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Mountain West Preview

November 4, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Conference Preview

by Bob Thurman

For the second season in a row, a trio of Mountain West teams earned bids to the NCAA Tournament. Though Utah, BYU and Colorado State didn’t make much of a splash once they got there, it still shows how strong this conference has grown in just a few short years. To further prove this point, the Mountain West will be one of the few conferences to be cannibalized by the realignment that will take place the next few years. In fact, look for them to grab a few of the better programs from the WAC, such as Hawaii and Fresno State, in order to solidify their position as one of the top conferences in the country.

Despite all its success, the Mountain West continues to be overlooked and underrated by the national media. This season, look for that to change as both Utah and BYU will have very strong teams that should penetrate the Top 25 sometime during the year. The Utes will be especially tough with a good balance of youth and senior leadership. Freshmen Andrew Bogut could be one of the top players in the league, and maybe the country, by season’s end. BYU’s strength is inside where big man Rafael Araujo will be tough to stop, especially if BYU’s shooter’s can maintain their marksmanship from outside. It would be quite a shock if these two teams didn’t make a return trip to the Big Dance this season.

The question is: Will there be a third team to join them? On paper, both UNLV and Colorado State seem to have the best shots at it. UNLV lost some NBA talent, but brought in a number of quality players to fill in the holes. However, team chemistry will need to improve, along with their ability to get on the boards. Colorado State is coming off a nice run last March and return quite a bit from that team. Matt Nelson is one of the best centers in the country, but the backcourt needs to stay under control and play with more consistency. As for the rest of the league, Wyoming and San Diego State have always been solid clubs, but will struggle to replace the talent that has since moved on. Honestly, it will probably take another run through the conference tournament by someone other than Utah or BYU to capture a third NCAA bid this season.

All-Conference Team

G: Jay Straight, Wyoming
G: Nick Jacobson, Utah
F: Mark Bigelow, BYU
F: Andrew Bogut, Utah
F: Matt Nelson, Colorado State

Honorable Mention: Rafael Araujo, BYU; Tim Frost, Utah; Tim Keller, Air Force; Demetrius Hunter, UNLV

MVP: Matt Nelson, Colorado State

Newcomer: Andrew Bogut, Utah

Coach on hot seat: Ritchie McKay, New Mexico

Utah Utes (2002-2003: 25-8 overall, 11-3 conference, 1st place tie)

Rick Majerus did one of his best coaching jobs last season when he led his depleted Utes back to the top of the Mountain West. The sophomore trio of Tim Drisdom, Richard Chaney and Bryant Markson were a major reason for that, and should continue to improve this season. However, this season’s freshman class may have an even larger impact. In particular, the arrival of Australian Andrew Bogut should propel the Utes back onto the national scene. The talented big man led his team to the World Junior Championship this summer and should attract a lot of attention from both fans and the media.
This clearly is the Utes most athletic team, but it’s a pair of savvy seniors that will make the Utes the team to beat. Though he may not get many points for grace or beauty, Tim Frost sure gets plenty of them around the basket thanks to his relentless effort and determination. Meanwhile, Nick Jacobson provides the scoring punch outside, especially beyond the arc where he’s one of the league’s best. Lookout America … Utah will be a fixture in the Top 25 all season long.

Players lost:
G Marc Jackson (transfer)
G/F Trace Caton
F Britton Johnsen (graduation)

Key returnees:
G Nick Jacobson
G Tim Drisdom
F Richard Chaney
F Bryant Markson
C Chris Jackson
C Tim Frost

New additions:
G Josh Olson (freshman)
F Justin Hawkins (freshman)
F Stefan Zimmerman (freshman)
F/C Andrew Bogut (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Tim Drisdom, So.
SG: Nick Jacobson, Sr.
SF: Richard Chaney, So.
PF: Andrew Bogut, Fr.
C: Tim Frost, Sr.

BYU Cougars (2002-2003: 23-9 overall, 11-3 conference, 1st place tie)

The loss to Utah earlier this year broke the nation’s longest home winning streak at 44 games and prevented the Cougars from winning the league title outright. This should provide them with plenty of incentive to seek revenge this season. With only star swingman Travis Hansen moving on, there is plenty of ammunition to take out the Utes. Big men Rafael Aruajo, Jared Jensen and Jake Shoff give the Cougars one of the strongest frontcourts in the nation. Aruajo especially, showed flashes of stardom and could blossom into a NBA prospect by season’s end.

