By Jesse Kramer
The Mountain West is coming off the best year in the conference’s history. Five teams went to the NCAA tournament, and two others also received a postseason berth.
Although not quite as good as last season, the Mountain West is still loaded with talent and should send four or five teams to the NCAA tournament once again.
1. Boise State
Boise State is the only 2013 NCAA Tournament team to return all five starters. Let that soak in.
The only notable Bronco no longer on the team is backup center Kenny Buckner. Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks, Jeff Elorriaga, and the rest of the crew that brought Boise State to its first NCAA tournament since 2008 return to get the job done once again.
Drmic (pictured) and Marks are both favorites to make the All-Mountain West First Team this season; both were named to the second team in 2012-13. Drmic led the Broncos in scoring last season with 17.7 points per game, and he also drained three-pointers at a 39.2% clip. Marks posted 16.3 points per contest, and he led the team 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals.
Elorriaga is coming off a breakout junior season where he averaged 10.2 points and shot 44.7% from beyond the arc. His 2.9 three-pointers made per game led the Mountain West.
In addition to those three phenomenal guards, Boise State also returns Mikey Thompson (7.9 ppg, 43.9 3P%), Igor Hadziomerovic (5.2 ppg, 2.0 apg), and Thomas Bropleh (3.5 ppg) to their backcourt.
The Broncos’ frontcourt is thin, but senior power forward will anchor them down low. At 6’9″, Watkins averaged 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 61.7% from the field last season. He also led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
2. New Mexico
New Mexico won the Mountain West last season and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, where the Lobos were shocked by No. 14 seed Harvard.
Although Tony Snell declared for the NBA draft, head coach Craig Neal still has four returning starters in his first season.
Leading scorer and reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams is the most notable returnee. Williams averaged 13.3 points and 4.9 assists, and he made national headlines with his 46-point explosion in a February win against Colorado State.
Williams’ sidekick, Hugh Greenwood, will have an increased role in the offense with Snell’s departure. Greenwood, a 6’3″ guard, averaged seven points, five rebounds, and 2.4 assists last season. Expect him to average double figures in scoring this season.
Alex Kirk, who averaged 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks is also back. The 7-footer ranked in the nation’s top 100 in defensive rebounding percentage and block percentage, and he has the ability to step outside and knock down the occasional three-pointer.
Along with Kirk, Australia native Cameron Bairstow should start in the frontcourt. Bairstow averaged 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior last season.
The Lobos biggest additions to the roster are Cullen Neal Merv Lindsay, who played one season at Kansas before transferring. Lindsay is eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Neal, the son of head coach Craig Neal, was a top-100 recruit in the Class of 2013.
Of UNLV’s top nine performers last season, only two return for the 2013-14 season. Anthony Marshall, Quintrell Thomas, and Justin Hawkins exhausted their eligibility; Anthony Bennett left early for the NBA; Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt transferred; and Savon Goodman is suspended for the entire season after being charged with stealing sneakers, cash, and video games from a friend’s apartment.
This leaves guard Bryce Dejean-Jones (10.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and forward Khem Birch (7.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.6 bpg) as the only notable returning players.
However, head coach Dave Rice is bringing in a bunch of freshman and transfers to keep the Rebels near the top of the league.
Connecticut transfer Roscoe Smith, who averaged 6.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks as a freshman, is eligible after sitting out last season. He should start in the Rebels’ frontcourt and have an immediate impact.
Rice also adds Fresno State transfer Kevin Olekaibe and former Mississippi State commit DeVille Smith. Smith played at Southwest Mississippi Community College last season and averaged 16 points and 4.9 assists. Ole Miss transfer Jelan Kendrick, who averaged 5.1 points in 2011-12, is also eligible, as are a pair of top-100 recruits, Christian Wood and Kendall Smith.
4. San Diego State
San Diego State lost three starters and key bench player James Rahon from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but head coach Steve Fisher will keep the Aztecs in contention in the Mountain West.
A pair of starters return in point guard Xavier Thames and forward JJ O’Brien. Thames, the team’s top returner in points, assists, steals, and three-point shooting, averaged 9.5 points and 2.4 dimes last season. He caught fire in March, averaging 12.3 points and 3.2 assists over six games.
O’Brien, a former Utah Ute, recorded 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last year. He posted a pair of double-doubles, both in conference play.
Returning from the Aztecs’ bench are Winston Shepard (pictured), Skylar Spencer and Dwayne Polee II. Shepard, a sophomore, showed signs of future stardom with 5.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and two assists per game. He only shot 39.3% from the field, but the 6’8″ forward has the skills and athleticism for a breakout season.
Spencer played only 14.2 minutes per game, but he averaged 2.9 points, 2.9 boards, and 2.9 blocks while shooting 66.2% from the field.
Notable newcomers on San Diego State’s roster are Tulane transfer Josh Davis and freshmen Dakarai Allen and Matt Shrigley.
