ThinAirBall: the Mountain West Conference preview

by Johninho

A look at the top half of this conference’s talent, coaching, and atmosphere, and you’d immediately suspect that the Mountain West conference was on a par with at least the MVC, or the A-10. Four teams are as good as anybody, and even if only one of them comes with the respect of an at-large Dance bid, you probably don’t want any of this Mountain West come March. Join me for a full preview after the jump.

Of course, the rest of this conference would struggle with the likes of USF (either one) and Nebraska-Omaha, and as concerns a certain military academy in Colorado Springs, good riddance. Now attention can rightfully return to the fact that for one of three D-1 schools in the land whose students are suspected to be bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, roving gangs of ultra-aggressive Southern Baptist and other missionaries, and oh yeah, the serial Rape of female cadets, is patently unfuckingacceptable. That school should be shut down, let alone winning five games in the MWC all year. In short, you suck, zoomies. I hope your opponents constantly run it up on you in your own building.

And for the rest of you, yes, the above certainly does bear mention before I tell you that Vegas is just about poised for Tarkanian-era levels of ass-whipping, that The Pit will once again suck for you if you are 1) playing the University of New Mexico at basketball or 2) fist-fighting against Johnny Tapia, and that BYU also has a little factory going enough to sustain Dance bids from year to year.

So without further adieu, your Big Monday nightcap league!

UNLV

After Tark, UNLV went through a head coach about every five minutes: Dave Leitao, Bill Bayno, even the legendary Rollie Mass and Charlie Spoonhour have had their turns pimping it five blocks from the Strip.

So when Lon Kruger, the guy who made you look! at Florida basketball, finally took the job at Vegas, and then stayed, and then loaded up, and then started making UNLV a regular and even expected part of your annual Monday morning bracket, it might have been hard to notice, and in fact, you could be forgiven for thinking the Running Rebs were still a shell of their former selves.

Augmon, Ackles, Johnson, Hunt and Anthony they’re not. And yes, this is high cheese for a squad that lost four starters.

But UNLV still has enough to win the Mountain West handily, secure the conference’s auto-bid, and if the kids (who were won because Kruger and staff traded like early Mike Tyson, and Won, National recruiting battles) are alright, once again be a pain in the ass well into the Second Weekend.

This year.

Because on current form, every year after that, Vegas will once again be a perennial Top-Five program, and you’ll get dunked on like GrandMaMa himself was in the middle.

True freshman 7-footer Beas Hamga will slot right in at center, and make sure no Mountain West opponent scores more than 6 ppg in the paint against UNLV. This was a guy who could have played anywhere in the country, and suffice it to say, could have made Billy Donovan a whole lot happier to come back to Gainesville. But instead, he joins 6-11 juco shotblocker Emmanuel Adeife across the front line; games at the Thomas and Mack Center will resemble horse, as teams vainly attempt to launch from the perimeter.

If any questions need answered, they’re in the backcourt, but even Kruger’s three-guard O is staffed with capable personnel: in the beginning, it’ll look like Mareceo Rutledge, Wink Adams (who’s at least preseason All-MWC), and Marcus Lawrence. Once, or if, Curtis Terry or Kendall Wallace develops, he’ll get heavy rotation with Rene Rougeau, most likely, and maybe even supplant Lawrence or Rutledge.

Kruger Saul Smithed it last year, and it actually worked. (And for a while, it freaked me out – no kid resembles his Dad more than Kevin Kruger.) But now he’s gone, and Vegas needs someone to step up at point guard. (I’m still guessing you see Kev on the bench at UNLV as the work-for-table-scraps grad assistant.)

If they get one, though, it’s time to worry about Vegas again, even if this head coach doesn’t chew on a towel.

BYU

These guys went 25 and 9 last year, and oh yeah, won the league. (Vegas won the tournament, and thus the auto-bid.)

They have guys back, and since sometimes I can’t even remember last night, I’m not going to attempt to tell you who came back from their two-year Mormon mission, but I recognize Vuk Ivanovic, Trent Plaisted, Ben Murdock, Jon Tavernari and Burgess (Sam, not Chris) from last year’s tournament team. Combine that with four guys 6-10 or taller, 31 in a row in Provo, and some juco help in the backcourt, and you’ve got a team that won’t miss four of its starters from last year, but will contend for the Mountain West to the last day and through the tournament. Especially in a year when no team in the entire conference returns a boatload of quality returning starters, the Y should have no trouble getting back to the Dance.

