Friday, October 27, 2006

Mountain West Conference Preview


Last season, the Mountain West Conference did not get the recognition and press that it did two years ago when it had two first-round picks in Andrew Bogut and Danny Granger with both of their teams having successful seasons in Utah and New Mexico, respectively. However, it had a solid race for the title, and also featured three teams with hopes of going dancing in the NCAA Tournament heading into the conference tournament. San Diego State won the championship at 13-3, by one game over Air Force and BYU. UNLV was the only other team to finish above .500. The conference tournament nearly popped two bubbles when Air Force and BYU both lost in the quarterfinals. #7 seed Wyoming made a run to the title game, but fell to #1 seed San Diego State in overtime. With SDSU taking the automatic bid, Air Force received potentially the last at-large bid into the field as a #13 seed. They did not justify it in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Illinois in the first round. San Diego State was with #6 Indiana the entire game before faltering down the stretch and falling to the Hoosiers. This year will likely have the same three-headed race for the title, but don't be surprised to see the MWC get more NCAA Tournament bids this season.

Favorites and Contenders: San Diego State increased their win total by 13 games last season, finishing 24-9 and 13-3 in the MWC, good enough for the league title. They return four starters from that team, but the one starter lost is Marcus Slaughter. He averaged a double-double last season but entered his name in the NBA Draft, skipping his final college season. The Aztecs will be fine, though. Brandon Heath, one of the best guards in the country, leads the way. He is an outstanding scorer who is also a very good distributor and defender. He is the favorite for conference Player of the Year. Joining him on the perimeter will be Richie Williams and Kyle Spain. Williams is an extremely quick point guard who is a solid passer and defender who needs to improve his offensive game. Spain is a tremendous three-point shooter who will likely become a double-figure scorer this season. He is tough to guard. Louisville transfer Lorrenzo Wade will battle Spain for a starting job on the wing due to his athleticism and size. Up front, all-conference forward Mohamed Abukar is the go-to-guy. He is an inside-outside threat who is one of the most difficult match-ups in the conference. His partner down low will be JC transfer Jerome Habel. Habel was the nation's #2-ranked JUCO prospect last season. Air Force had another successful season last year, going 24-7 overall and 12-4 in the MWC, garnering an at-large bid. Four starters return for the Falcons, plus they get 2004 Player of the Year Nick Welch back from injury. He is a match-up nightmare opponents, due to his inside-outside game. He also has the ability to play solid defense and distribute the ball very well. Joining him up front is all-conference forward Jacon Burtschi, one of the best all-around players in the conference. He is a good scorer and rebounder who is also an excellent defender. On the wings are sharpshooters Matt McCraw and Dan Nwaelele. Nwaelele led the conference in three-point shooting, while McCraw is a solid scorer who can also rebound pass. Big man John Frye started every game down low for the Falcons, but will likely come off the bench this season. Tim Anderson will step in at the point guard slot to replace All-MWC pick Antoine Hood. BYU had a very surprising year last season, going 20-9 and finishing second in the conference. They were on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but did not have enough quality wins to garner legitimate consideration. The Cougars should get a bid this season. It all starts with Trent Plaisted, one of the best post players in the country. He has the potential to put up huge numbers and have a breakout season this year. He is very athletic and is tough to stop down low. Joining him up front is All-MWC forward Keena Young. He is extremely versatile and finished the season on a tear. Forward Fernando Malaman is another solid frontcourt player. He is a nice complement to Plaisted in the paint. On the perimeter, Jimmy Balderson leads the way. He is a double-figure scorer who could be poised for a big season. Lee Cummard is another 6-6 guard that produces. At the point, Rashaun Broadus returns. He is a very good passer who could become a double-figure scorer this year. Austin Ainge provides depth.

