College Basketball Previews: Another big year awaits for the Mountain West

Mike Moser, left, and Anthony Marshall are just two (really good) pieces on a stacked UNLV team. (US Presswire)

The Mountain West was a major story for the first few months of last season, with three teams making moves in the Top 25. Moreover, the league received four bids to the NCAA tournament -- but the consensus was that the teams peaked too early, with only one win coming from those four teams in the Big Dance. This season, there are two legitimate top-15 teams at the top of the conference, with at least two more clubs fighting for NCAA tournament bids. Moreover, the bottom half of the league looks very competitive. Combine the league race with tons of star power across the board, and the Mountain West is in for a fun year.

  • Last year's regular-season winners: San Diego State Aztecs and New Mexico Lobos

  • Last year's tournament winner: New Mexico

  • Conference tournament: March 12-16 (Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas)

Five best nonconference games:

1. San Diego State vs. Syracuse (Battle of Midway, Nov. 9)
2. San Diego State vs. UCLA (Wooden Classic, Dec. 1)
3. UNLV Rebels at North Carolina (Dec. 29)
4. Colorado State Rams at Washington (Nov. 24)
5. New Mexico at Cincinnati (Dec. 27)

What I like: Realignment upgrade, top-level talent and the bottom half of the league. 

Why: While many conferences saw their membership take a hit because of football-based realignment, the Mountain West undoubtedly improved. TCU Horned Frogs left to join the Big 12, but Nevada Wolf Pack and Fresno State Bulldogs came over from the WAC. Neither team is a world-beater in basketball, but the Wolfpack was a consistent contender in the WAC and Fresno State is on the upswing. The loss of TCU was a killer in football, but their departure is no sweat on the hardwood.

With Mike Moser and Jamaal Franklin both back, the league has two legitimate All-America candidates to watch. The battle between those two for Player of the Year honors within the conference should be one to keep an eye on, both within the conference and on a national level. When it comes to newcomers, the Mountain West is loaded too. Anthony Bennett , Winston Shepard , Katin Reinhardt and Robert Upshaw are all top-50 recruits, while Khem Birch , Bryce Dejean-Jones , James Johnson, Dwayne Polee II , JJ O'Brien , Colton Iverson and Allen Huddleston are all transfers expected to make an impact this season. In fact, the race between San Diego State and UNLV could be decided by newcomers.

While the top half of the conference will receive most of the national attention, don’t overlook the bottom handful of teams in the league. Nevada has one of the best backcourts in the league; Wyoming Cowboys plays stingy defense; Fresno State has talent -- and even Boise State Broncos and Air Force Falcons have shown signs of being competitive. Don’t be surprised to see frequent upsets within the league -- especially at home.

New Mexico should be in store for another year near the top of the MWC, led by Kendall Williams. (US Presswire)

What I don't like
: Potential chemistry issues, the final year of San Diego State and struggles on the road.

Why: While there is a ton of talent coming into the league and plenty of star players returning from last year, there could be a clash at some of the league favorites. UNLV has to mesh Mike Moser, Anthony Marshall and the returning players with Anthony Bennett, Khem Birch and the talented newcomers. Meanwhile, San Diego State is looking to lean on a number of fresh faces in the frontcourt. If everything goes according to plan, the Mountain West could have two of the deepest, most talented teams around. If not, it could be the site of two personnel meltdowns.

Speaking of San Diego State, this will be their last year in the Mountain West. Along with Boise State, they are heading to the Big East for football. That’s an understandable move, although the step down to the Big West in basketball is tough to swallow. Utah State and San Jose State will replace those two. Utah State has been consistent in the WAC, but the growing rivalry between SDSU and UNLV will certainly be missed.

Along with fading late in the season, road woes were a major problem last season for Mountain West contenders. Both New Mexico and San Diego State suffered three road losses in the league, while UNLV went just 2-5 away from home and Colorado State Rams was a poor 1-6. While it does show you how well teams protect their home courts, it also doesn’t look good from a national perspective. NCAA tournament hopefuls need to shore up their road performance this season.

Player of the Year: Mike Moser (UNLV). In his first season in the desert after transferring from UCLA, Moser became one of the more productive forwards in the country. He averaged a double-double, even surpassing the 20-rebound mark on two occasions. Moser also made an impact on the defensive end of the floor, guarding multiple positions. Many people thought Moser would declare for the NBA, but he’s back for another season of scoring, rebounding and dominance for the Runnin’ Rebels.

The next best five: 

Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)

Anthony Bennett (UNLV)

Anthony Marshall (UNLV)

Deonte Burton (Nevada)

Kendall Williams (New Mexico)

And the five after that:

Wes Eikmeier (Colorado State)

Chase Tapley (San Diego State)

Michael Lyons (Air Force)

Leonard Washington (Wyoming)

Tony Snell (New Mexico)

Best freshman
: Anthony Bennett (UNLV). The Canadian native took his game to a new level after his junior year, expanding his offensive skillset. The Runnin’ Rebels have plenty of options, but Bennett is an outstanding talent.

1. UNLV Runnin' Rebels
The Runnin’ Rebels faded a bit down the stretch last season, but they have more talent and more depth this season. Moser and Anthony Marshall return, but the additions of newcomers Khem Birch, Bryce Jones, Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt could be the difference. If everyone meshes well, this team can make a deep run.
2. San Diego State Aztecs
Another team that will need newcomers and returnees to get along, the Aztecs are bringing in three transfers and two freshmen in the frontcourt. The strength of this team, though, is its backcourt, with All-MWC guards Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley headlining a potent group. Who steps up inside?
3. Colorado State Rams
The loss of coach Tim Miles will hurt, but he left behind plenty of talent for Larry Eustachy. Wes Eikmeir and Dorian Green can score, while Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith anchor the frontcourt. Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson adds size.
4. New Mexico Lobos
Without Drew Gordon, the Lobos could be searching for a go-to-guy: Is Kendall Williams or Tony Snell ready to fill that void? There are plenty of role players, but Steve Alford needs consistent production. The return of injured big man Alex Kirk could help out down low.
5. Nevada Wolf Pack
The new kid on the block, Nevada will lean on guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story to help acclimate to the league. Size is a huge issue, though, with Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt gone. JC transfer Cheikh Fall will need to make an immediate impact.
6. Wyoming Cowboys
One of the best defensive teams in the country a year ago, Larry Shyatt is hoping to take the next step after an 11-game turnaround. Keeping all-conference forward Leonard Washington out of trouble is important, as is finding enough scorers to keep up with the MWC contenders.
7. Fresno State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs struggled mightily last season, but they’re an intriguing group this year. Newcomers Robert Upshaw, Braeden Anderson and Allen Huddleston will combine with prolific scorer Kevin Olekaibe to give Rodney Terry some weapons. Will it work?
8. Boise State Broncos
The Broncos bring back their top six scorers from last season’s team, but they will need to make strides on the defensive end. They simply allowed far too many open shots. Leading scorer Anthony Drmic was one of the most underrated freshmen in the country last season.
9. Air Force Falcons
Once Dave Pilipovich took over the final eight games of the season, the Falcons showed a little more competitiveness in the league. They are hoping that carries over to this season. Air Force is led by Michael Lyons, an all-conference guard who had to put the offensive on his back at times.

Previously in previews:

No. 9 -- Missouri Valley
No. 10 -- Conference USA
No. 11 -- West Coast
No. 12 -- Western Athletic
No. 13 -- Colonial
No. 14 -- Horizon League
No. 15 -- The Ivy League
No. 16 -- Summit League
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC

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