Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
For the last three seasons, the best basketball conference out West was not the Pac-12, but the Mountain West. The MWC produced 11 NCAA Tournament teams compared to the Pac-10/12’s eight in the same span.
But that trend might begin to change. First, an influx of talent at Arizona and UCLA may return those two powers to the college basketball elite. And second, the Mountain West’s best incarnation will fall apart after next season. BYU has already gone to the Mountain West, and San Diego State will head to the Big West thereafter.
For now, though, UNLV and San Diego State will continue to compete for Mountain West and perhaps Western supremacy. On paper, UNLV’s season was similar to the previous five, but Dave Rice has injected the program with with energy -- and the talent level -- from the Jerry Tarkanian era. San Diego State, however, is keeping pace with wins and recruiting success.
Those two programs will slug it out one more time before going their separate ways.
2012-13 ALL-MWC TEAM
MWC FACTS AND FIGURES
G Deonte Burton, Nevada
2011-12 regular season champion: New Mexico, San Diego State
G Wes Eikmeier, Colorado State
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: New Mexico#, San Diego State,
G Kendall Williams, New Mexico
G Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State
New coach: Larry Eustachy (Colorado State)
F Mike Moser, UNLV*
Realignment: Lost TCU (Big 12). Add Fresno State, Nevada (WAC)
*preseason conference player of the year
#conference tournament champion
2012-13 MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE PREVIEW
1. UNLV (26-9, 9-5)
The Rebels are ranked No. 13 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
There is little doubt that big things are on the horizon for the Runnin’ Rebels under coach Dave Rice, who guided UNLV to the NCAA Tournament in his first year and followed that up with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. The big question will be how long it takes for all the new faces to jell. The rebuilt Rebels figure to battle a veteran and talented San Diego State squad for the Mountain West title.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
2. San Diego State (26-8, 10-4)
The Aztecs are ranked No. 15 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
San Diego State has all the necessary ingredients to make a lengthy postseason run. The Aztecs are Tournament tested with three straight appearances and have one of the most talented teams in program history. Mountain West foes UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State will ensure that the Aztecs are battle-tested during the conference slate, and the nonconference schedule includes a rare game against UCLA (in the Wooden Classic) as well as the opener vs. Syracuse. Just reaching the NCAA Tournament is no longer good enough at San Diego State, which is a true testament to the job Coach Steve Fisher has done in building the program to an elite level.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
3. Colorado State (20-12, 8-6)
With four starters back from a 20–12 team and a pair of talented transfers ready to contribute, there’s already talk of conference titles and Sweet 16 appearances in the first season under Larry Eustachy. If the Rams are to compete for their first regular-season Mountain West title and hope to get back to the NCAAs, they will have to learn to win on the road. While they knocked off three top-25 teams at Moby Arena last year, they were a head-scratching 3–9 on the road, including 1–6 in league play. The Rams should be able to address their biggest weakness: lack of size. Last year their tallest starter was 6-6, but Colton Iverson, a 6-10 transfer from Minnesota, brings inside scoring and rugged defense. He averaged 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds in his final season with the Gophers. The holdovers are led by a trio of senior guards. Wes Eikmeier, an All-MWC pick, had nine 20-plus scoring nights last year and will be one of the top players in the league. Dorian Green, a fourth-year starter, is a tough defender and heady distributor, while Jesse Carr is solid on both ends of the floor.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament One and Done
4. New Mexico (28-7, 10-4)
With starters Hugh Greenwood, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell back, the Lobos’ backcourt is solidified, but the post will take a hit without forwards Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. Gordon, a first-team All-MWC forward, averaged 13.7 points and 11.1 rebounds while garnering the league’s tournament MVP honors. Hardeman started 35 games and was a glue guy who brought stability. Pegging a replacement for Gordon is the biggest quandary. Alex Kirk, a 7-0 redshirt sophomore, figures a prime candidate, having set a freshman scoring record with 31 points against Cal State Bakersfield two years ago. There’s questions about his durability, however. He underwent back surgery to correct a herniated disc and sat out last year. Look for Williams, a versatile 6-3 guard, to develop into a go-to guy after he averaged 12.1 points in a complementary role last season.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament One and Done
5. Boise State (13–17, 3–11)
The young Broncos took their lumps in their first season of Mountain West play, and they’ll try to fare better in their final season in the conference. Boise State, which is heading to the Big East in football, must place its basketball programs in another conference, likely the Big West or WAC next season. Coach Leon Rice still has a young team — center Kenny Buckner (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is the only senior — and there are four sophomores and five freshmen on scholarship. But those sophomores gained a ton of experience last season, something that should help the Broncos as they attempt to climb out of the conference cellar. They played most everyone tough and came within seconds of beating UNLV and San Diego State. Australian forward Anthony Drmic (12.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg) had a strong freshman campaign, as did point guard Derrick Marks (9.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.1 apg). That duo, along with Buckner, figures to be the focal points on offense. But they’ll have plenty of help. Juniors Thomas Bropleh, Jeff Elorriaga and Ryan Watkins all have starting experience and have had big games in their careers. Guard Igor Hadziomerovic, who missed much of last season with a broken foot, also should make an impact. If the Broncos learned from a year ago and get contributions from any of the incoming freshmen, don’t be surprised if Boise State cracks the top half of the Mountain West.
