Mountain West Conference Preview: UNLV And San Diego State Look To Make National Noise

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 11: Chase Tapley #22 of the San Diego State Aztecs drives against Mike Moser #43 of the UNLV Rebels during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center February 11, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 65-63. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

After a pair of disappointing one-and-done performances in last season's NCAA Tournament, UNLV and San Diego State are both eyeing a Mountain West title and a deep run in the 2013 big dance.

In most respects, 2011-12 was a banner season for the Mountain West. The conference sent half of its teams to the NCAA Tournament, three teams earned a seed in the big dance of six or better, and all but two MWC teams were invited to participate in a postseason tournament.

The proverbial rain on what should have been the MWC's offseason parade comes in the form of the league's four NCAA Tournament representatives combining to produce just one victory. UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State were each bounced in the round of 64, with no member of the trio able to score better than 68 points. New Mexico then saw its dreams of its first trip to the tournament's second weekend crushed by a 59-56 heartbreaker to eventual West region champion Louisville.

Still, the league has high hopes of being able to repeat its claim of being the best of the West this season. UNLV and San Diego State both have the potential to be top 25 mainstays, Colorado State has more than enough talent to reach the tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1990, and the league has added depth with the additions of the established duo of Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC.

If the Mountain West isn't once again near the top of the debate over the best conference west of the Pecos, then it will be one of the season's biggest surprises.

FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS

STANDINGS CONFERENCE OVERALL
Mountain West W-L GB PCT W-L PCT STRK
New Mexico 10-4 -- .714 27-6 .818 W5
San Diego State 10-4 -- .714 26-7 .788 L1
UNLV 9-5 1 .643 26-8 .765 L1
Colorado State 8-6 2 .571 20-11 .645 L1
TCU 7-7 3 .500 17-14 .548 L3
Wyoming 6-8 4 .429 20-11 .645 L2
Air Force 3-11 7 .214 13-16 .448 L5
Boise State 3-11 7 .214 13-17 .433 L5

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION

(2) New Mexico defeated (1) San Diego State (68-59)

NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS

Round of 64

(5) New Mexico defeated (12) Long Beach State (75-68)

(6) UNLV lost to (11) Colorado (68-64)

(6) San Diego State lost to (11) North Carolina State (79-65)

(11) Colorado State lost to (6) Murray State (58-41)

Round of 32

(5) New Mexico lost to (4) Louisville (59-56)

THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. One Out, Two In

Conference realignment news has been a top spot fixture in these previews, and the Mountain West is no different with TCU headed to the Big 12 and Nevada and Fresno State in from the WAC. While basketball certainly wasn't at the heart of any of these moves, this is a trade where MWC hoops is a clear winner. TCU never made the NCAA Tournament as a member of the Mountain West, while Nevada has been to the dance four times in nine seasons and Fresno State has produced nine NBA draft picks since 1998.

2. Tim Miles Leaves Colorado State For Nebraska

Miles became one of the hottest coaching names in college basketball after a 2011-12 season where he guided Colorado State to 20 wins and its first at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament since 1990. He accepted an offer to jump to the Big Ten and replace Doc Sadler at Nebraska eight days after the Rams were defeated by Murray State in the round of 64.

Colorado State then instantly made itself one of the most intriguing teams in the country for the upcoming season by hiring Larry Eustachy away from Southern Miss. Though Eustachy won 142 games at USM and led the Golden Eagles to the tournament last season, he's still best known for being fired at Iowa State after pictures of him drinking alcohol and kissing co-eds at a University of Missouri fraternity party surfaced in 2003.

Eustachy will be taking over a team that returns five of his top six scorers, including four starters. First team All-Mountain West performer Wes Eikmeier (15.6 ppg) is back for his senior season. Ironically enough, Eikmeier's college career began at Iowa State.

3. Blue Chip Recruits Enter The Fray

The Mountain West isn't exactly a conference with an established reputation for reeling in top 75 recruits, but five of them will be joining the league this upcoming season. UNLV's Dave Rice put together one of the top classes in the country when he landed Savon Goodman, Katin Reinhardt and consensus top 10 prospect Anthony Bennett. San Diego State and Fresno State are also bringing in elite freshmen in Winston Shepard and big man Robert Upshaw, respectively.

EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. UNLV

The Runnin' Rebels have developed a nasty of habit of making some significant noise early in the season, playing slightly above average ball in January and February, and then flaming out in the NCAA Tournament. They've missed the big dance just once since 2007, but have won just three tournament games and been to just one Sweet 16 over that same span.

Dave Rice has a chance to end all that talk this season with a team that could boast the top frontcourt in all of college basketball. MWC Newcomer of the Year Mike Moser is back after averaging a double-double (14.0/10.5) in his first season after leaving UCLA. He'll be joined in the post by former McDonald's All-American Khem Birch (a Pitt transfer who must sit out the first semester) and freshman Anthony Bennett, a five-star recruit who chose Vegas over current recruiting (and college basketball) king Kentucky.

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Help is also on the way on the wing in the form of USC transfer Bryce Jones, who averaged 7.6 points per game as a freshman two seasons ago. UNLV is also appealing to try and get Connecticut transfer Roscoe Smith eligible to play immediately.

The biggest question for this team is at point guard, where Oscar Bellfield is gone after four extremely productive seasons. Senior Anthony Marshall (12.2 ppg) has played the two guard for the past three seasons, but is a capable ballhandler who dished out 4.5 assists per game last season. Rice has said he will compete for the starting point guard position with freshmen Daquan Cook and Katin Reinhardt. The latter is a top 50 recruit out of California powerhouse Mater Dei who drew comparisons to Jimmer Fredette during his high school career.

