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Conference Countdown: No. 6 Mountain West

Pre-season Awards

Player of the Year: Jimmer Fredette, BYU

This one isn’t even all that close. Fredette averaged 22.1 ppg and 4.7 apg last season while shooting 44% from three and 89.6% from the line. He is a big time scorer with out-the-gym range. Fredette has a tremendous handle, and is a crafty finisher in and around the rim. What Dave Rose likes to do with this team is, essentially, spread the floor and allow Jimmer to operate. He can get into the paint, and if the defense collapses on him, he can kick out to the open shooters. If there is a knock on Fredette, its his defensive ability and his toughness. Fredette missed time -- a couple of games, a second half during conference season -- due to a couple of different illnesses. Regardless, this is an extremely talented kid that will put up impressive numbers for a team that competes for the conference title. He’s a potential first-team all-american, which don’t come around the MWC all that often.

And a close second goes to: Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State

Leonard is a specimen. He’s a 6'7" athlete with long arms and he knows how to use those tools. He’s really aggressive going to the glass, which sets the tone for the rest of his SDSU teammates, and is a terror when he gets out in transition. What sets Leonard apart from other big men in the MWC is that he plays, and projects at the next level, as more of a perimeter player, a Gerald Wallace kind of guy. Last season, most of his production came as a result of his tools -- offensive rebounds, transition buckets, getting into the lane and elevating over defenders for a short jumper. Most players make their biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore years, and I expect Leonard to make that jump if he has improved his offensive repertoire. A better jumpshot, more fluid offensive moves, and an improved back-to-the-basket game (he plays the three quite a bit for this team) would make him arguably the best player on the west coast and a much more ideal NBA prospect.

Breakout Star: Dairese Gary, New Mexico

Last year, all anyone talked about for New Mexico was Darington Hobson’s talent and the big shots hit by Roman Martinez. But flying under that radar was Gary. Gary reminds me a bit of Chauncey Billups. He is a strong, athletic point guard that plays with great control. He can get to the rim and is excellent at drawing fouls and getting to the line, but he’s not overly aggressive. He can knock down threes, but he doesn’t force too many. And most importantly, he makes big shots and shows up for big games. He averaged 20 in the Lobo’s last seven games, and put 25 and 23 on BYU in the Lobo’s two wins. Steve Alford is going to need Gary to step up before Drew Gordon gets eligible, and even when Gordon is on the court. New Mexico doesnt have a ton of playmakers this season, so expect big numbers, and a number of big shots, out of Gary this season.

All-Conference First Team

  • POY - Jimmer Fredette, BYU, Sr.
  • G - Dairese Gary, New Mexico, Sr.
  • G - Tre’Von Willis, UNLV, Sr./Ronnie Moss, TCU, Jr.
  • G - Jackson Emery, BYU, Sr.
  • F - Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State, So.
  • F - Drew Gordon, New Mexico, Jr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G - Oscar Bellfield, UNLV, Jr.
  • G - Chace Stanback, UNLV, Jr.
  • G - Afan Muojeke, Wyoming, Jr.
  • F - Andy Ogide, Colorado State, Jr.
  • F - Malcolm Thomas, San Diego State, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Alex Kirk, New Mexico

Kirk was a bit of a steal for Steve Alford. A ranked recruit (he is in or around the top 100 on most of the major recruiting sites) that was pursued by a number of big time programs, Kirk is a 6'10" forward with excellent range on his jump shot. He’s solid when operating in and around the paint, and looks to be a decent defender as well, but it is his jump shot that makes him so valuable to New Mexico. Alford likes to run an offensive with a spread floor, and with a post talent like Drew Gordon joining the fray in December, keeping space in the paint would be ideal. Kirk is an excellent shooter out beyond the three-point line, which means that not only will pick-and-pops with Dairese Gary be a weapon in Alford’s arsenal, Kirk will force a defender to stay close to him. Expect Kirk to see a lot of important minutes this season.

All-Freshman Team

  • G - Kendall Williams, New Mexico
  • G - Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
  • G - Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State
  • F - Karam Mashour, UNLV
  • F - Chad Calcaterra, Colorado State

What Happened?:

