Dwayne Polee

2014-15 Season Preview: San Diego State leads what will be a wild Mountain West race

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we focus on the Mountain West.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Last season in the Mountain West provided some surprises, with the team picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll (San Diego State) winning the regular season title outright and Nevada finishing in a tie for third place after being picked to finish ninth last October. Seven teams won at least nine conference games in 2013-14, and heading into the 2014-15 season many hold the belief that seven teams have a realistic chance of winning the Mountain West. Steve Fisher’s team is seen as the favorites despite losing Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames, and the order of the next six teams is anyone’s guess.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Just one first team All-Mountain West selection returns: Thames, New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams, and Nevada’s Deonte Burton have all moved on to the professional ranks. The lone returnee: Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr., who missed the final seven games due to a torn ACL. Nance is back on the floor for the Cowboys, who are in that mix of teams looking to win the conference. If he hits the ground running, Larry Shyatt’s team is capable of contending.

2. The Mountain West also lost its top five rebounders: This fact can’t be glossed over, with UNLV losing Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, Boise State moving on without Ryan Watkins, and San Diego State (Josh Davis) and New Mexico (Alex Kirk) also having to account for the loss of their best rebounders. However, it should be noted that each of these programs has added some solid front court talent in both the freshman and junior college ranks. And when it comes to Boise State, the Broncos got a lot taller inside after going through last season with just one player who stood 6-foot-8.

3. UNLV adds one of the nation’s top freshman classes, and a very important senior transfer: After briefly flirting with the possibility of moving across the country, Dave Rice returned to his alma mater, where he received a new contract and then put the finishing touches on one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Guard Rashad Vaughn may be seen as the jewel of the class, but there’s also big man Goodluck Okonoboh, forward Dwayne Morgan and guards Jordan Cornish and Patrick McCaw to consider as well. UNLV’s most important addition, however, is former San Francisco PG Cody Doolin, who gives them the on-court leader they so desperately needed a season ago.

4. UNLV wasn’t the only Mountain West program that landed a Top 20 recruiting class: Rivals.com ranked two Mountain West recruiting classes in the top 20 of its rankings this spring, with UNLV coming in fifth and San Diego State 17th. Steve Fisher’s class is one reason why many saw last season as a “bridge” year for the program, and we all saw what happened there (31-5, Sweet 16 appearance). Now they add guards Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell and forwards Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham, as well as Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, to an experienced cast led by Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien. SDSU’s deep, athletic and they’ll once again be tough to score points on.

5. Colorado State returns the top scoring tandem in the Mountain West: Forward J.J. Avila (16.6 ppg) and guard Daniel Bejarano (16.3 ppg) are back for their senior seasons, and they’re just two reasons why Larry Eustachy’s Rams will be in the middle of the Mountain West race. Both of those players began their college careers at other schools, and they’ll be joined by a deep group of transfers that includes guard John Gillon (UALR) and Antwan Scott (Grambling State), and forwards Tiel Daniels (Southern Illinois) and Stanton Kidd (North Carolina Central). Of those four three were with the CSU program last season (Scott’s the exception), which should help from a chemistry standpoint.

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming

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Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr. (AP Photo)

While it remains to be seen just how explosive Nance will be following the knee injury that ended his junior season, the fact of the matter is that he can affect the game in a variety of ways. Nance finished last season ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in scoring (tenth- 15.4 ppg), rebounding (sixth- 8.6 rpg), field goal percentage (second- 54.4%), steals (fifth- 1.4 spg) and blocked shots (fourth- 2.1 bpg). He’s certainly capable of putting together a similar season in 2014-15.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • Anthony Drmic, Boise State: Averaged 15.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg last season, and he’s a better perimeter shooter than he showed as a junior (34.1% 3PT).
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: Bejarano followed up his Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013 with a first team All-Mountain West spot as a redshirt junior.
  • Winston Shepard, San Diego State: Shepard will be key for the Aztecs as they look to account for the loss of Xavier Thames. And if Shepard can make opponents at least respect his jump shot, look out.
  • J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila came in and earned third team all-conference honors in his first season at CSU, averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Dwayne Polee II, San Diego State
  • Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
  • Paul Watson, Fresno State
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico

BREAKOUT STAR: Dwayne Polee, San Diego State

Polee may have finished the season averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, but he was a different player from February on. Polee scored in double figures in nine of SDSU’s final 14 games, including a stretch of five straight double-digit outings to end the season. And with Thames gone, there’s room for Polee to take another step forward production-wise.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: David Carter, Nevada

With Dave Rice landing a new deal at UNLV this summer and recruiting well, he’s in good shape for the time being. That brings us to Carter, who despite managing to finish tied for third in the conference last season led his team to an overall record of 15-17. Can the Wolf Pack once again surprise people within the league while also improving their overall record?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Can multiple Mountain West teams reach the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How wide-open this conference race will be.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 17, Utah at San Diego State
  • November 21, UNLV vs. Stanford (in Brooklyn, New York)
  • November 22, Boise State at Wisconsin
  • December 10, Colorado State at Colorado
  • December 23, Arizona at UNLV

