Mountain West 2021-22 conference preview

The Mountain West conference brings entertaining late-night action for the East Coasters and good material for Hoops fanatics to fawn over. Suppose the Mountain West didn’t reschedule the useless games in the season’s final week before the tournament. In that case, conceivably, four or five teams could’ve made the NCAA Tournament from the conference, assuming Boise or Colorado State wouldn’t draw the short straw. Without further ado, let’s break down the conference this season. 

1.) Colorado State

PG: Isaiah Stevens

SG: Kendle Moore

SF: Chandler Jacobs

PF: David Roddy

C: James Moors

Bench: John Tonje, Adam Thistlewood, Dischon Thomas, Baylor Hebb, Jalen Lake, Jalen Scott

In the transfer portal era, it is uncommon to keep nearly 98% of a team scoring — Only departing Player is PJ Byrd (Southern). When I’ve been asked in recent months if the transfer portal destroys mid-major basketball, the example I pivot to is the culture Medved built in Fort Collins and how he kept his two superstar players around. That’s how you know it’s a unique culture that nearly got over the hump into the NCAA Tournament last season — had the Rams defeated Utah State in the Mountain West tournament semi’s, that would’ve changed. But the long-arms of Neemias Queta changed those plans. After showing out during his sophomore campaign, First-Team Mountain West guard Isaiah Stevens returns as a Junior, averaging 15.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, and 5.3 APG in the Rams 20-win season. Stevens finds himself in the thick of the conference player of the race in the preseason. The other Ram’ that could grace conference POY honors is David Roddy, who topped all Colorado State scorers last season. Roddy may only be 6’5 playing the 4/5 positions but is relentless inside and should improve his shooting from 27 percent. After transferring from Dallas Baptist, the versatile Chandler Jacobs pledged Texas Tech, but unexpectedly to Colorado State one month later. If one player finds their way onto an All-Conference team that isn’t widely known, it’s Jacobs. 

The development arc of big-men James Moors (5.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG) and Dischon Thomas is an intriguing storyline worth monitoring next season. There’s no doubt the “weak” point of the Rams loaded roster is the play from traditional “center’s.” When Colorado State faces teams like Nevada and Boise State with taller players, Moors could play a bigger role. 

One way the Rams could avoid relying on true big’s is by utilizing a small ball-lineup — the construction of that lineup would contain Stevens-Moore-Jacobs-Thistlewood/Tonje and Roddy. Putting five shooting threats creates a killer lineup in the Rams’ quest to the NCAA Tournament. That lineup forces opposing coaches’ hands to remove less-mobile defenders, trying to contain the rapid speed of the small-ball offense.  

Colorado State X-Factor: Chandler Jacobs

Jacobs’s ability to play the 1-2 or three, a result of massive wingspan, provides immense lineup options. 

2.) Nevada Wolf Pack

PG: Grant Sherfield

SG: Desmond Cambridge

SF: Tre Coleman

PF: KJ Hymes

C: Warren Washington

Bench: Will Baker, A.J. Bramah, Kenan Blackshear, Daniel Foster, Alem Husenovic, Nick Davidson, Jalen Weaver

 Alford hasn’t had a losing season at either spot in his eight seasons (six at UNM, two at Nevada). That’s impressive, but now it’s time to go dancing in March. If the Wolf Pack makes the tournament, sensational guard Grant Sherfield will be an integral part of the equation. After averaging 18.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 6.1 APG in his first year in Reno, Sherfield aims his sights at the NCAA Tournament. There isn’t a better guard in the Mountain West conference than the Wichita native, who’ll enter the season as Mountain West preseason player of the year. Sherfield has the ‘IT” factor it takes to lead a team to the promised land, nailing three game-winning shots last season. 

Aside from Sherfield, second-leading scorer Desmond Cambridge Jr provided an excellent second option from the perimeter when Cambridge tallied over 16 points per game in his three college seasons (two at Brown, one at Nevada). When teams focus on Sherfield, they could forget how lethal Cambridge can be from deep when his confidence clicks.