On the outside, Mark Bigelow will be asked to carry more of the offensive load, along with Austin Ainge, son of former BYU legend Danny Ainge. However, without Hansen’s athleticism, this team will have a hard time keeping up with some of the quicker and more talented teams in the conference. This alone, may keep BYU one step behind the leader.

Players lost:
F Travis Hansen (graduation)
Ricky Bower (injury)

Key returnees:
G Kevin Woodberry
G Mark Bigelow
F Jared Jensen
F Jake Shoff
C Rafael Araujo

New additions:
G Mike Hall (JuCo)
G Austin Ainge (church mission)
F Garner Meads (church mission)

Projected starters:
PG: Kevin Woodberry, Sr.
SG: Mike Hall, Jr.
SF: Mark Bigelow, Sr.
PF: Jared Jensen, Jr.
C: Rafael Araujo, Sr.

UNLV Rebels (2002-2003: 21-11 overall, 8-6 conference, 3rd place tie)

The Rebels always have talent, but never seem to be able to bring it together as a team. Thus, they’ve had a history of underachieving. Look for that to change this season, as for once, there are more quality team players than stars. Players like Demetrius Hunter and Odartey Blankson come from programs where teamwork is emphasized, so expect them to become the leaders of this team. Hard working big men J.K. Edwards and James Peters should benefit greatly from this new attitude. Instead of being simply afterthoughts like they were last season, look for both to be an integral part of the offense and have solid years. Coach Spoonhour picked up some quality junior college players to fill the voids left by graduation, but the failure of center Chris Adams to qualify leaves the Rebels very small and thin up front. In a conference like the Mountain West, that is a problem that will haunt this team all season long.

Players lost:
G Marcus Banks
F Dalron Johnson
G/F Jermaine Lewis (graduation)
G Ernest Turner
F Omari Pearson (transfer)

Key returnees:
G Demetrius Hunter
F James Peters
C J.K. Edwards

New additions:
G Jerel Blassingame (JuCo)
Michael Umeh (freshman)
F Romel Beck (JuCo)
Odartey Blankson (transfer)

Projected starters:
PG: Jerel Blassingame, Jr.
SG: Demetrius Hunter, Sr.
SF: Romel Beck, Jr.
PF: Odartey Blankson, Jr.
C: J.K. Edwards, Sr.

Colorado State Rams (2002-2003: 19-14 overall, 5-9 conference, 6th place)

The Rams surprised everyone with their late run through the conference tournament and their gritty performance against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. However, this is also the same team that lost seven in a row in conference play. Consistency is a problem for this team and it all points to their young backcourt. Sophomores Michael Morris and Shelton Johnson showed great promise last season, but were sloppy with the ball at times. They need to cut down on their turnovers and do a better job of getting the ball into the hands of their talented big men. When healthy, Matt Nelson can easily pour in 20 points a game and haul down 8-10 rebounds. He alone makes the Rams tough, but the addition of prep stars Phillip Thomasson, Stephen Verwers and Stuart Creason gives them one of the best young frontcourts in the country. This is definitely a program on the rise.

Players lost:
G Andy Birley
F Brian Greene (graduation)

Key returnees:
G Joe Rakiecki
G Michael Morris
G Shelton Johnson
G/F Ronnie Clark
F Matt Williams
C Matt Nelson

New additions:
F Phillip Thomasson (freshman)
F Stephen Verwers (freshman)
C Stuart Creason (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Michael Morris, So.
SG: Shelton Johnson, So.
SF: Ronnie Clark, Sr.
PF: Stephen Verwers, Fr.
C: Matt Nelson, Jr.

Wyoming Cowboys (2002-2003: 21-11 overall, 8-6 conference, 3rd place tie)

Steve McClain is a great coach and deserves a fair amount of credit for getting this program to where it is today. However, he missed out on recruiting quality replacements for departing stars like Josh Davis, Marcus Bailey and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi these past two years. Last season’s recruiting class was a bust, and this season’s would have been if not for the late signing of Dion Sherrill. Players like Alex Dunn, David Rottinghaus and Mory Correa won’t make Cowboy fans cheer with delight. However, the team’s constant hustle, tough defense and sheer determination to win, will. Though they may struggle to score points this season, the Cowboys will make it very difficult for opponents to do likewise, especially at home in the Arena.

