ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Preseason college basketball media polls and predictions are a lot like a term sheet.
They may be a good indication of what’s to come, but until the ink actually dries on the season itself, they don’t really mean a thing.
As meaningless as they are, though, they remain a staple of college basketball this time of year that fans love to hate, and players and coaches swear they couldn’t care less about while using them as motivation at every turn.
The Mountain West Conference media ballots for the coming basketball season were due last week and will be made public Tuesday morning in Colorado Springs. Here, with brief analysis on each pick, is the ballot I turned in on behalf of the Journal:
Predicted order of finish
1. New Mexico Lobos: The team that won the past two regular-season and league tournament titles returns four starters and picked up more than capable newcomers in the offseason.
Returning league Player of the Year Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk are the favorites for preseason player of the year, but my prediction that may surprise many around the league the most is thatCameron Bairstow will lead the team in scoring. The continued development of him and Kirk as one of the sport’s top frontcourt duo’s make this year’s team a slam dunk choice to three-peat as league champs.
Of course the team did lose a first-round NBA draft pick in Tony Snell, and no matter how long he’s been a key part of the program or how big a role he actually had in past success, this is Craig Neal’s first season as a head basketball coach. He should be fine, but until some games are played and some adversity strikes, nobody knows for sure how he or his team will handle it.
2. Boise State Broncos: While many teams in the league lost a ton of starting experience and talent from last season, BSU joins UNM as one team that essentially returns its core.
Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic are both capable of being the league player of the year, and the team can shoot its way to a win on any given night. If Leon Rice succeeds in getting his team to play with a little more defensive urgency, the Broncos will challenge UNM for the title.
3. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels: Will it be addition by subtraction for UNLV? They’d love Anthony Marshall and NBA first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett to be back in Sin City, but their departures and that of starting freshman guard Katin Reinhardt seems to have generated a sense of a fresh start for the always-talented but sometimes chemistry-challenged Rebels.
If the point-guard situation is under control and Khem Birch can develop on offense, UNLV will be just fine in coach Dave Rice’s third season.
4. San Diego State Aztecs: He won’t have the stats that scream “top player,” but don’t be surprised if point guard Xavier Thames is the reason if the Aztecs are in the hunt for a title this year. He’s key to the transition in life after Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. Thames, Tulane transfer forward Josh Davis, who averaged a double-double in Conference USA last season, and maybe even sophomore Winston Shepard will all keep SDSU afloat, but they may have lost too much to think of them as a championship threat.
5. Utah State Aggies: The UtAgs can thank Nevada’s epic 2012-13 flop after a move from the WAC for not getting the nod here ahead of SDSU. The transition is tough. That said, Stew Morrill is a tremendous coach and nine league home games in Logan, Utah, alone will keep the Aggies in the mix. Throw in an all-league potential guard like Preston Medlin and this is a very good team.
6. Fresno State Bulldogs: Fresno State was playing its best basketball of the 2012-13 season in March, making it very apparent things are headed in the right direction for coach Rodney Terry in his third season. Still, No. 6 may be overly optimistic, considering since the end of last season they’ve lost guard Kevin Olekaibe (transfer to UNLV), center Robert Upshaw (kicked off team) and forward Braeden Anderson (spinal injury in September car crash).
7. Colorado State Rams: Here’s a question you’d never hear a season ago: Can the Rams rebound? CSU lost its entire starting five from last season and then last week lost senior guard Jesse Carr to a second ACL tear in a 12-month span, ending his college career. Larry Eustachy is a very good coach, but there is a lot to prove here.
8. Wyoming Cowboys: The Cowboys never answered the bell a season ago after the knockout punch of losing starting guard Luke Martinez to a bar fight incident in January. Even though they won’t match last year’s nonconference start, they’ll be better, and Larry Nance Jr. will be a big reason why.
9. Air Force Falcons: Talk about a shutdown, the Falcons lost enough off last year’s squad, including star guard Michael Lyons, to make them an easy choice for a bottom three finish.
10. Nevada Wolf Pack: Nevada was a 28-win team in the WAC two seasons ago and returned its two stars last season yet was the No. 9 seed in a nine-team MWC tournament. Point guard Deonte Burton is good, but not enough to turn the program around without a lot of help.
11. San Jose State Spartans: Better days are ahead for San Jose State and new head coach Dave Wojcik, if for no other reason than things can’t get much worse than last year’s 9-20 season, including 3-14 in a mediocre WAC.
Player of the Year: G Kendall Williams, Sr., UNM – Kirk or Williams could win this. I went with Williams for two reasons: UNM’s more up-tempo offense, and I think Bairstow’s continued emergence could take some post production from Kirk. Ask me tomorrow, and I may tell you Kirk is the way to go.
Newcomer of the Year: F Josh Davis, Sr., SDSU – Davis averaged a double-double for Tulane last year and steps into a position where he’ll be a big part from Day 1 for his team. He’s the right pick here for now, but UNM’s Deshawn Delaney (Vincennes University in Indiana), Fresno State’s Cezar Guerrero (Oklahoma State), UNLV’s Roscoe Smith (Connecticut) and Wyoming’s Charles Hankerson Jr. (Alabama) all have a shot.
Freshman of the Year: G Dakarai Allen, Fr., SDSU – Some guesswork here as UNLV’s Kendall Smith and Christian Wood and UNM’s Cullen Neal all have a shot. Allen has a chance to play a big role because of what SDSU lost from last year.
G Kendall Williams, Sr., UNM
G Derrick Marks, Jr., Boise State
G/F Anthony Drmic, Jr., Boise State
F Cameron Bairstow, Sr., UNM
C Alex Kirk, Jr., UNM
Others considered: Nevada’s Burton, SDSU’s Davis and Thames, UNLV’s Birch and Utah State’s Medlin.