  • The MWC blew up, in the bad way: 2010-2011 will be the last season of the MWC as we know it. As of 2011, Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada will be joining the league from the WAC, while BYU is headed to the WCC (for basketball) and Utah will become a member of the Pac-10. Egads, it was complicated. The MWC went from arguably the best league outside of the Big Six to close to collapse to barely surviving. The question now: what happens next?
  • Tre’Von Willis got slap happy: Willis was arrested over the summer for allegedly beating up his girlfriend. Willis received a one game suspension after pleading out to a lesser charge.
  • BYU’s back court depleted: The Cougars were going to have one of the best back courts in the country this season. Then Michael Loyd Jr., the dynamic back-up guard that exploded onto the national scene with big performances when Jimmer Fredette was sick and a 26 point performance in BYU’s first round tournament win over Florida, was told to pack his bags. Tyler Haws was told to pack his bags as well, expect Haws is headed to the Phillipines to complete his LDS mission. Oh well. Fredette and Jackson Emery is still pretty solid.
  • SDSU scheduling woes: The Aztecs will likely be the MWC favorite in the majority of the preseason polls. Why can’t they put together a legitimate non-conference schedule?
  • Transfers galore: Right now, the MWC is the go-to conference for major conference transfers looking for a new start. UNLV has Chace Stanback and Mike Moser (UCLA), Derrick Jasper (Kentucky), Quintrell Thomas (Kansas), Tre’Von Willis (Memphis), and Tyler Norman (Iowa State). Colorado State has Andy Ogide (Ole Miss) and Wes Eikmeier. Wyoming brought in Djibril Thiam from Baylor and Leonard Washington from USC. Hank Thorns is headed to TCU from Virginia Tech. San Diego State has Xavier Thames (Washington State) and Brian Carlwell (Illinois). New Mexico was the most active this offseason, bringing Drew Gordon (UCLA), Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee), and Demetrius Walker (Arizona State). Yes, that Demetrius Walker.

    The most interesting story? Either Brian Carlwell, Emmanuel Negedu, or Demetrius Walker, although Leonard Washington did this.

  • Will Brown’s letter: This was just weird.

What’s Next?:

  • A memorable ending to the MWC: As we mentioned earlier, this will be the final season that the MWC looks like the MWC we in the college basketball world have grown to love. Can these clubs send the league out in fashion? Last season, four teams made the NCAA Tournament. This season, those same four look to be capable of making another tournament run. Wouldn’t that be something? Breaking up a league that sent four teams to the tournament in back-to-back seasons? Breaking up what is probably the best conference out west?
  • A battle up top: I think San Diego State is the best team in the conference. But BYU has the best player, and New Mexico looks like they will once again be a force to be reckoned with, especially with Gordon gets eligible in December. All three of those teams have a very real shot at winning the conference title. What if Tre’Von Willis is allowed to participate this season? There could very well be a four-way battle in the final week of the season for the MWC title. That would be fantastic.
  • Another battle up top: Jimmer Fredette seems like the safe bet for preseason player of the year, but its not a sure thing. Kawhi Leonard is a beast. Dairese Gary is one of the most underrated guards in the country. Drew Gordon should have a big season. Tre’Von Willis? Ronnie Moss? Afam Moujeke? There are soe very good hoopers in this league.
Image (1) kawhi-leonard.jpg for post 423

