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Mountain West Preview: Nevada and everyone else?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West.


The Mountain West had a Sweet 16 team and a second NCAA tournament bid last season as the league tries to regain its former basketball glory.

While finding multiple bids is much tougher than it used to be, the Mountain West brings a legitimate Final Four contender to the forefront this season while a few mid-level teams have NBA prospects and former McDonald’s All-Americans.

New coaches with Mountain West roots have entered at three programs and the league is trying to find balance after looking like a one-bid conference during some recent seasons. With a national contender, and some big-name players, the Mountain West will be a league to stay up late for this season.

Because of one team that will be awesome.

And at least one player that might hear his name called very early in next June’s draft.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Nevada is a legitimate Final Four contender.

Expectations are huge for Nevada this season. After a Sweet 16 run last season, the Wolf Pack have nearly everybody back, as head coach Eric Musselman also added quality depth through transfers and recruiting.

The return of the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline for their senior seasons is huge, as that trio are all All-Conference players. Point guard Lindsey Drew should also return from an injury while Portland transfer Jazz Johnson offers more insurance at guard. Other notable transfers include Nisre Zouzoua (Bryant), Tre’Shawn Thomas (Omaha), Trey Porter (Old Dominion) and Corey Henson (Wagner). A McDonald’s All-American big man in Jordan Brown also joins the mix.

With a legitimate center and credible depth, Nevada won’t have to ride five or six players to heavy minutes at the end of the season like last season. The Martin twins are game changers, especially since Cody’s late-season move to point guard. Caleb Martin remains the league’s best overall player while Caroline isn’t far behind.

Nevada won’t be tested as much as other Final Four contenders thanks to a light Mountain West (more on that in a moment) but they still have the talent and experience to make a deep run in March. Now that they are the hunted, it’ll be fascinating to see how Nevada handles the immense pressure of being a national contender.

Jalen McDaniels (David Becker/Getty Images)

2. San Diego State has a chance to return to the NCAA tournament

After stealing an NCAA tournament bid last season by winning the conference tournament, San Diego State returns most of the core from that group. Replacing Trey Kell and Malik Pope won’t be easy, but the Aztecs will hope that some enticing young players develop into consistent go-to players.

It starts with sophomore Jalen McDaniels. The 6-foot-10 forward transitioned into a starter late last season as he started putting up double-doubles and showing scary potential at the end of the season. He’s firmly on the NBA radar — a potential first-round pick. McDaniels also has never scored more than 19 points in a college game. At the end of last season, McDaniels didn’t produce in some big games.

Other key players returning for San Diego State include senior guards Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley while sophomore forward Matt Mitchell was also an effective freshman as a double-figure scorer. If the young frontcourt develops while the senior backcourt stays consistent, then San Diego State might not need to win a tournament to get a bid. They’ve already knocked off Nevada twice last season and won’t be scared to face them. If the Aztecs earn some quality win like that, they might be good enough to be the league’s second tournament team.

3. New Mexico has some intriguing transfers as they hope for NCAA tournament return

The Lobos are the wild card in the Mountain West this season thanks to some talented transfers. It’s unfortunate that guard JaQuan Lyle will miss the season with injury. But New Mexico still has the frontcourt of Vance Jackson (UConn) and Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State) to work with.

Although New Mexico loses four of its top five leading scorers from last season, Bragg and Jackson have a chance to make an immediate impact. Jackson provides some stretch ability while Bragg had the talent to once be a McDonald’s All-American.

Underrated senior guard Anthony Mathis is also back along with sophomore Makuach Maluach. Both Mathis and Maluach shot better than 46 percent from three-point range last season. Senior Dane Kuiper is a returning starter who should provide some experience on the wing. With knockdown shooters, and capable interior play, New Mexico could surprise this season, as they have some talented players to work with.

Paul Weir (David Becker/Getty Images)

4. The Mountain West has three new head coaches

Some fresh blood enters the Mountain West this season in the form of three new head coaches. The main hire to keep an eye on will be Niko Medved at Colorado State. Returning to the Rams after spending time as an assistant coach there from 2007 through 2013, Medved comes to Colorado State as one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks.