Players lost:
G Donta Richardson
G Chris McMillan
F Marcus Bailey
C Uche Nsonwu-Amadi (graduation)

Key returnees:
G Jason Straight
G Davis Adams
G/F David Rottinghaus
F Joe Ries
F Mory Correa
C Alex Dunn

New additions:
G Dion Sherrell (JuCo)
G/F Tim Henry (JuCo)

Projected starters:
PG: Jason Straight, Jr.
SG: Dion Sherrell, Jr.
SF: David Rottinghaus, Sr.
PF: Joe Ries, Sr.
C: Alex Dunn, Jr.

San Diego State Aztecs (2002-2003: 16-14 overall, 6-8 conference, 5th place)

Thanks to Steve Fisher, the Aztecs have enjoyed a resurgence in its basketball program. However, look for them to take a step back this season as they try to rebuild from the loss of a number of talented athletes. In particular, the loss of rising star Evan Burns leaves the Aztecs without its main offensive weapon and diminishes their chances of another postseason appearance. Now the main focus of this team will shift to Missouri transfer Wesley Stokes. With his ability to push the ball, clutch shooting, and flamboyant hair, he will quickly be one of the most exciting and popular players in the league. The rest of this team consists mainly of role players, with possibly the exception of freshman Marcus Slaughter, who may have an opportunity to shine. This lack of scoring options doesn’t bode well for the Aztecs, who rely on their high scoring offense to win games. If Coach Fisher can’t dramatically improve their team defense, it could be a long season in San Diego.

Players lost:
G Deandre Moore
G Tony Bland
C Mike Mackell (graduation)
F Evan Burns (suspended)

Key returnees:
G Tommy Johnson
G/F Steve Sir
G/F Travis Hanour
F Aerick Sanders
F/C Chris Walton
C Chris Manker

New additions:
G Wesley Stokes (transfer)
Marcus Slaughter (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Wesley Stokes, Jr.
SG: Tommy Johnson, So.
SF: Steve Sir, So.
PF: Aerick Sanders, Sr.
C: Chris Walton, Jr.

New Mexico Lobos (2002-2003: 10-18 overall, 4-10 conference, 7th place)

Baylor wasn’t the only program dealing with troubles this summer. The suicide of Billy Feeney will hurt this team in more ways than on the scoreboard. This comes after a season of watching Senque Carey struggle to live a normal life again after his devastating injury a year ago. Besides the psychological problems this team must face, there is the reality that the Lobos can no longer be carried by Ruben Douglas, who has finally graduated. Fortunately, players like rising sophomore Mark Walters and Bradley transfer Danny Granger should provide enough scoring punch to keep the Lobos competitive. Look for an improvement over last season, but don’t expect them to move up the standings until things settle down for this program.

Players lost:
G/F Ruben Douglas (graduation)
F Jamaal Williams (transfer)
G Senque Carey (injury)
F Billy Feeney (suicide)

Key returnees:
G Javin Tindall
G Mark Walters
G Ryan Ashcraft
David Chiotti

New additions:
G Ryan Wall (freshman)
F Alfred Neale (JuCo)
F Danny Granger (transfer)
F Justin Benson (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Javin Tindall, Sr.
SG: Mark Walters, So.
SF: Alfred Neale, Jr.
PF: Danny Granger, Jr.
C: David Chiotti, So.

Air Force Falcons (2002-2003: 12-16 overall, 3-11 conference, 8th place)

Joe Scott is quickly turning this basketball program into the Princeton of the west. With its slowdown offense and feisty defense, the Falcons are giving opposing coaches fits trying to develop an effective game plan. With shooters like Tim Keller, Joel Gerlach and A.J. Kuhle knocking down three pointers, it helps keep the game close and gives the Falcons the opportunity to pull in out in the end. Now if the Air Force can only design bigger cockpits, then the Falcons can finally get some help on the boards. Unfortunately, if the shots hit more iron than nylon, then the game is over because their small frontcourt won’t be getting many putbacks. In a conference full of big men, the little guys sometimes get squashed. Thus, is the reality of basketball at the Air Force Academy.

Players lost:
G Vernard Jenkins
C Tom Bellairs (graduation)

Key returnees:
G Antoine Hood
G A.J. Kuhle
G Tim Keller
F Joel Gerlach
C/F Nick Welch
C David Peterson

New additions:
G Matt McCraw (freshman)
F Ryan Teets (freshman)

Projected starters:
PG: Antoine Hood, So.
SG: Tim Keller, Jr.
SF: A.J. Kuhle, Sr.
PF: Joel Gerlach. Jr.
C: Nick Welch, So.


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