During the 2011-12 season the Mountain West overtook the PAC-12 as a member of the power-6 conferences in college basketball. In 2012-13 the conference looks like it will solidify its place among the country’s best conferences. There was talk the conference could net as many as four bids to the NCAA Tournament (UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State). Ultimately they got those four bids. Heading into March the conference had high expectations, those expectations fizzled as only New Mexico was able to grab a victory (over #12 Long Beach State) before falling to Louisville in the 3rd round.
The ever shifting landscape of college athletics hits the Mountain West this season as TCU will leave for the Big 12 and the welcoming mat is put out for Fresno State and Nevada. Change continues in 2013-14 when the WAC’s Utah State and San Jose State join this already stacked conference.
The result should make a strong league even stronger. The bottom three teams in the league last season (Air Force, Boise State and Wyoming) along with newcomer Fresno State, who struggled in the WAC, all have things they can build upon for the upcoming season. Here is a look at what to expect in the MWC in 2012-13.
Air Force has a new coach in Dave Pilipovich, even though the Falcons struggled to a 3-11 conference record last season they proved to be a tough out at home, defeating San Diego State and taking UNLV to overtime. Five of their league losses were by 10 points or less, and in 4 of those 5 games the Falcons had a second half lead. Pilipovich doesn’t exactly have bare cupboards in Colorado Springs as 4 of the top 5 scorers return including the top 3; Michael Lyons (15.6), Mike Fitzgerald (10.4) and Taylor Broekhuis (9.0).
While their home in 2013 may be up in the air, they have another in the Mountain. Much like Air Force, Boise State struggled to a 3-11 Mountain West record in ’11-’12. And much like Air Force the Broncos proved to be a tough out, losing to San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament by a three points, as well as blowing 2nd have leads to TCU, UNLV and San Diego State in the regular season. Luckily for Boise their leading scorer and rebounder Anthony Drmic is just a sophomore with a year of experience under his belt. Joining Drmic will be recruits Joey Nebeker a 6’7 small forward and Edmunds Dukulis a 6’8 power forward from Latvia, who should give Drmic some support.
The Wyoming Cowboys finished 20-11 last season and doubled their conference win total to six last season and return two of their top three scorers in seniors Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez. The only loss the Cowboys suffered by more than 10 points was a 74-63 loss to UNLV in the regular -season finale. Wyoming gets an influx of seven recruits in 2012 headed by Charles Hankerson a shooting guard from Coral Gables and Austin Haldorson a 6’8 power forward from Colorado.
Fresno State joins the Mountain West 20 years in the Western Athletic Conference, the Bulldogs finished next to last in the WAC last season at 3-11. The conference newcomers return four of their top five scorers from a team that despite the 13-20 record, 14 of the 20 losses were by less than 10 points, 9 of those were by 5 points or less. Help is on the way for Kevin Olekaibe and his teammates in the form of Fresno native 6’10 250lb. Robert Upshaw giving the Bulldogs a legit interior presence, something they sorely lacked last season with no one other than Kevin Foster being over 6’8 seeing significant time.
After missing out on the NCAA Tournament in 2011, the 20-12 Rams of Colorado State made the jump to the big dance in 2012, losing to Murray State in the 2nd round. Also making the jump was Coach Tim Miles who left for Nebraska, CSU then hired Larry Eustachy away from Southern Mississippi where he turned the Golden Eagles into a contender in Conference USA. The Rams return their top 4 scorers including Wes Eikmeier (15.5), Dorian Green (13.1) and the hard-nosed Pierce Hornung (8.8). Add to a solid, competitive core two eligible transfers; guard Daniel Bejarno (Arizona) and 6’10 center Colton Iverson (Minnesota) and freshman forward Jermaine Morgan from Chicago. The Rams will be out to prove that the last two years are the beginning of a trend and not a blip on the radar.
The Nevada Wolf Pack comes to the Mountain West off a 28-7 season and a trip to the NIT Quarterfinals. Despite losing two-thirds of their frontcourt, forwards Dario Hunt and Olek Czyz to graduation, in fact those are the only two players lost to graduation meaning they still return perhaps the WAC’s best backcourt last season in Deonte Burton and Malik Story and six other players who saw action in at least 30 games in 2012. Nevada will also add athletic guard Marqueze Coleman to the mix giving Nevada the chance to make an impact in its first season in the Mountain.
The New Mexico Lobos have won 50 games over the last two seasons and are the defending Mountain West Tournament champions, but their star Drew Gordon is off to the NBA, so coach Steve Alford should expect a step backwards? Not exactly. The Lobos return six players who played in at least 33 games at least 13 minutes per game. Alford also restocked the depleted frontcourt as junior Cameron Bairstow was the only player over 6’8 to see game action last season (6’11 Alex Kirk redshirted after back surgery). Alford added a pair of 6’8 forwards in Devon Williams and Nick Barnyard and 7’0 Obij Aget. New Mexico may take a step back but with such a deep, experienced squad and a coach like Alford you can bet those steps will be limited.
The San Diego State Aztecs are on the national map, after a 34-win season and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2011, people thought Steve Fisher’s crew may have been a 1-hit wonder after Kawahi Leonard left for the NBA. All the Aztecs did for an encore was 26 wins, a Mountain West finals appearance and a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. For the 2012-13 season the Aztecs return all but two players and add three potentially impact freshmen in guard Matt Shrigley and forwards Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard who should help make San Diego State’s Mountain West swan song (they leave for the Big West in 2013) a success.
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels finished 26-9 last season but may have lost the most production of anyone in the conference having lost Oscar Bellfield, Brice Massamba, Kendall Wallace and Chace Stanback to graduation. But it is what coach Dave Rice has returning and arriving in the fall that has national pundits taking notice. Mike Moser who seemingly filled the stat sheet every night will be joined by Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins, Carlos Lopez and Reggie Smith to form what would be a nice foundation for any team. Joining them will be transfers Bryce Jones who averaged 7.6 points per game as a freshman at USC and Khem Birch who will be eligible in December after transferring from Pittsburgh where he averaged 4 points and 5 rebounds before leaving. The 6’9 native of Montreal could have been instrumental in luring another Canadian to Vegas, Anthony Bennett, as the 7th rated recruit in the country the power forward from Ontario attended Findlay Prep in Nevada and committed to the Rebels on May 12th. Along with Bennett fellow power forward Demetris Morant decided to stay close to home, having attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and sign with UNLV. In the backcourt the Rebels bring in scoring guard Katin Reinhardt who likes to get out in transition and attack the rim. Along with Reinhardt Coach Rice has also brought in another dynamic scoring guard in Baltimore’s Daquan Cook. Heading into the fall UNLV seems to have one of the deepest teams not only in the Mountain West but in the country.
We often hear the cliché, “there are no easy nights in conference X”, well for the Mountain West in 2012-13 that may not only be a cliché, but the truth.
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