by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
Over the course of the past few seasons, the Mountain West Conference has emerged as one of the best leagues in the country. Entering this past week, the Mountain West was one of three conferences to have at least three teams—New Mexico (12-1), San Diego State (11-1), UNLV (11-1)—ranked in both national polls. UNLV has arguably the best freshman in America (Anthony Bennett), San Diego State has a talented, athletic roster from top to bottom, and New Mexico has been a perennial league contender for the past five seasons.
Those three teams are currently a combined 34-3, but the conference’s firepower doesn’t stop there. According to theMWC.com, through games of December 16, Mountain West boasted the nation’s best collective win percentage, and Mountain West teams were 69-18 against non-conference opponents, good for a .793 win percentage. Wyoming is 12-0, Colorado State is 10-2, Boise State is 9-2 and Air Force is 8-2.
Obviously, with conference play soon approaching, it will be impossible for all these teams to sustain their success; still, when it’s all said and done, the Mountain West could send three, four, maybe even five teams to the NCAA Tournament.
If you’ve been following college basketball this season, you know the Mountain West’s top teams can compete with—and beat—teams from any other league. New Mexico won the Paradise Jam with wins over George Mason and UCONN; If it can defeat Arizona tomorrow night, San Diego State will win the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii; UNLV already has wins over Iowa State and Cal, and this Saturday the Rebels will try to defeat North Carolina for the second time in as many years.
In short, the MWC has a number of very good teams. And as always, good teams are made up of good players.
Let’s examine some of those good players; Below is a breakdown of 10 of the best players in the Mountain West Conference, followed by two under-the-radar players, in no particular order.
Kendall Williams, Guard, New Mexico (pictured above)
Junior, 6-4, 185
14.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5 APG
After originally committing to UCLA early in his high school career, Williams arrived in Albuquerque with a huge chip on his shoulder and a ferocious competitiveness that has never waned. This season, the former Mountain West Freshman of the Year is the fuel to New Mexico’s attack, controlling the tempo of games and quarterbacking the offense from start to finish.
At 6-4, Williams is a dynamic blend of size and speed. In New Mexico’s drive-and-kick approach, he smoothly weaves through defenders to set up his teammates, but he can also run the open floor and operate in transition. Williams has deceptively lethal speed—Coach Steve Alford recently called him the “fastest guard he’s ever coached”—and while he doesn’t necessarily have eye-popping “bounce,” Williams is a high-level athlete who routinely finishes above the rim.
Williams can also shoot the ball fairly well. His 32 percent 3-point percentage this year is down from 43 percent as a freshman and 36 percent as a sophomore, but his jumpshot is nonetheless reliable. As a natural playmaker, he can step into either a spot-up jumpshot or score off the dribble, doing whatever it takes to help his team win.
Williams is a pass-first point guard with an uncanny ability to not only get his teammates open, but get his team going. When Williams is clicking, it trickles down, as the Lobos are usually in sync and in control of the game. Williams consistently stuffs the stat sheet, and is arguably as complete a point guard as there is out West.
Tony Snell, Forward, New Mexico
Junior, 6-7, 200
11.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 3.2 APG
Snell is a long, athletic wing with good size and excellent catch-and-shoot ability. In New Mexico’s drive-and-kick motion offense, Snell consistently finds openings and puts himself in position to receive passes and knock down jumpers. He’s quick on his feet—able to run off screens until he’s open—and his shooting alone has extended defenses all season long, creating lanes for him and his teammates. When Snell establishes a shooting rhythm, he can heat up quickly and score in bunches.
Offensively, the next step for Snell is to put the ball on the floor and develop an in-between game. While he’s almost automatic on the catch and shoot, defenders routinely close out on Snell because he hasn’t shown the ability to consistently score off the dribble. With solid length and quickness, a small arsenal of face-up moves and a decent triple-threat position would do him wonders. Already equipped with a pure jumpshot, a hesitation move or a pull-up game would take Snell to another level. During his first two seasons at New Mexico, he has occasionally flashed an effective crossover, but nothing consistent enough to keep defenders on their toes.
Snell has NBA length and athleticism, but at only 205 pounds, he needs to fill out his wiry frame so he can finish through contact and also match up with NBA small forwards defensively. His length does give him added reach to contest shots, and he has solid footwork to stay in front of his man, but neither of those skills fully compensate for his thin makeup, as bigger forwards can overpower him if need be.
