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October 26, 2010

League preview: Mountain West

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

7. Mountain West

By Steve Megargee

The Mountain West made quite a statement during the regular season in 2009-10. Now the league needs to make some more noise in March.

A league-record four MWC teams earned NCAA tournament bids last season to cap a year in which the conference ranked sixth -- higher than the Pac-10 -- in the RPI. New Mexico earned a No. 3 seed, the highest seeding by any MWC team in the league's 11-year history.

But the league was unable to build on that success in the postseason. New Mexico and BYU each lost by double-digit margins in the second round of the tournament, while UNLV and San Diego State fell in close ones in the opening round.

That continued a troubling trend for the MWC. The league didn't win a single NCAA tournament game in 2009 and won just one tournament contest in 2008. The 2007 UNLV squad that reached the Sweet 16 is the only MWC team to advance beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons.

A few MWC teams have reason to believe they could erase the conference's recent history of postseason frustration.

San Diego State returns all five starters from a team that went 25-9 and won the league tournament last season. The presence of Fs Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White should help the Aztecs outrebound nearly all their opponents.

BYU boasts one of the nation's most dynamic scorers in G Jimmer Fredette. The Cougars also return senior G Jackson Emery and junior F Noah Hartsock from a 30-6 team.

UNLV returns five starters from a 25-9 team. G Tre'Von Willis must serve a three-game suspension after pleading no contest to misdemeanor domestic battery charges this summer, but his eventual return will give the Rebels one of the league's best all-around players.

New Mexico must replace MWC player of the year Darington Hobson and second-team all-conference pick Roman Martinez from a team that won the regular-season league title outright last season. But the Lobos return first-team all-conference PG Dairese Gary and should get a boost from the arrival of UCLA transfer Drew Gordon and Tennessee transfer Emmanuel Negedu. NCAA transfer rules will prevent Gordon from playing until the second semester.

1. San Diego State
2. BYU
4. New Mexico
5. Colorado State
6. Utah
7. Wyoming
8. TCU
9. Air Force

F Kawhi Leonard, San Diego St. (6-7/225, So.)
F Malcolm Thomas, San Diego St. (6-9/215, Sr.)
G Jimmer Fredette, BYU (6-2/195, Sr.)
G Dairese Gary, New Mexico (6-1/205, Sr.)
G Tre'Von Willis, UNLV (6-4/195, Sr.)

F Afam Muojeke, Wyoming (6-8/210, Jr.)
F Andy Ogide, Colorado State (6-9/245, Sr.)
F/G Chace Stanback, UNLV (6-8/210, Jr.)
G Jackson Emery, BYU (6-3/190, Sr.)
G Ronnie Moss, TCU (6-2/210, Jr.)

BYU GJimmer Fredette

New Mexico F Drew Gordon (6-9/245, Jr.; UCLA transfer. Won't be eligible until spring semester.)

Best frontcourt: San Diego State. Kawhi Leonard earned first-team All-MWC honors and led the Aztecs in scoring (12.7) and rebounds (9.9) as a freshman last season. He ranked 13th in the nation with 17 double-doubles. Leonard teams with Malcolm Thomas (10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Billy White (11.1 points, 4.3) rebounds to form a frontcourt trio that can stack up with just about any other in the nation.
Best backcourt: BYU. Jimmer Fredette is an All-America candidate with the potential to lead the nation in scoring this season. He ranked seventh in the nation in scoring (22.1 ppg) and also averaged 4.7 assists last season. He scored 37 points in a first-round NCAA tournament victory over Florida. Jackson Emery earned second-team All-MWC honors last year and tied an MWC single-season record with 91 steals. Freshmen need to provide depth.
Program on the rise: Colorado State. A program that went 7-25 and failed to win a single conference game in 2007-08 -- its first season under coach Tim Miles -- improved to 16-16 overall and 7-9 in league play last season. The return of four starters could allow the Rams to take another step forward this season. The Rams will rely on the leadership of senior Fs Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin, who averaged a combined 23.2 points and 11.5 rebounds last season.
Program on the decline: Utah. After winning the MWC title in 2009, Utah fell all the way to 14-17 overall and 7-9 in the conference last season. The Utes could have a tough time getting back into contention following the offseason transfers of Marshall Henderson and Carlon Brown, their two leading scorers last season. Utah's final season in the MWC might not be one to remember.
Coach on the rise: New Mexico's Steve Alford. After a turbulent eight-season tenure at Iowa, Alford has found a home at New Mexico. Alford is 76-26 with the Lobos, giving him more wins and a better winning percentage than any previous New Mexico coach after three seasons. New Mexico's 30-5 record and outright MWC title last season could have made Alford an attractive candidate for any of the vacancies across the country, but he instead signed a contract extension that runs through 2020.
Coach on the hot seat: Air Force's Jeff Reynolds. Reynolds' Falcons have won a total of one conference game in the past two seasons. Air Force owns an overall record of 36-56 in Reynolds' three-season tenure. Reynolds has faced plenty of adversity, and injuries forced him to use 10 different starting lineups last season. But he needs to make the Falcons more competitive.
Most underrated player: BYU G Jackson Emery. Although he is overshadowed by backcourt mate Jimmer Fredette, Emery is a good player in his own right. He ranked 10th in the nation in steals last season and also made 85 3-point shots, the second-highest total in school history. He also averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists to go along with his 12.5 points per game.

New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: New Mexico
Tourney winner last season: San Diego State
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 6th in 2009-10, 7th in 2008-09, 9th in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 9-12, Las Vegas

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