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The Mountain West had an excellent season last year. It finished ranked #8 in the RPI, and had four teams in the Top 54 of the RPI. BYU won ten of its last eleven regular-season games to win the league by one game over UNLV, who finished 12-4. Air Force lost its final three games, allowing San Diego State to sneak in and grab the #3 seed for the conference tournament. It also ended up costing AFA an NCAA bid, which seemed like a lock in February. UNLV and BYU both received bids to the Big Dance, with UNLV knocking off Georgia Tech and Wisconsin before falling to Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. BYU narrowly lost to Xavier in the first-round. AFA did make a run to the NIT semi-finals, though, while SDSU lost in the second-round. This year, nearly every team in the league will take a step back, meaning an overall down season for the conference.
Favorites: BYU had a very impressive season last year, going 13-3 in the conference and getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, they lose three starters, including Keena Young—and are still the clear-cut favorite for the league title. Trent Plaisted is one of the best players in the conference, and one of the best big men in the country. He is a dominant inside performer. The other returning starter is wing Lee Cummard, one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Joining him on the perimeter will be Jonathan Tavernari, who could be primed for a big year, and Sam Burgess, a terrific shooter. Starting next to Plaisted will be either Vuk Ivanovic or Chris Miles.
Contenders and Sleepers: Yes, I combined these two groups into one. To be honest, there is not a huge amount of difference between the teams fighting for spots two through six. Utah has arguably the best inside-outside combination in the conference in guard Johnnie Bryant and big man Luke Nevill. Bryant is a good scorer, while Nevill is one of the best centers in the country. Starting next to Nevill is double-figure scorer Shaun Green, a very solid rebounder. Stephen Weigh will round out the frontcourt, while JC transfer Tyler Kepkay is expected to make an immediate impact at the point. UNLV loses four starters from its Sweet Sixteen run, but returns all-conference guard Wink Adams. He is one of the best all-around players in the league. Starting next to him will be Marcus Lawrence. Up front, Beas Hamga is likely to start immediately at center after being ranked as one of the top recruits in the country last year. Joe Darger and Curtis Terry will start at the forwards, while Corey Bailey will fight for minutes. Wyoming has one of the best backcourts in the country in Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones, who combined for 38 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game last year. Both of them can take over a game at any given time. The third option on the perimeter will likely be wings Eric Platt or Ryan Dermody. In the frontcourt, Joseph Taylor returns as a starter, while a long list of returnees and newcomers will fight for the other starting job. San Diego State was expected to have a big year last season, but the Aztecs struggled early before making a late run at an NCAA bid but falling short. They return one of the better backcourts in the conference in Richie Williams, a terrific point guard, and wing Lorrenzo Wade, one of the better all-around players in the league. Kelvin Davis will most likely flank them on the perimeter. Up front, Jerome Habel was expected to start, but he was dismissed in August. That leaves Marquette transfer Ryan Amoroso and shooter Kyle Spain as the main options up front. New Mexico finished tied for last in the league last year, going 4-12 in conference play. However, it returns four starters, led by wing J.R. Giddens, one of the most athletic and best scorers in the conference. Tony Dandridge is another very solid, all-conference candidate on the wing. Darren Prentice and Jamaal Smith will split the point guard duties. Another talented wing is gunner Chad Toppert, who can really shoot the three. Daniel Faris is the lone returnee up front.
Rounding Out the Pack: TCU also tied for last a year ago and, like New Mexico, returns four starters. The Horned Frogs are led by all-conference forward Kevin Langford, one of the best frontcourt performers in the league. Alvardo Parker also returns up front. Brent Hackett is a double-figure scorer in the backcourt, while Neiman Owens will start on the wing. Ryan Wall and Keion Mitchum will also see minutes. A point guard needs to step up, though. Air Force was primed for an NCAA bid last season, but faltered near the end of the year and was relegated to the NIT. The Falcons also lose four starters from that group. The leading returnee is Tim Anderson, a very solid all-around guard. Flanking him in the backcourt will be Adam Hood and Andrew Hanke. Up front, Eric Kenzik is the leading returnee, while freshman Phillip Brown could start immediately. Colorado State loses standout center Jason Smith, but returns a potential star big man in Stuart Creason, a double-figure scorer who can also block shots. The only other returnee is fellow seven-footer Ronny Aguilar. JC transfers Marcus Walker and Willis Gardner will start in the backcourt, while Josh Simmons is a solid freshman.
Prediction: The Mountain West is going to be wide-open this season. Although BYU is the favorite, the Cougars lost a lot from last season and could struggle to start the season with so many new faces in the rotation. After that, it’s a complete crapshoot. Up to five other teams will make noise in the standings, and could contend with BYU for the title. Wyoming has the guards; Utah has the balance; UNLV has the coaching and experience; and San Diego State and New Mexico have the perimeter groups. In other words, expect a terrific race for the top of the standings, as well as the seeding for the conference tournament. I’m going with BYU to win the league, though—they have the best mix of talent and experience.
Player of the Year: Trent Plaisted, F, BYU
G- Brandon Ewing, Wyoming
G- Brad Jones, Wyoming
G- Wink Adams, UNLV
F- Trent Plaisted, BYU
C- Luke Nevill, Utah
G- J.R. Giddens, New Mexico
G- Johnnie Bryant, Utah
G- Lorrenzo Wade, San Diego State
F- Lee Cummard, BYU
C- Stuart Creason, Colorado State
Photo Credit: BYU
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