  1. San Diego State: SDSU has an absolutely loaded front line, one that is good enough to be considered among the best in the country. It starts with sophomore Kawhi Leonard, who is one of the country’s best kept secrets. A 6'7" power forward, Leonard is already one of the best rebounders in the league thanks in large part to his great wingspan and athleticism. He has the tools to be a combo-forward, and as his offensive repertoire develops, he will only get better. Joining Leonard up front are seniors Billy White and Malcolm Thomas, both of whom averaged double figures last season, and Brian Carlwell, a 6'11" center. With that group, the Aztecs are once again going to be a team that goes hard to the offensive glass (8th in the country in OREB% last season). The back court was where SDSU had a bit of an issue last season, as they didn’t have a ton of shooting threats. Their best back court player is DJ Gay, a 6' point guard that will be counted on as Steve Fisher’s primary ball handler and creator. He did average 10 ppg and 3 apg, but a bump in his ability as a creator would help improve SDSU’s efficiency on their first shot. Chase Tapley does return as well, and with the addition of freshman Jamaal Franklin and Washington State transfer Xavier Thames, Fisher will have more options in his back court this year. SDSU will be the popular pick as MWC favorite.
  2. BYU: The good news is that the Cougars will bring back Jimmer Fredette, their dynamic point guard that had declared for the draft back in April. Fredette may very well be the most exciting player in the country. He’s not overly quick or athletic, but he is a lights out shooter off the catch or the dribble with range for days, he has ankle-breaking handle, and he has a crafty game in and around the paint. The bad news is that BYU loses quite a bit outside of Fredette. Jonathon Tavernari and Chris Miles graduated, the talented but enigmatic Michael Loyd Jr. got the boot, and Tyler Haws will be taking two years off for his Mormon mission. The Cougars do get Jackson Emery, who may actually be a better shooter than Fredette, back for his senior season to join Fredette on the perimeter. Junior Charles Abouo also returns, but the key may be the development of freshmen Kyle Collinsworth and Anson Winder, who were both fairly highly regarded high schoolers. Up front, Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies will both return, as does 6'10" junior James Anderson, who has played limited to this point in his Cougar career. Chris Collinsworth, a 6'9" sophomore (and Kyle’s older brother) that just got back from his two-year mission, will also be back. No one on the Cougar front line has much scoring prowess, but there are some big, physical bodies that will be able to bang on the block with just about anyone. Fredette alone is enough to make BYU a contender in the MWC, but the issue is going to be replacing the pieces they lost. Haws and Tavernari, who played some power forward for the Cougars, were good enough shooters to spread the floor and let Fredette have space to operate. Loyd was a dynamic scorer that was able to complement Fredette and provide Rose with playmaker insurance if Fredette got hurt or tired. The Cougars will be in the mix all season long, but I’m not convinced that this team will be as good as they were last year.
  3. New Mexico: The Lobos, who had a disappointing end to a 30 win season last year, lose MWC player of the year Darington Hobson and sharpshooting Roman Martinez. In their stead comes Emmanuel Negedu and Drew Gordon, both of whom were top 25 recruits in 2008. Negedu’s plight has been well documented, but he is a strong, athletic forward that will help New Mexico on the glass and in the paint defensively. Gordon will likely be better. A 6'9" power forward that averaged double figures at UCLA will have spent a full year developing his game by the time he gets eligible in December. Gordon also underwent knee surgery this offseason, but he should be ready to go before he is eligible to suit up. Its difficult to imagine that Gordon won’t be a dominating force in the MWC. AJ Hardeman, a 6'8" forward that played significant minutes last year, is also back. Freshman Alex Kirk, a 6'10" forward that reminds some people of Wisconsin’s Keaton Nankivil, could be the x-factor along the front line, as his shooting touch can spread the floor will make him a nice complement to Drew Gordon inside.. With this strength in their front court -- particularly Gordon -- don’t be surprised if New Mexico looks to get the ball inside more often this season. The Lobos return their starting back court. Dairese Gary is a strong, athletic point guard who loves to have the ball in his hands late and reminds me a little bit of Chauncey Billups. He was a 1st team all MWC performer, and played his best basketball down the stretch. Long range threat Phillip McDonald returns as well. The issue for this New Mexico team will be developing depth. Will Brown and Nate Garth are no longer on Steve Alford’s roster, which means that seldom used returners like Chad Adams, Jamal Fenton, and Curtis Dennis, along with Alford’s four incoming freshmen, are going to be fighting for minutes. The Lobos have talent at the top of their roster, and as long as Alford can develop some depth, this team will be in the mix for the MWC title when Drew Gordon gets eligible.
  4. UNLV: UNLV’s season was seemingly in jeopardy over the summer when Tre’Von Willis was accused of assaulting and choking a woman at an off-campus apartment. But last month, Willis plead out to reduced charges and got handed a one (non-exhibition) game suspension, meaning that UNLV’s leading scorer -- and the most dangerous offensive weapon in the MWC not named Jimmer -- will play for Lon Kruger this season. Willis was far and away the best scorer on the UNLV roster last season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent here. Chace Stanback should be counted on to develop a more predominant scoring role, while point guard Oscar Bellfield and wing Derrick Jasper -- who should be fully healthy -- are both talented enough to improve on their numbers from a year ago. Don’t be surprised if sophomore Anthony Marshall has a big year, while freshman Karam Mashour should also see some minutes. With the notable exception of Kendall Wallace, who tore his acl, the Rebel’s entire back court returns. The issue for UNLV will be in the front court. Darris Santee graduates and Matt Shaw was kicked out of the program. Brice Massamba does return, and redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez will be eligible. The key, however, may end up being Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas, who gets eligible this year. Thomas was a top 100 power forward out of St. Patrick in New Jersey, and should provide the Rebels with some much needed muscle inside. Even without Willis, this is a team that plays a similar style to last season, spreading the floor and allowing their talented perimeter players to make things happen.
