Justin M. Bowen
Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
Recently, preseason ballots were sent to members of the Mountain West Conference media, and after taking a glance at it, one thought crossed my mind: "Boy, this league is top-heavy and otherwise thin this year."
The MWC is in a transition phase, and that's the main reason for it. Gone are BYU and Utah, in is Boise State, on its way out is TCU and on its way in next season will be Fresno State and Nevada-Reno. Beyond that, who knows?
With that said, it will be an eight-team league this year with two experienced and rather loaded teams duking it out at the top, a few pesky contenders immediately behind them and some programs hanging around in the background.
The official preseason poll and individual honors will be unveiled later this week when MWC media day takes place in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Here is what my ballot looks like, with explanations along the way.
1) New Mexico (20010-11: 22-13 overall, 8-8 MWC) — By a very slim margin, you have to go with the Lobos at the top over UNLV. Steve Alford's roster is ridiculously deep with returning talent. The obvious anchor is 6-foot-9 senior forward Drew Gordon, who averaged a double-double (13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and posted 13 of them in 26 games following a transfer from UCLA. The only real question is who picks up the slack at the point with Dairese Gary gone. Both junior Jamal Fenton and sophomore Kendall Williams proved themselves capable at times last season while Gary battled nagging injuries. The x-factor will be freshman Hugh Greenwood. The Australian do-it-all guard picked up tons of buzz after dropping 26 points on the United States in this summer's FIBA U-19 World Championships.
2) UNLV (2010-11: 24-9, 11-5) — UNLV has just as deep of a returning roster as New Mexico and also has a couple of exciting newcomers of its own. So, why do the Lobos get the nod? Because the Rebels, like the league, are in a state of transition. While first-year coach Dave Rice and his staff are installing a more exciting, uptempo playing style, it's going to take a bit for UNLV's returners to truly hit their stride with it. They'll be challenged plenty while playing one of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules, and by the time their Jan. 14 league opener at San Diego State rolls around, they should be in pretty good shape.
3) San Diego State (2010-11: 34-3, 14-2) — Coming off of the greatest season in program history, the Aztecs fit in perfectly in this spot. They are lacking in depth and size, but still have enough returning experience — especially in the backcourt — to make them better than anyone else behind UNLV and New Mexico. Chase Tapley was the team's fifth-leading scorer a year ago (8.6 ppg), but the four guys ahead of him are all gone. Tapley will likely fill D.J. Gay's shoes at the point, at least early on. Two key guys for SDSU will be the eligible transfers — Garrett Green and Xavier Thames. Green, at 6-foot-11, is one of only three players on the roster standing at least 6-7. He averaged 6.3 points and 5.1 boards last season at LSU before leaving for his post-grad year, and he should be able to produce against lighter competition. Thames is a 6-foot-3 Washington State transfer who can score in bunches, and will have to do so early and often for the Aztecs to contend for a third straight NCAA tourney berth.
4) Colorado State (2010-11: 19-13, 9-7) — Very much like SDSU, Colorado State is experienced and deep in the backcourt, but quite unproven up front. It will rely on two very capable combo guards in juniors Dorian Green and Wes Eikmeier. If Tim Miles has shown us one thing in his run at CSU, it's that he'll squeeze every last drop of talent out of his roster. That should be enough to keep them in fourth place for the second year in a row.
5) Air Force (2010-11: 16-16, 6-10) — In what was probably a make-or-break season for Jeff Reynolds last year, the Falcons thrived and took some major steps forward. Despite losing some important seniors, they'll have plenty of opportunities to build some confidence early while working through a pretty thin non-conference slate.
6) TCU (2010-11: 11-22, 1-15) — Each year, I seem to pick TCU way too high. The reason is talent. In terms of talent, TCU's 1-15 league record from a year is flat-out puzzling. I'd have to think that in a year where the lower half of the league is up for grabs, the Horned Frogs — still very talented — can separate themselves some. Unfortunately, if they build a little steam, things will only get tougher next season when they head off to the Big 12.
7) Boise State (2010-11: 22-13, 10-6 WAC) — It's really unfortunate that Boise State didn't join the league a year earlier. They finished second in the WAC and improved rapidly under first-year coach Leon Rice. However, the Broncos graduated their top four scorers, and Rice has a roster this year featuring 10 newcomers, including seven freshmen. So … the jury is out.
