Mountain West Basketball:

Mountain West’s early tournament exits don’t temper 2012-13 expectations

Early tournament exits don’t temper 2012-13 expectations

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Colorado State mascot Cam the Ram head butts TCU mascot Super Frog during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game Thursday, March 8, 2012. Colorado State won 81-60.

The Mountain West Conference scored a resounding victory on Selection Sunday, putting four teams in the NCAA Tournament, with three of them seeded 6 or better.

Less than a week later, the tone is decidedly more somber after three teams — UNLV (6), San Diego State (6) and Colorado State (11) — lost in their opening game. Only 5-seed New Mexico is still alive, playing 4-seed Louisville tonight at 6:40 after surviving against Long Beach State on Thursday.

Early exits are never good for a league, especially one outside the nonpower six, which doesn’t have the same annual battles about national respect. However, this isn’t a doom-and-gloom situation for the league.

First of all, while two of the games were upsets according to the seeds, the Aztecs were actually underdogs against North Carolina State, according to bookmakers.

More importantly, the league’s top teams are almost all poised to be even better next season.

Here’s a quick look at the top Mountain West contenders in 2012-13:

UNLV

The Rebels were in a transition year, with Dave Rice coming in and bringing with him a fast-paced system. Early success sent expectations skyrocketing, but struggles on the road and an inability to keep certain teams off the glass limited what UNLV was able to accomplish.

In Year Two, the Rebels will have a chance to build off their successes with a revamped lineup that should be better suited for Rice’s system. They lose three starters — Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield and Brice Massamba — but bring in transfers Bryce Jones, a slashing guard, and Khem Birch, a McDonald’s All-American forward who will be eligible in December. High-school recruit Katin Reinhardt may fill that other hole in the lineup, and UNLV has another open scholarship available.

Add that to Anthony Marshall, Mike Moser and Justin Hawkins and you're looking at a top-20 team. Expect a national ranking to keep the Rebels on the national radar for much of the season.

SAN DIEGO STATE

This season was just gravy for The Show.

In what should have been a rebuilding year, coach Steve Fisher got the best out of his players en route to a second-straight league title. The Aztecs lose forwards Garrett Green and Tim Shelton, but conference player of the year Jamaal Franklin is back.

“A lot of guys out there thought that was a rebuilding year, as you all always mention, but I'm glad of what we accomplished,” Franklin said after Friday’s 79-65 loss to NC State. “But I can see us going farther. That's why I'm disappointed.”

The frontline won’t miss a beat with a trio of transfers coming in. Dwayne Polee (6-foot-7 from St. John’s), J.J. O’Brien (6-7 from Utah) and James Johnson (6-9 from Virginia, eligible in December) will likely make the Aztecs a preseason top-15 team.

NEW MEXICO

If any of these teams appear headed for a setback, it’s the Lobos. Their next loss will be the final game for Drew Gordon as well as role player Phillip McDonald.

That kind of loss didn’t sink San Diego State, but Steve Alford may have to come up with the same type of excellent coaching season that Fisher just had.

The Lobos are bringing in two three-star frontcourt players, including 7-footer Obij Aget, but their 2012-13 success may be more reliant on the emergence of a bench player such as Demetrius Walker.

New Mexico certainly has a lot of the pieces, but the Lobos will be on a tier below the Aztecs and Rebels.

COLORADO STATE

The Rams return almost every key player — top four scorers, top three rebounders — and add a pair of transfers in sophomore guard Daniel Bejarano from Arizona and senior forward Colton Iverson from Minnesota.

If those two make significant contributions then coach Tim Miles will feel that much better, but honestly the rotation he has returning would be enough to be a dark horse in the conference next year.

Junior forward Pierce Hornung pulled down 17 rebounds in their loss to Murray State and first-team all-conference pick Wes Eikmeier scored 10 points. Those two will lead the way of underrated inside-out combos on several national lists.

“It didn't turn out like we wanted, but I feel like we accomplished a lot,” Hornung said. “We definitely have goals next year that exceed where this year ended.”

•••

Besides the overall talent, scheduling will be key, as it always is, to getting quality victories and impressing the committee come tournament time. The onus for that is on each school, but the league does catch a break with the inclusion of Nevada next season. It also adds Fresno State, which doesn’t help anybody, but the Wolfpack were a top-70 RPI team and they return their top two scorers.

This Mountain West season was a pleasant surprise that ended, pending a New Mexico run, with a whimper. Next year has the potential to be a great ride from start to finish.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. The assessment on the next year players on UNLV is hopefull. The question many are asking, what about the coaching? Clearly, there are serious offensive play questions? Will the next year Rebel basketball team play the same type of offense we have witness the second half of this season?

    If the Rebels are going to play the same offensively next year, we will see the same results if not worse.

  2. This conference is overrated. No team from the MWC has ever advanced past the Sweet 16(UNLV-2007,Utah-2005,BYU/SDS-2011). This year looks like it won't be any different unless NM can pull off a great run.

  3. Reinhardt will start, adn Cook will be a great change of pace back up. Reggie Smith will ride the pine. Sorry Reg. If Mashour doesnt bolt, he should get soem playing time.

  4. Rebeljedi - Who do you see losing minutes to Mashour? With 5 guards(Reinhardt, Cook, Marshall, Hawkins, and Smith)& two swing men in Jones, and Moser; where will Mashour's minutes come? Even if you redshirt Cook, still very crowded backcourt and wing positions. Does not seem like Rice has much faith in his abilities.

  5. Gumby, Moser fills the 4 spot more than the 3, although he could wind up playing more there with the addition of Birch. Mashour is 6-6 and can play either the 2 or 3. He does bring energy when he comes in and he does seem to get to the boards well, so I think he at the least deserves a look early on, although I think Rice should have given him a look late in this season when the team was collapsing. At this point I wouldn't expect Cook to see a lot of playing time as a FR, but how it all looks on the court is what will really tell that. Until then it's all speculation on our parts.

  6. So much for the MWC being an elite conference again this year. Three ranked teams, four teams into the tournament, none made it to the second weekend of the tournament. Fantastic!

  7. UNLV has talented players, the only position they need to fill is recruiting a quality post player. UNLV's three big men, were completely dominated by one Drew Gordon. UNLV's inexperienced coaching staff does not know how to utilize the talent they have. In the off season, the coaching staff has to work on free throw shooting, establishing an inside game, boxing out, and cutting down on poor 3 point shot selection, and maintaining a sense of urgency. Mr. Dave Rice, did not show any confidence in his bench players, rarely utilizing their potential talent. UNLV needs to be able to go 8-10 deep. Let's see what transpires next year????

  8. So the best conference in the West huh?

  9. @mj20 no team in the MWC has 'EVER' gone passed the Sweet 16? UNLV in 1990. That was one of the best teams in NCAA Basketball history, they humiliated Duke in the final by beating them by 30 points.

  10. UNLV was in the BIG WEST back in 1990. The MWC was not formed until 1999.

    As for Gobruins- all I can do is laugh at the Pac-12.