The NBA Draft Blog Conference Season Previews continue with a trip out west to the Mountain West Conference. With BYU and Utah leaving after this season, it will be interesting to see the other teams make moves this season to try and establish themselves as power teams in the new-look conference. Like last season, the best of this conference includes BYU, UNLV and New Mexico, but San Diego State and its super sophomore Kahwi Leonard look to crash the group at the top. Colorado State should also show some improvement and could be one of those teams which establishes itself in the future as a conference power. Air Force, TCU, and Wyoming will struggle, but could be competitive, and Utah has reloaded with a lot of talent, but expect to have a year of adjustment.
The Good: Coach Jeff Reynolds will look to rebound after injuries put on damper on last season. Unfortunately, the amount of talent returning will not be enough to compete in the Mountain West. Senior guard Evan Washington is the team’s best returning player and one of the best all-around talents in the conference. He is strong, sees the court well, can get to the rim and plays tough defense. Washington is joined by fellow returnees Tom Fow, Todd Fletcher, and Michael Lyons. Fow is the Falcons’ lone real long-range threat, while Fletcher and Lyons are tough defenders. Overall, the team as a whole plays excellent defense, though they are usually at an athletic disadvantage.
The Not-So-Good: It’s just not a talented team outside of Washington. While they are tough defensively, they have a lot of trouble scoring points, and are at a severe disadvantage on the boards. It is key for the Falcons to control the tempo in any game that the play – there are very few teams that they can compete against in a fast-paced game.
The Question Mark: There are not a lot of specific questions here, it is more of a general query - what do the Falcons need to do to be competitive against the growin talent levels in the league? In the past, it has always been a combination of determination with strong execution, but the talent discrepensy may be too much now for them to overcome.
What Will March Bring?: A merciful end to the season. Another 10 win season is a strong possibility, though its possible they may win a couple of more, but not much more than that.
The Good: Coach Dave Rose will benefit from the return of All-American candidate Jimmer Fredette, a prolific, but streaky, scorer. Fredette is capable of scoring from the perimeter or by taking the ball strong to the basket. Fredette is also a capable playmaker, as well a decent rebounder. Defensively, he has some issues guarding out on the perimeter, but he does anticipate the ball well. Also returning is backcourt mate Jackson Emery. Emery does a great job spreading the floor with his three-point shooting, while playing very tough defense on the other end. Returning in the frontcourt is junior Noah Hartsock, the team’s leading rebounder. Hartsock is a capable finisher around the rim and provides tough defense down low. Hartsock will be joined in the frontcourt by Brandon Davies. The bench will be anchored by the Collinsworth brothers, Kyle and Chris. Chris has great size and is capable of scoring inside and out, while Kyle is a fantastic shooter who can guard multiple positions. All of these players run the court well, perfect pieces in Coach Rose’s up-tempo offense.
The Not-So-Good: The team doesn’t have a reliable post presence, which makes them even more reliant on transition baskets and perimeter shooting. As the loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament showed, if the shots aren’t falling, they have very limited options to get points. One other thing the Cougars need to be wary of is a tendency to sit around and watch Fredette try and do everything. With Jonathan Tavernari and Tyler Haws gone this season, there will be a lot of extra shots available, and it will be to BYU’s advantage to have a another reliable scorer.
The Question Mark: How good can Fredette be? I know I am in the minority, but I think Fredette is as good as he is going to get. Yes, he is scorer, but his ball-handling skills and his defense are merely average. Part of the allure to Fredette last season was the surprise he became on a national level, though a closer look at his game doesn't show a lot that distinguishes him from other players. I will say, he seems to be one of the toughest guards I have seen, and when he is heading to the rim, you shouldn't get in his way. I just think that Fredette fans should prepare for a let down in terms of what he accomplishes this season
What Will March Bring?: Most likely the Mountain West Champions, though unless a 2nd reliable scorer steps up to join Fredette, an early exit is most likely. Fredette will be given All-American consideration, and may sneak in as a third-teamer. Look for him also to be a 2nd round pick in next year’s draft.
The Good: Coach Tim Miles returns an experienced group, including 4 players who started at least 30 games last season. In the backcourt, the Rams return sophomore Dorian Green and senior Adam Nigon. Both are capable perimeter scorers, and actually they are similar in almost all ways. Green is a better playmaker, while Nigon is a much stronger defender. Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin return up front and both seniors provide valuable experience. Ogide is long and athletic, is active around the basket and is very good at securing rebounds. Franklin is a strong wing who is very effective at getting to the rim, either in half-court or in transition. At the center position, Miles has two very talented, but still developing, players in Trevor Williams and Chad Calcaterra. Look for both to show significant improvement over the course of the season.
