On the one hand, the way the University of New Mexico Lobos and San Diego State Aztecs closed out the 2017-18 men’s basketball season, it’s clear two of the past powers of the Mountain West are back in good hands with their second-year coaches.
And, yes, both legitimately have NCAA Tournament at-large potential (yes, potential to go dancing even if they do not win the league tournament).
On the other hand, Nevada.
Like it or not, while UNM and SDSU were taking their temporary steps back from running the show (and does anyone really consider UNLV a league power anymore?), Nevada went ahead and built a new dynasty under Eric Musselman, who has no intention of letting Paul Weir or Brian Dutcher get in the way of his program running away with another league title.
The league’s official preseason media ballot will be released on Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nev., as part of the annual media convention. For now, here is a rundown of my preseason ballot for order of finish and player awards. And for those interested in revisiting how 14 of last year’s preseason ballots actually graded out, including mine (yes, at the top of the list from a season ago), CLICK HERE for a column I posted on that on Friday.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. NEVADA: Nevada got sick of waiting on SDSU, UNM and UNLV to return to being the league powers they once were. Musselman went ahead and left them in his dust en route to building what, entering the season, is arguably the best MWC program in the league’s nearly two-decade history. The Wolf Pack will be a preseason Top 10 team nationally and return four of five starters from last year’s team. They’re also adding 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American high school star Jordan Brown, elite 6-11 graduate transfer forward Trey Porter and add a handful of Division I transfers who would start on any other team in the league. Nevada can go 13 deep. The rest of the MWC is happy only five play at a time.
2. SAN DIEGO STATE: The Aztecs have arguably the league’s top NBA prospect in Jalen McDaniels and return all-league potential players in Matt Mitchell and Devin Watson. Year 2 under head coach Brian Dutcher will be the big test for a program that, much like UNM five years ago, made the NCAA Tourney after replacing a successful head coach with the popular top assistant. SDSU and UNM can beat Nevada on a given night, but not all season.
3. NEW MEXICO: Before the JaQuan Lyle season-ending injury, I had the Lobos at No. 2. They might be worthy. The Lobos have more size, athleticism and talent than any UNM team since the 2013-14 roster that went to the NCAA Tournament. But they better find more of that grit and buy-in last season’s Lobos had down the stretch. Between my pick for Newcomer of the Year, Vance Jackson, fellow transfer Carlton Bragg and returnees Anthony Mathis and Makuach Maluach, the Lobos have four of the top 20 players in the league.
4. BOISE STATE: The Broncos’ star of last season, Chandler Hutchison, is now lacing them up for the Chicago Bulls. But as long as Leon Rice is head coach, and throw in the hire of fired Utah State head coach Tim Duryea, I’ll bet on Boise State hanging around the top four all season. If the Broncos find ways to get open looks for Justinian Jessup, watch out.
5. FRESNO STATE: Deshon Taylor, former New Mexico State Aggie Braxton Huggins and Long Beach State transfer Noah Blackwell could make one of the best offensive backcourts in the league. That would help defensive-minded first year Bulldogs coach Justin Hutson, who was long overdue for his first head coaching job after years as a top assistant with San Diego State and UNLV. Nate Grimes could become a force in the league with more opportunities.
6. UNLV: Year 3 under Marvin Menzies brings with it, again, a lot of roster turnover and a lot of people desperate for the program to have meaningful games in late February (forget March). UNLV hasn’t played in the postseason since 2013. Senior forward Shakur Juiston will be a double-double machine and freshman Bryce Hamilton has star potential.
7. COLORADO STATE: Nico Carvacho is one of the top big men in the league and gives former Rams assistant Niko Medved a great building block to start things off now that he has returned to Fort Collins as the head coach. Energy and chemistry should get a boost after the ugly end of the Larry Eustachy era. But let us not forget this was a 10th-place team a season ago. Middle of the pack would be a great improvement.
8. WYOMING: Critical season ahead for the Cowboys and third-year coach Allen Edwards, whose team did improve from eight league wins to 10 from Year 1 to Year 2. Unfortunately, gone now are two of the leagues more underappreciated players of a season ago in Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon. Senior Justin James has high-level professional potential, but he’ll need some help.
9. AIR FORCE: Dave Pilipovich remains one of my favorite coaches in the league. Again, there isn’t NBA talent on the roster, but Lavelle Scottie, who has a chance to be a top 10 to 15 player in the league, and Ryan Swan, a couple of 6-foot-7 veteran forwards, will have the Falcons winning at least a half dozen league games.
10. UTAH STATE: Losing star guard Koby McEwen would be tough enough, but the Aggies are now also starting the season down three injured forwards. Sam Merrill has all-league potential as a shooter. Craig Smith parlayed a 26-win, top-100 ranking at South Dakota into a Mountain West Conference, but will likely spend his first season in Logan building for the future, not winning in the present.
11. SAN JOSE STATE: The Spartans had more talent transfer out this offseason. Jean Prioleau’s second season can’t be worse than the first when the team beat just three D-I teams. This program remains in a deep, deep hole.
• G/F Caleb Martin, Sr., Nevada
• F Jordan Caroline, Sr., Nevada
• F Jalen McDaniels, So., SDSU
• G Deshon Taylor, Sr., Fresno St.
• F Cody Martin, Sr., Nevada
But look out for: G Justin James, Sr., Wyoming
PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
• G Caleb Martin, Sr., Nevada
But look out for: F Jordan Caroline, Sr., Nevada
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR:
• G/F Vance Jackson, So., UNM
But look out for: F/C Trey Porter, Sr., Nevada
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR:
• F/C Jordan Brown, Nevada
But look out for: G Bryce Hamilton, UNLV