The talent level on this team might be the highest its been since UNLV's heyday in the late '80s and early '90s. The main concern for Dave Rice on a team with so many talented transfers and incoming freshmen has to be chemistry. If he can get everyone bought in and on the same page, then the Rebs will be a top 10 team and a top four seed in the tournament.

2. San Diego State

San Diego State will see UNLV's loaded frontcourt and raise it with an equally loaded backcourt. The Aztecs return reigning MWC Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin (17.4 ppg/7.9 rpg) as well as second-leading scorer Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg). Xavier Thames is also back after a sophomore season that saw him average 10.1 points per contest.

The problem for Steve Fisher will again be a lack of an established post player. Senior DeShawn Stephens (5.2 ppg) is the only notable returning contributor who doesn't play guard. This being the case, there's a great deal of pressure on blue chip freshman Winston Shepard -- who stands 6'8 -- to produce right out of the gate. Getting busted for possession of marijuana last month wasn't an ideal start. If Shepard isn't ready to shoulder the load in the post right away, transfers Dwayne Polee (St. John's), James Johnson (Virginia) and J.J. O'Brien (Utah) are all around to fill the void.

There's no question that SDSU will be one of the top perimeter teams in the country; how well they can defend, score and rebound in the post is the bigger concern. All Fisher needs in order to have a top 15 team is for two players out of that frontcourt group of four to step up and establish themselves as reliable. Non-conference tests against UCLA (Dec. 1) and Syracuse (Nov. 9) should really help this team in terms of finding an identity early in the season.

3. Colorado State

Dollar signs aside, Larry Eustachy had to have been smiling when he signed his contract with Colorado State back in April. Inheriting a team that made the NCAA Tournament last season and returns five of its six top scorers isn't the worst gig in the world.

Leading the way for the Rams in 2012-13 will be senior guard Wes Eikmeier, who averaged 15.6 points per game and was a first team All-MWC selection last season. CSU also returns Dorian Green (13.1 ppg), Greg Smith (9.4 ppg) and Pierce Hornung (8.8 ppg), who led the team in rebounding with an average of 8.4 per game. Assist-leader Jesse Carr (7.1 ppg/2.6 apg) is also back for his senior season.

If that weren't enough, Eustachy also brings in 6'10 Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano and the talented freshman duo of Jordan Mason and Joe De Ciman, who averaged over 30 points per game in Canada last season.

Without the benefit of a challenging non-conference schedule, the Rams can't afford to let the Mountain West turn into a two-horse race. There's no question that they have the talent to compete with UNLV and San Diego State, but competing isn't going to be enough. Unless there close to perfect in the early season and against the bottom half of the league, they're going to need some big wins over the Rebs and Aztecs to take their NCAA Tournament resume to that next level.

4. New Mexico

The Lobos return three starters in guards Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood, but it's the loss of graduated double-double machine Drew Gordon that has the folks in Albuquerque concerned. The return of center Alex Kirk, who missed all of last season with a back injury, will help, but Snell and Williams are going to have to step their offensive games up in order for Steve Alford to get this team back into the field of 68.

Even without the physically imposing Gordon, New Mexico will likely try and win with defense. The Lobos had been 58-0 under Alford when holding opponents below 60 points before the 59-56 loss to Louisville in the round of 32 last season.

5. Nevada

The Wolfpack went 13-1 in the WAC last season but saw their dreams of an NCAA Tournament appearance shattered when they were shocked by Louisiana Tech in the conference tournament semifinals. The good news is reigning WAC Player of the Year Devonte Burton (14.8 ppg) is back, as is second-leading scorer Malik Story (14.1 ppg). With first team All-WAC performer Olek Czyz (13.8 ppg) and backcourt mate Dario Hunt (10.3 ppg) both lost to graduation, lack of size is an extreme concern for David Carter's team.

6. Fresno State

Depth was the major area of concern for Fresno State last season, as five players averaged better than 28 minutes of logged court time per game. The good news is the team returns four of its five leading scorers, including star Kevin Olekaibe (17.8 ppg). If four-star freshman center Robert Upshaw is as good as advertised then the Bulldogs have a chance to be competitive in their first year in the league.

7. Wyoming

The Cowboys are the biggest mystery in the league right now as leading returnee Leonard Washington (12.9 ppg/6.9 rpg) remains suspended indefinitely after an offseason that includes an arrest for battery and criminal entry. The fact that his indefinite suspension was actually issued a month before the arrest certainly doesn't help his cause. Larry Shyatt was already burdened with the task of replacing three key contributors, including Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year JayDee Luster.

8. Air Force

Dave Pilipovich did a good enough job taking over for Jeff Reynolds (who was fired on Feb. 8) last season that Air Force officially removed the interim from his title right after the end of the season. He'll need seniors Michael Lyons (15.6 ppg) and Mike Fitzgerald (10.4 ppg) to be fully recovered from their matching shoulder injuries in order to improve upon the team's 3-11 league mark last season.

9. Boise State

The Broncos return their top six scorers, which would be great news if more than one of them had averaged double figures last season. Boise finished last season ranked 200th or worse in assists per game, team field goal percentage and rebounds per game.

EARLY PREDICTED ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST TEAM

G Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State
G Wes Eikmeier, Colorado State
G Chase Tapley, San Diego State
F Mike Moser, UNLV
F Khem Birch, UNLV

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Anthony Bennett, UNLV

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Mike Moser, UNLV

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