DENVER — Led by two first-team all-league picks, Brigham Young was tabbed the favorite in this season’s Mountain West Conference men’s basketball race.
The Cougars, who shared last year’s regular-season title with New Mexico and Utah, received 23 of a possible 24 first-place votes of media members covering the league.
San Diego State landed the only other first-place vote and was predicted second, with UNLV third, Utah fourth and UNM fifth in the nine-team league.
Fifth is exactly where the Lobos were picked last year, but they surprised more than a few folks on their way to a 22-12 mark and a share of the crown.
In 2007-08, Steve Alford’s first year as coach at the school, the Lobos were picked tied for fourth in the preseason poll. They finished second that year.
So was Alford surprised the Lobos were again picked in the middle of the MWC pack?
“No, obviously BYU is the clear-cut favorite and UNLV and San Diego State had an awful lot of kids sitting out last year,” Alford said. “I figured we’d probably fall in that four or five spot, which has been pretty good for us so far.”
The Lobos were the only ones of the MWC regular-season tri-champions who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year. UNM went to the NIT, losing in the second round at Notre Dame.
The Cougars are coming off a 25-8 season, which included an NCAA Tournament bid for the third straight year. The Cougars lost to Texas A&M in the opening round.
BYU junior guard Jimmer Fredette was named preseason Player of the Year and senior guard Jonathan Tavernari joined Fredette on the first team.
“It creates a new challenge,” BYU coach Dave Rose said of the poll. “When you’re picked to win the league, it will be used against you every time you play, even in conference games.”
Wyoming was sixth, TCU seventh, Colorado State eighth and Air Force ninth in the poll.
The other members of the first team were:
n San Diego State’s Billy White, a 6-8 junior forward who was honorable mention last season. He led the league by shooting 66.3 percent from the floor.
n TCU’s Zvonko Buljan, a 6-9 forward who was the MWC newcomer of the year last season as a junior. He had nine double-doubles and was well known for some verbal altercations — including one with Alford.
n UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis, a 6-4 junior guard. He was among the league leaders in steals, assists and scoring last year.
Fredette, a first-team selection on the all-MWC team last year, averaged 16.2 points a game and was fifth in the league in assists and second in steals. Tavernari, a 6-6 senior guard, is a long-range bomber from Brazil who had seven double-doubles last season.
The preseason Newcomer of the Year was UNLV’s Derrick Jasper, a transfer from Kentucky, while San Diego State’s guard Kawhi Leonard was named preseason Freshman of the Year.