By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE MOUNTAIN WEST
1. HOW MANY TEAMS WILL THE MOUNTAIN WEST HAVE IN THE 2014 NCAA TOURNAMENT?
Four looks like the ceiling right now. Last season was a breakout year for the conference with five teams advancing to the field of 68, but it’s hard to see that many schools from the Mountain West being in the bracket next March. New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV and San Diego State all look like strong candidates to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but the million dollar question in this league is if another team can emerge as a legitimate threat to earn an at-large bid. Keep in mind that things are going to be different for bubble teams moving forward. With the beginning of the American Athletic Conference this season, there’s going to be one less at-large bid for bubble teams because the winner of the American’s conference tournament will receive an automatic bid to the field of 68. For a team like Boise State who played in the First Four last year and was one of the last teams selected to play in the NCAA Tournament, that automatic bid from the American could knock them out of the bracket completely.
2. HOW WILL NEW MEXICO REPLACE TONY SNELL?
Most likely with different looks. Newly-minted Lobos coach Craig Neal could play his son Cullen, a freshman with terrific ball skills alongside Hugh Greenwood and Kendall Williams in a three-guard lineup. Another option for Neal is JUCO transfer Deshawn Delaney, a 6-foot-4 wing who averaged 15.1 PPG and 8.2 RPG last year in junior college and didn’t play on the team’s recent trip to Australia. Here are the facts for New Mexico. This team returns four starters — Greenwood, Williams, Cameron Bairstow, and Alex Kirk — from last year’s team that won 29 games and the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles. This isn’t their first rodeo. The main keys for this team will be finding a backup power forward to replace Chad Adams, and making enough open shots to get the proper spacing on offense. Remember, the Lobos were just 3-14 from three-point range when they were upset by Harvard in the NCAA Tournament last March.
3. WILL LESS BE MORE FOR UNLV?
It very well could be. The Runnin Rebels lost three of their top four scorers from last season, but their overall team chemistry and cohesion should be much better. For all the talent that UNLV had on its roster last year, Dave Rice’s team lacked a true point guard and that’s something they’ll have this season in JUCO transfer Deville Smith. Smith, who started his college career at Mississippi State is a pass-first floor general who also has the ability to be a very effective on-ball defender. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by shooting guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, a player that could emerge as the Runnin Rebels’ top perimeter scorer after Katin Reinhardt’s decision to transfer to USC. UNLV also lost Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett up front, but Khem Birch seems primed for a breakout season in the middle and UConn transfer Roscoe Smith will be eligible after sitting out last year. The 6-foot-9 Smith excelled as a face-up power forward when the Huskies won the 2011 National Championship, and Rice could use him in that same role this season. There’s not as much sizzle associated with the Runnin Rebels compared to 12 months ago, but that may be a good thing. If Deville Smith can give Rice the type of point-guard play he needs, and newcomers Kendall Smith, Jelan Kendrick and Christian Wood can all buy into the team concept, a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance under Rice looks like a more than realistic possibility. UNLV won’t be as talented as they were last season, but they may wind up being a better basketball team.
4. CAN BOISE STATE CHALLENGE FOR A CONFERENCE TITLE?
It depends on Mikey Thompson’s development. Broncos coach Leon Rice told me last week that in order for his team to take things to the next level, they need another all-conference play to emerge next to Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. Thompson could be that guy. Last season as a freshman, the 6-foot-3 Thompson averaged 7.9 PPG and shot 43.9 percent from three-point range. His development will be critical to Boise State’s multiple-guard alignment, which also features long range sniper Jeff Elorriaga. The underrated Elorriaga made 84 three-point shots last season and is one of the better deep threats in all of college basketball.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Fresno State. The Bulldogs may have just dismissed their likely starting center in 7-footer Robert Upshaw for a violation of team rules, but there’s still more than enough pieces remaining for this team to make a jump in the conference standings. Rodney Terry returns his top two scorers in Tyler Johnson and Allen Huddleston while adding an impact transfer in former Oklahoma State guard Cezar Guerrero. Sophomore Braeden Anderson should make a push for an expanded role up front, but also be sure to keep an eye on 6-foot-6 freshman Soma Edo. The 6-foot-6 Edo is an incredible athlete and was known on the AAU circuit for dunking everything he caught around the rim. Don’t be surprised if he plays a significant role thanks to his athleticism.
MOUNTAIN WEST PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
1. NEW MEXICO
THE SKINNY: The Lobos return four starters from last season.
THE SKINNY: Less will be more in Sin City.
3. BOISE STATE
THE SKINNY: The Broncos may have the most underrated perimeter in college basketball.
4. SAN DIEGO STATE
THE SKINNY: Tulane transfer Josh Davis gives the Aztecs an interior presence.
5. FRESNO STATE
THE SKINNY: Oklahoma State transfer Cezar Guerrero will give the Bulldogs an anchor in the backcourt.
6. UTAH STATE
THE SKINNY: Stew Morrill and the Aggies are bumping up a weight class after spending several years in the WAC.
7. COLORADO STATE
THE SKINNY: Larry Eustachy will have five new starters in Fort Collins.
THE SKINNY: Deonte Burton may be the best point guard that no one really knows about.
THE SKINNY: Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson should add offense.
10. AIR FORCE
THE SKINNY: A rebuilding year awaits Dave Pilipovich and the Falcons.
11. SAN JOSE STATE
THE SKINNY: The Spartans have nowhere to go but up in their first year in the Mountain West.
MOUNTAIN WEST PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Anthony Drmic, Boise State
Deonte Burton, Nevada
Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Josh Davis, San Diego State
Alex Kirk, New Mexico
MOUNTAIN WEST PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kendall Williams, New Mexico
10 WHO HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
Deville Smith, UNLV (JUCO)
Jelan Kendrick, UNLV (JUCO)
Roscoe Smith, UNLV (transfer)
Matt Shrigley, San Diego State (redshirt)
Edmunds Dukulis, Boise State (redshirt)
Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico (JUCO)
Cezar Guerrero, Fresno State (transfer)
Jesse Carr, Colorado State (transfer)
Michael Perez, Nevada (transfer)
Charles Hankerson, Wyoming (transfer)
10 IMPACT FRESHMEN
Christian Wood, UNLV
Kendall Smith, UNLV
Cullen Neal, New Mexico
Dezmyn Trent, Boise State
Nick Duncan, Boise State
Dakarai Allen, San Diego State
Soma Edo, Fresno State
Paul Watson, Fresno State
David Cohn, Colorado State
Trey Washington, Wyoming
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
Obij Aget, New Mexico
Rashad Muhammad, San Jose State
Jamal Aytes, UNLV
Jalen Moore, Utah State
D’Erryl Williams, San Diego State
FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS
Khem Birch, UNLV
Winston Shepard, San Diego State
Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Mikey Thompson, Boise State
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