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2013-14 MWC Basketball Conference Preview

January 1, 2014

I like to wait until the OOC schedule is over before I weigh in on how I think the conference season will go. That’s because there are so many changes to rosters that occur in the off-season.

And there were tons of changes from last year as 10 of the 15 players chosen to all-conference teams either ran out of eligibility or left early for the NBA. Of the 5 teams that earned invitations to the NCAA Tournament, only two, New Mexico and Boise State, retained the majority of their starting five. Combine that with the additions of Utah State and San Jose State and you have the formula for a lot of unpredictability.

I’ve watched as much basketball as I could to get a feel for these teams. In the past, I’ve gone on roadies to see local MWC teams like Wyoming and Air Force play OOC games and seen others like New Mexico when they visited Boulder. Unfortunately, my schedule hasn’t allowed me to see teams other than CSU live so I’m relying a lot on what I’ve seen on the tube. Which can be a bad thing because sometimes the TV can lie.

With that in mind, here’s where I see the MWC headed in 2013-14

1. New Mexico – the reigning conference champions have some nice wins and some sloppy losses in the OOC. They are led by returning MWC Player of the Year Kendall Williams and a dynamic pair of bigs in Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. Bairstow is simply the most improved player in the Mountain West. The Lobos also returned guard Hugh Greenwood but have struggled to replace the very underrated Tony Snell. Freshman Cullen Neal has had his moments good and bad and the rest of the squad will be asked to play roles to keep the Lobos on top.

2. San Diego State – Probably the biggest surprise of the OOC so far. The Aztecs lost a ton in Jamal Franklin, Chase Tapley, James Rahon, and the big guy whose name I forgot. They did return a healthy Xavier Thames, JJ O’Brien, and Winston Shepard, a highly rated recruit who struggled as a freshman. They added a one year player in Josh Davis, a transfer from Tulane who was a double-double machine in C-USA. throw in a few other role players like sharpshooting Matt Shrigley and defensive specialist Skylar Spencer and a lot of chemistry and you have a big, athletic squad that defends like crazy and wins.

3. Boise State – The Broncos returned their entire starting lineup, led by guard Derrick Marks and wing Anthony Drmic, to a team that earned an at large NCAA bid. They also have sharpshooter Jeff Eloriagga and probably the best player coming off the bench in guard Mikey Thompson. Underrated big Ryan Watkins grabs rebounds. Last years team struggled on the road because they were weak defensively. It remains to be seen whether they have developed the toughness necessary to win on the road in the MWC.

4. UNLV – the Rebels lost a ton in Anthony Bennett, Anthony Marshall, Katin Reinhardt, and Mike Moser. They added a ton in UCONN transfer Roscoe Smith, Fresno transfer Kevin Olekaibe, juco transfer Jelan Kendrick and freshman guard Kendall Smith to a
pair of talented returnees in Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones. They’ve showed a penchant to defend but a lot of inconsistent offense. The talent is there but the Rebels look to be a bit of an underachieving side, recording no really impressive OOC wins. What’s new?

5. Wyoming – Some solid games, some head scratchers in the OOC. They lost some important players, especially PF Leonard Washington but the returning core of Larry Nance, Derek Cook, Riley Grabau, Josh Adams, and Nathan Sobey will make them marginally dangerous night-in and night out in the MWC. Nance is much improved and will be an end of,year candidate for MWC first team all conference honors. They still play the slowest tempo in the MWC but cause teams fits with their structured methodical play and preparation.

6. Colorado State – The Rams had to replace all 5 starters from a team that finished second last season. The top returnee is MWC 6th Man of the Year Daniel Bejarano who is joined by backup PG Jon Octeus. The top addition is JJ Avila , a transfer from Navy, who is the most efficient high possession scorer in all of d-1 right now. The rest of the players are role players who will try to give Larry Eustachy’s squad effort, hard-nosed defense, and rebounds.

7. Utah State – The Aggies return a ton from last year and have had their moments in,the OOC schedule. Guards Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin lead the way in the backcourt and big Jarrod Shaw delivers points and rebounds in the middle. Shaw is currently suspended and charged with felony possession and distribution of a controlled substance. The Aggies are better with him but like others before them, I,expect,to see this team struggle with the night-in and night-out rigors of the Mountain West Conference.

