Thursday, November 3, 2005

Mountain West Conference Preview


One of the more disappointing conferences a season ago, the Mountain West Conference was salvaged by a 13-1 conference record from Utah and a great stretch run by New Mexico to get to 10-4 in the conference. Air Force finished one game back of the Lobos, but no one else finished above .500 in league play. Utah and New Mexico were the flag-bearers for the conference last year. In the conference tournament, New Mexico defeated Utah to win the automatic bid. Utah received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, and made a run to the Sweet Sixteen. New Mexico lost in the first round to Villanova. However, two first-round NBA Draft picks, Andrew Bogut and Danny Granger, are both gone. The Mountain West Conference is going to be wide-open this season in what will be a down year for the league.

Favorites: San Diego State returns the two best players in the league in Marcus Slaughter and Brandon Heath. Slaughter is a double-double threat everytime he steps in the court, and he dominates the paint for the Aztecs. With a few breaks here and there, he could be a deep sleeper choice for the Wooden Award list. His partner in one of the best inside-outside combos in the country is guard Brandon Heath. Heath contributes in all aspects of the game, and is the leading returning scorer in the conference. SDSU has more than just those two, though. Florida transfer Mohamed Akubar is expected to make a huge impact at center once he becomes eligbile in December. Guards Matt Thomas and John Sharper are solid contributors that return in the backcourt. Trimaine Davis had a never-ending motor at forward, while Mohamed Camara will keep the center spot warm for Akubar. The only reason that the Aztecs aren' the consensus top team? They went 11-18 last year with basically the same team, other than Akubar. Utah loses #1 NBA Draft pick Andrew Bogut, as well as three other key players. They do return, however, an all-conference forward in Bryant Markson, He could have a huge season as the go-to-guy for the Utes. Point guard Tim Drisdom returns a starter. He is a steady leader, but he needs to improve his production if Utah is going to repeat as MWC Champions. Starting next to him in the backcourt will be newcomer Johnnie Bryant. He is going to be a candidate for conference Newcomer of the Year if he lives up to his expectations. Down low, three players 6-11 or taller will try to replace Bogut. Jonas Langvad is a good shooter that played important minutes last season at the power forward slot. Chris Jackson was Bogut's backup, and could start. Redshirt freshman Luke Nevill may be the best option, though. The 7-foot Australian (yes, Bogut was both of those too) can do a variety of things. Air Force returns two potential all-league first teamers in guard Antoine Hood and center Nick Welch. Hood is the team's leading returning scorer and provides perimeter offense, while Welch is probably the best passer on the team. He needs to improve his rebounding, though. Forward Jacob Burtschi also returns as a starter in the frontcourt. Guard Matt McGraw likes to push the ball, while wing Dan Nwaelele is a decent scoring option on the perimeter. The main potential problem with the Falcons is that they are going to be breaking in a new coach, Jeff Bzdelik. He will need to get acquainted with the classic Air Force, Princeton-like offensive system. They should be just fine, though, will all of the returning experience.

Sleepers: UNLV loses three starters, but return a host of solid players. Guard Michael Umeh should have a huge season on the wing, after coming on strong down the stretch. He is capable of scoring in a variety of ways on offense. Ricky Morgan will join him in the backcourt, after starting the final 12 games of the season. Freshman Jo'Van Adams is expected to make an impact on the perimeter, while Curtis Terry will provide depth on the wing. Returning starter Louis Amundson is back in the frontcourt after having a very good all-around season. Returnees Dustin Villepigue and Joel Anthony need to play bigger roles this season. TCU looks to build upon their success of last season, when they made a run to the third round of the NIT. Wing Nile Murry is a very good scorer and shooter who provides most of the perimeter offense. Frontcourt players Femi Ibikunle and Chudi Chinweze anchor the low post. Chinweze missed the latter part of the season after tearing his ACL in December, but is one of the best players in the conference when healthy. Ibikunle is a solid inside player. Returning guard Brent Reese-Hackett and a plethora of newcomers will see extensive minutes and could even start. New Mexico loses first-round pick David Granger and two other starters, but all hope is not lost. A very good inside-outside combo returns in guard Mark Walters and David Chiotti. Walters is a solid all-around contributor that can score from the perimeter, while Chiotti could develop into a near-dominant inside player in the MWC. He is very efficient from the floor and will be the go-to-guy. Point guard Kris Collins should be healthy after injuring his foot midway through the season, and should start in the backcourt. Athletic Tony Danridge will start on the wing. Joining Chiotti down low will be one of two JC transfers, Joel Box and Kyle Prochaska.

Rounding Out the Pack: Wyoming loses four starters from last season, but returns a potential all-league player in forward Justin Williams. He is good rebounder and scorer, and is one of the best interior defenders in the country. Joining him in the frontcourt will be part-time starter Derek Wabbington, who gives the Cowboys a body down low. Guards Steve Leven and Kevin Lewis are solid wing options. Lewis is a very good long-range shooter, while Leven is a good scorer. Freshman Brandon Ewing and JC transfer Brad Jones will compete for the starting point guard spot. Colorado State may have the best frontcourt in the MWC. Leading the way up front is Freshman of the Year Jason Smith. He can step out and hit the mid-range jumper, as well as get a few buckets inside. The 7-footer can play any frontcourt position and could develop into a double-double threat. Fellow 7-footer Stuart Creason returns as a part-time starter. He provides good defense and big man down low. 6-10 JC transfer Michael Harrison is another big man that will make an impact for the Rams. On the perimeter, Michael Morris leads the way. He is a decent distibutor for his size (6-4) and is very athletic. His brother, Sean Morris, could start next to him. He is extremely quick and is an excellent long-range shooter. BYU returns only two starters, but five players that had plenty of experience a season ago. Point guard Austin Ainge is one of the best in the league at his position. He is an excellent passer and will improve his scoring. Guards Jimmy Balderson and Mike Rose join him on the perimeter. Rose is an excellent three-point shooter, while Balderson is poised for a big season. Up front, Keena Young and Derek Dawes return. Young is a good rebounder and is a very active player, both on offense and defense. Dawes was a part-time starter last season that will have a bigger role down low this season.

Prediction: San Diego State has the two best players in the league, and the best newcomer in the MWC. But they went 4-10 in conference and 11-18 overall last season. In order to turn that around, and become the team that they can be, the Aztecs need to play more as a team. That should and will happen. SDSU is too good not to win the league. The rest of the conference is on the downswing. Utah and New Mexico lost first-round draft picks, while no other team looks very imposing. Every team, however, should be somewhat decent. On any given night, any team in the MWC can beat any other team within the conference. That is how much parody there will be in this league. In the end, though, San Diego State will win the regular season and automatic bid, with Utah and Air Force likely headed to the NIT.

Player of the Year: Marcus Slaughter, PF, San Diego State

All-Conference Team:
G- Brandon Heath, San Diego State
G- Antoine Hood, Air Force
F- Bryant Markson, Utah
F- Marcus Slaughter, San Diego State
C- Nick Welch, Air Force

Second Team:
G- Michael Umeh, UNLV
G- Mark Walters, New Mexico
F- Chudi Chinweze, TCU
F- David Chiotti, New Mexico
F- Justin Williams, Wyoming

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