2013-14 Conference Previews: Mountain West
The Mountain West may not have been the powerhouse conference that some metrics said it was, but it still was a very successful year, with 5 of the 9 teams making the NCAA Tournament, though none making it past the Round of 32. 2 new teams join this year, including long-time mid-major power Utah State. The top of the conference though will look very similar to last year, with New Mexico, UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State battling for the top spot.
It is tough for any coach to have to replace their top 5 players from the prior year. When one of those players was responsible for almost twice as many shots as the next highest on the roster, the task becomes that much tougher. Michael Lyons is gone, along with leading rebounder Mike Fitzgerald and leading assist-man Todd Fletcher. Coach Dave Pilopovich will have an inexperienced, but disciplined group heading into a tough Mountain West Conference. DaLovell Earls, Kamryn Williams, and Marek Olesinski are a hard-nosed, but small frontline. The backcourt will likely be sophomore Tre’ Coggins and junior Max Yon, who combined averaged about 19 minutes per game. Cam Michael would have likely been a starter, but he transferred to Northern Colorado.
What to Watch For – The biggest question will be where will the scoring come from? Last season, the offense was designed to get Lyons as many shots as possible, often as quickly as possible, but there is no sense that there is another Lyons on this squad. Until someone steps up, it can be a tough season for the Falcons.
Coach Leon Rice has done a great job since taking over the Boise State program, leading the Broncos to 20-plus wins 2 out of 3 seasons. With the returning players this season, it should be 3 out of 4, and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Broncos’ offense relies on a 3 or 4 guard attack, led by point guard Derrick Marks and shooters Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga. The offense starts with Marks, whose ability to get past his man opens up the outside for the shooters. Drmic will settle for the three, but can attack the rim, while Elorriaga is a knock-down shooter. Senior Ryan Watkins understands his teammates shooting habits well and can be tough to stop when attacking the offensive glass. Mikey Thompson and Igor Hadziomerovic both contributed important minutes last year, but haven’t shown the offensive production of their teammates. Latvian Edmunds Dukulis and freshman Dezmyn Trent may be contributors, but have yet to prove what they can do.
What to Watch For – The four-guard sets can work well, especially when you have the shooters and a lead guard who can open up the floor. The problem, as Boise saw last year, was what happens when the shots aren’t falling. Both Marks and Drmic will need to look to get to the basket more, and Watkins will need to find a way to make an impact other than on the glass.
Add Larry Eustachy to the list of coaches who have to replace a significant amount of key contributors this season. In Eustachy’s case, he has to replace all 5 starters from a Rams’ team that was one of the toughest in the country. Still, even with a new group of players, expect the Rams to focus on defense and rebounding. Daniel Bejarano acted as the Rams’ sixth man last season, and was a big enough contributor to be named the best in the conference. Bejarano knows what is expected, and his ability to rebound for his size was big, but he needs to show that he can expand his scoring, especially from the perimeter. Jon Octeus showed some distributing skills in his minutes last year and could take over at the point. In the front court, Navy transfer JJ Avila will be ready to play after sitting out at a junior college last season. He was very strong around the basket while at Navy and his style of play is just what Eustachy likes. Gerson Santo played limited minutes last year, but he should be taking over Colton Iverson’s spot in the middle.
What to Watch For – Not only was Eustachy’s team tough last season, but they were experienced, and this allowed them to set the tone of many of their games from the beginning. This group may get their eventually, but it won’t be quickly, and the team may need to lean on Bejarano and Avila more than they would like. Still, if everyone buys in like last year, teams in the Mountain West will need to watch out.
The Bulldogs seemed to take a step back in coach Rodney Terry’s 2nd season, but the maturation of some of the younger players should lead to some key improvements. The biggest key to improving this team was dismissing troubled freshman Robert Upshaw, who while talented, was a distraction. Oklahoma State transfer Cezar Guerrero takes over the point guard position and provides an instant upgrade as a distributor and defender. Seniors Allen Huddleston and Tyler Johnson are the top leading returning scorers, and Guerrero should be able to help them get some better looks at the basket, though they still need to convert. Sophomore Braeden Anderson could have been the breakout player this season, but injuries resulting from a car accident leave his future this season in doubt. Freshmen Paul Watson and Karachi Edo could earn time on the wing, though it may be possible to play both together if they earn it.
What to Watch For – This is a team that just has trouble scoring, and none of the new additions are proven commodities in that area. The key may be just how much Guerrero improves his ability to score as well as distribute. Also, with Anderson likely unable to play, the Bulldogs are extremely shorthanded on the front line and will need somebody to step up.
After a strong end to their time in the WAC, the Wolf Pack had a tough time adjusting to their new home in the Mountain West. David Evans has one of the best guards in the conference in Deonte Burton, but players will need to step up around him to make this year more successful. Burton is quick and capable of scoring in a variety of ways, though his decision-making, both on shots and passing, leaves a lot to be desired. Jerry Evans is a big wing but had trouble getting quality looks last year, and was also the team’s leading rebounder. The frontcourt may be improved with Cole Huff, a talented sophomore, in place to earn more minutes, and two JUCO transfers in Chris Brown and AJ West who will give the Wolf Pack a more physical presence.
What to Watch For – Someone on this team needs to help out Burton in shouldering the scoring load, but there aren’t many proven candidates. Huff can be effective around the basket, especially the offensive boards, and West and Brown are physical players, but the Mountain West has many defenders who can handle that. UTEP transfer Michael Perez may end up being the answer, but all of this will depend on Burton’s ability to create opportunities.