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October 25, 2011

League preview: Mountain West

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

8. Mountain West

On the heels of a season in which the Mountain West produced three NCAA tournament bids, two top-10 teams and a player who swept the national player of the year awards, the conference now faces a difficult challenge.

It must try to sustain some of that momentum even though Jimmer Fredette is a Sacramento King, BYU and Utah have moved on to new leagues and San Diego State is rebuilding without four starters from last season.

The good news for the Mountain West is that its top teams again will be worth watching. New Mexico returns four starters from last season's 22-win team and UNLV returns all but two rotation players from a squad that reached the NCAA tournament.

What makes New Mexico a slim preseason favorite is that the Lobos boast an emerging star in sophomore PG Kendall Williams and the conference's best interior duo in Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. If the Lobos get a more efficient season from senior G Phillip McDonald and find someone to step in for graduated all-conference G Dairese Gary at the other backcourt spot, a return to the NCAA tournament is likely.

[Preseason Top 32 Countdown: No. 27 New Mexico]

UNLV's strength is its balanced scoring and its ability to force turnovers and capitalize in transition. Fs Chace Stanback and Mike Moser and Gs Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield are each capable of scoring in double figures, but the Rebels must improve their 3-point shooting and get more production from their centers.

If there's any Mountain West team capable of challenging the two preseason favorites, it's likely San Diego State, which will have to be a more guard-oriented team than a year ago.

What propelled the Aztecs into the national consciousness last season was the steady leadership of D.J. Gay at point guard and the length, athleticism and rebounding ability of the front line of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. The formula will have to be different this season with LSU transfer Garrett Green the only player taller than 6 feet 8 on the roster and with Chase Tapley and fellow guard James Rahon the only returnees who averaged more than 8.1 minutes per game a year ago.

F Drew Gordon, New Mexico (6-9/245, Sr.)
F Chace Stanback, UNLV (6-8/210, Sr.)
G Anthony Marshall, UNLV (6-3/200, Jr.)
G Chase Tapley, San Diego State (6-2/200, Jr.)
G Kendall Williams, New Mexico (6-3/170, Soph.)
F/G Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State (6-5/185, Soph.)
F Mike Moser, UNLV (6-8/195, Soph.)
G Wes Eikmeier, Colorado State (6-3/185, Jr.)
G Michael Lyons, Air Force (6-6/190, Jr.)
G Hank Thorns, TCU (5-9/165, Sr.)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: New Mexico F Drew Gordon
(UCLA transfer)

1. New Mexico
3. San Diego State
4. Colorado State
5. Boise State
6. Air Force
7. TCU
8. Wyoming

New coaches: Dave Rice at UNLV (had been assistant at BYU), Larry Shyatt at Wyoming (had been assistant at Florida)
Regular-season winner last season: BYU/San Diego State
Tourney winner last season: San Diego State
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 4th in 2010-11, 6th in 2009-10, 7th in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past five seasons: 13
2012 conference tournament: March 7-10, Las Vegas

Best frontcourt: New Mexico. Seniors Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman complement one another extremely well. The athletic Gordon, who began his career at UCLA, averaged a double-double last season; he runs the floor well, finishes adeptly around the rim and dominates the glass. Hardeman also is a strong offensive rebounder, but he's more of a back-to-the-basket scoring threat.
Best backcourt: UNLV. Nobody in the league has a greater plethora of perimeter weapons than UNLV. Oscar Bellfield provides steady leadership and outside shooting, Anthony Marshall delivers explosive athleticism and an ability to get to the rim, and Justin Hawkins is a lockdown defender who may be the best sixth man in the league. Add in the smooth mid-range game of Chace Stanback, who is expected to play mostly at wing, and it's easy to see why expectations are high for UNLV in coach Dave Rice's first season.
Program on the rise: San Diego State. The Aztecs certainly won't match last season's 34 wins or top-10 ranking in the wake of the departure of four starters, but the trajectory of this program continues to climb. The Aztecs have sold the most season tickets in school history this season, and they'll also likely contend for an NCAA tournament berth again this winter and be even better next season with the addition of impact transfers Dwayne Polee (St. John's) and J.J. O'Brien (Utah).
Program on the decline: Boise State. The Broncos eventually may flourish under second-year coach Leon Rice, a former Gonzaga assistant, but the Broncos' first season in the Mountain West will not be nearly as successful as last season's 22-win, second-place finale in the WAC. Most of those players are now gone, meaning Boise State will rely heavily on a diverse recruiting class in an effort to be competitive next season and build a foundation for future Mountain West success.
Coach on the rise: Colorado State's Tim Miles. In his first season in Fort Collins, the Rams went 7-25 and failed to win a single conference game. Last season, his fourth, Miles led the Rams to a 19-13 record and an NIT berth. It will be a challenge for the Rams to match that win total after the graduation of Fs Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin, but expect Colorado State to remain an upper-division Mountain West team as long as Miles is there.
Coach on the hot seat: TCU's Jim Christian. If Christian wants to demonstrate he's the right coach to lead TCU basketball competitive once the school joins the Big 12, he better show some major progress this season. The Horned Frogs are 38-58 in his first three seasons as coach and went 1-15 in league play last season, statistics that suggest the school's administration may attempt to sell fans and recruits by making a fresh start next spring.
Most overrated player: New Mexico G Phillip McDonald. His production last season fell short of what was expected for a guy who has started since the opening game of his freshman season. As a junior, the 6-foot-5 wing averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 rebounds but he tailed off in the second half of conference play and shot just 40.4 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from percent from 3-point range on the season.
Most underrated player: UNLV G Anthony Marshall. He shot the ball poorly from 3-point range as a sophomore last season, but he didn't get enough credit for what he did well. He averaged 9.7 points, created opportunities for his teammates by attacking the rim and played solid ball-hawking perimeter defense, production that should only increase this season as he becomes a permanent starter for the first time.

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger, Y! Sports' college basketball blog. Email him, and follow him on Twitter.

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