Snell must also improve his rebounding, as 2 rebounds per game for a 6-7 wing player is simply not good enough. While adding some bulk will certainly help him in this department, Snell needs to pick up his instincts and crash boards more consistently. Will-power and tenacity can go a long way in the rebounding column.
After playing sparingly during his freshman season, and then making good strides as a sophomore, Snell is now a focal point of the Lobos’ attack, and can shoulder the necessary scoring load to win games. Earlier this season, he recorded 25 points vs Davidson and 27 points vs George Mason, both big-time performances in games that were decided in the final two minutes.
If Snell can improve in the aforementioned areas, he has the potential to be a role player on the next level.
Anthony Bennett, Forward, UNLV
Freshman, 6-8, 240
19.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG
The first McDonald’s All-American since 1983 to join UNLV straight out of high school, Anthony Bennett is, without question, having the best freshman campaign in America.
At 6-8 and 240 pounds, Bennett is a matchup nightmare, as he can score from virtually any spot on the floor and on any type of defender. He punishes smaller defenders in the paint, and can face-up bigger defenders outside, where his quick feet and range out to the 3-point line make him nearly unstoppable. Even facing double teams, Bennett is always active around the rim and is extremely physical. He is an aggressive rebounder and shot blocker, averaging nearly 2 blocks per game.
What’s particularly impressive is that Bennett is averaging nearly 20 points per game on only 12 shots, shooting a remarkable 56 percent from the field. Bennett is already a dominating, double-double machine, and if he can maintain this level of play, he will be a lottery pick come June.
Jamaal Franklin, Guard, San Diego State
Junior, 6-5, 210
18 PPG, 10 RPG, 3.3 APG
Perhaps the most well-known player in the Mountain West is Jamaal Franklin. After winning conference Player of the Year honors last season, Franklin emerged into both the national spotlight and NBA Draft chatter.
At 6-5, Franklin is a big-framed wing with long arms and explosive athleticism. He is an extremely confident player, who, by constantly attacking the defense, will get his share of buckets every game. Although his jumpshot appears a bit flat-footed, Franklin can get his shot off over bigger defenders and uses a quick first step to create space in isolation situations. Once inside the paint, Franklin uses his big frame to finish through contact, and if he doesn’t score a basket he’s almost guaranteed to earn a trip to the free throw line, where he averages 7.8 attempts per game, on par with post players such as Mason Plumlee and Cody Zeller. Franklin moves the ball aggressively in transition, and is tough to stop once he has momentum.
Playing both the 3 and 4 in college, Franklin has always been an excellent rebounder, with the tenacity to battle down low and the awareness to track down loose balls and push the tempo, a style the Aztecs strongly encourage.
Deonte Burton, Guard, Nevada
Junior, 6-1, 190
16.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.3 APG
An honorable mention All-American last season, Burton is among the best scoring guards out West. Although he is only 6-1, Burton has unlimited range and a lethal off the dribble game, using elevation and a high release point to get his shot off. He has a natural ability to put the ball in the hoop, and is an effective shooter, whether he’s open or has a hand in his face. Burton consistently makes shots with a high degree of difficulty, and is one of those players that attempts several “no, no, yes!” shots every game, but also some shots that leave coaches with a headache.
Overall, if Nevada is going to compete in the Mountain West, it will need Burton to have another All-American type of season. He’s already posted scoring totals of 28, 26, 25 and 29, and down the stretch his ability to score will probably make or break the Wolfpack.
Derrick Marks, Guard, Boise State
Sophomore, 6-3, 205
19 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.5 APG
The Broncos are off to a 9-2 start, and Marks is a large reason for their early success. The sophomore is a crafty guard with a ton of moxie. Marks likes to sliver his way into the paint and put up shots close to the rim, either scoring or getting to the free-throw line, where he’s shooting nearly 90 percent.
Marks is also making the case that he is a big-game player; in Boise’s upset over then-No.11 Creighton earlier this month, Marks scored a team-high 35 points to along with 4 rebounds and 4 steals, including a stretch in the second half where he scored 18 straight points. In a close four-point loss at Michigan State in late November, Marks did his part with 24 points and 4 assists.
To take the next step, Marks needs to prove himself as a more consistent shooter. Still, he’s only a sophomore, and with time he could emerge as a premier player in the Mountain West.
