There hasn't been a season like this in the Mountain West's short history. As we prepare to usher in the 2007-08 season, change has clearly been the most dominant story over the past few months. Five teams have changed coaches and that dramatic shift will undoubtedly play a role in how the conference standings shake out this year. But it will be consistency, especially from BYU, San Diego State and UNLV, that may be the deciding factor in who wins the Mountain West and goes to the NCAA Tournament. Because of this, the Mountain West Conference race very well may be one of the most entertaining in recent memory.
Will Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming return to the top of the Mountain West?
Three of the five traditional Mountain West Conference powers changed coaches over the off-season. How successful will they be at getting their teams back to historical levels? The Mountain West thrived in its early days because of the success of Utah, New Mexico and to a lesser extent Wyoming, along with both BYU and UNLV. For the Mountain West Conference to return to that level, all three of these teams will need to make the step up and return to its past glory.
Head Coach: Jim Boylen (1st Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 11–19 (6–10)
The Utes owned the WAC and the Mountain West under Rick Majerus and looked as if they wouldn't miss a beat in Ray Giacoletti's first season. That year, he guided the Runnin' Utes to a conference championship and conducted a mini-run through the NCAA Tournament, which saw the Utes make their first Sweet 16 in 7 years. However, that success was short lived and after two losing seasons, Giacoletti was promptly let go from the Utes. Utah hired Michigan State assistant Jim Boylen to replace him and Boylen looks to return Utah to its long standing position as the elite team in the Mountain West Conference.
Boylen enters this with one downside, he's never been a head coach before. And though he's a seasoned assistant, that doesn't always mean he's ready, nor capable of being one, either. Yet even with that lack of experience, Boylen came highly recommended and seems to have the tools to get Utah back on top. For him to do that, though, he will have to do something Ray Giacoletti could never do: teach defense.
Luckily for him, he has players that want to learn and there does appear to be talent, which is anchored by junior Luke Nevill. Nevill, a 7'1 center from Australia, will be important on offense, but Utah will need his defense if they are going to be a successful team this year. Last season, even with the height advantage, the team still struggled at dominating inside and that often allowed teams to score easily on the Utes. With a 7 footer in the middle, that should not happen and ever since Boylen began coaching at Utah, he's stressed that point forcefully.
Joining Nevill will be senior Johnnie Bryant, who averaged 15 points per game last season and nearly 3 assists. The success of Bryant on offense, along with the arrival of College of Eastern Utah transfer Tyler Kepkay, should shore up some of the guard troubles. But it will be imperative for Utah's defense to step their game up, as offense wasn't really an issue last year. Shaun Green, a potential explosive threat from outside, is going to have to defend better if Utah has any hope of improving this season.
Head Coach: Steve Alford (308-183 / 16th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 15–17 (4–12)
The biggest story earlier this year was the Lobos' hiring of Steve Alford. Alford had coached at Iowa and appeared to be on his way out either way, as many Hawkeye fans had become disgruntled over the lack of success he was having in Iowa City. That opened the door for New Mexico to make the hire and bring a Big Ten coach to the Mountain West Conference. But it remains to be seen if he's the guy to take the Lobos back to a level of play they were accustom to in the 1990s. Their hope is that the relative success he saw at Iowa translates well with full support from the University and its boosters, something Alford claims he never had while at Iowa. With the Lobos returning all five starters from last year's team, Alford and Lobo fans are obviously optimistic.
New Mexico's biggest returning starter is senior J.R. Giddens, who averaged nearly 16 points per game last season. Giddens will prove to be the center piece for a Lobo team still trying to find an identity in the wake of Ritchie McKay's firing. Part of the firing of McKay was the total choatic aspect of New Mexico's season, which came to a head when Giddens was benched numerous times. Those issues hindered Gidden's growth -- who had transferred to New Mexico from Kansas with high expectations -- and it will be up to Alford to shape him into the great player many thought he would be.
The success of New Mexico will rest on whether Giddens can produce at the level he is expected. Last season was a disaster and that partly is due to the coaching of Ritchie McKay. And while Alford hasn't proven he's a good coach, especially at New Mexico, he's still a step-up.
