Mountain West Season Preview
Can San Diego State take the MWC?
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Champion: SDSU
Defending Regular Season Champion: New Mexico
1) San Diego State
4) New Mexico
5) Colorado State
8 ) TCU
9) Air Force
Summary: It’s really a shame the Mountain West is getting blown up/remodeled after this season. BYU is headed for the WCC (in all sports except football, where it will play as an independent), former basketball power Utah is joining Colorado in the new Pac-10, and additions Fresno State, Boise State and Nevada were more football-driven (as usual) than anything. The conference’s reconstruction comes at a time when the league was at its peak (in terms of overall depth) — four teams earned NCAA bids last season. And since each of those schools (San Diego State, BYU, New Mexico and UNLV) either returns the majority of its talent or has more than enough firepower to replace what it lost, the MWC as we know it promises to go out with a bang.
San Diego State seems to be the consensus pick for conference champion, and it’s hard to argue with that because of the studs Steve Fisher has coming back this season. Though it pains me to pick against any team with Jimmer Fredette on it (more on that later), San Diego State has a talent who, even though the MWC has proven to be one of the top conferences in the country, belongs on the highest level. Kawhi Leonard loses in a landslide to Jimmer in a “Who’s the most exciting player to watch” contest for the MWC, but there’s no debating that Kawhi is the most talented player in the conference. Terribly under-recruited out of high school in Riverside, CA, Leonard led the Aztecs to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman while putting up eye-popping numbers (12.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.5 steals). Now, with NBA scouts already drooling about his talent and versatility (if there is such a thing as a five-tool player in basketball, Leonard is it…just don’t ask me to name all five of them), Leonard’s sophomore season promises to be even more exciting. If he adds a three-point shot to his game, Leonard could become one of the hardest guards in the country, and the Aztecs could be this year’s New Mexico and race to a high seed in March.
If Kawhi Leonard is the most talented player in the MWC, Jimmer Fredette is the most valuable. Fredette was demonstrating his Steve Nash-like poise and touch around the basket and carrying the Cougars all season long during his junior campaign (22.1 points per game), but he truly became a household name after dropping 49 points at Arizona in December, and 37 on Florida in BYU’s first-round upset win last March. Somehow, Jimmer is going to have to top last year’s production because the talent around him has dropped considerably (after losses to graduation and Michael Lloyd’s dismissal from the program). With the emergence of a few role players, BYU has another tournament appearance in it, but I’m not sure they have the horses to challenge San Diego State for the league title.
Other contenders UNLV and New Mexico have their own question marks that make me wonder whether they can seriously contend for a conference championship. UNLV’s backcourt/wing play could probably go toe-to-toe with any group in the country (led by Tre’Von Willis, Derrick Jasper and Chase Stanback) but their frontcourt is small and rebounds poorly. Tre’Von Willis had a particularly busy summer, and though he may get off with only a slap on the wrist from the NCAA for his felony assault charge, it remains to be seen how the Willis and the rest of the team responds to the star guard’s off the court troubles. New Mexico is potentially one of the more talented teams in the MWC…the problem is much of that talent is made up newcomers who will need time to mesh with Coach Steve Alford (luckily for the Lobos, transfers Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu had a head start). Led by all-league point guard Dairese Gary, New Mexico might squeak into the Tournament, but they won’t be looking at another 3 seed.
Team on the Rise: Colorado State might not challenge for a conference title in the suddenly ultra-competitive MWC, but the Rams and coach Tim Miles have turned heads with how quickly the program has recovered from a winless ‘07-08 league record. In any other conference, the Rams might be able to make a run at title, but the MWC is just too strong right now. Next season, though, with teams coming and going and with unfamiliarity in play, the Rams could take the league by the horns.
Team on the Decline: It wasn’t long ago that Utah was a perennial NCAA qualifier and a program that produced NBA talent. The days of Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Andrew Bogut and Hanno Mottola (remember that guy?) are long gone, but with the upcoming move to the Pac-10, coach Jim Boylen has the potential to bring in Pac-10 level recruiting classes and top-tier talent back to the Ute basketball program. Utah may benefit from the move in the long run, but this season might be rough after five players left the program. In other words, there is reason for Utah fans to anxious, yet cautiously excited about the future of the program.
Underrated Player: With all of the attention the TCU football is getting now, Horned Frogs’ basketball is close to an after-thought in comparison, but standout junior point guard Ronnie Moss shouldn’t be. After averaging 15 points and nearly 6 assists a game as a sophomore, the home-grown talent will be counted on for even more production/leadership to bring TCU out of the bottom of the MWC. While the amount of help he gets from his teammates remains to be seen, last season Moss demonstrated he is more than capable of carrying the Horned Frogs against stiff competition, scoring 30 points against New Mexico and 25 against UNLV.
Keep an eye on: Emmanuel Negedu’s controversial heart situation. Negedu ended up at New Mexico when Tennessee doctors refused to clear the forward’s heart for play after his nearly fatal weight room collapse last fall. Now at full strength and playing with a defibrillator in his chest, the electric and game-changing forward should be a tremendous boost to the Lobo frontcourt. Along with former UCLA forward and five-star recruit Drew Gordon, Negedu should give New Mexico, a team was three-pointer and perimeter-oriented last season, an athletic and sturdy frontcourt that matches up well with any in the conference.
P.S. Friday, October 15 marks the day of official practices for college hoops. Get hyped, enjoy the Midnight Madness everybody!
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.