Khem Birch, Forward, UNLV
Sophomore, 6-9, 220
11.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG
Birch—a transfer from Pittsburgh—has played in three games since becoming eligible earlier this month, and has quickly helped fill the tremendous void left by Mike Moser’s absence. After playing sparingly in his first game back, Birch posted 11 points and 9 rebounds in 25 minutes vs Northern Iowa, and then 20 points (7-8 shooting)/8 rebounds/6 blocks in 29 minutes vs Canisius.
With all the attention heaped on Bennett, it’s easy to forget about Birch, who was a five-star, top-15 recruit in the Class of 2011. Burch is agile, supremely athletic, and mobile in the open court. He has great defensive instincts, and uses his long arms to disrupt shots in the paint. Offensively, though, right now Birch is very raw. Twenty points and 10 rebounds are unrealistic averages, but with some time to get acclimated and comfortable, Burch could be a major contributor for UNLV.
Leonard Washington, Forward, Wyoming
Senior, 6-7, 230
14.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.0 BPG
Washington, a former transfer from USC, has an unconventional game. He has a big frame but often sets up on the perimeter, where he takes a lot of 20-foot jumpers and even 3-pointers (averaging 2.5 attempts per game). The lefty can take you outside, but also uses his big body to shield defenders, create angles, and finish through contact.
Last season, Washington ranked in the Top 10 in six Mountain West statistical categories and recorded six double-doubles. Through 12 games this season, Washington hasn’t missed a beat, posting 5 double-doubles and leading the Cowboys to a 12-0 start.
Michael Lyons, Guard, Air Force
Senior, 6-5, 195
20.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.7 APG
The Falcons are off to an impressive 8-2 start, and if they want to make national noise by knocking off Florida in their next outing, they will need a big performance from Lyons, whose 20.5 PPG ranks 12th nationally.
Even with opposing defenses keying in on him, Lyons continues to create his own shot and get numbers. He has a natural ability to get into the lane, and can adjust in-air to finish through and around contact. Lyons has improved across the board each year since arriving on campus four years ago, and has put the Falcons on his back thus far.
Colton Iverson, Forward-Center, Colorado State
Senior, 6-10, 260
14.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG
In an era where stretch-4’s now qualify as “centers”, Iverson is a throwback big man. At 6-10, 260 pounds, he operates strictly on the block, using a soft touch over either shoulder to score. Defensively, Iverson secures the paint for the Rams, using his length and size to cause disruption, and grabs rebounds to quickly start CSU’s fast break. The Rams are 10-2, and the former Minnesota Golden Gopher has undoubtedly been a huge reason why.
UNDER THE RADAR
Alex Kirk, Center, New Mexico
Sophomore, 7-0, 250
11 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG
While Kendall Williams is the fuel to UNM’s fire, Alex Kirk is the brick that holds the Lobos foundation in place. After redshirting all of last season to recover from a herniated disk, Kirk has emerged as the Lobos’ main—and best—post presence thus far.
On a perimeter-oriented team, the 7-footer is the Lobos’ anchor and a difference maker in the paint, showcasing deft passing ability and shooting range out to 15-20 feet. While he doesn’t have Isaiah Austin range, Kirk can realistically face-up and sink jumpers whenever left open.
The former New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year has helped fill the void left by Drew Gordon, and is slowly emerging as one of the best centers out West. Only a sophomore, Kirk has played above anybody’s expectations thus far, and he could not only be an x-factor down the stretch, but the missing piece that brings it all together for the Lobos.
Winston Shepard, Forward, San Diego State
Freshman, 6-8, 210
3.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.7 APG
With only nine collegiate games under his belt, at this point statistics aren’t a fair way to evaluate Shepard. At 6-8, Shepard is an incredibly versatile player who can realistically defend three, if not four, positions. He prides his game on defense, has a never-ending motor and knows how to play within the constraints of an offense. Among the long list of big names—Brandon Ashley, Anthony Bennett, Dominic Artis, etc—at Findlay Prep last season, it was Shepard who was consistently tasked with guarding the other team’s best player, and he didn’t disappoint. In back-to-back games last season, Shepard flustered—and relatively speaking, shut down—Jabari Parker and Shabazz Muhammad, helping Findlay rack up victories all season and making his presence felt. If all goes to plan, it’s only a matter of time before he steps into the same role for the Aztecs.