its offense implode, shooting 33.9 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range. Given the departures from last year’s team, offense is understandably a work in progress, though that progression looked stalled in a second half in which Matt Painter’s team scored just 17 points – while buckling defensively, giving up 40 to Marquette.

Will Wade loses to his former school

As a program that sends many of its coaches on to bigger stages and brighter lights, VCU has figured out quite a few ways to make their status as a stepping stone to their advantage. First off, it’s an attractive job for talented coaches because of the track record. A smaller, but interesting, way the Rams have maneuvered is to work into the coaches’ contract that if they leave for another gig, they have to bring that team back to Richmond.

That’s why LSU and Will Wade were in town Wednesday, taking a 84-82 loss. If they hadn’t, Wade would have owed VCU $250,000.

That bit of info turned out to be at least a little funny, given that a few VCU students dressed up as FBI agents as an allusion to reports that Wade was caught on a wiretap discussing a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit as part of the federal government’s investigation into corruption into college basketball.

Here’s guessing Wade and LSU get plenty of this treatment throughout the season, though it’s probably worth noting the Tigers made it to the Sweet 16 last year amid the controversy and Wade hasn’t missed a beat on the recruiting trail – they inked five-star Trendon Watford last May – so whatever lingering controversy there may be probably isn’t going to be too bothersome to them.

No. 11 Texas Tech rolls To 103-74 win over Houston Baptist

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MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — Texas Tech coach Chris Beard called a timeout after his No. 11 Red Raiders, playing at a neutral site about 120 miles from their campus, had three turnovers without getting off a shot and quickly fell behind to Houston Baptist.

“Just upset with our start. I didn’t think we were being aggressive,” Beard said, after initially joking that he asked his players where they wanted to eat after the game.

“I’m OK if you start the game and have some adversity. I’m OK if you start the game and the ball doesn’t go in when you shoot,” he said. “I didn’t like our energy. I didn’t like our execution of our early game plan.”

The Red Raiders responded with 14 points in a row, going ahead to stay on the way to a 103-74 victory Wednesday night.

Freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey scored 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting and graduate transfer TJ Holyfield had 21 points on 9-of-10 field goals. Kyler Edwards added 13 points with three 3-pointers while Davide Moretti scored 12 points and had six assists.

“My teammates are doing a great job of getting me the ball in scoring position,” Ramsey said. “I believe the chemistry is really high right now. … Everybody connects on and off the floor. It’s a great start.”

Jalon Gates had 21 points with five 3-pointers to lead Houston Baptist. Ian DuBose added 20 points.

Texas Tech shot 60% overall (40 of 67) and made its first four field goals in the game, but only after the early turnovers while Houston Baptist (0-3) jumped out to a 9-0 lead in just over two minutes. After the timeout, the Red Raiders’ fourth field goal was a layup by Ramsey that tied the game 9-9 with 16:18 left, and they went ahead to stay on a 3-pointer by Edwards.

“Just reminded the guys with our truth-telling culture, ‘This is where we’re at. This is where we have to go.’ I think on the flip side to that there’s some positive, though, to respond that quickly,” Beard said. “As disappointed as we were in our start, we were positive on the fact that we showed that bounce-back.”

Ramsey had 20 of his points by halftime, when Texas Tech led 54-39.

PERMIAN STRONG

The game was played inside Midland College’s Chaparral Center, marking Texas Tech’s first regular season game in the Permian Basin since 1951.

Texas Tech players wore “Permian Basin Strong” shirts during pregame warmups prior to tipoff to honor and remember those affected by an August 31 shooting spree.

A gunman killed seven people and injured about two dozen more while firing indiscriminately from his car into passing vehicles and shopping plazas in Odessa and Midland, the two biggest cities in the Permian Basin. The shooter, who was killed by officers, also hijacked a U.S. Postal Service mail truck, killing the driver.

“We were really pleased and proud that we put this game together,” Beard said. “To play this game in Midland for the Permian Basin fans is special.”

BIG ASSIST

Chris Clarke, the other grad transfer, had four points and nine assists and seems to be filling the role as Tech’s sixth man.

“He’s a skilled player. He’s a position-less basketball player,” Beard said. “He’s just an unselfish guy. He’s a guy who’s trying to win the possession. … There will be days sooner rather than later where he’s our leading scorer as well. He’s a guy that can play the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Houston Baptist: The aggressiveness by Houston Baptist inside the paint forced the Red Raiders into foul trouble. The winless Huskies playing tough opponents early on will help them down the road in the Southland Conference.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders’ defense was put to the test against the Huskies, who made their first four shots. Quick adjustments and getting their legs underneath them on offense helped lead them to victory. The Red Raiders did score 56 points in the paint.

UP NEXT

Houston Baptist plays the third of six consecutive games away from campus to start the season, Nov. 22 at Michigan.

Texas Tech is back home Nov. 21 against Tennessee State.

Nwora leads No. 4 Louisville past Indiana State 91-62

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Jordan Nwora scored 21 points, Dwayne Sutton added 14 and No. 4 Louisville shot 59% from the field to run past Indiana State 91-62 on Wednesday night.

