The 2014-15 Mountain West season saw two of its best players go down to season-ending injuries before conference play started. Today, Boise State’s Anthony Drmic and New Mexico’s Cullen Neal are set to make healthy returns–and both are looking to impact the race for the MWC crown.
Anthony Drmic – Boise State
6’6,” 192 pounds, senior guard
Drmic had ankle surgery after playing in seven games for Boise State last season; he was granted a medical hardship, which allowed him to get one more year of eligibility.
Last season, Boise State was still able to win the Mountain West regular season title and snag an NCAA Tournament bid in the process. But that was due to the incredible efficiency of Derrick Marks and the emergence of James Webb III.
Webb returns, but the Mountain West Player of the Year, Marks, is gone. It will be up to Drmic to replace the 19.4 points per game Marks was pouring in. One way Drmic can improve upon Mark’s standard as the leading Bronco is from simply taking more efficient shots.
In 2014-15, Derrick Marks shot 44.9 percent on two-point jump shots, while taking a ridiculously high 47.9 percent of his shots from that range, per hoop-math.com. That’s the biggest reason Marks had a breakout season; the previous year he shot 36.7 percent on two-point jumpers.
But Drmic doesn’t take a high volume of shots from the inefficient mid range. Instead, he launches from the three-point line. Back in 2013-14 Drmic took 46.1 percent of his shots from three. He’s a career 35.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc and has averaged over six treys per game.
The main key for Boise State will be how Drmic and James Webb play together. They can be one of the most dangerous duos in the Mountain West, but Webb thrived off the way Marks played.
The Bronco offense was based off Marks getting ball screens. He was so good at coming off screens and hitting jumpers that teams had to over commit to him. That left Nick Duncan open for threes and James Webb with space to attack off the dribble or bury threes. Webb shot 76.2 percent at the rim and 40.9 percent from the perimeter.
Drmic isn’t the pick and roll player that Marks was. Drmic had 119 possessions with ball screens that he turned into .92 points per possession in 2013-14, while Marks had 225 possessions at 1.11 points per possession last year.
Webb should still be able to use his incredible athleticism to create quality looks without Marks, and Drmic has proven he can score in the Mountain West. It’ll be a matter of Webb and Drmic using each other to get Boise State’s offense back to the top of the Mountain West.
Cullen Neal – New Mexico
6’5,” 195 pounds, sophomore guard
In the southern portion of the conference, New Mexico was far from fine without its starting point guard Cullen Neal. After three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the Lobos went 15-16 and finished 247th in Ken Pom offensive efficiency.
Neal scored 49 points in the first two games of last season before going 0 for 4 from the field against Boston College before hurting his ankle. From that game on, New Mexico never had a dangerous threat on offense.
Lacking their sophomore point guard, New Mexico turned the ball over on 20.2 percent of its possessions, 254th in the country. It remains to be seen if Neal can be the ball-handler to tame the Lobo turnovers. As a freshman, Neal posted a turnover percentage of 21.9 percent, a very high number for a point guard, but one that can be improved upon with experience.
The area that Neal will have the most impact right away will be shooting from distance. New Mexico shot 30.8 percent from three, 307th worst in the NCAA. Neal has taken 133 career threes (3.6 per game) and nailed 37.6 percent of them.
His spot up shooting has been his biggest attribute, but with no Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams, and Alex Kirk to take the attention off of Neal changes the task for the guard. If he proves to be able to create himself, New Mexico’s offense could start the big climb back to the top of the conference. Even though it wasn’t efficient, New Mexico does lose its top two scorers, Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney.
Neal will have the help of Butler transfer Elijah Brown, who sat out last season. Brown averaged just under seven points per game for Butler as a freshman, but he had just a 92.5 offensive rating.
The Lobos may have big man that can provide efficient scoring along with Neal. Obij Aget posted a 105.6 offensive rating. He shot 66.3 percent at the rim; if Aget can maximize his shots closer to the basket, he can become a force at 7-foot-1. He took 50 two-point shots last season – just 1.6 per game – which isn’t a large number. But if his role increases, Aget will need to make the correlating field goal increase closer to the basket.