The biggest weakness for the Lobos this year, though, is their lack of size. New Mexico's tallest player is Daniel Faris, who was pretty ineffective last year. The Lobos will try to play that to their advantage by going small and pushing the ball up the court, but against teams with a significant height advantage, that might not work.
Head Coach: Heath Schroyer (35-47 / 4th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 17–15 (7–9)
Steve McClain entered last year as the longest tenured head coach in the Mountain West. Now he's gone, fired after the Cowboys struggled to a 17-15 finish. Not that it wasn't a surprise, as Wyoming was close to firing him the season before. Replacing him is former Wyoming assistant and Portland State head coach Heath Schroyer, who is looking to take Wyoming basketball one step further than its achievements under McClain. That might not be easy, when considering what McClain accomplished in Laramie.
Schroyer, though, will have the luxury of coaching what might be the best backcourt in the conference. That backcourt is led by Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones and both are talented enough to score. But outside of those two, talent is thin and that could hurt Wyoming's chances this year. Schroyer is banking on the fact Joseph Taylor is much improved and becomes a force inside. If Taylor struggles like he did at times last year, Wyoming won't be much better than they were under McClain.
Can the Falcons handle another change and will the Rams finally become relevant?
The two other coaching changes in the Mountain West weren't nearly as note worthy, since Air Force lost its coach late in the game and Colorado State has not done much of anything in the conference. Nevertheless, these changes are important to the conference as a whole, especially for Air Force, as they have become a nontraditional power recently and the more they can prolong that success, the better.
Head Coach: Jeff Reynolds (82-34 / 6th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 26–9 (10–6)
Another change for Air Force, as they lost head coach Jeff Bzdelik to Colorado. But that loss might not hurt nearly as much for this program as the loss of four starters, including Dan Nwaelele, who was named to the First-Team All Mountain West team last year. That leaves Jeff Reynolds, an assistant under Bzdelik, in rebuilding mode and a big reason as to why the Falcons were picked to finish second to last.
Helping the Falcons build on their successful run through the NIT last year will be Tim Anderson, probably the best returning player for Air Force. But the lack of much experience outside of him will most likely mean they will struggle mightily this season. The Falcons will continue to run their near painful Princeton offense and because of that, and the fact there isn't much turnover from the last coaching staff, the Falcons can still surprise some teams in the Mountain West. But for that to happen, they will need to find shooters capable of stepping up and hitting the three.
Head Coach: Tim Miles (212-132 / 12th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 17–13 (6-10)
I don't envy new head coach Tim Miles, because he will have a massive rebuilding project on his hands. Not only did he take over a bad program, he also has to replace their best player, after forward Jason Smith bolted early. The lack of returning talent and an increasingly tough conference will most likely doom the Rams to a last place finish in the conference. That's never a good position for a new head coach, but Miles has the full support of the staff at Colorado State and has reinvigorated a fan base that had become far too indifferent under former head coach Dale Layer.
If Colorado State is going to have any type of success this season, they will need center Stuart Creason to step his game up. This team will only go as far as he can take them, but in the past he hasn't proven to be the dominant center to lead a team. And with only Tyler Smith offering the most experience in the backcourt, things are looking bleak in Fort Collins.
Will steadiness lead BYU, UNLV, SDSU or TCU to the conference crown?
Only four Mountain West programs did not make coaching changes this season. The lone team that should have made that change was TCU, with Neil Dougherty. But the consistency at the top of each team might actually benefit them during their title hunt, even maybe TCU.
Head Coach: Dave Rose (45-18 / 3rd Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 25–9 (13-3)
Dave Rose has been named the Mountain West Coach of the Year in each of his first two seasons at the helm of Cougar basketball. It's not outlandish to assume he could win it for the third straight year, as BYU is picked to repeat as conference champions. The familiarity of the coaching staff and players, coupled with the striking changes in conference, should give BYU a leg up. However, the Cougars do lose a lot and that talent gap could be the difference between a 2nd and 3rd place finish and another conference crown.
