2001-02 Mountain West Conference Preview
by Chad Muszynski
The Mountain West features no fewer than four teams who could challenge for a spot in the field of 64 this season. Unfortunately, given the conferences perceived weakness, don’t expect any more than two teams to be dancing in March. That said here’s what to expect from the Mountain West Conference.
1. Wyoming: Kid Rock recently sang “I want to be a Cowboy”. Well the fans in Laramie certainly can’t fault the pride of the Michigan native for that sentiment as Wyoming leads a pack of solid contenders for the Mountain West title. Wyoming returns all five starters and nine lettermen from last season’s 20-10 title winning squad. Led by All-Conference selection Josh Davis and Marcus Bailey, the Cowboys are the team to beat in the MWC. Expectations for Josh Davis are particularly high as last years Conference Player of the Year spent the offseason playing in an All-Star league in Greece, rather than rehabbing injuries as in the past. Expect big things from this team.
2. Utah: The Utes are coming off a 19-12 season, disappointing by the standard built by coach Majerus. This year’s squad looks to better that mark and challenge Wyoming for the conference title. The Runnin’ Utes also return all five starters from last year. They are led by the brothers Johnsen. Jeff shot 40% from beyond the arc last season and was fourth on the team in scoring despite starting only 9 games. Brother Britton was second team All-Conference and was second on the team in scoring (9.9 PPG) and rebounds (5.5 RPG). The Utes are off to a rough start this season, but expect Coach Majerus to right the ship and push for an invite to the Big Dance.
3. New Mexico: The Lobos have dropped some tough games to Pac-10 rivals Stanford and Cal in the early part of the season. Still, expectations are high in Albuquerque following a 21 win season a year ago. Junior guard Ruben Douglas leads the charge as a First Team All-Conference Selection. The Lobos starting 5 look solid early on, but the team has little depth behind them. If the newcomers can step up, the Lobos will challenge for a title bid, otherwise the short bench could cost them a chance at even the NIT.
4. San Diego State: The Aztecs feature one of the the top seniors in the league in forward Randy Holcomb (15.9 PPG 6.6 RPG) as well as Newcomer of the Year, Tony Bland. Bland may be one of stars of the Mountain West before the season even gets moving at full speed. The Junior transfer from Syracuse is averaging 22.8 points and 6.0 assists per game in the early going. If Bland and Holcomb continue to play to their potential and fellow transfer Brandon Smith (Michigan) can provide solid relief off the bench, look for the Aztecs to move up the conference ladder and challenge for the tourney title.
5. UNLV: Charlie Spoonhour steps up to the plate this season to try to lead UNLV in these dark years AT (after Tarkanian). Spoonhour comes out of a two year retirement this season after coaching the St. Louis Billikins for the previous seven seasons. Forward Dalron Johnson may be the best athlete in the Mountain West and will need to utilize those skills to their fullest with the departure of Kaspars Kambala. Success may once again belong to Spoonhour, but rebuilding takes time, and this won’t be the Rebels year.
6. BYU: The Cougars finished 24-7 a year ago and won the Mountain West title. What a difference a year makes. BYU loses four starters from a year ago and will need to work hard to fill the void. Freshman of the Year Mark Bigelow is a bright spot for the Cougars’ rebuilding hopes. It looks to be a long season in Provo. One note of significance, the Cougars have extended their home winning streak to 21 in the early part of this season.
7. Colorado State: The Rams are led by Junior Guard Andy Birley. Birley is shooting 43.1% for his career from three point land and leads the team thus far with 13.1 point per game. Brian Greene (7.8 APG, 5.8 RPG) is the lone returning starter for CSU. The Rams are still trying out a number of lineup combinations this season. If some of the newcomers step up, the Rams could pull off some upsets in the conference – otherwise don’t expect too much from CSU this season. A strong showing against Weber State, the leader of the Big Sky Conference, suggests this team is moving in the right direction.
8. Air Force: What can you say about Air Force except that these kids have heart. None off them will ever get a shot at the NBA (or CBA for that matter). In fact, most of these kids have several years aboard a carrier in the Middle East to look forward to after graduation. Yet still they play. With all of the pro-military support these days, the Falcons have to be a sentimental favorite. But sentiment doesn’t win games and neither will these guys.