7-footer Warren Washington reclaims his starting position at the five in the frontcourt following an underrated first season in Reno. The ex-Oregon State Beaver finished third in scoring, behind Sherfield and Cambridge, averaging ten points. The other starting spot in the frontcourt is up for grabs between KJ Hymes, former five-star recuit Will Baker, Robert Morris transfer AJ Bramah (20 PPG, 9 RPG), and FAU transfer Kenan Blackshear. Baker could wind up starting at the four spots aside from incumbent Washington at the five. Baker’s ability to hit threes from deep, paired with his size and ability to run the floor, fits what the Pack needs ideally.

Nevada X-Factor: K.J. Hymes, RS-JR, Forward

Hymes hasn’t had the career Wolf Pack fans expected, but the talent isn’t the question; it’s about putting everything together. Hymes is agile, runs the floor well, can block shots, hit an open three, but committed in his 26 games of play, Hymes committed 3.3 fouls per game in sixteen minutes. If the Wolf Pack reaches their ceiling, they’ll need Hymes to play a part of it. 

3.) San Diego State

PG: Trey Pulliam

SG: Adam Seiko

SF: Matt Bradley

PF: Chad Baker-Mazara

C: Nathan Mensah

Bench: Keith Dinwiddie, Lamont Butler, Joshua Tomaic, Tahirou Diabate, Che Evans, Keeshad Johnson, Jaedon LeDee, DeMarshay Johnson

A word synonymous with San Diego State basketball during the Brian Dutcher era is “Consistency.” During Dutcher’s four years at the helm, the Aztecs won 20+ games each season, and his stout defensive prowess is the reason for the winning. Regardless of what this team is on the offensive end, they’ll be at worst top-25 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. 

Heading into this season after another Mountain West title-winning season, three of the four top scorers (Matt Mitchell, Terrell Gomez, and Jordan Schakel) depart. 

So, who takes over the scoring? Look no further than California transfer Matt Bradley, who earned All-Conference honors in two seasons in Berkely. The 6-4 220 pound guard is built like an NFL linebacker but can score from anywhere on the floor and will contend for conference player of the year. Alongside Bradley in the starting lineup are stellar defenses minds, Trey Pulliam and Adam Seiko, but both shot below 33 percent from three last season. Duquense transfer Chad Baker-Mazara could blossom into a future NBA player in the coming years — the incoming Aztec averaged 1.404 points-per-possession on spot-up opportunities (per Synergy. Bringing his sharpshooting skillset to this roster could wind up making him the second-leading scorer on the roster.

Junior wing Keshad Johnson figures to slide into more of a prominent role this season. Johnson, 6-foot-7, brings unreal athleticism, multi-positional defensive ability into the Aztecs’ lineup.

It feels odd putting San Diego State third in the conference, but it speaks to the depth of the Mountain West this season. Feasibly they could find three NCAA Tournament bids. 

San Diego State X-Factor: Chad Baker-Mazara

4.) UNLV

PG: Justin Webster

SG: Mike Nuga

SF: Bryce Hamilton

PF: Victor Iwuakor

C: David Muoka

Bench: Justin Webster, Royce Hamm, Donovan Williams, Josh Baker, James Hampshire, Reece Brown, Marvin Coleman, Keshon Gilbert

Ten Newcomers enter the mix in Kevin Kruger’s first season in Vegas. One player returning is 16 point-per-game scorer Bryce Hamilton, who also put his name in the transfer portal after TJ Otzelberger took the head job in Ames, later deciding to stay in Vegas made the most sense for his career. Hamilton’s the best pure shot-creator in the conference. However, the scoring comes on high-volume, attempting 17 shots per game on below-average efficiency numbers of 43 percent overall and 31 percent from deep. This Rebels roster contains more scoring punch than any team in recent memory — between Kent State transfer Mike Nuga, who averaged 17.8 points, Hawaii transfer Justin Webster, and JUCO from Hutchinson CC, sharpshooter Josh Baker. Those pieces in compliment to Hamilton could make for a dangerous bunch in Kevin Kruger’s first season. Many high-major contributors make their way down to the Mountain West with Royce Hamm and Donovan Williams from Texas and Victor Iwaukor from Oklahoma.