8) Wyoming (2010-11: 10-21, 3-13) — Larry Shyatt won at Wyoming before, and you'd have to think he knows how to do it again. He'll have a decent roster to start with, but there's plenty of unknowns. The biggest question is at point guard. Meanwhile, contributions from USC transfer Leonard Washington and senior swingman Afam Muojeke, whose last two seasons have been cut short by knee injuries, will be musts for the Cowboys, who could be in for a tough rebuilding year.
PRESEASON ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Preseason Player of the Year — Drew Gordon, senior forward, New Mexico (2010-11: 13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) — It's never easy for a mid-year transfer to adjust on the floor, and that was the case last season for Gordon, who battled with inconsistency until late in the season. Already the league's most dominant rebounder and one of its fiercest offensive forces down low, the next step is learning how to avoid foul trouble. Either way, averaging a double-double again this season should be no sweat for him.
Kendall Williams, sophomore guard, New Mexico (2010-11: 11.6 ppg, 4.0 apt, 3.0 rpg) — At 6-foot-3, Williams provides matchup problems at the point, while he's also able to score in a variety of ways as a two-guard. One of the most well-rounded and fearless performers in the league, he proved as a freshman that he could handle plenty, playing 30.5 minutes per game. Barring a massive sophomore slump, his future is incredibly bright. That future should come now.
Chace Stanback, senior forward, UNLV (2010-11: 13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) — Stanback thrived at power forward both as a scorer and rebounder the last two seasons, and now playing his natural position — small forward — and doing so within an uptempo system, he could be due for a big year. Stanback will get a chance to better showcase what he can do off of the dribble on top of remaining a dangerous threat from long range.
Anthony Marshall, junior guard, UNLV (2010-11: 9.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg) — Senior teammate Oscar Bellfield will get the vote here from many, but I'm tapping Marshall, as I see him as the league's potential breakthrough star this season. Bellfield will move predominately away from the point and play more off of the ball. Meanwhile, Marshall slides in to run Dave Rice's offense. Given his off-the-charts athletic ability, it's an obvious, natural fit. After all, some of Marshall's best performances in the last two years in league play came against Rice's BYU squad. A gifted scorer at the rim, he'll likely have countless chances to do so, while having to rely less on his still-developing outside shot in an offense that is transition-oriented.
Hank Thorns Jr., senior guard, TCU (2010-11: 10.7 ppg, 7.0 apt, 3.5 rpg) — Lots of candidates for this last spot, but once again, I'm going to roll the dice with TCU. Thorns' big numbers in league play last season went largely overlooked due to the Horned Frogs losing 15 of 16 MWC games, but the Las Vegas native averaged more than eight assists per game in that stretch. If TCU is going to turn things around before leaving the league, Thorns will be the reason. So, in other words, I'm banking on my bold Horned Frogs prediction.
Others drawing consideration — Michael Lyons, junior guard, Air Force; Wes Eikmeier, junior guard, Colorado State; Phillip McDonald, senior guard, New Mexico; Chase Tapley, junior guard, San Diego State; Oscar Bellfield, senior guard, UNLV.
PRESEASON NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
Mike Moser, sophomore forward, UNLV — Last year, there were many days when Moser would be the most impressive player on the practice floor at the Thomas & Mack Center. And that was usually playing solely on the defensive end with the scout team. At 6-foot-8, the UCLA transfer already has an NBA body, can shoot consistently out to 3-point range and is gifted at playing above the rim. Still motivated by a year of sitting on the bench for Bruins' coach Ben Howland in 2009-10, expect him to be both relentless and productive from Day One.
Others drawing consideration — Demetrius Walker, sophomore guard, New Mexico; Xavier Thames, sophomore guard, San Diego State; Leonard Washington, junior forward, Wyoming.
Hugh Greenwood FIBA Highlights
PRESEASON FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Hugh Greenwood, guard, New Mexico — The hype that Greenwood generated at the U-19 World Championships in Latvia is legitimate. He proved in that outburst against the United States that he can hang with some of college hoops' brightest stars, and finished the tournament averaging 17.1 points, 2.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. He likely won't start right away for Steve Alford, but from the beginning, expect him to be a reliable contributor off of the bench at the very least. He has 'future star' written all over him.
Others drawing consideration — Cody Mann, guard, Colorado State; Anthony Drmic, guard/forward, Boise State.