Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
Next week, the Mountain West Conference will release its preseason media poll and All-MWC team, along with other honors.
But as has become tradition in my few years here at the Sun, I'd rather give you my votes right now.
The league has some buzz going into the 2010-11 season, coming off of a year where four of nine members made the NCAA tournament for the first time. This year, four teams are expected to go again, and also each of them have the potential to make it out of the tourney's first weekend.
No need to beat around the bush:
1) San Diego State (2009-10: 25-9 overall, 11-5 MWC) — There's really no argument here. All five starters return, including the top front court trio on the West Coast. Heck, the combo of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White could hang with any other unit in the country, in my opinion. Plus, they have some nice new additions to the roster (more on that later). The kicker? This offseason was quiet away from the court, with no legal or disciplinary distractions, which hasn't consistently been the case in recent years. The focus should be sharp going into the season.
2) New Mexico (2009-10: 30-5, 14-2) — Many might drop the two-time defending MWC regular season champs because of the loss of Darington Hobson to the NBA. But down the stretch last year, the team learned how to thrive around him rather than because of him. Add in two high-profile transfers in Drew Gordon (UCLA) and Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee) and more depth, the Lobos should be just as strong as they were in 2009-10. That "should" keeps them at No. 2 rather than getting the top spot.
3) UNLV (2009-10: 25-9, 11-5) — If it wasn't for the losses of seniors Matt Shaw (NCAA suspension) and Kendall Wallace (torn ACL — right knee) for the entire 2010-11 season, the Rebels would be No. 2 ahead of New Mexico. Plain and simple. Losing your two biggest 3-point threats on a team that thrives on long-range shooting will be tough to make up for. But, still, UNLV is deep and well-rounded, as newcomers Carlos Lopez (redshirt freshman) and Quintrell Thomas (Kansas transfer) in the post will help balance out what was a perimeter-heavy team last season.
4) BYU (2009-10: 30-6, 13-3) — Believe it or not, it's hard to put BYU this low, but it's more a testament to how strong the league is this year than anything else. The Cougars have the league's best player (Jimmer Fredette), maybe the its best back-court wingman (Jackson Emery) and a good-but-not-great front court, which got abused on the boards against more physical teams last season. Tyler Haws, who averaged 11.3 points per game as a freshman last year, is gone on a mission, but it's a wash, as Dave Rose gets not only Chris Collinsworth back from his mission, but also his younger brother — Kyle — who was the top high school recruit out of the state of Utah in 2010.
5) Colorado State (2009-10: 16-16, 7-9) — Tim Miles, in my opinion, is the league's top young coach, and each year, he continually succeeds in squeezing the absolute most out of a limited roster. I still don't think he has a team that can make the NCAA tournament, but the Rams will again command respect behind the inside/outside combo of point guard Dorian Green and forward Andy Ogide, winning a few games that they probably shouldn't in the process.
6) TCU (2009-10: 13-19, 5-11) — The Horned Frogs might have the most entertaining one-two combo at guard in the league. Last season, as a sophomore, Ronnie "Tuffy" Moss quietly put up some strong numbers (14.9 ppg, 5.9 apg, 3.2 rpg). But he was turnover prone, to say the least, averaging almost four a game. Now, he'll share ball-handling duties with Virginia Tech transfer — and Las Vegas native — Hank Thorns Jr., who is small, quick and dynamic. On the other hand, TCU's interior guys have a lot to prove.
7) Utah (2009-10: 14-17, 7-9) — Jim Boylen is a great coach, but it's tough to put the Utes any higher than this, because no one can realistically know what to expect from them after their top two players — Carlon Brown and Marshall Henderson — mysteriously transferred. They do, however, have a nice piece to build around in 7-foot-3 center David Foster, who is the reigning MWC Defensive Player of the Year.
8) Wyoming (2009-10: 10-21, 3-13) — The Cowboys have two big-time scorers in Afam Muojeke, who returns from a season-ending knee injury that limited him to 16 games a year ago, and Desmar Jackson. But they were consistently way too sloppy again last season, and it's hard to see that trend changing.