New Mexico

These guys don’t have enough to contend with the top two just yet, but New Mexico has made serious strides, and that’s enough for third outright, a chance at second, and probably the NIT.

Let’s start with head coach: Ritchie McKay couldn’t hold the same Division I head coaching job for three seconds. When he’s announced as your new guy, he’ll say all the right things, get recruits and transfers, and generally make the effort for the one year, but “McKay” and “contract extension” go together about as often as “Texas Tech” and “shooting 3s on the break.” And he’ll leave for greener pastures, guaran-freaking-teed.

But that stuff will catch up with him, don’t you worry, Lobos, and it appears it finally has. As Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia welcomes its new head coach, permit yourselves to bask in the glory of a grateful Steve Alford, and then get to work – you’ve a got a ways to go, back to those halcyon days of Lobo basketball, when men were men, the Pit was a horror show, and freshmen taking the court for their first game in Albuquerque were in true danger of pissing themselves.

And it’s not like you’re not almost there: J.R. Giddens is still around, and apparently no one loved the absence of Ritchie McKay more than him. He’ll bust his ass for Alford, a way better head coach than New Mexico has had in a long, long time, not to mention the best pure shooter to ever play the game, and Giddens, the former Jayhawk, has got plenty of help in returning upperclassmen Tony Danridge, Darren Prentice, Daniel Faris and Chad Toppert. Steve brought Dairese Grey with him from the Hawkeyes, and true freshman swingman Darington Hobson is also special, so there should be no abundance of talent to contend in the Mountain West.

(Seriously, can you even imagine a number as high as Alford’s hypothetical career point total if there had been a three at 19′ 9″ the entire time, and if he’d played for any coach besides Bobby “you probably won’t enjoy it” Knight?)

The obstacles will come, obviously, from learning the new coach and the new system, and from a decided lack of height, which will hurt especially away at Vegas and Provo. New Mexico has noone above 6-9, so Alford’s going to have to play smaller and faster. Good thing he’s used to it.

Utah

I’m used to the Running Utes being right there every year, but most all of that was the voodoo doctor Majerus making contenders out of papier mache and baling wire.

Majerus is gone, and by the way, you probably want not one iota of his new squad, the Saint Louis Billikens this year, because Rick Majerus is about twenty times smarter than you are, and will have you figured out by the first TV timeout. I saw him solve Oregon like the Fresh Prince solved Rubik’s Cube in The Pursuit of Happyness the year after our first Elite Eight run, and with a team of jucos and missionaries – he’s the most intelligent man on the planet still coaching basketball, and he’d give Wooden a run – believe it.

So that being said, thank God this ain’t Majerus, and it ain’t even the promise of Ray Giacoletti, who got bounced. This is, however, the players that got Ray Giacoletti bounced, plus a former Izzo assistant named Jim Boylan. I don’t think they have enough, but Athlon says NIT. I’d totally bet Athlon a coffee on that, as I think they’ll get nothing, but they’re still the best of the rest.

The Rest

Wyoming has an All-Conference backcourt, but they’re getting nothing in the way of conference love, therefore the bigs must be going out there in Forrest Gump leg braces. TCU, Colorado State, and SD State lost a ton of talent, and are probably a year away at absolute best.

Long Term

I think UNLV and New Mexico are poised to become the dominant forces of the Mountain West for the foreseeable future, especially if Alford gets any kind of extension, success, or love in Albuquerque. BYU will also contend when any of a number of special factors are breaking just right for them: the missionaries come back in shape and ready to play, Utah high school basketball (which since Majerus left Utah, the Y pwns every recruit in that state) produces a bumper crop, the Ainge family is fruitful and multiplying. Utah could come back, but they’ll never get a guy like Rick Majerus again, who could do so much more with less.

Of the rest, SD State and Wyoming are probably most capable of a breakout year (and look out if the Cowboys get anything working for them in the low post).

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