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Mountain West Preview

November 5, 2002 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Conference Preview

by Bob Thurman

Once upon a time, not long ago, the eight members of the Mountain West Conference were shackled and chained to a monstrous beast of a conference called the WAC. The rocky marriage came to an end a few years ago and they got a divorce. Luckily for them, they got to keep the fine china, the BMW, and the house. In other words, the MWC got some fine basketball programs in Utah, Wyoming, and UNLV to name a few, while the WAC got stuck with SMU, Rice and San Jose State. Clearly, the WAC needs to hire some better lawyers.

The Mountain West really started to become a national player last season with three teams making the NCAA Tournament. I believe this is just the start of a long, sustained run of multiple NCAA bids year after year. The upcoming season could be the most competitive in the conference’s short life. Utah, who usually is the league’s top team, will struggle to maintain its hold at the top of the conference. The Utes have seen too many players transfer out of their program, so they will rely on plenty of newcomers to keep them in contention this season.

Most prognosticators will pick Wyoming to win the conference title this season, partly based on last season’s tournament success and the return of four starters. However, the loss of three key big men, especially Josh Davis, could leave a big hole that may not be filled. Because of this, I think UNLV could surpass them this season. They have two of the best players in the league in Marcus Banks and Dalron Johnson. Add in two solid guards in Demetrius Hunter and Jermaine Lewis, and you have a dangerous team. The race between these two teams should be fun to watch.

So why do I like this conference so much? Well, first there are not any scrubs in this conference. Even vertically-challenged Air Force can smack teams around when they visit the Academy. It keeps things competitive and exciting. Secondly, there are some great players in this league. Unlike most major conferences, the MWC has been fortunate that most of its talented players have opted to stay in school instead of declaring for the NBA Draft. Besides UNLV’s Banks and Johnson, be sure to keep an eye on Utah’s Britton Johnsen, Wyoming’s Marcus Bailey, New Mexico’s Ruben Douglas and San Diego State’s Tony Bland.

Below is each team’s summary in their predicted order of finish.

UNLV Rebels
(2001-2002: 21-11 overall, 9-5 conference, 3rd place)
The Rebels are the most talented team in the conference and could become a factor on the national scene. Seniors Marcus Banks and Dalron Johnson return to hone their skills for the NBA, and help UNLV build off of last season’s momentum. In addition, guard Demetrius Hunter will be ready to play after transferring from Georgetown, where he was quickly becoming an impact player. Swingman Jermaine Lewis returns after sitting out last season with an injury and will provide some needed defensive pressure, something that was missing last season. In fact, the trio of Banks, Hunter and Lewis will cause problems on the perimeter and force many turnovers. If the Rebels can find another big man to help on the boards, then they should be the team to beat in the Mountain West this season.

Players lost: F Lou Kelly, F Chris Richardson, G Vince Booker (graduation)
Key returnees: G Marcus Banks, F Dalron Johnson, F Omari Pearson, G/F Jermaine Lewis (injury)
New additions: G Demetrius Hunter (transfer), F James Peters (JuCo), C J.K. Edwards (JuCo)

Projected starters:
PG: Marcus Banks, Senior
SG: Demetrius Hunter, Junior
SF: Jermaine Lewis, Senior
PF: Dalron Johnson, Senior
C: J.K. Edwards, Junior

Wyoming Cowboys
(2001-2002: 22-9 overall, 11-3 conference, 1st place)
Wyoming got a needed boost of confidence with their win over Gonzaga last season in the NCAA Tournament. That should pay dividends this season as they march to another NCAA bid. The Cowboys backcourt is one of the strongest and deepest in the country. Point guard Chris McMillan returns from injury after starting the prior three seasons. However, he’ll have a tough time beating out Jason Straight, who showed some real promise in his freshman year. Wings Marcus Bailey and Donta Richardson are excellent scorers off the dribble, and transfer David Adams provides depth. Inside, Uche Nsonwu-Amadi should be one of the league’s top big men and will be the Cowboys best inside threat, but without another proven commodity down low, he may be run down by season’s end. Despite that, they’ve got a good shot at capturing the conference title again.