The Not-So-Good: As I just mentioned above, the big men are both very raw, and will be learning on the job at this level. While they both should improve, there are going to be rough nights. Williams sat out last season developing physically and should be prepared for the rigors of NCAA ball. Another issue the Rams need to watch for are turnovers, especially from the guards. Last season was Green’s first, and I would expect him to cut down on his mistakes this season. If he doesn’t, the Rams are lacking for other playmaking options. Bench production could be a problem, with Greg Smith the only player to contribute statistically off the bench. It will be important for Smith to contribute again, along with his brother, freshman Dwight Smith, and sophomore Pierce Hornug.
The Question Mark: Who will be the go-to player for the Rams? There is a fair amount of talent on this team, yet there is no one who stands out. When games were close last season, there never seemed to be that one guy the team could count on to get that final shot. Look for Dorian Green to step up in his second year and be that man. He has excellent playmaking ability and is quick enough to take his man off the dribble. Decision-making will be key in his development, but by the end of last season, he had showed significant improvement in this area.
What Will March Bring?: They should improve on last years 16-16 record, though not by much. Look for 18-19 wins and a middle of the conference finish in the MWC.
The Good: There could be a bit of a let down for the Lobos this season with the loss of team leaders Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez. This is not to say that Coach Steve Alford doesn’t have talent this season. Point guard Dairese Gary does a great job setting the pace for the team, and there aren’t many better in the conference at getting into the lane and drawing contact. While he doesn’t have the size and strength of Hobson, he is much quicker and is a capable playmaker. Also returning in the backcourt is two-year starter Phillip McDonald, an athletic shooting guard who is capable of scoring in bunches. He will be counted on to become a much better perimeter defender this season, as he has the length to be disruptive. Forward AJ Hardeman is an athletic power forward who does a great job running the floor. The Lobos will need him to be more aggressive on the glass this season. Alford has a group of newcomers who should keep New Mexico competitive this season and beyond, starting with transfers Emmanuel Negedu and Drew Gordon. Negedu is an athletic forward capable of scoring inside and out, but has a history of heart issues. Gordon, a transfer from UCLA, is an extremely good post player but did not live up to huge expectations at his prior school. Gordon should be a big time player once he becomes eligible for the second semester. Freshmen Alex Kirk was a top-rated high school center and will bring a fairly polished game to the Lobos, though he still needs to add some bulk to his frame. Tony Snell and Kendall Williams will bring energy and scoring off the bench.
The Not-So-Good: The void left by Hobson and Martinez, both in scoring and on the boards, will need to be filled by someone. Gary and McDonald should up their scoring averages, and a healthy Negedu will certainly contribute. The rebounding situation is more of a concern, with the remaining players needing to become much tougher and active on boards to make this a non-issue. Gordon will certainly help once he is eligible, and Kirk could provide valuable minutes down low. Hobson and Martinez also functioned as the team leaders and the team seemed to follow as they played. The returnees will need to step and up and show the leadership abilities to replace them, especially Gary.
The Question Mark: Will Gordon play up to his expectations? Gordon has the physical abilities and skills to dominate the MWC, though his play at UCLA was very inconsistent. Part of that can be blamed on his former coach’s system, which didn’t play well to Gordon’s strengths. If he comes in and plays with a chip on his shoulder, he could be the difference maker for this New Mexico team and could provide them with the go-to presence which will be lacking without Hobson. If he doesn’t and just goes through the motions, he will still contribute, but his lackluster play could affect the rest of the team.
What Will March Bring?: Certainly they should be a NCAA team, and if Gordon and Negedu play up to the hype, they can win the conference and even win a game or two in the Tournament. I’d say 23-25 wins is a safe bet for this group.
San Diego State
The Good: Coach Steve Fisher has assembled an impressive group of talent, starting with star sophomore Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, who averaged a double-double as a freshman, is a bit undersized at 6’7, but is one of the toughest players in college basketball. He has a knack for scoring around the rim and drawing fouls. Hopefully, he has improved his mid-range game over the summer. If so, he will be one of the best players in the country this year. He is joined in the frontcourt by the super-athletic Malcom Thomas, a rebounding and shot-blocking force. His ability down low makes it easier for Leonard to operate on the blocks. Point guard DJ Gay is a decent playmaker, handles pressure well, and is a good enough perimeter shooter to make teams pay who double in the post. Gay is also a catalyst on the defensive end with his quick hands and feet. Billy White provide some more toughness down low, does a great job on the offensive boards and is strong enough to finish in traffic. Freshmen guards LaBradford Franklin and Jamaal Franklin will provide good depth in the backcourt.