Sleepers: New Mexico fell a few notches last season after the loss of first-round pick Danny Granger, finishing 5th in the conference with an 8-8 record. With the influx of two impact transfers, the Lobos could move up. Those two newcomers are Kansas transfer J.R. Giddens and Penn State transfer Aaron Johnson. Giddens is extremely athletic and is also a very good three-point shooter. He has loads of potential and could become one of the MWC's best players if he lives up to his hype. Johnson led the Big Ten in rebounding two seasons ago and is a double-double threat every night out. These two combine for an excellent inside-outside combo. Another fresh face, JC transfer Jamaal Smith, will likely start at the point guard spot. He is very quick and athletic who will create opportunities for himself and his teammates. JC transfer Jeffrey Henfeld is another scorer on the wing. Tony Danridge is the best returnee from last season. He was a solid all-around player but needs to improve his production if he wants to keep his starting spot. Ryan Kersten and Blake Harden are role players on the perimeter, while Kellen Walter is a serviceable big man. Colorado State went 16-15 last season, but finished next-to-last in the conference with a paltry 4-12 record. They return four starters from that team, including Jason Smith, one of the best centers in the country. The 7-footer is an excellent scorer and rebounder who can also block shots. He is a candidate for conference Player of the Year. His partner down low was expected to be Michael Harrison, but he did not enroll at CSU in September and will not play. His replacement could be another 7-footer, junior Stuart Creason. He and Smith would form a terrific post tandem. Freddy Robinson will start at the small forward position. He is a very good defender who has shown flashes of his offensive game. On the perimter, Cory Lewis returns at the point. He is a very good distributor who controls the tempo for the Rams and is also a double-figure scorer. Sophomore Stephen Gilling is a decent scorer who will see more minutes this season. JC transfer Tyler Smith is expected to make an immediate impact--if he is eligible to play. He was arrested in July and it is not clear if he will play or not. UNLV had another solid season last year, winning 17 games and going 10-6 in league play, finishing fourth in the MWC. The Runnin' Rebels will have one of the league's best perimeter trios, led by Arizona State transfer Kevin Kruger. The son of UNLV coach Lon Kruger, Kevin took advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows fifth-year seniors to play their final year of basketball at any school. He is an excellent three-point shooter who is also a very good passer and defender. He is also a solid rebounder. Double-figure scorers Michael Umeh and Jo'Van Adams join him in the backcourt. Umeh is a potential all-league player when healthy, while Adams is one of the better on-ball defenders in the conference and is also a solid reboundet and passer. Wings Curtis Terry and Wendell White also return. Terry started last season and is a good all-around player, while White is a good rebounder. Up front, Joel Anthony will be the go-to-guy. He is a good shot-blocker who needs to improve his offensive game. Gaston Essengue and Joe Darger will also contribute.

Rounding Out the Pack: Utah snapped their streak of 20-win seasons last year, going only 14-15 overall and finishing 6th in the conference. The Utes return one of the better inside-outside combos in the conference in guard Johnnie Bryant and center Luke Nevill. Bryant is an outstanding three-point shooter who is poised for a breakout season on the perimeter. Nevill could be the conference's best center this season. He finished very strong down the stretch last year and will look to carry that over to this season. Also up front will be Shaun Green, who is a solid all-around player, and newcomers Daniel Deane and Misha Radojevic. Joining Bryant in the backcourt will be Ricky Johns, a solid guard with good potential, and sophomore Lawrence Borha, who is a contributor at both ends of the floor. Wyoming was one of the worst teams in the conference last year, going 5-11 in the MWC and only 14-18 overall. However, they finished the season on a high note, making a run to the conference tournament championship game before falling in overtime to #1 seed San Diego State. If they can carry some of that momentum over to this season, the Cowboys could win some games. Some of the reason for optimism in Laramie stems from the backcourt of Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones, both potential all-conference players. Ewing is an excellent all-around player. He is a big-time scorer who can also play good defense and distribute the ball. Jones is one of the best passers in the MWC and is a lockdown defender. The frontcourt is not as strong. Seniors Chris Anderson and Daaron Brown return, but they will need to improve their production if they want to start for the Cowboys. JC transfer Joseph Taylor is expected to start immediately up front. Freshman Travis Nelson is an inside-outside threat who will make an impact. TCU was, by far, the worst team in the Mountain West last season, and there won't likely be much of a chance this year. The Horned Frogs were an abysmal 6-25 overall and finished last in the conference with a 2-14 record. Moreover, three starters are gone. Wings Brent Hackett and Neiman Owens are the returning starters. Hackett is a solid all-around performer who will need to become a go-to-guy this season, while Owens is a versatile player who is a good rebounder and passer. Returnees Femi Ibikunle and Blake Adams anchor the frontcourt, with Adams potentially on the verge of a breakout season. JC transfer Alvardo Parker will see minutes immediately. The point guard vacancy will be filled by freshman Jason Ebie. He is extremely quick and will have a chance to make an impact from day one.

Prediction: The Mountain West Conference could have a very good season this year. They have three legitimate NCAA Tournament teams in San Diego State, Air Force, and BYU. Each of these teams is talented enough to win a game, and one of them could even advance into the second weekend. SDSU has the inside-outside combo of Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar, as well as plenty of other options on the offensive end. They could be a team to watch out for in the Big Dance. Air Force is difficult to prepare for and has a variety of versatile players that will make them tough to match-up with. BYU returns Trent Plaisted and a nice inside-outside balance. The MWC will have an excellent race for the title. I think that SDSU will pull it out, but AFA and BYU will both receive at-large bids.

Player of the Year: Brandon Heath, SG, San Diego State

All-Conference Team:
G- Brandon Heath, San Diego State
G- J.R. Giddens, New Mexico
F- Nick Welch, Air Force
F- Trent Plaisted, BYU
C- Jason Smith, Colorado State

Second Team:
G- Kevin Kruger, UNLV
G- Brandon Ewing, Wyoming
F- Jacob Burtschi, Air Force
F- Mohamed Abukar, San Diego State
C- Luke Nevill, Utah

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