Davis, a 6’8″ power forward, had a monster season for Tulane last season with 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He will give the Aztecs much-needed size up front.
Allen, a true freshman, and Shrigley, a redshirt freshman, both have the skills to contribute immediately on the wings.
5. Utah State
In its first year in the Mountain West, Utah State will certainly compete. Veteran head coach Stew Morrill has guided Utah State since 1998 in the Big West and Western Athletic conferences, never finishing worse than fourth place. He has taken the Aggies to eight NCAA tournaments, four NITs, and one CIT in 15 seasons.
I’m not taking Utah State to finish in the top four, but it certainly is possible that the Aggies finish as high as third. The Aggies lost three forwards in starter Kyisean Reed, occasional starter Marvin Jean, and reserve Matt Lopez, but they will remain plenty strong with the returns of five players who started at least half of their games.
Senior forward Jarred Shaw, a potential All-Mountain West first teamer, averaged 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season. From January 26 through the end of the March, he recorded 16.9 points and 8.8 boards. During this stretch, he shot 58.2% from the field.
The Aggies also return wing Spencer Butterfield, who averaged 12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists last season. Butterfield was their best three-point shooter at 42.5%.
At point guard, Utah State returns senior Preston Medlin. Medlin missed about half of last season with an injury, but before he went down he averaged 16.3 points and 3.2 assists while shooting close to 40% from beyond the arc.
Although Wyoming lost its top three scorers, it could actually move up in the Mountain West standings this season. The Cowboys Larry Nance Jr., Josh Adams, and Riley Grabau, all of whom were starters, to form a solid core.
Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson and North Florida transfer Jeron Granberry will give Adams and Grabau a boost in the backcourt now that they are eligible.
If senior guard Nathan Sobey and junior forward Derek Cooke Jr. succeed in fulfilling larger, possibly starter, roles, the Cowboys should have no trouble finishing sixth in this league.
7. Fresno State
Fresno State lost five key players from its rotation, but Tyler Johnson and Allen Huddletson, its top two scorers are back, along with Marvelle Harris, Braeden Anderson, and Tanner Giddings.
In addition, Oklahoma State transfer, point guard Cezar Guerrero, is eligible, as is junior college transfer Alex Davis, a 6’9″ forward.
8. Colorado State
Colorado State’s chances of going to a third straight NCAA tournament are looking slim. The Rams lost all five starters, who were also their top five scorers and included their top three leaders in assists and their top two rebounders.
Returning juniors Daniel Bejarano and Jon Octeus form a solid backcourt, but they were really relying on the return of sixth-year senior Jesse Carr, who missed last season with an injury, to bolster them. However, Carr re-injured himself, ending his basketball career.
Colorado State will add transfer J.J. Avila, who had two great years in Navy’s frontcourt, along with a bunch of other newcomers to try and salvage this season.
In its first Mountain West season, Nevada limped to a 3-13 league record. This season will not be much prettier.
The Wolf Pack returns two starters, point guard Deonte Burton and wing Jerry Evans Jr., but only two other players who played at least 10 minutes per game return: Marqueze Coleman (4.5 ppg) and Cole Huff (4.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg).
However, Nevada has a couple impact transfers entering the program, and if this group gels Nevada could pull off a couple of surprises this season. Former UTEP guard Michael Perez, who averaged 11 points and shot 36.9% from long range as a sophomore, is now eligible. Junior college transfer AJ West also has the potential to be in the starting lineup.
10. Air Force
Air Force, which had its first winning season since 2007-08 last year, graduated all five starters, plus key reserve Cameron Michael transferred to Northern Colorado.
That leaves DeLovell Earls, who played 14.2 minutes per game and averaged 3.9 points, as the Falcons’ best returning player.
This will no doubt be a rebuilding year for the Falcons, as they will rely completely on inexperienced returning players and freshmen.
11. San Jose State
San Jose State was already struggling to compete in the WAC, and then it decided to take a step up to the Mountain West. Bold move, Cotton.
The Spartans’ only returning players who received consistent playing time are starters Chris Cunningham and D.J. Brown. Cunningham averaged 10.7 points and nine rebounds but shot only 42.3% on two-point field goals. Brown averaged 9.2 points and 3.7 assists but shot only 30.3% from the field.
San Jose State’s one bright spot is a solid group of newcomers. The Spartans’ recruiting class includes Jalen James and Rashad Muhammad, both three-star guards, and impact transfers Jordan Baker from Pepperdine and Devante Wilson from Lee College.
Mountain West Player of the Year
Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year
Khem Birch, UNLV
Mountain West Freshman of the Year
Keonta Vernon, Wyoming
Mountain West All-Conference Team
Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Derrick Marks, Boise State
Deonte Burton, Nevada
Anthony Drmic, Boise State
Alex Kirk, New Mexico
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.