College basketball: Will Nevada dominate the Mountain West Conference again? 11 storylines to follow this season
The Mountain West got two bids to the NCAA tournament last season because San Diego State upset Nevada in the conference tournament.
The league had a chance — at one point — for three bids had Boise State held its ground and not suffered a few bad losses.
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But Nevada’s run to the Sweet 16 and the likelihood that it could be an Elite Eight team — or who knows, maybe even a Final Four team, next season —warranted a deeper dive into the Mountain West.
The league had a chance to get Gonzaga in the offseason but the Zags decided they were better suited to stay put in the WCC. Had Gonzaga left for the Mountain West, the conference would have had legitimately two top 10, if not possibly top five, teams.
The question is can anyone knock off Nevada? The answer is probably not.
Here are the storylines I’m interested in for this season:
1. How will Nevada coach Eric Musselman keep everyone happy? Musselman has an NBA pedigree and background at all levels of the professional game. So, he’s well versed in dealing with egos. He got Caleb and Cody Martin back. Jordan Caroline is returning and he added Jordan Brown, a big-time big man recruit. Toss in a number of transfers and the Wolf Pack will have a first-world problem of finding minutes for everyone. My gut is that Musselman will be able to get it done without too many issues. These are good problems to have when stars return and don’t stay in the NBA draft.
2. Will San Diego State get off to a good start? The Aztecs get Jalen McDaniels back, and he could be a player of the year candidate in the Mountain West. The Aztecs did win the MWC tournament by beating New Mexico after taking down the Wolf Pack the previous week. They almost beat Houston in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But this is a team that struggled to get going and was just 11-7 in the league. That has to change, and it should with a quality start to the season. If the Aztecs are going to be taken seriously, they need to pick up quality wins early and start out tough in the MWC.
3. How much will Paul Weir rely on his transfers? The feeling among MWC coaches is that the Lobos could be the team that rises up quickly next season. A lot of that will have to do with the arrival of UConn’s Vance Jackson and Ohio State’s JaQuan Lyle. If they come in and deliver on what is expected, then the Lobos could be a contender to finish in second or at least in the top four. The Lobos have had plenty of expectation before, and Weir is well versed in the importance of the Lobos program to the state. Having a transition season is tolerable, but multiple mediocre seasons will not be acceptable. Expect the Lobos to be a good watch this season.
4. How does Boise State replace a first-round draft pick? Chandler Hutchison was Mr. Everything for the Broncos. He averaged 20 points and seven rebounds. He also took 432 field goals. The next closest was 292. The offense will flow differently with Hutchison off the floor. Boise State coach Leon Rice is still confident that this crew can alter their roles and the newcomers will assimilate quickly.
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5. What kind of stamp will Justin Hutson put on Fresno State? Rodney Terry had built the Bulldogs into a legit pest in the MWC, constantly pushing the postseason. Hutson is very familiar with the league, having been an assistant at San Diego State. He knows the state extremely well, working at Cal Poly and Bakersfield High School, too. Patience in the Valley isn’t high, but the pieces are in place for the Bulldogs to stay in the upper echelon.
6. How does UNLV deal with the loss of Brandon McCoy? McCoy was a dominant presence, averaging nearly 17 a game and over 10 boards. Marvin Menzies had someone who he could rely on to produce. He has a young team, but Menzies always has squads that are rangy, long and athletic. So, I fully expect the Runnin’ Rebels to be a tough out, even as they are looking for a new go-to guy.
7. Will Colorado State have stability? I’m going to say yes. Larry Eustachy was a solid coach who maximized his talent. But chaos was swirling around the program before he was cut loose. Niko Medved had only one season at Drake but already had an impact on the program. He should be exactly what the Rams need. Medved is a rising star in the profession who will get his teams to play efficient offense while locking in defensively. He’s also much more of an extrovert, which will help the CSU men’s basketball brand in Fort Collins in the post-Eustachy era.
8. How does Craig Smith reshape Utah State? The Aggies had a long tenure of the Stew Morrill-Tim Duryea era that is now over after Duryea was fired last March. Duryea stayed in the league and is now an assistant to Rice at Boise State. Smith was a successful coach at South Dakota, leading the Coyotes to being the team that pushed South Dakota State most often in the Summit League (won the conference in 2017). Utah State may go through a bit of a transition, but Smith has built before and he knows the league after working at Colorado State for five seasons.
9. What are the chances Wyoming’s Justin James will be an MWC player of the year candidate? High! Hayden Dalton got a lot of the publicity last season, but James averaged nearly 19 points and six boards. The 6-7 forward could toss in even more and keep the Cowboys in the mix for a postseason berth. I won’t be surprised at all if the Cowboys finish much higher in the standings than I have them here in the preseason. The bar is low, but they will surge through it.
10. How wrong will I be on Air Force? Probably very. The Falcons are balanced and should be much improved from their 6-12 record of last season. The problem with the Falcons has been their inability of late to string together a winning streak. Winning on the road has to change, too. The Falcons must break through that to be taken a bit more seriously and move up the standings. But I have faith they will prove me wrong and get it done.
11. How does San Jose State survive in the MWC? This is an important question for the Spartans. They went 1-17 last season in the league. San Jose State was 7-11 the previous season but ended losing five in a row. Toss in the MWC tournament loss last season, and the Spartans have lost 22 of the past 23 MWC games. The league needs that to change this season.
NCAA bound: Nevada
On the Bubble : San Diego State, New Mexico and Boise State.
San Diego State
San Jose State
First team All-Conference
Caleb Martin, Nevada
Jordan Carolina, Nevada
Cody Martin, Nevada
Justin James, Wyoming
Jalen McDaniels, San Diego State