The Not-So-Good: Teams will be gunning for Leonard this season, and while I have no doubts he will handle his own, the rest of the team will need to step up to ensure that defenses just don’t swarm him. This is especially true on the perimeter, where the team will need another shooter to pair with Gay as a kickout on doubles in the post. Chase Tapely could be that guy, but it will be up to him to show he can do it consistently. Also, depth in the frontcourt can be a potential issue, with senior Brian Carlwell the only really experienced option up front.
The Question Mark: Can the Aztecs live up to the lofty expectations? Coach Fisher has his team on the edge of a national breakthrough, with many sources having them as a pre-season Top 25 team. As I stated above, teams will be gunning to shut down Leonard this season, so the rest of the team will need to raise their games. Fisher is a very good coach, who knows how to get the most out of his players, but the expectations combined with the rising talent level in the MWC, may lead to a let down.
What Will March Bring?: They are certainly one of the top 3 teams in the Mountain West, and with that should certainly be in line for the NCAA Tournament and a pretty good seed. We are looking at 22-25 wins, and a good chance that Leonard bolts for the NBA, where he would certainly be a first round pick.
The Good: Coach Jim Christian is doing what he can to keep up with the influx of talent into the MWC. The good for this team starts with the experienced backcourt in Ronnie Moss and Greg Hill. Moss is an excellent playmaker and scorer for the Horned Frogs. He does a great job keeping the offense moving, is capable of getting to the rim or pulling back for a jumper, and he also plays tough on-ball defense. Hill has the ability to score quickly and often, though he still needs to work on getting the best shot possible. Hill is also a capable defender who anticipates well and can be disruptive. Serbian power forward Nikola Cerina has the ability to draw the defense out and get to the rim, though he needs to become more aggressive down low. Sophomore wing Garlon Green is very athletic and runs the floor very well. He needs to become a more consistent shooter, but he has the ability to be another scoring option. Freshman Amric Fields is polished enough to contribute on both ends of the floor right away.
The Not-So-Good: Rebounding is an issue for the Horned Frogs, and the loss of leading rebounder Zvonko Buljan isn’t going to help that. With the lack of a strong interior presence, this will need to be a rebound by committee situation, where all five players on the court will need to hit the glass, especially with the plethora of strong rebounding teams in the conference. This lack of strong interior plays stretches to overall defense, where Coach Christian will either need to look at the use of zone defenses, or he will need to risk with double teams from his guards.
The Question Mark: See “The Not-So-Good” above. How will TCU deal without the lack of any interior defense?
What Will March Bring?: This could be a long year for Coach Christian, with the rest of the Mountain West improving and his team stuck in neutral. This is a 13-15 win team tops, though Ronnie Moss has a great shot at being First Team All-Conference.
The Good: Now that the fate of Tre’von Willis is known – suspended for three games – it is easier to dissect the Rebels’ chances this season. Willis is a smooth scoring guard who often makes it look easy getting to the rim. He’s not afraid of contact, and can finish in traffic. While he runs the wings well in transition, he is much better when he pushes the ball up. Defensively, he is a skilled on-ball defender, though he can be inconsistent guarding the perimeter. Joining him as returning starters are point guard Oscar Bellfield and small forward Chace Stanback. Bellfield is an excellent distributor, knows how to get his teammates the ball in the right place, and can get to the basket in transition. He is a very good on-ball defender and can be a nuisance the whole length of the court. Stanback was once a heralded UCLA recruit and last season started to show some promise. He is extremely athletic with fantastic leaping ability. He goes strong to the basket and doesn’t shy away from contact. He needs to improve his perimeter shot, especially the 16-18 foot range. He also should work on becoming more aggressive on the defensive end, especially using his leaping ability to block shots. Kendall Wallace and Derrick Jasper provide nice depth in the backcourt, with Wallace being one of the Rebels top perimeter threats. Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas is now eligible and will provide support on the interior and he is also very good at running the floor.
The Not-So-Good: The frontcourt depth could be better, especially strong forwards who can battle in the post. Outside of Thomas, there is freshman Carlos Lopez, who needs to get stronger, and Brice Massamba, who is strong, but raw. Three point shooting is a minor issue, and one that can be fixed – shot selection will be key. Willis, especially, has issues with jacking up ill-advised shots from deep.
