Offseason news and notes from the Mountain West.
The term "Air Force center" has always been something of an oxymoron, but this year's Falcons could be more vertically challenged than ever.
Potential starter Phillip Brown, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, is academically ineligible for the fall semester. He appeared in just one game in 2007-08, tallying six points, four rebounds and three blocks in a loss to BYU. Coaches reportedly held him out of action last season so he could concentrate on academics.
The Falcons already have their hands full replacing Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and leading scorer Tim Anderson.
Losing Brown's size is bad news for a team that averaged a league-worst 25.7 rebounds per game in Mountain West play and lost the battle of the boards 20 times last year. The top returning rebounder, 6-6 senior Andrew Henke, averaged 4.5 per game.
After batting .500 in the NBA Draft, BYU is in position to hit another home run this season in the Mountain West.
The two-time defending regular-season champion Cougars lost 6-11 junior center Trent Plaisted to the professional ranks, but caught a break when Mountain West Co-Player of the Year Lee Cummard withdrew from draft consideration.
"He is really excited to come back and help us try to win another championship," head coach Dave Rose said. "He had a terrific junior year and I expect that he will have a great senior season and be in good position for next year's NBA Draft."
Cummard, a 6-7 swingman who ranked in the Top 10 in the league in nine categories, has helped BYU put together three consecutive 20-win seasons with back-to-back NCAA Tournament selections. Also returning are sophomore guard Jimmer Fredette and junior sniper Jonathan Tavernari, who played for Brazil in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Athens this summer.
Newcomers include two players returning from their two-year church missions. Guard Jackson Emery played in 28 games as a freshman in 2005-06. Forward Noah Hartsock was the Oklahoma Class 6A Player of the Year in 2005-06 when he averaged 27.6 points per game at Bartlesville High.
Whenever a team signs a new recruit, the coach invariably says the newcomer will have a chance "to have an immediate impact."
Those words carry a little more weight when the coach in question is coming off one of the worst seasons in school history. Colorado State head coach Tim Miles' debut season included a school-record 17-game losing streak, an 0-16 record in conference play and a 0-14 record on the road. So when he says his recruits have a chance to play right away, they have a chance to play right away.
Last season's Rams roster featured four walk-ons, including starter Adam Nigon. Andre McFarland started more games (31) than any freshman in school history. Predictably, the youthful and inexperienced club finished eighth or ninth in the Mountain West in almost every statistical category.
Six new players will try to follow up teammate Marcus Walker's Newcomer of the Year success. That includes two transfers from JUCO powerhouse College of Southern Idaho (30-2 last season), 6-9 forward Mame Bocar Ba and 6-5 shooting guard Harvey Perry Jr.
"We expect these players to have an immediate impact on our team," Miles said. "Not only are these guys talented on the floor, but good guys off the floor. High talent and high character."
New Mexico fans expected to lose Mountain West Co-Player of the Year J.R. Giddens. And they did, courtesy of a first-round selection by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Draft.
Lobos fans feared they would lose head coach Steve Alford to the vacancy at his alma mater, Indiana. He signed a three-year contract extension instead, keeping him in The Pit through the 2015-16 season.
"This is another example of what I have said all along -- that I am committed to being a Lobo," Alford said.
It's a good time to be one. Four starters return from a team that matched a school record with 24 regular-season wins and went to the NIT. That doesn't even include the return of three-year starter Tony Danridge, who missed all of 2007-08 with a broken leg.
There's also a top-shelf recruiting class that features 6-foot-5 shooting guard Phillip McDonald, 6-9 power forward Will Brown and 6-3 point guard Nate Garth. All three were ranked as the top signees in the Mountain West at their respective positions by Rivals.com.
"The caliber of both the students and the players we are getting keeps Lobo basketball moving in a positive direction," Alford said. "I couldn't be more excited."
With all five starters and the top eight scorers returning from last season's 20-win team, San Diego State should be surfing happily along on a wave of confidence.
Instead, the Aztecs received a reality check. Senior guard Kelvin Davis was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in April. He has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, but said the odds are "probably 50-50" that he will play in 2008-09.
"If someone told me right now that I couldn't play basketball anymore, there probably couldn't be anything worse," Davis told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But I still have a future. And I appreciate everything that I have."
Davis helped the Aztecs record their third straight 20-win season, averaging 7.5 points and 2.7 rebounds and leading the team in scoring four times. He is one of nine returning players who made at least one start last year.
In addition to Freshman of the Year Billy White and all-conference forward Lorrenzo Wade, returning players include senior forward Kyle Spain and sophomore forward Tim Shelton. Spain was suspended for the last two months of the season, but was reinstated. Shelton missed 29 games with a knee injury.
Newcomers include Wisconsin-Milwaukee transfer Jason Deutchman and two JUCO imports, 6-9 forward Mehdi Cheriet and 6-6 guard Tim Island.