The play of Lamar transfer David Muoka will be intriguing to see; during his final year at the Southland level, he swatted away three shots per game. Besides good rim-running ability, he doesn’t provide much on the offensive side of the floor but could wind up being the top-shot blocker in the conference.

One biggest question remains: Who will be the point guard in Vegas this season? In late-game situations, Hamilton will be the one taking the shot regardless, but can Jordan McCabe, Webster, and Nuga handle ball-handling responsibilities?

There’s definitively a top-three in the league this season, followed by a group of UNLV, Boise, Utah State.

UNLV X-Factor: Justin Webster/Jordan McCabe

Figuring out which player runs the offense is integral to the Rebels’ success next season.

5.) Boise State

PG: Marcus Shaver

SG: Devonaire Doutrive

SF: Emmanuel Akot

PF: Abu Kigab

C: Mladen Armus

Bench: Max Rice, Kobe Young, R.J. Keene, Burke Smith, Lukas Milner, Naje Smith, Tyson Degenhart, Pavie Kuzmavovic

The Broncos looked virtually like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for much of last season, but the final two games against Fresno and Nevada resulted in losses nixed any hope of their first at large bid since 2015. Leading scorer Derrick Alston moves forward, opening up an opportunity for another player to blossom into superstardom. Who on this team could be the guy? I’d put my money on former top-100 recruit Devonaire Doutrive — he started his career at Arizona, but the program dismissed him from the team midway through his sophomore season. Doutrive’s athleticism is next-level material and could make him an elite player for the Broncos in his second season on campus. The Broncos had two players to decide on their super senior status. Derrick Alston moved on, Abu Kigab returned after the physical forward finished second in scoring on the roster last year. Another Arizona transfer, Emmanuel Akot, might be the best swiss-army-knife in the conference — with athleticism, long wingspan, and ability to run the offense, are integral to this Broncos attack. Starting center Mladen Armus struggled early on last year, but his rebounding presence inside makes a sizeable difference. 

Former Portland guard Marcus Shaver finished third in scoring on the roster with 10.6 per game. His mix of experience and shooting will go a long way for this Boise State roster this season. 

The Broncos won 20+ on seven occasions during the Leon Rice era, showing the year-in-year-out consistency. Despite not hauling in any transfers in the year of the portal, the Broncos have five former D1 transfers on the roster and two JUCO transfers. Even though the portal didn’t impact the way of newcomers, it made its imprint on this team. 

6.) Utah State

PG: Rylan Jones

SG: R.J. Eytle-Rock

SF: Brock Miller

PF: Justin Bean

C: Brandon Horvath

Bench: Steven Ashworth, Sean Bairstow, Travis Wagstaff, Norbert Theillsen, Cade Potter, Muzamil Ameer-Hamoda

The Craig Smith era might be over, but the fans in Logan will never forget it in Logan. During his three-year tenure, Utah State won two Mountain West tournament titles, made the NCAA Tournament three times, and had two players drafted in those years, brought Utah State to new heights the program hadn’t seen. Enter Ryan Odom, the only coach in NCAA Men’s Division One history to hold the distinct honor of coaching a 16-seed that defeated a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament, when his UMC Retrievers made history knocking off top-seeded Virginia in 2017-18.

Heading into year one of the Odom Era at Utah State, he boasts one of the conference’s best frontcourt tandem’s between the conference’s top offensive rebounder Justin Bean and UMBC transfer Brandon Horvath. Neither brings the shot-blocking prowess Neemias Queta did, but Horvath provides plus ball-handling for his size, shooting, and solid defense. Horvath isn’t the lone Retriever that made the jolt to Utah State from Baltimore as first-teamer All-America East guard RJ Eytle-Rock came along. The duo of UMBC transfers should translate to the Mountain West level from the jump.