Two days after moving up a spot in the AP Top 25, the Cardinals (3-0) made 14 of their first 17 shots for a 16-point lead through 11 minutes on the way to a 47-26 advantage at the break. Nwora’s 14 points, including a pair of 3s got Louisville going, and Sutton had 10 before the break.

Nwora, a junior forward, finished 5 of 10 shooting for his third consecutive game of 20 points or more. Sutton and Steven Enoch each grabbed 10 rebounds as Louisville owned the glass 42-21. The Cardinals shot above 50% for the third consecutive game.

Tyreke Key led the Sycamores (0-2) with 20 points including four 3-pointers, two of which came during a 14-2 early second-half run that got them within 51-40. They got no closer as Louisville quickly answered to stretch the lead above 20 as it shot 58% in the final 20 minutes.

Indiana State shot 34% in its only game this season against a Power Five opponent. The Sycamores haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since topping Butler 72-71 in December 2016.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana State: After making two of their first three baskets, the Sycamores were no match physically against Louisville’s taller lineup. Perimeter shooting was a bright spot as they extended their streak to 345 games with at least one 3-pointer.

Louisville: The Cardinals seemingly couldn’t miss at the start and stayed hot throughout. They never let up even after the outcome was settled.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Cardinals took a step toward remaining in the top five with another game to play this week.

UP NEXT

Indiana State faces Ball State on Sunday in Indianapolis.

Louisville hosts North Carolina Central on Sunday in the third of a four-game homestand.

Hot start helps No. 18 Ohio State rout No. 10 Villanova

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Duane Washington Jr. had 14 points and four other players scored in double figures as No. 18 Ohio State started hot and ran over No. 10 Villanova 76-51 on Wednesday night.

Washington opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers to set the tone as the Buckeyes moved to 3-0 with a significant early-season victory.

D.J. Carton and Luther Muhammad each had 11 points, and CJ Walker and Kaleb Wesson added 10 apiece.

Jermaine Samuels had 14 points and Cole Swider had 11 for the Wildcats (1-1), who shot poorly out of the gate and managed just 30.6% for the game. They were held to a dozen points in the first 16 minutes.

The Buckeyes came out firing, bolted to a 19-3 lead, led by as many as 27 and held a 40-22 advantage at the intermission of this Gavitt Tipoff Game, a November series that matches up the Big Ten and the Big East.

Villanova was stunned by the Buckeyes’ start and didn’t show signs of life until a 9-0 run late in the first half. Kyle Young started the second half with a dunk and the Buckeyes never backed off the gas, leading by as many as 30.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Starting a pair of freshmen, Villanova shot poorly and could never catch up with the hustling Buckeyes. The crowd in Columbus chanted “overrated,” which could be the case.

Ohio State: Most everything was clicking in the Buckeyes’ third game of the season. If they can sustain it, they should be able to play with nearly any team in the country.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Hosts Ohio on Saturday.

Ohio State: Hosts Stetson on Monday.

Santos-Silva leads VCU past No. 23 LSU, 84-82, in Wade’s return

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RICHMOND, Va. — Marcus Santos-Silva had 17 points and 11 rebounds and VCU turned 26 turnovers by No. 23 LSU into 37 points in an 84-82 victory Wednesday night.

The Rams (3-0), whose contract with former coach Will Wade mandated he bring his new team to the Siegel Center or have his school pay $250,000, improved to 5-2 against ranked opponents on their home court.

VCU withstood a rally that saw the Tigers take their first lead of the half on two free throws by Skylar Mays with 41 second left.

The Tigers (1-1) had a chance after Santos-Silva made one of two free throws with 4.9 seconds left, but Mays raced up court and lost control of the ball.

De’Riante Jenkins and Marcus Evans added 15 points each for VCU, which was outscored 46-30 in the paint.

Mays led the Tigers with 23 points, but also had seven turnovers. Javinte Smart added 15 points and Trendon Watford scored 11.

The Rams led for most of the game, but a 15-2 run by the Tigers — despite a stretch of five turnovers in six possessions — tied the game at 67-all with 8:56 to go.

The Rams responded with an 11-4 run started by Santos-Silva to lead 78-71 with 3:22 to play before the Tigers rallied again, scoring 11 of the next 14 points and taking their first lead since the early going on a pair of free throws by Mays with 41 seconds remaining.

Jenkins, fouled on a 3-point try, made two of three free throws, and the Tigers missed their final three field-goal tries.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: Wade said he was concerned about how much the Tigers turned the ball over in their opener against Bowling Green, surely with an eye toward the “havoc” style Rhoades has reintroduced at VCU. The Rams certainly made them believers, forcing 12 first-half takeaways and turning them into 24 points.

VCU: The Rams had trouble getting ball inside, but their 3-point shooting and defense bailed them out, especially during an 18-4 first-half run. In one sequence, Isaac Vann made a 3 for VCU, which then forced a turnover, leading to Evans’ 3. The Tigers then turned it over again, leading to a 3 by Vince Williams. All in 53 seconds.

UP NEXT

The Tigers should have a much easier time in their next outing, at home against Nicholls on Saturday.

The Rams continue a six-game homestand to open the season, welcoming Jacksonville State on Sunday.