Making three straight CIT appearances with Furman, and then Drake, Medved has done a quality job of getting some quick results at schools that aren’t easy to win at. With a solid program that he’s familiar with in Colorado State, Medved could end up being a quality hire for a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since Medved was last with them in 2013.

Justin Hutson takes over at Fresno State after being an assistant in the Mountain West at San Diego State and UNLV since 2006. Knowing the ins and the outs of everything with the league should be hugely beneficial for Hutson. It also helps that Hutson is inheriting a program that is in decent shape since Rodney Terry left for UTEP. The Bulldogs have front-court question marks for this season, but they do have plenty of backcourt talent that is intriguing.

At Utah State, Craig Smith gets a chance the regain the Aggies’ former glory as he replaces the fired Tim Duryea. Much like Medved, Smith has spent time as an assistant at Colorado State under Tim Miles as he is familiar with the league. Expectations will be high at Utah State, but Smith did an excellent job of turning South Dakota into a 20-win team in back-to-back seasons.

5. The league will seek its second two-bid season since 2015

The second half of this decade, the Mountain West has struggled to consistently put multiple teams in the NCAA tournament. Last season, it only happened once San Diego State got hot and unexpectedly won the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

Although Nevada has the chance for a great season, the rest of the league is very uncertain when it comes to making the NCAA tournament. While the Mountain West would regularly get four and five teams in contention for bids in the early part of the decade, the league has looked more like a one-bid league in recent seasons.

Will the Mountain West get anyone into the field besides Nevada? It the Wolf Pack end up running most of the conference, then there won’t be many quality wins to go around and another unexpected conference tournament champion will be needed.

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CALEB MARTIN, Nevada

Returning to college at the final hour of the NBA Draft deadline, Martin returns after a monster junior season with the Wolf Pack. Putting up 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range, Martin is one of the most consistent producers in college basketball. With a season of his brother, Cody, running the point, Nevada’s highly-efficient offense should be ready to roll once again.

THE REST OF THE MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • CODY MARTIN, Nevada: Transitioning to point at the end of last season, the 6-foot-7 Martin thrived as a jumbo playmaker in Nevada’s potent offense.
  • JALEN MCDANIELS, San Diego State: The 6-foot-10 sophomore could explode into a big-time NBA prospect. But he has to be more consistent and show that he’s a go-to player in his second year.
  • JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada: Playing his natural spot at the four this season, the two-time All-Mountain West performer should have a monster final season with Nevada.
  • JUSTIN JAMES, Wyoming: One of the nation’s most underrated players, James put up 18.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game last season despite battling an early-season ankle injury.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • SAM MERRILL, Utah State
  • DESHON TAYLOR, Fresno State
  • SHAKUR JUISTON, UNLV
  • NICO CARVACHO, Colorado State
  • ANTHONY MATHIS, New Mexico
Deshon Taylor (David Becker/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

It’s hard to call Fresno State senior guard Deshon Taylor a breakout star after last season’s monster output. But after putting up 17.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season, the 6-foot-2 guard still doesn’t get a lot of national acclaim. After putting his name in the NBA Draft and pulling his name out, Taylor will be counted on for a big season after former backcourt running mate Bryson Williams transferred. That could mean more 20-point games while also being asked to get teammates easy looks.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Unquestionably one of the toughest jobs in all of college basketball, things haven’t gone according to plan for Dave Pilipovich during his time at Air Force. Five straight losing seasons in the Mountain West hurts, while the program has been held out of the postseason since a CIT appearance in 2013. While everyone acknowledges the Air Force job is difficult, this was a program that made two NCAA appearances and a deep NIT run during a span from 2004 through 2007. Winning is possible in Colorado Springs with the right mix of players.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Nevada gives the Mountain West a legitimate Final Four contender, but it’s hard to say how good the Wolf Pack actually is since they didn’t play another NCAA tournament-caliber team in the Mountain West this season.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Nevada can live up to the preseason hype. Being a potential top-five team and Final Four contender is some major pressure. That could especially be the case for a Wolf Pack team that is incorporating a lot of new pieces for this season. But if this Nevada team can put it all together, they have the potential to be scary good.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 19, San Diego State vs. Duke (Maui Invitational)
  • Nov. 27, Nevada at Loyola Chicago (Missouri Valley/Mountain West Challenge Series)
  • Dec. 1, Nevada at USC
  • Dec. 1, Cincinnati at UNLV
  • Dec. 7, New Mexico vs. Saint Mary’s (Hall of Fame Classic, Los Angeles)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. NEVADA: Watching how Nevada operates its rotation will be something to monitor this season. Head coach Eric Musselman has typically liked to work with a shorter bench, but with this group, he has plenty of experienced options. If the Wolf Pack can interject some depth into the equation, then the Final Four is possible.