The Aggies did lose their point guard Rollie Worster to Utah, but Utah transfer Rylan Jones moved across the state to play the point for the Aggies. Jones’s numbers from his freshman season dipped from 9.6 to 4.8 but sported a phenomenal 4:1 Assist-to-turnover ratio. Other lead guard options include sophomore Steven Ashworth, and Eytle-Rock could find minutes at the point in spurts. 

The Aggies can be very competitive in the conference thanks to an outstanding coaching hire, and several pivotal transfers add to replenish the losses. 

7.) Wyoming

PG: Deng Dut

SG: Hunter Maldonado

SF: Xavier DuSell 

PF: Hunter Thompson

C: Graham Ike

Bench: Drake Jeffries Kenny Foster, Jeremiah Oden, Brandon Wenzel, Ben Bowen, Nate Barnhart, Noah Reynolds 

Jeff Linder’s analytical mindset led to an endless amount of threes (47 percent of shots from three) during his depth season at Wyoming, where the Cowboys turned heads with several impressive victories. When you shoot threes as frequently as Wyoming does, any team could be in danger if they catch fire from deep with capable shooters across the roster.

The transfer portal struck Laramie when program centerpiece Marcus Williams decided to move onto Texas A&M after earning MW freshman of the year honors. The outgoing guard led the team in scoring and essentially played co-point guard with Hunter Maldonado — filling into those shoes will be gifted JUCO product Deng Dut (14.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.2 APG at College of Southern Idaho). Committed initially to Portland, Dut moved on after Terry Porter lost the head coaching job, making Wyoming possible. The 6-foot-4 point guards’ court vision is incredible and will help find shooters on the perimeter. 

Williams wasn’t the lone freshman key cog last year, as big left-hander Graham Ike posted 11.4 points, 5.4 rebounds last year, including 32 points in the Mountain West tournament 1st round against San Jose State. Ike’s stellar post-up game will make him tough to stop, but availability is the best ability, and Ike averaged 3.6 fouls in 21 minutes per game. Cutting down on the fouls will be paramount in year two for Ike. 

There isn’t more of a seamless fit than Xavier DuSell in Coach Linder’s offense. When you’re taking an abundance of threes, having a player like DuSell, the top-shooter in the conference, is perfect. On many occasions last year, Maldonado would back down smaller defenders into the paint before finding an open DuSell beyond-the-arc. That’s one of the plays that make the Cowboys lethal offensively.

Improving on the defensive end is paramount for the Cowboys in year two of Linder’s tenure. Finishing 301st in KenPom’s defensive efficiency, despite how tremendous the offensive units played. 

8.) Fresno State

PG: Isaiah Hill

SG: Jermarl Baker

SF: Deon Stroud

PF: Anthony Holland

C: Orlando Robinson

Bench: Donovan Yap, Destin Whittaker, Braxton Meah, Leondro Colimerio, Robert Vaihola 

The Bulldogs have an All-Conference first-team caliber player in Orlando Robinson Jr, a player that received legitimate NBA looks in the off-season, even receiving an invite to the G-League Elite camp, featuring players outside of the regular NBA combine. Robinson’s scoring ability in the post, paired with improving his jumper, could make him a top player in the conference during his junior year. Aside from Robinson, the athletic Deon Stroud returns, and table-setter Isaiah Hill makes their ways back to the starting five. One transfer addition that’s fallen severely under the radar is Jermarl Baker from Arizona, originally starting his career in Lexington. In early January, Baker suffered a season-ending injury — his final three games tanked his overall shooting percentage from deep after going 0-15 in his last three games. Baker will be the Bulldogs top-shooter next season, fresh off his 12 point-per-game season in Tucson. 

So, what’s the issue? Depth isn’t in favor of the Bulldogs; however, Junior Ballard will transition into a sixth-man role after adding Baker from Arizona. Aside from Ballard, the Fresno State player with the most experience off the bench is 7-footer Braxton Meah, who only played 9.5 minutes-per-contest as a freshman. 

Justin Hutson’s team should improve from last season, and Orlando Robinson should be a top player in the conference. This team finishing eighth in my rankings shows the top-to-bottom depth of the conference this season. 