Someone may have to tell new TCU head coach Jim Christian what that odd "clanging" noise is when the Horned Frogs hold practice.
Last season, Christian's Kent State team led the Mid-American Conference in field-goal percentage (.464). TCU, meanwhile, ranked dead last in the Mountain West in field-goal percentage (.402) and shot even worse (.379) against conference competition.
Although one of first priorities is finding shooters, one of Christian's first decisions was to say good-bye to one of the team's best marksmen. Junior guard Henry Salter shot 47.7 percent from 3-point distance last season, but was suspended for the last five games by former coach Neil Dougherty. Salter was not reinstated and has transferred to Division II Columbus (Ga.) State.
Christian may have found an answer to his team's shooting woes on his first try, signing 6-6 junior forward Edvinas Ruzgas from Weatherford (Texas) College about three weeks after taking the job. Ruzgas averaged 19.3 points per game and shot 61.2 percent from the field, including an eye-popping 50.3 percent (89-of-177) from 3-point range.
"Edvinas embodies exactly what we are looking for in a player and fills the hole for us in his 3-point shooting," Christian said. "He understands what it takes to be a winner and we're looking forward to him joining us."
Joe Darger sacrificed his 6-7, 225-pound body last season, playing out of position in the post opposite such mountainous Mountain West centers as BYU's Trent Plaisted (6-11, 250), Colorado State's Ronnie Aguilar (7-0, 250) and Utah's Luke Nevill (7-2, 265).
The Rebels' selfless senior forward will get to pick on people his own size this season, thanks to the arrival of 7-0 freshman Beas Hamga and 6-10 freshman Brice Massamba.
"We've been missing a big man and now we have an inside presence," said senior point guard Wink Adams. "We're talking about having the best year since we've been here."
Hamga practiced with UNLV last year as a redshirt. The Cameroon native was ranked the No. 5 center in the nation by Rivals.com in the class of 2007. Massamba, a native of Sweden, averaged 6.4 points and 5.2 boards per game last season at Findlay Prep (32-1) last year in suburban Las Vegas.
The big bodies arrived just in time for UNLV, which lost 6-8 junior forward Matt Shaw for the 2008-09 season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Shaw, who averaged 6.9 points and played in all 35 games last season, was injured in a pickup game in June.
"We are really disappointed for Matt because he worked so hard to have an outstanding junior season," head coach Lon Kruger said. "It's very disappointing in the short term, but he will turn it into a positive and take advantage of what becomes a redshirt season."
No offense to the rest of the Mountain West, but Tyler Kepkay is going to be very hard to impress on the court this season.
That's because Kepkay, Utah's senior point guard and a native of Vancouver, played for the Canadian National Team in an exhibition game against NBA superstars Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Jason Kidd, LeBron James and the rest of the U.S. Olympic Team in Las Vegas this summer.
"The reason he came to Utah is that he wanted to play at a high level," Utes head coach Jim Boylen told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I told him to just embrace the opportunity, don't be fearful of it."
Two other Utah players were also in action in their home countries this summer. Junior guard Luka Drca played for Serbia and junior forward Kim Tillie played for France in the U-20 European Championships this August in Latvia. Tillie averaged 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in six games. He had 13 points against Russia and 10 boards against Latvia.
Boylen hopes that competition will pay dividends with a non-conference schedule that includes Oregon, Cal, Gonzaga, LSU and Oklahoma.
All five starters return from last season's 18-win squad, led by 7-2 senior center Luke Nevill. Boylen signed a five-man recruiting class that is accustomed to success, with their teams compiling a combined 116-19 record with two state titles last season.
Wyoming senior Brandon Ewing was always the last man to leave the court in 2007-08, leading the Mountain West in playing time at 38 minutes per game.
Now he's one of the last men standing in Laramie.
In addition to losing senior starters Brad Jones and Joseph Taylor to graduation, center Travis Nelson, guard Eric Platt and forward Travis Bunker all left town to pursue other opportunities. And junior center Bienvenu Songondo has been declared medically unable to compete due to a knee injury.
Nelson started 15 games and averaged 7.3 points and 2.6 rebounds. Platt averaged 3.5 points and appeared in 29 games. Bunker played in 27 games (three starts) and averaged 1.4 points. Songondo appeared in just 11 games.
Second-year head coach Heath Schroyer replenished the roster with five new players, including three D-I sophomore transfers. Djibril Thiam is a 6-9 forward who played at Baylor last fall and will be eligible in January. JayDee Luster, a 5-9 point guard, appeared in 27 games last season at New Mexico State and will be eligible in 2009-10. So will 7-2, 275-pound center Boubacar Sylla, who saw limited action at Auburn last season due to a foot injury.
"With the freshman and sophomore classes we have put together, we feel as though the foundation for a very bright future has been established," Schroyer said.