  5. Colorado State: The Rams will be an interesting team to watch this season. They went just 16-16 last year, but those 16 wins were equal to head coach Tim Miles production his first two years in Fort Collins. They went 0-9 on the year against the MWC’s four tournament teams, but they cleaned up against the bottom of the league and finished fifth in the standings. But most importantly, they bring back the majority of their roster. Four starters return, including senior forwards Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin, who were both double digits scorers a year ago. Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith will provide depth, but the real test will be whether big men Trevor Williams, a 7'0" redshirt freshman, and Chad Calcaterra, a 6'10" three-star recruit, are ready to compete at this level. Sophomore Dorian Smith is back. He had a very good year as the Rams’ primary ball handler, leading the team in minutes, points, and assists. Sharp shooter Adam Nigon returns, as does Andre McFarland, who dealt with back issues all last season. Rounding out the back court rotation is Jesse Carr (returning from an injury last season), Wes Eikmeier (an Iowa State transfer), and freshmen Maurice Wiltz and Dwight Smith. This is going to be an experienced team that finally got a taste of the postseason, even if it was the CBI. They need Smith to develop into a go-to scorer, and they need Calcaterra or Williams to develop into a contributor, but if you want to pick a sleeper in this league, Colorado State is your team.
  6. TCU: The Horned Frogs are going to have a tough time improving on the year they had last season -- five conference wins -- but it won’t be Ronnie Moss’ fault. After averaging 15 points and 6 assists last season, Moss was a second team all-MWC performer. He will be joined in the back court by Hank Thorns, a 5'9" Virginia Tech transfer that started part-time for the Hokies. Beyond that, much of the Horned Frogs depth is going to come from newcomers -- Jarvis Ray is a 6'6" freshman guard, while JR Cadot and Sammy Yaeger are JuCo transfers that will provide some depth at the off-guard spot where TCU will be looking to replace the shooting of Edvinas Ruzgas. Up front is an even bigger question mark as the team’s leading rebounder, Zvonko Buljan, graduated. Nikola Cerina and Garlon Green both had decent freshman seasons that could turn into promising sophomore years, but after that its a bunch of question marks. Freshman Amric Fields, JuCo transfer Andre Clark, and Howard transfer Cheick Kone (who is coming off of knee surgery) should help with size and depth. Expect a big year from Moss without a lot of wins to show for it.
  7. Wyoming: Last year was a rough one for Wyoming. Leading scorer Afam Muojeke blew out his knee midway through the year and two players -- starter AJ Davis and Thomas Manzano -- left the team mid-season. The good news is that much of that roster returns, although bringing back a group that won just 10 games isn’t awe-inspiring. As I said, 6'8" wing Muojeke is back while sophomore Desmar Jackson, who showed some signs of being a player as he filled in Muojeke’s scoring role, also returns. JayDee Luster will man the point, while Adam Waddell and Djibril Thiam look to be the starters in Wyoming’s front court. Its difficult to imagine Wyoming making the jump to contender this season, but with the pieces they have coming back -- especially a healthy Muojeke, who led the Cowboys to an 8-8 start -- Wyoming should be (much) more competitive in league play.
  8. Utah: After an incredibly inconsistent 2009-2010 season, Jim Boylen’s last season in the MWC looks like it will be a rebuilding one. Luka Drca and Kim Tillie have graduated while Carlon Brown and Marshall Henderson have transferred, meaning that the Utes lose four of their top five scorers and essentially all of their back court. The guys that do return -- Shawn Glover and Jace Tavita -- averaged a whopping 4.8 ppg in over 32 combined minutes. Of Boylen’s nine newcomers (five of who are freshmen), seven are either guards or wings, which means that there will be some serious competition for minutes and plenty of available shots. The front court does return some big bodies -- 6'8" Jay Watkins, 7'0" Jason Washburn, and 7'3" David Foster (who averaged 4.0 bpg). The front court for Utah has some size and talent, but how good the Utes are this season is going to depend on what they can get out of the new guys in their back court.
  9. Air Force: The Falcons weren’t just bad last season. They were terrible. They won just two games in conference play, both again Wyoming (who went 3-13 in the league), one of which came during the MWC tournament. Their best win last season came against Niagara. And they lose leading scorer Grant Parker. But there is reason for optimism here. For starters, Air Force was pretty solidly decimated by injuries last season. Eleven different players started a game -- Parker missed ten games, while third leading scorer Tom Fow missed four and starting center Sammy Schafer suffered a concussion so serious he missed the last 28 games of the year -- which means that there are a number of kids with real game experience on this roster. It was also a young roster last season. Fow and Evan Washington are both tough and fairly talented seniors that return to anchor the roster, but the rest of the rotation (which included a whopping 21 players in 2009-2010) will essentially be made up of sophomores with a few juniors sprinkled in. There is room for improvement here. Air Force put up some good fights last season in conference play -- they nearly knocked off New Mexico twice -- but they didn’t have the scoring power to spring an upset. The Falcons should more competitive, but without a major influx of talent (which isn’t coming this year) their best case scenario is a .500 season with a handful of league win.