Fresno State X-Factor: Robert Vaihola, Forward

9.) New Mexico

PG: Jaelen House

SG: Jamal Mashburn

SF: Saquan Singleton

PF: Valdir Manuel

C: Gethro Muscadin

Bench: Jeremiah Francis, KJ Jenkins, Taryn Todd, Jay Allen-Tovar, Sebastian Forsling, Emmanuel Kuac, Javonte Johnson

New Mexico had a forgettable 2020-21 season, where the Lobos only won six games, the worst mark in a single season for the program since the 1960s. After the season, the Lobos parted ways with Head Coach Paul Weir, handing the keys to longtime Minnesota coach Richard Pitino.

Quickly, Pitino made wholesale changes with the roster — four players return from last year (Francis, Manuel, Kuac, Singleton, as the roster has numerous transfers from other programs. Headlining the slew of transfers is guard duo Jaelen House (Arizona State) and Jamal Mashburn Jr (Minnesota), who have tons of basketball lineage as their father’s Eddie House, and Jamal Mashburn Sr played in the NBA. The younger House brings intense defensive ability, and Mashburn Jr could wind up being the dynamic scoring guard the Lobos haven’t had in recent seasons. If one player from this team ends up making an All-Conference team next season, I will bank on TCU transfer Taryn Todd being the guy. Coming from the high-major level, Todd shot over 38 percent outside Fort Worth while showing off driving ability in the process.

A development to keep an eye on is how the New Mexico staff divides up the frontcourt minutes. Between 7-foot, 250 pounds Swedish big Sebastian Forsling, who brings massive size, shooting, and finishing ability at the cup, will force his way into the rotation at the four/five. Other options include Jay Allen-Tovar, Kansas transfer Gethro Muscadin, and Valdir Manuel, and all will be in the rotation. Outside of Forsling, the name to watch is Muscadin from Kansas, a former three-star recruit that never found his way into the Jayhawks rotation behind established players like David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot.

Look, the Lobos won’t make the NCAA Tournament this season, but New Mexico will vastly improve. If they’re leading late in the second half against a top-four team in the conference, it wouldn’t be surprising for the young, talented Lobos roster that should find their way into the upper half of the league in 2022-23.

New Mexico X-Factor: Jaelen House, JR, Guard

House isn’t similar to his NBA champion father in terms of playstyle. Eddie would drop buckets constantly during his days at ASU and played a valuable three-point-specalist role for the 2009 Celtics championship team. In comparison, his offspring prides himself on defense but shot an improved 39 percent from deep on 59 attempts last season. 

10.) San Jose State

PG: Omari Moore

SG: Sebastian Mendoza

SF: Trey Anderson

PF: Shon Robinson

C: Ibrahima Diallo

Bench: Tibet Goerner, Caleb Simmons, Majok Kuath, Kaison Hammonds, Omar Moore, Myron Amey, Alvaro Cardenas, Josh O’Garro

The Jean Prioleau era didn’t pan out, as the Spartans won only 17% (20-93) of their games in the four seasons and only 11.4% (8-66) of conference games. Shockingly, San Jose State, a program in a good area with good academics, struggled to that degree. Still, there’s nobody more ready for the challenge than former Colorado State coach Tim Miles, who brought Colorado State dancing in 2011-12. New coaches around the program lead to new players entering the program as ten new players are in the Blue & Yellow. 

There’s still no definitive word on if Richard Washington Jr will return to San Jose for his final year of eligibility, but for this preview, I’ll proceed as if he’s not.

Coach Miles and staff landed five high-major transfers that never got rolling at their respective schools — Trey Anderson, wing from South Carolina, Ibrahima Diallo (Ohio State), and Shon Robinson (Ole Miss, Josh O’Garro (Oklahoma). All three came into their careers as three-star prospects (per 247sports) with numerous high-major offers on the table. Robinson’s offensive skillset brings a different dynamic to San Jose State, but Ibrahima Diallo’s defensive ability is an asset the Spartans direly needed last year. SJSU’s opponents shot 55.2 percent on two-point field goals last season, and Diallo’s presence will help in that department. Potentially the highest upside player of the bunch is Arizona transfer Tibet Goerner, who averaged 10.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, playing for the Turkish FIBA U19 team this off-season. Goerner’s size and shooting will make him valuable for San Jose State this season as the team’s sixth man. 