2. SAN DIEGO STATE: The Aztecs will need more from senior guard Jeremy Hemsley after a disappointing junior season. Once a double-figure scorer, if Hemsley can return to form, then San Diego State will be loaded with options in the starting lineup.

3. NEW MEXICO: To stabilize the roster, New Mexico brought in a quality stable of junior college recruits and freshmen, as some rotation pieces should also emerge from that pack. If the Lobos find some immediate contributors then they might be deeper than anticipated.

4. UNLV: Things looked promising last season for the Runnin’ Rebels until they lost six of seven to finish out the season. Replacing Brandon McCoy, Jovan Mooring and Jordan Johnson will be tough, but the Rebels have some talented newcomers and forward Shakur Juiston back.

5. COLORADO STATE: New head coach Niko Medved lost Prentiss Nixon to transfer, but he inherits an experienced core. Guard J.D. Paige and forward Deion Page are senior double-figure scorers while big man Nico Carvacho is a regular double-double threat.

6. BOISE STATE: Replacing Chandler Hutchison will be next to impossible but the Broncos have hope. Justinian Jessup should be in line for a bigger season while Alex Hobbs, Zach Haney and Marcus Dickinson have all contributed in the past.

7. FRESNO STATE: All-conference guard Deshon Taylor returns to give the Bulldogs a go-to player. Transfers should play a huge part for Fresno State this season as Braxton Huggins (New Mexico State) and Noah Blackwell (Long Beach State) should contribute right away.

8. WYOMING: Losing nine players from last season (including five transfers), this Cowboy team will look like a completely different team outside of Justin James. Wyoming needs to find newcomers to supplement James’ immense ability.

9. UTAH STATE: Losing Koby McEwen and DeAngelo Isby early is going to hurt. Thankfully, new head coach Craig Smith can turn to promising junior Sam Merrill as the Aggies look to get back on the winning track.

10. AIR FORCE: Two of three leading scorers return for Air Force as Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan are back. Expected to play slow once again, Air Force can be a tough out at home, but they need to improve dramatically on the road.

11. SAN JOSE STATE: The Spartans went 4-26 overall and 1-17 in the league as they still lost their three leading scorers to transfer. The leading returning scorers are Oumar Barry (5.8 ppg) and Noah Baumann (5.2 ppg) as San Jose State once again looks like a bottom feeder.

Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger to receive Legends of Coaching honor

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger will receive the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching honor next spring.

The award is given annually to college basketball coaches who exemplify the late UCLA legend’s standard of success and personal integrity. Kruger was announced as the recipient on Tuesday.

He will be recognized on April 12 at the College Basketball Awards in Los Angeles.

Kruger is entering his eighth season at Oklahoma, where he is 140-91. He is the first Division I coach to take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament.

The 66-year-old coach has a career record of 619-395, with stints at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma. He ranks 10th among active coaches in victories.

Kruger’s college teams have made the 17 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He guided Florida to a Final Four appearance in 1994 and took Oklahoma there in 2016.

Previous winners of the award include Roy Williams of Kansas, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford and the late Dean Smith of North Carolina.

Josh Jackson leads No. 3 Kansas past UNLV 71-53

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Josh Jackson scored 21 points, Svi Mykhailiuk had 20 and Frank Mason III added 13, as No. 3 Kansas beat UNLV 71-53 on Thursday night, extending its winning streak to 11 games.