9) Air Force (2009-10: 10-21, 1-15) — Basically, the Falcons lost the coin flip with Wyoming for the rights to avoiding the cellar.
Preseason All-Conference Team
Jimmer Fredette, senior guard, BYU (2009-10: 22.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.1 rpg) — This is pretty self-explanatory by now, right?
Tre'Von Willis, senior guard, UNLV (2009-10: 17.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.5 apg) — Say what you will about his turbulent offseason, but Willis was voted as a first team All-MWC performer last year for a reason. Behind Fredette, he's the league's most all-around guard.
Dairese Gary, senior guard, New Mexico (2009-10: 13.1 ppg, 3.9 apg, 2.8 rpg) — Yes, I'm going small-ball here and picking three guards. In the latter portion of last season, Gary was New Mexico's best player. Not Darington Hobson. He's the best leader in the league, and with his grit and toughness, he's the perfect fit to run Steve Alford's team. He edged out San Diego State's Billy White for this spot on my ballot, but the fact that I thought Gary deserved just as much consideration as Fredette and Hobson as last year's MWC Player of the Year gives him the edge.
Malcolm Thomas, senior forward, San Diego State (2009-10: 10.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg) — In terms of post players, he's the toughest guy to match up with in the league. He's wiry, but Thomas's athleticism makes him a terror on both offense and defense. Expect him to average a double-double as a senior. I'd also expect his 1.5 blocks per game to possibly double in 2010-11, as well.
Kawhi Leonard, sophomore forward, San Diego State (2009-10: 12.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg) — Here's your early front-runner for the 2011-12 preseason MWC Player of the Year ... if he's still there and hasn't jumped to the NBA. Leonard is without question the league's top rebounder, both in terms of natural instincts and production. He led SDSU in scoring last year as a byproduct of raw ability. If his mid-range jumper shows more progress this season, it will likely be his last with the Aztecs.
Others drawing consideration — Billy White, senior forward, SDSU; Andy Ogide, senior forward, CSU; Ronnie Moss, junior guard, TCU; Chace Stanback, junior forward, UNLV; Jackson Emery, senior guard, BYU.
Preseason Player of the Year
Jimmer Fredette, senior guard, BYU — Again, I ask: This is pretty self-explanatory by now, right? Maybe the most intriguing storyline involving Fredette going into his senior season is just how much he can possibly boost his national profile. Believe it or not, much of the country hadn't heard of him before his offensive explosion in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament against Florida. Now more eyes will be on him right from the first game. That, in turn, helps the Mountain West.
Others drawing consideration — N/A
Preseason Newcomer of the Year
James Rahon, sophomore guard, San Diego State — No transfer will be more important to his team this year than Rahon. Mark it. Why? Because he fills the Aztecs' most glaring hole from 2009-10, giving them a legitimate 3-point marksman. The San Diego native shot a team-best 40.7 percent from deep at Santa Clara as a freshman in 2008-09, averaging 11.3 points per game. SDSU last season shot just 31.7 percent from long-range as a team. Do the math.
Others drawing consideration — Drew Gordon, sophomore forward, New Mexico; Emmanuel Negedu, sophomore forward, New Mexico; Quintrell Thomas, sophomore forward, UNLV; Will Clyburn, junior forward, Utah; Hank Thorns Jr., junior guard, TCU.
BYU signee Kyle Collinsworth
Preseason Freshman of the Year
Kyle Collinsworth, guard/forward, BYU — A versatile 6-foot-6 wing, Collinsworth will be a nice addition for BYU, who lost a similar player in Tyler Haws for two years while he is on a mission. Collinsworth averaged 23.7 points and 10.4 rebounds last season for Provo (Utah) High and will see plenty of time on the floor.
Others drawing consideration — Carlos Lopez, forward, UNLV; LaBradford Franklin, guard, SDSU; Alex Kirk, center, New Mexico; Chad Calcaterra, forward, Colorado State.