Players lost: F Josh Davis, G Paris Corner, C Ronell Mingo (graduation)
Key returnees: G Jason Straight, G Donta Richardson, F Marcus Bailey, C Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, G Chris McMillan (redshirted)
New additions: G Davis Adams (transfer), F Omoniyi Makun (JuCo), C Ryan Wildenborg (transfer)

Projected starters:
PG: Jason Straight, Sophomore
SG: Donta Richardson, Senior
SF: Marcus Bailey, Senior
PF: Omoniyi Makun, Junior
C: Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, Senior

Utah Utes
(2001-2002: 21-9 overall, 10-4 conference, 2nd place)
The Utes had a rough summer, but there are still some bright spots. Britton Johnsen is one of the country’s most versatile big men and will be the team’s leader this season. Nick Jacobson is deadly from beyond the three point arc and swingman Trace Caton is a solid defender. The key to the Utes success this season will be the newcomers, who come in with high credentials. Freshman Tim Drisdom should start at point guard from day one, while Richard Chaney, Bryant Markson and Chris Jackson may provide some punch off the bench. Transfer Tim Frost could cause a chill down opponents back if he can provide some needed inside scoring. Despite all the problems this program has had recently, Coach Majerus is too good a coach to let this team slide too far down.

Players lost: G Travis Spivey, F Jeff Johnson, F Phil Cullen, C Chris Burgess (graduation)
Key returnees: G Nick Jacobson, G/F Trace Caton, F Britton Johnsen, C Cameron Koford
New additions: G Tim Drisdom (freshman), F Richard Chaney (freshman), F Bryant Markson (freshman), C Chris Jackson (freshman), C Tim Frost (transfer)

Projected starters:
PG: Tim Drisdom, Freshman
SG: Nick Jacobson, Junior
SF: Trace Caton, Senior
PF: Britton Johnsen, Senior
C: Tim Frost, Junior

Brigham Young Cougars
(2001-2002: 18-12 overall, 7-7 conference, 4th place tie)
Brigham Young played better than expected last season, thanks in part to their big three – Mark Bigelow, Travis Hansen and Jared Jensen. All three are back and so are expectations. Bigelow and Hansen form the league’s toughest pair of wings and should combine to score 30+ points a game. Jensen is a banger down low who will get some help from JuCo star Rafael Araujo. The Cougars are big, so they should not get beat on the boards as much as they did last season. The biggest question mark will be at point guard, where steady Matt Montague has graduated. Kevin Woodberry will get the first shot after leading his Dixie State College team to the junior college national title last season. If he comes through, BYU could move up in the standings.

Players lost: G Matt Montague, Eric Nielsen (graduation), Daniel Bobik (transfer)
Key returnees: G Mark Bigelow, F Travis Hansen, F Jared Jensen, C Dan Howard
New additions: G Ricky Bower (transfer), G Kevin Woodberry (JuCo), F Jake Shoff (transfer), C Rafael Araujo (JuCo)

Projected starters:
PG: Kevin Woodberry, Junior
SG: Mark Bigelow, Junior
SF: Travis Hansen, Senior
PF: Jared Jensen, Sophomore
C: Rafael Araujo, Junior

San Diego State Aztecs
(2001-2002: 21-12 overall, 7-7 conference, 4th place tie)
Coach Steve Fisher has rebuilt this program using a different formula: transfers. With a nice mix of D-1 and JuCo transfers, the Aztecs had a breakout year last season, winning the conference tournament and reaching the Big Dance. Two of those transfers return to try to maintain this program’s momentum. Guard Tony Bland and center Mike Mackell are proven players and will need to increase their scoring output in order to soften the blow from the departures of Randy Holcomb and Al Faux. The team’s success will depend on a number of talented newcomers. Forwards Trimaine Davis and Evan Burns (if eligible) are both exciting players who need to contribute right away if the Aztecs want to repeat last season’s success. Overall, I do not believe they will be as good as last season, but the talent is here to be competitive. More importantly, this program has turned the corner.

