Consider it a mid-season do-over.
Back in October, as I have for the past three years, I put together a rundown of my preseason Mountain West ballot, which included the poll, All-league team and honorees. And, as was the case the past three years, some of those preseason picks can already be declared as dead wrong as Mountain West play actually begins.
The 14-game jaunt for the MWC’s current eight members begins on Saturday.
With that said, here’s my revision of those selections—well, at least the parts that need revising—as the first season has drawn to a close.
1) No. 17 UNLV (16-2; Preseason position: 2)—I don’t at all regret projecting the Rebels to finish second behind New Mexico before the year. Both teams returned plenty from a year ago, but UNLV was in a transition phase, with a new coach implementing a new style of play. As everyone now knows, it’s been as smooth a changeover under Dave Rice as anyone could have imagined. Well-rounded and more battle-tested than anyone in the league, UNLV rightfully enters Mountain West play as the top dog.
2) New Mexico (14-2; Preseason position: 1)—New Mexico struggled to make up for the loss of four-year floor general Dairese Gary much longer than many expected, and that led to some unexpected early season stumbles. What’s went well, though? Drew Gordon—the league’s preseason Player of the Year—is averaging a double-double, and sophomore guard Kendall Williams has improved as the year has gone on. Nice wins over New Mexico State and Saint Louis were part of a 12-game win streak the Lobos take into league play. They’re starting to look more cohesive and like the contender that everyone envisioned.
3) No. 24 San Diego State (13-2; Preseason position: 3)—The Aztecs have overcome the absence of front-court depth, and to this point, their only two losses were to Baylor—one of three unbeaten teams remaining in the country—and Creighton—arguably the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference. Viejas Arena is just as tough of a road environment as it was a year ago, but will the Aztecs be able to weather league opponents’ best shots when taking their act on the road?
4) Wyoming (13-2; Preseason position: 8)—OK, color me all kinds of wrong here. First-year coach Larry Shyatt has pushed all the right buttons here, and a couple of key additions have been huge, too. USC transfer Leonard Washington (11.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), has been a force inside, while Luke Martinez (12.8 ppg), who missed last season with an elbow injury, is the team’s leading scorer and hitting almost three 3-pointers per game. Another note: Veteran point guard JayDee Luster is taking better care of the ball than ever, averaging only one turnover per game. That trip to Laramie will be tougher than ever for the rest of the league this winter.
5) Colorado State (10-4; Preseason position: 4)—CSU has won five in a row and actually has one more non-conference game remaining against surging mid-major Denver on Wednesday night. The back-court duo of Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green has been as potent as expected, and forward Greg Smith has stepped up big-time in helping replace the departed Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin. They’re good and well-coached, but not great—Hence, right smack in the middle of the current rankings. The Rams will win a couple they’re not supposed to, and probably drop a couple that they shouldn’t.
6) Boise State (10-5; Preseason position: 7)—The Broncos are 9-0 at home, 1-0 on neutral floors and 0-4 in true road games. You really can’t make up a split like that. The games played in Boise for the rest of the Mountain West will be tough, and Boise State has arguably the league’s best freshman in 6-foot-6 wing Anthony Drmic (14.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg), but in reality probably won’t be contending for a title this year.
7) TCU (9-5; Preseason position: 6)—Wins over Virginia, Texas Tech and Rice are nice, but TCU has struggled to find consistency. Road games at Colorado State and at UNLV to start the conference season will put TCU’s feet to the fire early.
8) Air Force (9-4; Preseason position: 5)—Since losing its best player—Michael Lyons—to a high ankle sprain on Dec. 22, Air Force is 3-1. But those three wins came against two D-I opponents with combined records of 6-24 and a non-Division-I foe (Johnson and Wales). Their first three league games? At Boise State, vs. Wyoming and at San Diego State. Let’s just put it this way: They need Lyons back soon. His return date is still not determined.
Player of the Year
Mike Moser—UNLV (Preseason nominee: Drew Gordon, New Mexico)
As pointed out above, Drew Gordon is averaging a double-double. But so is Moser. With better numbers. And more impressive single-game performances against better competition. Moser is not only valuable to UNLV as a scorer and a rebounder, but he’s already established himself as the team’s emotional rock. In other words, right now, he’s more valuable to his team. There’s no reason to think that he’ll let up, either.
Newcomer of the Year
Mike Moser—UNLV (Preseason nominee: Moser)
Same reasoning for his Player of the Year nomination. No newcomer has meant more to his team this season, nor will moving forward. Plain and simple.
Freshman of the Year
Anthony Drmic—Boise State (Preseason nominee: Hugh Greenwood, New Mexico)
After Greenwood blew up at the U-19 World Championships over the summer playing for his native Australia, he was the logical choice. Instead, it’s fellow Aussie Anthony Drmic who is now the frontrunner for the league’s Freshman of the Year honor. After Boise State graduated its top four scorers from a year ago, Drmic has quickly emerged as the team’s go-to weapon, and without him, it’s tough to tell where the Broncos would be at this point in the season.
(Preseason nominees: Drew Gordon, New Mexico; Kendall Williams, New Mexico; Drew Gordon, New Mexico; Anthony Marshall, UNLV; Chace Stanback, UNLV; Hank Thorns Jr., TCU)
• Drew Gordon, New Mexico—12.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg
• Mike Moser, UNLV—14.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg
• Chace Stanback, UNLV—14.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 46.8 3-point FG %
• Chase Tapley, San Diego State—16.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 51.3 3-point FG %
• Wes Eikmeier, Colorado State—16.9 ppg, 2.6 apg
Still in the mix: Dorian Green, Colorado State; Anthony Marshall, UNLV; Tony Snell, New Mexico; Michael Lyons, Air Force; Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State; Xavier Thames, San Diego State; Hank Thorns Jr., TCU; Anthony Drmic, Boise State.
Three Bold Predictions
1) The Mountain West will earn three NCAA tournament bids. As expected, UNLV and New Mexico should both be tourney-bound. I also think San Diego State’s high level of play keeps up and they make it back into the dance for a third straight year. The conference RPI should remain high, and the MWC is one of three conferences in the country, along with the Big Ten and Big 12, to start conference play with every member having a winning record. That should earn plenty of respect come March.
2) Wyoming will score one major home upset. Whether its against UNLV, New Mexico or SDSU, the Cowboys are the true underdog success story this season in the league, and one of the conference’s big three will have a tough go of it and take a loss up in Laramie.
3) An 11-3 record will win the league regular season title outright for someone. With the balance in the conference this season, making it through the 14-game schedule with only three losses should do the trick. Expect plenty of upsets over the course of the next two months.