Kansas got 12 rebounds and four points from Landen Lucas.

The Jayhawks (11-1) haven’t lost since a season-opening 103-99 overtime setback to Indiana, in Honolulu.

UNLV (7-6) was led by Tyrell Green’s 12 points, with Jalen Poyser and Uche Ofoegbu adding 10 points each. It was the Runnin’ Rebels’ third loss to a Top 25 team in their last five games.

UNLV tried making things interesting by opening the second half on a 15-7 run, cutting into Kansas’ lead, making it 49-35 at the 14:30 mark. In that span, the Jayhawks shot just 30 percent, while the Rebels hit 6 of 7 (85.7 percent).

Moments later, Jackson shifted momentum back in Kansas’ direction when he drove baseline for a vicious slam dunk to push the Jayhawks ahead 56-40, while igniting a 6-0 run. Kansas extended its lead to 64-44, while the Rebels missed eight of nine shot attempts.

But UNLV wasn’t done, as an 8-0 run by the Rebels cut the lead to 12 with a little less than 4 minutes remaining.

Mykhailiuk’s slashing layup down the right side of the key ended Kansas’ scoring drought, which he followed up with a 3-pointer a minute later to essentially seal the victory.

Kansas finished the game shooting 44 percent (28 of 63), while UNLV shot 35 percent (19 of 55).

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks improved to 11-3 in games preceding Christmas under Self’s watch. Since a 14-point loss to Nevada in 2003, in his first season at Kansas, Self has put his players on notice there is no room for mediocrity heading into Christmas break.

UNLV: UNLV’s other Top 25 losses included a 20-point setback to Oregon and a 49-point thrashing at the hands of Duke. And despite starting the season with just three returning scholarship players, the Rebels concluded their non-conference slate above .500.

UP NEXT

Kansas will take eight days off before opening Big 12 play at TCU on Dec. 30.

UNLV opens its Mountain West Conference schedule next Wednesday at Colorado State.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

UNLV adding former South Florida signee Baxter

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Marvin Menzies is bringing in some last-minute reinforcements for his first season as coach at UNLV.

The Rebels picked up the commitment from four-star Class of 2016 forward Troy Baxter, Jr. on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Baxter was a consensus top-75 player coming out of Tallahassee, but originally signed with South Florida, which gave him his release from his National Letter of Intent just last week. He averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game as a senior last year.

“I was really impressed with (Menzies) and his vision for the future,” Baxter told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Thursday nights. “He wants to bring championships back to UNLV.”

The addition is certainly a welcome one for the Runnin’ Rebels who return just one forward, Dwayne Morgan, from last season while also bringing in St. John’s graduate transfer Christian Jones.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: No. 15 Oregon, UNLV take center stage

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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 15 Oregon vs. UNLV, 11:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

For the second straight day the college basketball schedule is relatively light, and there’s no denying that the matchup between the Ducks and Runnin’ Rebels is the most intriguing contest. While the game will be played in Las Vegas it will be played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena as opposed to the Thomas & Mack Center, which is being used for the National Finals Rodeo.

The Ducks, despite not having Jordan Bell or Dylan Ennis, have played well and have the look of a Pac-12 contender thanks to players such as Dylan Brooks, Elgin Cook, Chris Boucher and Tyler Dorsey. On the other side UNLV has just one loss, and with a Mountain West POY candidate in sophomore guard Patrick McCaw leading the way this group has the the depth and talent needed to get back to the NCAA tournament. This game will provide a nice résumé boost for the winner.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Pittsburgh vs. Duquesne, 7:00 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

The Panthers will look to rebound from their loss to No. 11 Purdue with a win against the 6-1 Dukes, who are off to their best start since the 2007-08 season. Guards Derrick Colter and Micah Mason are combining to average nearly 37 points per game to lead the way for Jim Ferry’s team, which will need strong efforts on the glass from L.G. Gill and Darius Lewis if the Dukes are to beat Pitt. Pitt has won all five games in the series that have been played at the CONSOL Energy Center, and their rotation led by forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis and point guard James Robinson will be a test. Look for this edition of the “City Game” to be tight one.