Jimmy Balderson, Keena Young and Austin Ainge are all gone and while the Cougars return Trent Plaisted -- they will be plugging much of their holes with inexperienced players. But Plaisted is a good enough player as to where he can mask those issues, which Dave Rose will need if he hopes to guide BYU back to the NCAA Tournament.
Along with Plaisted, the Cougars will rely heavily on junior Lee Cummard, who averaged 9 points per game last season. His shooting automatically makes him a scoring threat and he has the height to be a solid rebounder. With BYU replacing four of their top six scorers, Cummard will most likely see more involvement in the offense.
In the backcourt, don't be surprised if junior college transfers Lamont Morgan and Archie Rose get more playing time than Ben Murdock and Sam Burgess, both who played last season. Whether that's enough to get BYU back to the NCAA Tournament will probably be determined by how much Plaisted can carry this team.
Head Coach: Lon Kruger (382-267 / 22nd Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 30–7(12-4)
Lon Kruger has done an amazing job at returning UNLV back to its past dominance. Coming off the school's best NCAA run since the days of Jerry Tarkanian, the Rebels will look to follow that up with another successful season. And while the path won't be nearly as easy for UNLV, they have the potential for another solid season. But it will take replacing some key starters.
Gone are Kevin Kruger and Wendell White, two of the best players on UNLV last year. That void won't be easy to fill, but it's made easier by the fact UNLV also returns junior Wink Adams, who averaged 14 points per game last season. This is Adams' team and he will be joined freshman Beas Hamga -- who turned down offers from Kentucky and Florida to play for the Rebels -- and junior Emmanuel Adeife. Adeife transferred from Polk Community College and, along with Hamga, will prove to be a formidable force inside.
For UNLV to duplicate what they did last season, they will need to find a guard to step in and replace Lon Kruger's son, Kevin Kruger. That job will go to Marcus Lawrence, but the jury is still out on his ability to lead this offense. If he can, UNLV will be right there in the hunt for a Mountain West championship.
Head Coach: Steve Fisher (311-199 / 17th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 22–11(10-6)
The Aztecs had a great three year run under the leadership of Mohamed Abukar and Brandon Heath, but now they're gone and they're both going to be difficult to replace. That will only happen if forward Lorrenzo Wade can lead this team and help with the transition. Wade has potential, but he needs to be far more consistent if San Diego State is going to have any hope of making noise in conference play. The Aztecs actually underperformed last year and that seems to be common under Steve Fisher. Without the talent to compensate for that underperforming, it could be a very difficult year for San Diego State.
At center is Marquette transfer Ryan Amoroso, a beast of a player. He'll give opposing defenses fits inside and is strong enough to bully his way to the basket. But it does appear this team lacks the fire power of the past three Fisher squads and that could mean a mediocre season. Fisher has changed the dynamics of San Diego State basketball and the next three years will be vital in proving that the recent three year run was more than just an anomaly.
Head Coach: Neil Dougherty (61-92 / 6th Year)
2006-07 Record (MWC): 13–17(4-12)
TCU has one of the most experienced teams in the conference, however that might not mean much after how this team performed last year. The Frogs have struggled since joining the Mountain West and head coach Neil Dougherty will need to win at least 20-games this season if he has any chance of returning to Fort Worth next season. That might appear to be easy on paper, since TCU returns four of their five starters, but the talent level at TCU is just not very good and experience can't trump that..
Kevin Langford is clearly the most talented player on the Frogs' roster, but he has been inconsistent, especially on defense. In fact, the entire TCU team has struggled on defense since joining the conference and that will have to change if they are going to have any chance of improving on last year's abysmal finish. With the conference talent level at where it is, TCU most likely won't finish in the top-half, but a strong preseason might be enough to pad their win total and hide their mediocre conference play.
Projected conference standings
1. BYU - NCAA Tournament
2. UNLV - NCAA Tournament
2. Utah - NIT
4. New Mexico
5. San Diego State
8. Air Force
Player of the Year
Brandon Ewing, Wyoming
Coach of the Year
Jim Boylen, Utah