Players lost: G Al Faux, F Brandon Smith (graduation), F Randy Holcomb (NBA), Chris Walton (injury)
Key returnees: G Deandre Moore, G Tony Bland, F Aerick Sanders, C Mike Mackell
New additions: G Travis Hanour (transfer), F Trimaine Davis (RS freshman), F Evan Burns (freshman, if eligible), C Chris Manker (transfer)

Projected starters:
PG: Deandre Moore, Senior
SG: Tony Bland, Senior
SF: Trimaine Davis, Freshman
PF: Aerick Sanders, Junior
C: Mike Mackell, Senior

Colorado State Rams
(2001-2002: 12-18 overall, 3-11 conference, 7th place tie)
The Rams were ravaged by injuries last season, but they still played tough night after night. The leader of this tough group is underrated forward Brian Greene, who would be conference MVP if he played in a mid-major but gets overshadowed in this league. Joining him down low is 7-footer Matt Nelson, who gives the Rams one of the best frontcourts in the league. If this team wants to compete, the backcourt will need to cut down on their turnovers and do a better job of getting the big men the ball at the right time. If they can hold up during conference play, a NIT berth is a possibility this season.

Players lost: G Joe Macklin, Matt Brown (graduation)
Key returnees: G Andy Birley, G Joe Rakiecki, G/F Ronnie Clark, G/F Freddy Robinson, F Brian Greene, F Matt Williams, C Matt Nelson
New additions: G Darien Chavis (JuCo)

Projected starters:
PG: Andy Birley, Senior
SG: Freddy Robinson, Sophomore
SF: Ronnie Clark, Junior
PF: Brian Greene, Senior
C: Matt Nelson, Sophomore

New Mexico Lobos
(2001-2002: 16-14 overall, 6-8 conference, 6th place)
Fran Franshilla is either one of the biggest jerks ever to roam the baselines, or is simply cursed. I vote for the former considering the number of players who have bolted his programs, especially here at New Mexico. With his departure, former Colorado State and Oregon State coach Ritchie McKay takes over a program in disarray. There are still some talented players left, especially Ruben Douglas. He is a phenomenal scorer who will carry this team at times, but does little else. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Senque Carey and JuCo star Javin Tindall to form a potent backcourt. Unfortunately, the Lobos’ frontcourt is inept and will struggle against the big, strong players in this league. Look for the Lobos to fall this season, and watch for the fans to start calling for Coach McKay’s head. He may regret ever taking this job.

Players lost: G Eric Chatfield (graduation), Patrick Dennehy (transfer), Marlon Parmer (left), Cody Payne (injury)
Key returnees: G Senque Carey, G/F Ruben Douglas, F Jamaal Williams, C Chad Bell
New additions: G Javin Tindall (JuCo), Michael McGowan (JuCo), David Chiotti (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Javin Tindall, Junior
SG: Senque Carey, Senior
SF: Ruben Douglas, Junior
PF: Jamaal Williams. Sophomore
C: Chad Bell, Sophomore

Air Force Falcons
(2001-2002: 9-19 overall, 3-11 conference, 7th place tie)
The Falcons may not win many games, but their style of play always keeps them in it. They are patient on offense and only take good shots, while playing an aggressive team defense on the other end. As always, Air Force is small, but they have a solid frontcourt led by center Tom Bellairs and forward Joel Gerlach. Their backcourt needs to handle the ball better and help out on the boards if they want to stay out of the basement, which is unlikely in this strong conference. However, look for them to pull an occasional upset, especially at home.

Players lost: G Lamoni Yazzie (graduation)
Key returnees: G Vernard Jenkins, G A.J. Kuhle, G Tim Keller, F Joel Gerlach, C Tom Bellairs
New additions: Antoine Hood (freshman), Deane Lake (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Vernard Jenkins, Senior
SG: Tim Keller, Sophomore
SF: A.J. Kuhle, Junior
PF: Joel Gerlach. Junior
C: Tom Bellairs, Senior

All-Conference Team
G: Marcus Banks, UNLV
G: Marcus Bailey, Wyoming
F: Travis Hansen, BYU
F: Dalron Johnson, UNLV
F: Britton Johnsen, Utah

Honorable Mention: Ruben Douglas, New Mexico; Tony Bland, San Diego State; Brian Greene, Colorado State

MVP: Marcus Banks, UNLV
Newcomer: Demetrius Hunter, UNLV
Coach on Hot Seat: Ritchie McKay, New Mexico


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