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Mountain West Preview

November 16, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Conference 2008-09 Preview

by Brad Best

Things are looking up in the Mountain West Conference. With only a handful of premier players moving on to either the next level or the rest of their lives, the conference as a whole is set up for even greater success.

The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are the consensus favorite to claim the conference title and do some damage in the NCAA tournament. The other three teams battling for second-best are BYU, San Diego State and New Mexico. With senior leadership and proven playmakers suiting up for each squad, competition will be fiercer than ever. All the top contenders in the Mountain West do well at protecting their home court, so the true test is winning on the road. BYU holds the nation’s longest homecourt winning streak at 47 games, but look for that to fall this year.

Utah, New Mexico, Colorado State and Wyoming will all be in year two with their new coaches and systems, so look for improvement all around and new recruits to more closely match the playing styles of their programs.

With a couple of the tall trees (6’11” Trent Plaisted and 7’0″ Stuart Creason) no longer playing the in the Mountain West, the Runnin’ Rebels tagline may be a suitable description for more than just the team from Las Vegas. Up-tempo, high-scoring shootouts will play out nightly in the upcoming season in the Mountain West Conference.

All-MWC First Team
Wink Adams, G, UNLV
Lee Cummard, G, BYU
Brandon Ewing, G, Wyoming
Lorenzo Wade, F, San Diego State
Luke Nevill, C, Utah

Honorable Mentions: Tony Dandrige, New Mexico; Andrew Henke, Air Force; Kyle Spain, San Diego State, Marcus Walker, Colorado State

Conference MVP
Wink Adams, UNLV

Newcomer of the Year
Tre’Von Willis, UNLV

1. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
2007-08 record: 27-8, 12-4 MWC (2nd place)

Projected starting five:
Wink Adams, Sr. G
Tre’Von Willis, So. G (Transfer)
Rene Rougeau, Sr. G
Joe Darger, Sr. F
Beas Hamga, Fr. C

With back-to-back NCAA tournament berths, Lon Kruger has proven he can recruit, reload and re-energize a new crop of talent and remain atop the Mountain while playing in the desert.

Wink Adams will vie for conference Player of the Year honors in his senior season. In the backcourt, help will come in the form of Memphis transfer Tre’Von Willis. With Willis running the point, Adams can focus on scoring, whether it is driving the lane and spotting up for an open three-pointer. His court leadership and tenacity on defensive make him a complete player and future NBA prospect.

The Runnin’ Rebels succeeded without a true big man on the roster last season, but will have a couple of true centers to choose from in the upcoming campaign. Beas Hamga has finally been cleared to play and should have an immediate impact on the defensive end. Back-up 6’10” Brice Massamba is a transplant from Sweden with more refined skills on the offense than Hamga.

Joe Darger defended the post on many occasions last year but can now go back to the small forward spot, where he is a three-point threat. Matt Shaw played well a year ago but injured his knee and will sit this season out. So the power forward position is up for grabs, but it looks like the Rebels have a sufficient mix of talent at that spot to still be very solid overall.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 15 vs. San Diego
Nov. 28 vs. Cal
Dec. 20 vs. Arizona
Dec. 31 vs. Louisville

Kruger did an admirable job of replacing key starters and coaching an undersized team up to the top of the conference. Look for the Rebels to add to their success with their new additions and once again claim the conference crown and NCAA tournament bid.

2. BYU Cougars
2007-08 record: 27-8, 14-2 MWC (1st place)

Projected starting five:
Lee Cummard, Sr. G
Jimmer Fredett, So. G
Jonathan Tavernari, Jr. F
Gavin McGregor, Sr. F
Chris Miles, Jr. C

Trent Plaisted left school early and was selected in the NBA draft, but Lee Cummard withdrew his name from the draft and decided to return for his senior season. With Cummard returning with an average of 16 points and 6 rebounds per night, along with Jonathan Tavernari (13 points, 5 rebounds), Coach Dave Rose has a strong nucleus to build around.

