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Geoff Grammer’s 2019-20 preseason Mountain West hoops ballot

Lobo center Carlton Bragg, left, gets around Utah State center Neemias Queta in their game on Jan. 26, 2019, in Dreamstyle Arena – The Pit. Bragg finished the game with 18 points. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s October and I’ve grown tired of only being ridiculed at home by the three women I live with, ranging in age from 10 weeks to 9 years to … I’m not dumb enough to reveal the age of the other.

What I am dumb enough to do, however, is share with everyone, as I do every year, my preseason All-Mountain West men’s basketball ballot.

History, at least over the past seven seasons I’ve been doing it, says it won’t be right. But it’ll be better, by an average of about a half a pick per team, than the official media poll that will be released next week at the annual Mountain West Media Summit.

Recent highlights of my preseason ballot include picking Utah State 10th last October. The Aggies won the league (co-champions) and the MWC tournament.

As for the team I actually cover on a daily basis, I’ve yet to accurately predict the University of New Mexico Lobos’ finish, but neither has the media poll in the same time span.

So, the good news for Lobo fans is I’m not picking them to win the league this season.

The last time I picked UNM to win the MWC was ahead of the 2013-14 season when they were defending regular-season and tournament champions with the returning MWC Player of the Year (Kendall Williams) and the league’s top big men (Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk).

I wasn’t alone. UNM received 23 of 24 first place votes.

On the final night of the regular season in San Diego State’s Viejas Arena, thanks to a 1-3-1 zone, the Lobos watched a 16-point lead evaporate over the final 12 minutes, and SDSU won the league title. New Mexico won the MWC tournament the following week.

That was UNM’s last good shot at a league title.

Until now.

Unfortunately for the Lobos, a very good Utah State team stands in the way.

Then again …

Like that 2013-14 Lobos team, this year’s Aggies are defending regular-season co-champs and tournament champs, have the defending Player of the Year (Sam Merrill) and the best big man in the league (Neemias Queta). They’re expected to be a preseason Top 25 team and the easy pick to win the league in next week’s media poll.

Oh, and the MWC schedule makers gifted the good fans of Albuquerque, on the final night of the regular season (Feb. 29), a home game in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit against Utah State.

If that game is for a league title, the Pit will have its chance to end the program’s title drought.

My 2019-20 Preseason MWC Ballot

1. Utah State: Top two players and a roster of high-level role players make this not just a good MWC team, but one that could pick up a win or two in the NCAA Tournament.

2. New Mexico: One year ago in this same preseason prediction column, I asked if the Lobos, who I picked third, could match the grit of the 2017-18 team.

They didn’t.

Now, the Lobos have even more talent and, I think, the additions to remedy last season’s three primary on-court deficiencies: point guard production, passing and passion.

One huge warning, though. My optimism rides an awful lot on JaQuan Lyle, who hasn’t played a game in more than two years and is coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. If he’s right, so are the Lobos.

3. San Diego State: Transfer guards K.J. Feagin (Santa Clara) and Malachi Flynn (Washington State) and sophomore forward Nathan Mensah will have SDSU in a three-way title race.

4. Boise State: Derrick Alston could end up in the NBA, and I’ll take Leon Rice’s track record over last year’s hiccup of a season.

5. Nevada: Steve Alford is in charge in Nevada. And while Jazz Johnson and Jalen Harris are among the league’s best, Alford won’t be returning to his old perch atop the conference this year.

6. Air Force: Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan are all-league caliber, and coach Dave Pilipovich returns eight players who have started.

7. Fresno State: It’s forward Nate Grimes’ turn to be the lead (Bull)dog. He will do well, but he and second-year coach Justin Hutson will need help.

8. UNLV: Coach T.J. Otzelberger is the next asked to overcome the hurdles in front of the program. It won’t happen this season, though Utah transfer Donnie Tillman recently being ruled immediately eligible helps.

9. Colorado State: Nico Carvacho is still around and he’s still one of the best big men out west.

10. Wyoming: If Hunter Maldonado and the rest of the roster stay healthy, unlike last year, some upward movement is possible.

11. San Jose State: The Spartans’ leading scorer transferred after each of the past three seasons. And here we are.

2019-20 Preseason All-Mountain West

G Sam Merrill, Sr., Utah State
G Derrick Alston, Jr., Boise State
G JaQuan Lyle, Sr., New Mexico
F/C Nico Carvacho, Sr., Colorado State
C Neemias Queta, So., Utah State

Player of the Year: Sam Merrill, Sr., Utah State
• But look out for: If healthy after a knee injury playing for his Portugal national team in the offseason, Merrill’s teammate Neemias Queta changes the game unlike anyone else in the MWC. This award almost always goes to the best player on the league’s championship team, so keep that in mind if you think SDSU or UNM, or any other team, might win the league.

Freshman of the Year: Assane Diouf, Fr., Fresno State
• But look out for: To be honest, I have very little feel for the top freshman this season. But if Diouf has a shot to be the rim protector Justin Hutson’s defenses used to thrive with at SDSU, I’ll go with him. Otherwise, maybe K.J. Hymes at Nevada? Maybe Diouf’s teammate, Orlando Robinson?

Newcomer of the Year: JaQuan Lyle, Sr., New Mexico
• But look out for: The MWC has about a dozen newcomers who will start and at least five who I think would give the top five returning players in the league a run for their money in a game. Lyle leads the way at UNM, but Zane Martin could fight his way into contention. Jalen Harris at Nevada has a real good shot at winning this. Both of the new point guards at SDSU — K.J. Feagin and Malichi Flynn will be right in contention. And last week’s NCAA waiver approval allowing Donnie Tillman, the Utah transfer, to play this season for UNLV might just mean the Rebels have the best newcomer of them all.

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