6. Air Force (13–16, 3–11)
A midseason coaching change last season gave Dave Pilipovich the chance to make basketball fun again at the Academy. Though the Falcons went only 2–6 under the interim coach, a win over nationally ranked San Diego State and a competitive finish was enough to land Pilipovich the full-time gig. The good news for him is he’ll have five players who started at least 14 games back from last season, including top scorer Michael Lyons (15.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg), who missed a handful of games last season with a high-ankle sprain and wasn’t full strength for much of the first half of Mountain West play. And opponents won’t be able to solely key on Lyons. Mike Fitzgerald (10.4 ppg) Taylor Broekhuis (9.0 ppg) also are options for Air Force, which runs a deliberate offense that relies on execution. Point guard Todd Fletcher is the man who makes the Falcons’ offense work. If Pilipovich can develop some depth and build confidence early in the season, Air Force has a chance to finish in the middle of the pack.
7. Nevada (28–7, 13–1 WAC)
After a few down years, the Wolf Pack returned to their winning ways and put together a 28-win season that culminated with a trip to the NIT quarterfinals. Had the Wolf Pack not played in a one-bid WAC last season, a trip to the NCAA Tournament was within reach as an at-large candidate. Coach David Carter returns three starters from last season, including dynamic point guard Deonte Burton, who averaged 14.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. The lefthander is difficult to guard, and his versatile offensive game makes him one of the top guards in the Mountain West. Joining Burton in the backcourt is senior Malik Story, a streaky shooter who averaged 14.1 points per game. The former Indiana transfer can score in bunches but also has a tendency to take bad shots. When Story makes good decisions, he’s difficult to contain. Swingman Jerry Evans (6.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) should see his production increase as the Wolf Pack did lose its frontcourt starters in Dario Hunt and Olek Czyz. There are seven other letterwinners who are back, but none of them did much to distinguish themselves a year ago. They combined to average fewer than 12 points and nine rebounds a game, production that must increase if Nevada is going to be a factor in its first season in the Mountain West.
8. Wyoming (21–12, 6–8)
Larry Shyatt changed the culture in the program last season, helping the Cowboys to a 21–12 mark that landed them in the College Basketball Invitational. Wyoming did it with a suffocating defense and a deliberate offense that kept grinding and grinding on the opposition. It wasn’t always pretty, but most of the time it was effective. Wyoming has two starters back from a year ago and both are coming off stellar seasons. Senior forward Leonard Washington averaged 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, while shooting guard Luke Martinez made 81 3-pointers en route to averaging 11.8 points per game. Martinez has made a trey in 29 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the conference. The key for the Cowboys to match last season’s success will be how the rest of the team adjusts to new roles. Sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr. had his moments last season, but now he’ll be expected to be an important factor. Backup point guard Derrious Gilmore must replace starter JayDee Luster, who meant so much for the Cowboys on both ends of the floor. Returning guard Riley Grabau also could see a greater role.
9. Fresno State (13–20, 3–11 WAC)
Coach Rodney Terry started rebuilding the Bulldogs last season, but life just got tougher as the move to the Mountain West will make it more dificult for the second-year coach to see results. With that being said, the Bulldogs have potential to be a surprise team. Guard Kevin Olekaibe is a proven scorer (17.8 ppg), and his presence opens things up for teammates. Guard Tyler Johnson (9.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and forward Jerry Brown (8.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) also are returning starters, giving Terry a nice foundation to build around. Former George Mason transfer Kevin Foster and guard Garrett Johnson also have experience. Pacific transfer Allen Huddleston should contribute in the backcourt after sitting out last season, and 6-9 Canadian Braeden Anderson had interest from some higher-profile schools before landing in Fresno. The key to Fresno State’s season might be just how quickly true freshman Robert Upshaw adapts to the Division I game. The 7-foot center is expected to be a difference-maker, and if he lives up to that the billing, don’t expect the Bulldogs to finish in the cellar.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame
More from the 2012-13 College Basketball Preview:
Top 10 Freshmen for 2012-13
Impact Transfers for 2012-13
Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2012-13
10 Players Returning from Injury
Gonzaga leads International Dream Team