As a possible preseason Top 25 team and media’s pick for No. 1 in the conference, San Diego State is ready to once again carry the Mountain West’s banner this college basketball season.
Not far behind the Aztecs is Boise State, a program on a steady rise since 2012 and one that’s approaching a new apex in 2015-’16. Beyond that, however, projecting the Mountain West landscape is a crap-shoot.
Precedent suggests a third team is primed to both contend for the conference title and a bid into the NCAA Tournament. Every season since 2010 save one, the Mountain West sent at least three teams to the Big Dance.
That’s an especially impressive run for a conference that spent its first 12 years of existence as a decided mid-major — and doubly impressive when one considers the Mountain West lost two regular contenders in 2011, BYU and Utah.
After a 2014 season in which only San Diego State and New Mexico made the field of 68, Wyoming’s surprise run through the Mountain West Tournament en route to an automatic bid made it five-of-six years with three-plus representatives.
The Cowboys joined San Diego State and Boise State, both of which earned at-large bids. The Aztecs and Broncos are built to make Tournament appearances again this season, automatic bid or no.
Steve Fisher’s San Diego State bunch enters 2015-’16 with one of its most intriguing rosters in the program’s current run and length all over the court. The nation’s No. 4-rated defense a season ago, per KenPom.’s adjusted metrics, the Aztecs could be even better on that side of the ball in the coming campaign.
With Anthony Drmic, James Webb III and depth to spare, Boise State returns a veteran corps from a lineup that won the Mountain West regular-season title a season ago.
It stands to reason the Aztecs and Broncos will again battle it out for league supremacy, but who emerges as this year’s Wyoming? Which team will press the two front-runners and create some chaos in the conference?
In the years immediately following the departures of BYU and Colorado State, New Mexico was building toward reestablishing itself as a national player, much as it had been in the 1990s. But with Steve Alford accepting the head-coaching position at UCLA in 2013, the Lobos regressed.
No matter; Colorado State grew into a viable Tournament team in 2012 and 2013, and last year broke into the Top 25 briefly. A late-season slide doomed the Rams, however, and losing J.J. Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano guarantees another middling campaign.
Wyoming took Colorado State’s spot as the third team up in the Mountain West a season ago. However, the Cowboys likely take a big step backward without newly minted Los Angeles Laker Larry Nance Jr.
Two primary candidates loom as the Mountain West’s likely contenders to San Diego State and Boise State.
Utah State, the media’s preseason pick for that No. 3 spot, was an almost annual participant in the NCAA Tournament last decade, representing both the Big West and Western Athletic Conferences.
Since joining the Mountain West in the 2013-’14 season, Utah State finished eighth in Year 1 and tied for fourth in Year 2. Last year’s improvement to fourth (fifth for tournament-seeding purposes) showed promise of the Aggies regaining their magic of the decade prior, as they scored an upset win over Boise State.
With talented forward Jalen Moore back leading a veteran corps, Utah State is the Mountain West’s clear X-factor and most likely candidate to land the league three tickets to the Big Dance.
Perhaps less apparent due to recent underachievement is UNLV. Lon Kruger built UNLV back approaching a level of prominence not seen since Jerry Tarkanian’s ouster in the early 1990s, then turned the reins over to current head coach, Dave Rice.
Who better to restore the Runnin’ Rebels to the glory of the late 1980s and early 1990s than a member of those teams like Rice?
Well, as of the last two years, Rice hasn’t looked like the answer. UNLV missed the last two NCAA Tournaments and failed to build on marquee wins, like last December’s upset of a Top 5-ranked Arizona team.
UNLV is not lacking for talent. Despite losing Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn, the Runnin’ Rebels feature plenty of playmakers on the coming season’s roster. Swingman Patrick McCaw is a potential breakout star, and both Daquan Cook (missed last season with a knee injury) and Jerome Seagers (Rutgers transfer) could be difference-makers.
But the real intrigue with UNLV come from freshmen Stephen Zimmerman and Derrick Jones. Five-and-four-star prospects respectively, Zimmerman and Jones lead a recruiting class ranked 10th in the nation this offseason.
The Runnin’ Rebel kiddie corps could make a splash in what promises to be an unpredictable Mountain West campaign.