The Question Mark: Will there be any residual effect from the Willis situation? While we know the outcome now, it was a cloud over the program all summer, and brought UNLV in the basketball headlines for the wrong reason. There should be no effect internally within the program – Coach Kruger has a good handle on his team. The issue will be when the Rebels hit the road. Opposing crowds are tough any time, but when you have a player who gets in the news for an arrest, the crowds can be brutal. How the team, and especially Willis, handles it will go a long way to how they do this season.
What Will March Bring?: This is easily a 20 win team, and could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in the conference. I see them finishing 4th and getting one of the last bids to the NCAA Tournament. If he has a season comparable to last season, Willis could be a later first-early 2nd round pick in next year’s draft.
The Good: Coach Jim Boylen will have a young squad for the program’s last go-round as a member of the Mountain West. Five of last year’s top six scorers are gone, along with a large percentage of other important stats. The only returning starters are giant 7’3 center David Foster and sophomore wing Shawn Glover. Foster is about what you would expect out of a 7-3 center. He is a very good shot-blocker, though he needs to become much stronger to become a factor on the boards. Glover showed some potential in limited minutes last season as a slasher/playmaker. He needs to become a more consistent shooter to be a factor this season. Defensively, he can guard multiple positions, though he needs to improve his coverage away from the ball. Senior Jay Watkins has great size and is very athletic, though he isn’t much of a shooter. He does do a great job on the offensive glass, and is a good finisher around the rim. Sophomore seven-footer Jason Washburn showed improvement by the end of last season, though he needs to become stronger and more aggressive, especially on the defensive end.
The Not-So-Good: As we said already, this is a very young team, with one senior and an incoming class of eight newcomers. This though will be a great opportunity for Boylen to get the team ready for its move to the Pac-10 next season. Expect to see some rough patches, especially early, as newcomers are brought into the mix. Defensively, the team will need to be tough on the perimeter as they have some good size on the interior.
The Question Mark: Will any of the newcomers have an impact this season?
With 8 new players, odds are that one of them will become an important part of the season. Looking at this group, forward Dominique Lee and junior college transfer Antonio DiMaria are both athletic enough and skilled enough to be contributors on the offensive end. Defensively, guard Preston Guiot has the ability to be a lock-down defender for the Utes.
What Will March Bring?: Lots of experience for the move to the Pac-10 next season. Look for possibly 16-17 wins at most, but a group that will be competitive immediately in the Pac-10.
The Good: The best part about this season for Coach Heath Schroyer is the return of Afam Muojeke from last season’s knee surgery. Muojeke has great size on the wing, is capable of going strong to the rim, posting up his man, or stepping out and hitting the long-range jumper. It will be interesting to see how his movements are once he is on the court, but even at 85-90%, he is the star of this Cowboys team. Joining him in the frontcourt is returning big man Djibril Thiam, a lean post player who has shown improvement with his footwork and his touch around the basket. Defensively, he is still not strong enough to effectively guard post players, though his long arms do help to alter shots. Sophomore guard Desmar Jackson stepped up in Muojeke’s absence last season and proved to be an effective scorer. Center Adam Waddell provided strong rebounding and defense down low, though he should get more looks on the offensive end. Jaydee Luster returns at the point guard position and proved to be an adequate playmaker last season.
The Not-So-Good: Shooting is a major issue outside of Muojeke. Coach Schroyer has brought in a trio of guards to help alleviate that problem. Junior College transfers Luke Martinez and Francisco Cruz hopefully will contribute immediately here. Also rebounding has been an issue, with the big men tending not to be aggressive enough. Thiam especially will need to improve at getting position under the boards and going after the ball.
The Question Mark: How effective will Muojeke be coming off of knee surgery? Muojeke is a great little-known talent, and he plays with an aggressiveness that makes him a dangerous scorer at any time. Coming off the surgery, he may tend to be less aggressive, which could severely affect his scoring prowess. Hopefully, after some adjustment early on, the Muojeke we knew from pre-injury comes out. If so, the Mountain West fans should be in for a treat.
What Will March Bring?: There should be some improvement over last season’s 10 wins, especially if Muojeke comes back full strength. However, the talent level is still not up to the rest of the conference. I think we are looking at 13-15 wins this year.
That’s it for our look at the Mountain West Conference. Make sure to check back tomorrow for the Part I of our look at the revitalized Pac 10. As always, leave your comments, feel free to contact me, and follow NBA Draft Blog on Twitter - @NBADraftBlog