Out of the returning group of players, Omari Moore could be the most impactful. The 6-foot-6 guard will run Tim Miles’s offense this season. Last year, Moore stuffed the stat sheet, posting 7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists. Lack of shooting limits Moore’s upside a touch, as he’s connected on 16 of 68 three-pointers in two seasons.

It’s still not quite there for the Spartans, but it’s Year One for Tim Miles, and the roster is vastly more skilled than last season. The four high-major transfers listed above, Sebastian Mendoza and Myron Amey, have three or more years of eligibility remaining, and they’ll be the foundation this staff uses to build.

San Jose State X-Factor: Ibrahima Diallo

Diallo’s 7-foot-9 wingspan, paired with plus athleticism, makes him a potent force in this conference.

11.) Air Force

PG: AJ Walker

SG: Carter Murphy

SF: Joseph Octave

PF: Abe Kinrade

C: Nikc Jackson

Bench: CJ Haut, Camden Vander Zwaag, Tucker Brown, Kyle Nooe, Mason Taylor, Simon Banks, Derek Dieckenscheidt, Christian Depollar

The Falcons only mustered five wins, including a brutal3-17 conference record under Joe Scott in his second tenure at Air Force. Scott deploys the Princeton offense, which leads to deliberate play, often leading to a three-pointer or cutter driving free at the rim. A cardinal sin in the Princeton offensive scheme is sloppy play with the ball that leads to turnovers; those issues plagued the Academy last season, leading the conference in turnover percentage.

Air Force lost several starters, including Chris Joyce, Keaton Van Soelen, Ameka Akaya and Glen McClintock, leaving room for players like Carter Murphy, Joe Octave, and Abe Kinrade fitting into substantial roles. They’ll try complimenting leading scorer A.J. Walker, who drilled 39 percent of his deep shots last season, and Princeton offense playmaker Nikc Jackson.

Naturally, I’d expect players to feel more comfortable in the complex scheme next season, inevitably cutting down the turnovers a touch. Still, there’s no question that Air Force is the worst team in the conference. 

Air Force X-Factor: Joseph Octave

AWARDS:

CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:

Grant Sherfield, JR, Nevada

Sherfield posted fantastic numbers last year, and if Nevada finished top-three in the league, the player of the year award could’ve been his. With the Wolf Pack set to be top-two this season, Sherfield wins this time.

Defensive player of the year:

Nathan Mensah, San Diego State

Mensah’s versatility on the defensive end plays a pivotal part in Coach Dutcher’s tremendous defense. 

Coach of the year:

Niko Medved, Colorado State

Medved’s Rams will be ranked nationally in the preseason, that preceding a successful campaign should earn him the award.

Newcomer of the year:

Matt Bradley, San Diego State

Bradley was elite scoring-wise at the PAC-12 level, as San Diego State loses its top three scoring options that should give Bradley immense opportunity on offense. 

Best shooter (I know this isn’t actually an award, but it should be)

Xavier DuSell, Wyoming 

DuSell’s lights out from deep in Coach Linder’s three-point heavy offense; these two are matches made in heaven.

AWARDS:

First-Team All-Conference

Grant Sherfield, JR, Nevada

Matt Bradley, SR, San Diego State

Isaiah Stevens, JR, Colorado State

David Roddy, JR, Colorado State

Orlando Robinson Jr, JR, Fresno State

Second Team:

Bryce Hamilton, SR, UNLV

Hunter Maldonado, SR, Wyoming

Desmond Cambridge Jr, SR, Nevada

Chandler Jacobs, SR, Colorado State

Nathan Mensah, San Diego State

Third-Team

AJ Walker, SR, Air Force

Emmanuel Akot, RS-JR, Boise State

Justin Bean, SR, Utah State

Graham Ike, SO, Wyoming

AJ Bramah, SSR, Nevada

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