Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 7 league, the Mountain West.
Until UNLV landed McDonald's All-American Anthony Bennett and San Diego State nabbed promising forward Winston Shepard last spring, Mountain West teams had seldom landed elite prospects directly out of high school.
What they've become adept at, however, is securing talented transfers dissatisfied with their original choice of schools.
From UNLV forwards Mike Moser and Chace Stanback (UCLA), to Wyoming big man Leonard Washington (USC), to New Mexico forward Drew Gordon (UCLA), transfers have fueled the Mountain West's rise in stature in recent years. This season will be no different with incoming transfers playing key roles for many of the league's top teams.
Once he becomes eligible in mid-December, Pittsburgh transfer and former McDonald's All-American Khem Birch will complement Moser and Bennett in the UNLV frontcourt with his shot-blocking and rebounding. USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones was often the Rebels' best player in practice last season and will start at off guard for UNLV as soon as he returns from a fractured non-shooting hand.
Outside of Las Vegas, 7-foot Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson will make an immediate impact for a previously undersized Colorado State team that at times played a 6-5 forward at center last season. And San Diego State's formerly thin frontcourt will be bolstered by the arrival of high-scoring forward J.J. O'Brien (Utah), springy, versatile Dwayne Polee II (St. John's) and beefy back-to-the-basket option James Johnson (Virginia).
The addition of those players will help shape a Mountain West race that again promises to be intriguing. UNLV and San Diego State are the headliners, but guard-heavy New Mexico, improving Colorado State and league newcomer Nevada each are capable of making the NCAA tournament this March.
If the Rebels are a slight favorite over the Aztecs, it's only because they boast more talent than they've had since the Jerry Tarkanian era. Dave Rice's challenge will be getting the newcomers to mesh with the returners, keeping everyone satisfied with their playing time and helping senior Anthony Marshall make the transition from playing off ball to running the point.
San Diego State can overtake the Rebels if the transfers and Shepard are able to bolster a frontcourt that was thin last year and returns only reserve DeShawn Stephens. The Aztecs again will be loaded on the perimeter with steady point guard Xavier Thames, sharp shooter Chase Tapley and Mountain West player of the year Jamaal Franklin all back from last season's surprising 26-win team.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Chase Tapley, San Diego State. Thrust into a larger role last season as a result of the graduation of four starters from the previous year, Tapley responded with a breakout season. He averaged 15.8 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from behind the arc despite opposing defenses being able to focus the majority of their attention on guarding the perimeter because of San Diego State's lack of interior game.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 7: Mountain West
• Mountain West Preview Capsule: Transfers again bolster league's top teams
• Ranking the Mountain West's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Tuesday: The UNLV-San Diego State rivalry will reach a crescendo in the Aztecs last year in the league
• Tuesday: A former Mountain West player breaks down this year's league race
For more news on the Mountain West, visit Rivals.com
Best playmaker: Kendall Williams, New Mexico. On a Lobos team that boasts one of the best backcourts out West, Williams remains the top scoring threat and the guy responsible for getting his teammates involved. He averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 assists per game last season, both numbers that could increase this season with New Mexico more reliant on its perimeter after Drew Gordon's departure.
Best defender: Pierce Hornung, Colorado State. Undersized to play in the paint at just 6-foot-5, Hornung thrived nonetheless last season because of his effort. Not only did he average 8.7 rebounds and a league-high 8.7 steals per game, he also made every hustle play for the Rams and played sound post defense. Seven-footer Colton Iverson's arrival will enable Hornung to guard power forwards instead of centers this season, which should make him even more effective.
Top NBA prospect: Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State. Maybe highly touted UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett claims this title by March, but for right now this is a toss-up between Franklin and UNLV's Mike Moser, the Mountain West's two premier players. Moser's athleticism and ability to rebound and defend multiple positions gives him a shot of being a late first-round pick. Franklin's ceiling is even higher if he can continue to make strides as a jump shooter while maintaining his defensive prowess and explosive ability to get to the rim.
Best backcourt: San Diego State. Thanks to the ability of its staff to unearth prospects overlooked by the top programs on the West Coast, San Diego State has a backcourt that rivals any in the nation. Xavier Thames is a steadying force at point guard, Tapley is the league's best shooter, James Rahon is a solid complementary piece when healthy and Franklin is a blossoming star who will be able to play more on the perimeter this year because of the Aztecs' newfound frontcourt depth.
Best frontcourt: UNLV. Few teams nationally have more frontcourt talent or depth than the Rebels. There's Moser, a unanimous all-league pick who averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 rebounds as a sophomore. There's Bennett, a 6-foot-8 McDonald's All-American who is UNLV's most heralded recruit in years. And there's highly touted Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch, who will likely start alongside Moser and Bennett once he becomes eligible in mid-December.
Best recruiting class: UNLV. The slight edge goes to the Rebels over the Aztecs mostly because of Bennett, the early favorite for Mountain West newcomer of the year because of his rebounding ability and ability to score in transition. He spurned Kentucky, Florida and Oregon among others to join the Rebels. In addition to Bennett, UNLV also landed several other impact freshmen including versatile forward Savon Goodman and skilled guard Kaitin Reinhardt, a deft passer and knock-down shooter.
Coach on the rise: Larry Eustachy, Colorado State. It took eight years of building at Southern Mississippi, but Eustachy finally reached the NCAA tournament and parlayed that into a better job. Now the former Iowa State coach takes over a Colorado State program set up to win immediately thanks to the return of four starters from an NCAA tournament team and the addition of Iverson.
Coach on the hot seat: None. Even the second-tier teams in the Mountain West are mostly on an upswing. Larry Shyatt has Wyoming defending superbly, Rodney Terry has injected new life into Fresno State's program with his recruiting and Leon Rice returns four starters and some nice young talent at Boise State. The only exception is Air Force, which dispatched Jeff Reynolds last winter and replaced him with assistant Dave Pilipovich.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Larry Eustachy, Colorado State (Had been coach at Southern Mississippi)
Regular-season winner last season: New Mexico, San Diego State
Tourney winner last season: New Mexico
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 5th ; 2010-11: 4th, 2009-10: 6th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 11 (UNLV 3, San Diego State 3, New Mexico 2, BYU 2, Colorado State 1)