Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 8 league, the Mountain West.
In the past four seasons, the Mountain West has finished in the top six in conference RPI four times, sent 16 teams to the NCAA tournament and even produced one No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
The only thing preventing the league from earning the respect it otherwise deserves is a lack of postseason success.
Despite producing eight teams seeded sixth or better the past four years, Mountain West teams are a meager 9-16 in the NCAA tournament during that span. No Mountain West team advanced past the Sweet 16 the past four seasons and only Jimmer Fredette's 2011 BYU team and Kawhi Leonard's 2011 San Diego State team even managed to get that far.
Questions about the Mountain West's legitimacy persisted even as it sent five teams to the NCAA tournament last season and claimed the top spot in conference RPI, and the skeptics had a chance to gloat by the end of the opening weekend. Ultra-talented UNLV was upset by 12th-seeded Cal in the round of 64, Mountain West champ New Mexico fell to 14th-seeded Harvard hours later and San Diego State had its Sweet 16 dreams dashed in the round of 32 by 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.
For the Mountain West to silence its critics and shed the label of postseason underachiever, the league is going to have to send some teams to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament sooner or later. The league won't be as deep top-to-bottom as it was last season, but there are still several contenders with enough returning talent to realistically dream of a magical March.
The program with the best chance remains New Mexico, which returns four starters from a 29-win squad that won both the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament titles. Guards Kendall Williams, Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal should thrive in new coach Craig Neal's more free-flowing style, while all-conference center Alex Kirk and blossoming forward Cameron Bairstow form one of the West Coast's premier frontcourt duos.
There are question marks for New Mexico, however, despite all the returning talent. The Lobos lack any proven interior players behind Kirk and Bairstow and they need someone to emerge as a consistent perimeter stopper defensively the way departed starter Tony Snell did last season.
Ready to challenge New Mexico will be Boise State, which returns all five starters from its first NCAA tournament team since 2008. Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga form the Mountain West's most skilled and best-shooting backcourt, but the Broncos will need to show more urgency defensively and prove they can handle the physicality of the league in order to match or surpass the Lobos over the course of the league season.
UNLV and San Diego State are both capable of cracking the top two in the league as well, but they both face more questions than usual entering the season.
Most programs wouldn't survive losing Anthony Bennett to the NBA, Kaitin Reinhardt and Mike Moser to transfers and Anthony Marshall to graduation, but for chemistry-challenged UNLV, it could be addition by subtraction. If a starting point guard emerges and defensive standout Khem Birch develops into an effective interior scorer, the Rebels might end up having more success than they did last year.
San Diego State enough length and quickness at all five positions to be a menace defensively, but where the Aztecs may struggle is scoring efficiently enough via their half-court attack. Though Tulane transfer Josh Davis will help replace the points Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin provided, he'll need help from senior Xavier Thames, sophomore Winston Shepard and others if San Diego State is going to contend.
Nobody else looks like a league title threat, but the wildcard is newcomer Utah State. With a daunting home-court advantage and an impressive inside-outside duo in Jarred Shaw and Preston Medlin, the Aggies have the potential to be more successful in their transition to the Mountain West than Nevada was a year ago.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Jeff Elorriaga, Boise State. All the hours of work Elorriaga did with his older brother John in their backayard to hone his shooting mechanics paid off in a big way last season. The former walk-on sank 44.7 percent of his threes, easily the best percentage in the Mountain West and one of the 15 best in the nation. Between Elorriaga, Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic, Boise State boasts three perimeter weapons opponents cannot afford to leave free from behind the arc.
Best playmaker: Kendall Williams, New Mexico. Though Williams' 40.6 percent shooting wasn't as efficient as he'd like it to be last season, he excelled setting up his teammates. The Mountain West player of the year consistently got into the lane against opposing defenses and averaged 4.9 assists compared to only 2.1 turnovers. That's an excellent percentage that New Mexico would gladly accept if he could replicate it again as a senior.
Best defender: Khem Birch, UNLV. One of two returning members of last year's Mountain West all-defensive team, Birch fulfilled his potential as a rim protector in his first season with the Rebels. The 6-foot-9 Pittsburgh transfer used his imposing length and leaping ability to average 2.6 blocks per game despite only logging 21.8 minutes per night, tallying games of 5, 6,6 and 7 blocks during league play. He was also just as effective in post-up situations, holding his position well with his lower body and altering shots with his long arms.
Best NBA prospect: Khem Birch, UNLV. The Mountain West doesn't have an Anthony Bennett-esque talent capable of being the No. 1 overall pick this year, but there are several players who could be selected in the first round. One of those is Birch, a long, bouncy 6-foot-9 junior whose defense is NBA-ready but whose back-to-the-basket offense remains unpolished. The other is Nevada point guard Deonte Burton, a gifted 6-foot-1 senior who averaged 16.3 points per game as a junior.
Best backcourt: Boise State. One is a 6-foot-3 junior from the South Side of Chicago who is strong with the ball and dangerous from behind the arc. Another is a high-scoring 6-foot-6 wing from Australia who got bigger and stronger over the offseason to better withstand the rigors of the college game. The third is a former walk-on from Portland whose sweet shooting stroke won him a scholarship and a starting job. Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga are each very different, but together they comprise the best backcourt in the Mountain West.
Best frontcourt: New Mexico. Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow are clearly the best interior duo in the Mountain West, combining last season to average 21.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per game. The question is whether New Mexico has a capable third or fourth big man to spell them. Forward Nick Banyard was unproductive as a freshman and 7-foot Obij Aget is unproven at this point.
Best recruiting class: UNLV. Two newcomers, junior college transfer Deville Smith and freshman Kendall Smith, will both have a shot at taking over for Anthony Marshall at point guard next season. Well-traveled but versatile swingman Jelan Kendrick is also a talent, but the newcomer with the most upside may be forward Christian Wood. If he can add strength and is ready to compete physically, his ability to stretch the floor at 6-foot-10 make him a difficult matchup.
Coach on the rise: Leon Rice, Boise State. With all five starters back from a team that secured the school's second NCAA tournament bid since 1994, Boise State is primed to contend for the Mountain West crown this season. That's a testament to Rice, who took over a program ill-prepared for the move to the Mountain West and has gradually built it into a viable contender by uncovering overlooked prospects and inserting them into a free-flowing system in which they can thrive.
Coach on the hot seat: David Carter, Nevada. Expected to contend for a postseason spot in its first year in the Mountain West, Nevada instead careened to a 3-13 last-place league finish and a 12-19 record overall. That has put pressure on Carter, who has yet to make the NCAA tournament since taking over for Mark Fox in 2009, though he has made the NIT twice and won a WAC title in 2012. The return of Deonte Burton gives Nevada a chance to ascend in the standings this year, but complementary scorers must emerge and the Wolf Pack have to figure out a way to stop opposing teams after allowing 71.9 points per game last season.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Craig Neal (New Mexico), Dave Wojcik (San Jose State)
Regular-season winner last season: New Mexico
Tourney winner last season: New Mexico
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 1st, 2011-12: 5th ; 2010-11: 4th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 12 (UNLV 3, San Diego State 3, New Mexico 2, Colorado State 2, Boise State, BYU)
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