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @GeoffGrammer

PREDICTED FINISH

1. San Diego State: Xavier Thames is a big loss, but there’s still plenty of talent at Steve Fisher’s disposal.
2. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s roster is stocked full of transfers ready to contribute immediately.
3. Boise State: Drmic and Derrick Marks lead the way for a team that has more size than it did last season.
4. UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, but will the pieces fit together cohesively?
5. Wyoming: Larry Nance Jr. returns from his torn ACL, and guard Riley Grabau is back as well.
6. New Mexico: The Lobos have some questions to answer, but given their recent run of success it wouldn’t be a surprise if they made another run at the title.
7. Fresno State: Mountain West dark horse? That could be the case, with Julien Lewis joining a group led by Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson.
8. Nevada: The Wolf Pack have the unenviable task of accounting for the loss of electric PG Deonte Burton.
9. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich lost his leading scorer in Tre’ Coggins, but that trip to Colorado Springs can be a tough one.
10. Utah State: Stew Morrill’s system has always been tough to defend, but the personnel losses may be too much to overcome.
11. San Jose State: Another rough year for Dave Wojick, and the Spartans won’t play in the conference tournament either due to APR sanctions.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 San Diego Aztecs

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Winston Shepard (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 18 San Diego State.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Last Season: 31-5, 16-2 Mountain West (1st), lost in the Sweet 16 to Arizona

Key Losses: Xavier Thames, Josh Davis

Newcomers: Angelo Chol (transfer), Kevin Zabo, Trey Kell, Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham

Projected Lineup

– G: Winston Shepard, Jr.
G: Dwayne Polee, Sr.
F: J.J. O’Brien, Sr.
F: Angelo Chol, Jr.
C: Skylar Spencer, Jr.
Bench: Matt Shrigley, So.; Dakarai Allen, So.; Kevin Zabo, Fr.; Trey Kell, Fr.; Malik Pope, Fr.; Zylan Cheatham, Fr., Aqeel Quinn, Sr.;

They’ll be good because … : There are not going to be many teams in the country with a lineup that is as long as San Diego State’s. Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee and J.J. O’Brien are all 6-foot-7. Angelo Chol and Skylar Spencer are both 6-foot-10. And that’s before you consider the length of some of the guys that are coming off of the bench — Dakarai Allen, Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham (assuming the latter two when they get healthy).

source: Getty Images
Dwayne Polee (Getty Images)

Not everyone on the roster has the wingspan of an albatross — Kevin Zabo, Trey Kell and Matt Shrigley are going to play a lot of minutes — but even so, expect the Aztecs to once again be one of the best defensive teams in the country and one of the toughest teams to keep off the offensive glass.

But they might disappoint because … : The Aztecs don’t really have a go-to scorer on their roster. Losing the leadership that Xavier Thames provided is going to hurt, but what was more important was that he provided Steve Fisher with a guy that was able to create his own shot, particularly in crunch-time. It’s particularly valuable in a conference like the Mountain West, where the difference between the team in first place and the team in seventh place is relatively minimal.

Who will be that guy for SDSU this season? Whose number does Steve Fisher call when there are five minutes left at Colorado State or UNLV and a 10-0 run just erased a double-digit lead? Who can he trust to take and make a big shot? Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien are notorious for their unreliable perimeter shots. Dwayne Polee had a promising end to last season, but being an athlete that can hit a three is much different than being a go-to guy.

The Aztecs were 81st in adjusted offensive efficiency last season and will now have to replace a guy that whose offensive rating on KenPom.com was 120.0 and who used 28.6% of the team’s possessions when he was on the floor. In other words, a team that struggled offensively just lost an all-american lead guard. That’s not easy to overcome.

Outlook: The Aztecs were picked to win the Mountain West this season, and while the offensive end of the floor is going to be an issue all season long, it’s not difficult to understand why SDSU clearly looks like the best team in a perennially-balanced conference. Simply put, they are going to be a nightmare to try to score on, and while there are going to be times where a missed shot and an offensive rebound is their most effective way of scoring, there are some signs that should make the folks at Viejas Arena optimistic.

For starters, Dwayne Polee looks like he’s ready for a monster senior season. He scored in double figures in nine of the last 14 games of 2013-2014 and averaged 13.7 points in six postseason games. He needed to round out his offensive arsenal during the offseason, but his confidence should be there, and that’s a major hurdle to get past. Winston Shepard showed signs of becoming one of the better players in the Mountain West, and he’s a consistent jump shot away from being a really dangerous slasher. Throw in promising youngsters Dakarai Allen, Matt Shrigley, Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell, and someone is going to be able to provide scoring pop off the bench.

The Aztecs will rarely win games pretty. Every night is going to be a grind-it-out, physical battle, meaning that we should expect a lot of close games involving Fisher’s crew this season. But if a couple of guys took a step forward this offseason and the Aztecs are as good as we expect defensively and on the glass, this is a team that should be able to make the Sweet 16 again this season.

