Tue Oct 05 09:15am EDT
Our week-long Mountain West preview continues with a look at the conference's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.
Will BYU leave the league on a high note?
Jimmer Fredette instantly became the best offensive weapon in the Mountain West the second he decided not to turn pro last spring, but BYU's ability to win the league next season depends on whether the team has enough firepower around him. Fiery forward Jonathan Tavernari graduated, standout guard Tyler Haws left for his two-year Mormon mission and NCAA tournament hero Michael Loyd Jr. was asked to leave the program.
In spite of those losses, the Cougars return a potent enough backcourt to make their final Mountain West season one of their best. Fredette averaged 22.1 points per game last season and erupted for 37 in an NCAA tournament victory over Florida, while backcourt mate and fellow senior Jackson Emery also enjoyed a breakout 2009-10 campaign at 12.5 points and 4.5 boards a game.
BYU's front court is full of solid players with room to grow, but the Cougars will need at least one of them to emerge as a dependable interior threat. Forwards Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies are back and Chris Collinsworth has returned from his mission, each of whom hoping to take on bigger roles this season.
Can New Mexico's newcomers mesh quickly?
Whether New Mexico can win a share of a third straight Mountain West title will probably depend on two things: Can the Lobos develop any depth in their backcourt and can a collection of talented transfers and newcomers mesh in time for the Mountain West season?
Star forward Darington Hobson and sharpshooter Roman Martinez are both gone from last year's team that earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, but New Mexico isn't lacking for talent to replace them. First-team all-league point guard Dairese Gary and fellow starting guard Phillip McDonald both return, while the Lobos add a bevy of talented newcomers in the frontcourt to join returner A.J. Hardeman.
Headlining the newcomers in the post are top-100 freshman Alex Kirk, Tennessee transfer Emmanuel Negedu and UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, the latter two former elite recruits who endured their share of hardship at their previous schools. Negedu left Tennessee because doctors wouldn't clear him to play as a result of a heart condition, while Gordon clashed with the UCLA coaches despite earning a starting job and averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 boards per game.
How will UNLV bounce back from a tumultuous offseason?
UNLV returns the nucleus of a team that fell just shy of a first-round NCAA tournament victory over Northern Iowa last March, but the Rebels endured a chaotic offseason that raised questions about their chances of contending in this year's Mountain West.
Senior Matt Shaw's forfeited his final year of college eligibility when he tested positive for an NCAA banned substance. Three-point specialist Kendall Wallace tore his right ACL and will miss the entire season. And leading scorer Tre'Von Willis was arrested on felony assault charges after a woman claimed the guard attacked her, though his penalty for that could be as little as a suspension for one regular season game.
If the Rebels can put those issues behind them and find some solution to last year's rebounding woes, they have a strong enough backcourt to again lead them back to the NCAA tournament. Willis provides scoring and defense, Chace Stanback and Derrick Jasper both defend and rebound well on the wings and Oscar Bellfield is a perimeter threat from behind the arc.
Can Colorado State take the next step?
For a program that failed to win a league game in 2007-08 and has enjoyed minimal success in men's basketball during the past two decades, Colorado State has a chance to be surprisingly good next season. Nearly the entire roster returns from a team that finished a respectable 7-9 in the rugged Mountain West last season and made the school's first postseason appearance since 2003, falling to Morehead State in the first round of the CBI tournament.
The primary question now facing the Rams is whether they've improved enough to compete with the likes of San Diego State, BYU, UNLV and New Mexico for an NCAA tournament berth next season. Colorado State went a combined 0-9 against those four teams last season, though the Rams did push eventual champ San Diego State to the brink in a one-point quarterfinal loss in the Mountain West tournament.
Whether Colorado State improves next season probably depends on how big a leap guard Dorian Green makes between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The 6-foot-2 sharpshooter led the Rams in scoring as a freshman at 11.8 points per game and hit 38.8 percent of his threes, yet he tailed off in league play and shot just 35.7 percent from the field for the season.
Can Utah generate any momentum entering the Pac-10?
Coach Jim Boylen hopes joining the Pac-10 in 2011 will be an instant recruiting boost for his program, but Utah needs to show prospects it's making progress in order to capitalize on its new digs. The Utes staggered through a 14-17 season that included losses to Idaho and Seattle last year, a major step backward after Boylen had signed a lucrative five-year extension the previous spring in the wake of a surprise NCAA tournament berth.
Utah may struggle once again to compete with the top four in the Mountain West after five players left the program including leading scorer Carlon Brown, but Boylen is confident the house-cleaning will be for the best in the long run. Seven-foot-3 shot blocker David Foster, fellow 7-footer Jason Washburn and 6-foot-7 Jay Watkins anchor a strong frontcourt. And Boylen signed a seven-man recruiting class featuring four junior college prospects to address a glaring lack of speed and quickness at guard.
The purpose of bringing in all the junior college talent this season was to keep scholarships open for the 2012 recruiting class. With a year under his belt in the Pac-10 and at least five vacant scholarships to fill, it is then that Boylen's tenure at Utah will probably truly be judged.