SIX THINGS TO WATCH FOR

1. No. 2 Maryland returns to action for the first time since their loss at No. 9 North Carolina, hosting Saint Francis (PA) in College Park. If there’s one player the Terrapins would like to get going its senior forward Jake Layman, who struggled in Chapel Hill. He’s still adjusting from being a mismatch at the four as he was last season to spending most of his time at the three, but he’s talented enough to make the transition.

2. The celebrations put forth by the Monmouth bench have been great, but don’t ignore the fact that King Rice’s Hawks are a pretty good team. Monmouth opens MAAC play with a game at Canisius, and a deep team led by point guard Justin Robinson will need to be at its best against the Golden Griffins. Jim Baron’s team has lost two straight, but they have five players scoring in double figures led by high-scoring guard Malcolm McMillan (23.6 ppg). The western New York swing can be a tough one in MAAC play, so Monmouth’s focus will be key.

3. Wake Forest hosts Arkansas in a matchup of teams hoping to work their way into the conversation in their respective conferences. The Demon Deacons managed to finish third at the Maui Invitational, and they’re off to a 5-2 start despite not having injured guard Codi Miller-McIntyre. Freshman Bryant Crawford has played well in Miller-McIntyre’s absence, and forwards Dinos Mitoglou and Devin Thomas can be a tough matchup in the front court. Arkansas had a lot to replace from last season’s NCAA tournament team, and while they’re still turning teams over the half-court defense has been a struggle.

4. Two of the best players whose highlights don’t garner major attention amongst casual fans will be on the same court in New York City, as DeAndre Bembry leads Saint Joseph’s up against Maodo Lo and Columbia. But this won’t be a one-on-one kind of game, with the Hawks boasting an improved Isaiah Miles (who is leading the team in scoring) and Columbia having three other players averaging double figures led by guard Alex Rosenberg.

5. Northern Illinois hasn’t played the most rigorous of schedules to this point, but they’ll put their 7-0 record on the line at Missouri. Mark Montgomery’s team has been successful thanks in part to their offensive balance, with five players averaging at least eight points per game (Aaric Armstead leads at 13.0 ppg) and forward Marin Maric (10.6, 7.9 rpg) having posted double-doubles in each of the last two games. That balance will be key on the road against a Missouri team led by freshman Kevin Puryear.

6. After managing to hold off UT-Arlington in overtime earlier this week Texas hosts 6-2 Samford. Scott Padgett’s team opened the season with a loss at No. 24 Louisville but have won six of their last seven with the lone defeat being by just one point at Austin Peay. Texas hasn’t been all that good on the defensive glass, as opponents have grabbed more than 42 percent of their misses, and it’s an area Shaka Smart’s team needs to address. Samford’s ranked 301st in adjusted offensive efficiency, which should benefit Isaiah Taylor and company.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Iona at Marist, 7:00 p.m.
  • Manhattan at Siena, 7:00 p.m.
  • Kansas State at Georgia, 7:00 p.m.
  • San Francisco at Montana, 9:00 p.m.
  • UC Davis at Saint Mary’s, 10:00 p.m.

VIDEO: UNLV’s ‘Runnin’ Rebel Madness’ dunk contest highlights

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Thursday night UNLV held its annual “Runnin’ Rebel Madness” event, taking Jerry Tarkanian Court to the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center for a night outside. Fans were able to meet the men’s and women’s basketball teams and also take in three-point and dunk contests, with one of the judges for the dunk contest being Las Vegas native and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.

And while it won’t mean much when it comes to wins and losses, UNLV may have the best group of dunkers in college basketball this season. Freshman forward Derrick Jones’ exploits have appeared on this site in the past, and to no one’s surprise he won last night’s dunk contest. But guard Jaylen Poyser and Ike Nwamu can get up as well, and 7-foot freshman Stephen Zimmerman’s no slouch either.

Above are highlights from the dunk contest, with MyLVSports responsible for the footage.