2014-2015 Season Preview: Ranking the biggest X-Factors

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Here is our list of this season’s biggest x-factors.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky’s buy-in: No team in the country has as much talent on their roster as Kentucky does, but the Wildcats may actually be too deep this season. They’re so deep, in fact, that John Calipari is considering using a platoon system — with five-man shifts — like he is coaching hockey. Eventually, someone’s minutes are going to get cut. Someone is going to have to accept the fact they’re a role player, nothing more than a screener or rebounder or defensive presence. If every Wildcat, from the Harrisons twins to Sam Malone, buys into this idea, Kentucky is going to be very, very tough to beat.

Gonzaga’s defense: Kevin Pangos, now that he’s healthy, is going to have a huge season. Kyle Wiltjer has had a year to develop his body and his game, making him the perfect stretch-four to create space in the paint for Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Gary Bell, Byron Wesley, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins, Kyle Draginis. There’s plenty of talent on the Zags, but the issue will be on defense. When Pangos, Wiltjer and Karnowski are on the floor together, Mark Few will have three defensive question marks. Gonzaga is a Final Four caliber team if they get enough stops.

D’angelo Russell, Ohio State: Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s biggest loss, but right up there, oddly enough, is the loss of LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes struggled to score last season, and Ross was their most consistent offensive weapon. Russell heads to Columbus with the reputation of being a big time scorer, and while the Buckeyes should, once again, be stout defensively, they’ll need Russell’s pop on the offensive end.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: How long have we been asking questions about the Kansas point guard play? That won’t change this season, as Graham, a freshman, and sophomores Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp will try to take the reins. Graham is the most talented of the three, however, and is expected to take over the role.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout Stars | Top 25 Non-Conference Games | Coaches on the Hot Seat

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Dwayne Polee (Getty Images)

Dwayne Polee, San Diego State: Someone is going to have to replace the offensive production that San Diego State loses with the graduation of Xavier Thames. Polee is not the most talented offensive player on the roster, but he showed quite a bit of promise at the end of last season. SDSU reaches a new level if he becomes a threat as a scorer.

Mark Donnal, Michigan: Michigan’s perimeter is loaded this season, but with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departing, Donnal, a redshirt freshman, is now the veteran presence in the paint for John Beilein. Should I mention that he’s also known as being a shooter, and that he redshirted strictly to add strength?

Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford had promising moments as a freshman with the Bruins, but there were also times where he looked best-suited to being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. This year, the sophomore son of head coach Steve Alford will be handed the reins.

UConn’s big men: UConn has a number of x-factors this season — Can Ryan Boatright be Shabazz or Kemba? How good will Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton be? Is this Omar Calhoun’s bounceback year? But more than anything, UConn’s front line is where the questions lie. Amida Brimah is a terrific shotblocker with the strength of a stalk of bamboo, and Philip Nolan added 25 pounds of muscle but was ‘just a guy’ last season. Losing Deandre Daniels’ inside-outside ability will hurt quite a bit, and while UConn’s guard situation will work itself out, the Huskies need big minutes out of their big men to win the American this year.

Kansas State’s transfers: Marcus Foster has a shot to be a first-team all-american this season, but there are still some questions with his supporting cast. Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas are all expected to take a step forward, and Malek Harris is a four-star addition, but it is a trio of transfers that could make the difference. Justin Edwards could end up being a double-figure scorer on the wing, while Stephen Hurt and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Bolden give Bruce Weber some much-needed height in the paint.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State: There’s no questioning Dejean-Jones’ ability to score. He can fill it up when he gets on a roll. His problem is shot selection, and while Iowa State likes to get up and down the floor, Dejean-Jones is going to be the second or third option offensively for the Cyclones. Can he accept that role?

Here are 10 more x-factors

  • Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse: For the third straight season, Syracuse will have just one point guard on their roster, and a freshman to boot. If he Tyler Ennis 2.0?
  • Chris Walker, Florida: A supreme talent at 6-foot-10, for sure, but does he have a clue about how to play basketball?
  • Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke: Cook is the senior starter. Tyus Jones is the hot-shot freshman. Both are talented point guards. Can they play together? What if one has their minutes cut?
  • Kedren Johnson, Memphis: Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 boards at Vanderbilt in 2012-2013, is the only guard for Memphis that has ever played Division I basketball.
  • Wayne Blackshear and Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville: Montrezl Harrell is an all-american, and Terry Rozier might join him this season. Can Blackshear and/or Aaron provide production from the wing?
  • Yannick Moreira and Keith Frazier, SMU: With no Emmanuel Mudiay, Larry Brown needs these two to improve. Moreira looked great at the FIBA World Cup, while Frazier was a McDonald’s all-american but couldn’t earn a starting spot as a freshman.
  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, but he’s yet to be healthy at Providence.
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico: Neal was impressive at times as a freshman despite playing on a team with three pros while still recovering from an emergency appendectomy.
  • Robert Hubbs, Tennessee: The most talented player on a depleted Tennessee roster struggled with injuries as a freshman.
  • Texas using a 2-3 zone: How effective can Texas be defensively when they have Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley on the floor together?