8. Fresno State – Rodney Terry’s Bulldogs play hard-nose defense and they have games where they shoot incredibly well from the perimeter. Having lost their best bigs to injury and stupidity (a car accident and a repeated violation of team rules), they are a guard-oriented team led by Tyler Joghson, Alen Huddleston, Marvelle Harris, and transfer Cesar Guerrero. One thing I wanted to mention. Rodney Terry deserves a hand for letting senior guard Kevin Olekaibe transfer to UNLV and be able to play right away to be closer to his sick dad. I’m not sure there’s another coach in the country who would put heart ahead of winning.

9. Nevada – The biggest hot seat in the conference is occupied by coach David Carter, who has failed to put together a competitive team around guard Deonte Burton Jr. The Wolf Pack are not devoid of tatelnt with so.id players like Jerry Evans, Marqueeze Colman, Michael Perez, and Cole Huff. They are devoid of the ability to play any kind of team defense and dilly very little toughness other than all-everything Burton who can fill it up for inside and put and distribute as well.

10. Air Force – like CSU, the Falcons lost a chunk of their scoring and minutes. Unlike CSU, they aren’t able to pick up transfers so they rely on returnees like guards Tre Coggins and Max Yon to lead the way. These falcons play a lot,faster under Coach Dave Pilipovich and can score. What they don’t do is take care of the ball or play very good defense. Not a formula for success in the unforgiving Mountai. West.

11. San Jose State – New coach Dave Wojcik inherited a 3-14 squad WAC squad. Odd number of conference games because they had one rained out. Seriously. Had they been in the MWC last year they would have been worse than that 0-16 squad that Ti. Miles put together at CSU in his first year. The Spartans are led by a pair of freshmen in Rashad Muhammed and Jalen James. The team chucks up a lot of there’s and doesn’t defend a lick. Not a formula for success in their first tour of the MWC

Players to Watch

Picking all conference first, second, and third teams at this point is a crapshoot. The league lost a ton of great players, four of whom were drafted into the NBA. But here are the best of the best in no particular order.

1. Cameron Bairstow (UNM) – A power forward who had improved his strength, his shooting range and accuracy, and his motor. Bairstow has become a double-double threat and as on now is the early favorite for conference POY.

2. Kendall Williams (UNM) – The reigning MWC POY, Williams is up to his old tricks scoring and distributing the basketball for the Lobos. Skilled AND experienced. A great combination to lead the Lobos tot the title.

3. Alex Kirk (UNM) – Kirk is the most skilled big in the MWC. He can score inside and out which helps create space for Bairstow to do his thing.

4. And 5. Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch (UNLV) – I list them together because they are the. Last formidable shot blocking and rebounding duo in the MWC and provide the essence of what UNLV does well.

6. Deonte Burton Jr. (Nevada) – What a treat to watch this guy play. What a waste of 4 years in Reno! On a Steve Fisher coached team, this guy would be an All American.

7. Xavier Thames (SDSU) – Now that he’s healthy, Thames is the Aztecs straw that stirs their drink, providing them with leadership, defense, and perimeter,shooting.

8. Larry Nance Jr. (WYO) – Son of an NBA star, Junior has become his own player delivering both scoring and defensive rebounding every night for the Pokes.

9. And 10. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks (Boise) – Drmic is as good an off-the-ball offensive player as their is in the conference who can come off screens and make perimeter shots or put the ball on the floor to score at the rim. Marks is as tough a guy to guard on the ball in the MWC because of his strength and ability to get to the rim or create fouls.

11. JJ Avila (CSU) – Avila can score a variety of ways inside and out. He does a lot of his damage near the rim with crafty runners and layups but is also a great passer with the ability to set up teammates for easy layups.

Post Season League Outlook

A two-bid league for sure. I expect New Mexico and San Diego State to earn those bids over the course of the MWC schedule. I’m not convinced that there’s a third at-large bid out there for Boise State unless they somehow manage to push their way into the Top 2 during the conference regular season. Which means that the most likely way for a third team to make their way to the dance is via the conference tournament.

But there is no chance for 5 bids like last season. The conference is just not as good. Last year the MWC was a Top 2 rpi conference. This year they are 10th. Last season the majority of the conference schedule was played against Top 100 years. This year there will be lots of games played against 150+ rpi teams which are absolute killers if you lose them.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the conference schedule is unbalanced. With 11 teams and an 18 game schedule, this is the first year that teams will not play all others both home and away. Head to head match ups between the top teams take on an even higher significance than in previous years.

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