Chris Miles appears to be the frontrunner for the center position as Vuk Ivanovic has moved on as well. Senior Gavin MacGregor should contribute minutes in the middle.

Guard Jimmer Fredette can play either the point or the shooting guard position and will need to step up his production this year. He proved in his freshman season that he can handle the ball and will have more opportunities to shine going forward.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 18 at Pepperdine
Dec. 20 at Arizona State
Dec, 30 at Tulsa
Jan. 3 vs. Wake Forest

With the attrition of Plaisted and company, the Cougars will not be able to hold onto their 47-game homecourt winning streak but will still hold a firm homecourt advantage of opponents. If Cummard and Travernari can get some help inside and if the ball bounces their way, they’ll be dancing again.

3. San Diego State Aztecs
2007-08 record: 20-13, 9-7 MWC (4th place)

Projected starting five:
Richie William, Sr. G
DJ Gay, So. G
Kyle Spain, Sr. F
Billy White, So. F
Ryan Amoroso, Sr. F

The Aztecs have a nice blend of youth and experience, but as usual also have an off-court issue that is poised to stunt their success. Preseason All-MWC selection Lorenzo Wade was the go-to guy last season and seemed poised for a solid senior season before his actions led to criminal charges and suspension until court rulings add clarity to the situation. Besides Wade, the Aztecs are stacked with seniors and new additions from the JUCO ranks should give them the depth the sorely needed a year ago.

Senior Kyle Spain served a suspension for violating team rules last season and the team sputtered down the stretch in his absence. He is the Aztecs’ best catch-and-shoot player and will need to regain his form and place on the team in Wade’s absence.

At the point guard position, Richie Williams will need to have a strong senior season and lead the team on and off court. He, too, had his share of challenges last year, missing valuable court time with a suspension and an injured wrist. D.J. Gay showed promise as a true freshman and will share time at both the point and the two guard positions. Senior Matt Thomas was granted a medical redshirt and if his back holds up, he has the size to defend the perimeter and help initiate the break.

Kelvin Davis was slotted to replace Brandon Heath a year ago but proved to have an inconsistent outside shot and was in and out of the starting lineup. After the season, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and has been undergoing treatments. He has been practicing with the team and whether or not he can go this season remains to be seen. New addition Tim Island comes from one of the top junior colleges in the country and should add some much-needed three-point shooting.

Ryan Amoroso will anchor the Aztecs’ frontcourt again this year. At 6′ 8″, 257 pounds, he has proven to have the strength to guard bigger, taller opponents down low. Freshman of the Year Billy White is the most athletic player on the team. He shined on defense but would disappear on offense at times. Outside of easy putbacks and dunks, he really didn’t focus on getting his own shot. Look for the Aztecs to run more plays for him, especially in Wade’s absence. Junior college transfer Mehdi Cheriet (6’9″) will be a welcome addition to the frontcourt and can step outside and knock down shots.

Freshman forward Tim Shelton played very effectively in four games last year before going down with a knee injury. Coach Steve Fisher is bringing him along slowly, but if healthy, Shelton is a very important member of this team and a leader.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 18 vs. Arizona State
Dec. 6 vs. San Diego
Dec. 13 vs. Saint Mary’s (Wooden Classic)
Dec. 22 at Arizona

If Wade can rejoin the team sooner rather than later, the Aztecs can compete for the top of the conference. Otherwise, these Aztecs may finish in the middle of the pack without a go-to scorer and lingering injuries and off-court issues with other players.

4. New Mexico Lobos
2007-08 record: 24-9, 11-5 MWC (3rd place)

Projected starting five:
Tony Danridge, Sr. G
Dairese Gary, So. G
Phillip McDonald, Fr. G
Chad Toppert, Sr. F
Daniel Faris, Sr. F

The Lobos went from eighth place to third under the guidance of first-year head coach Steve Alford. Alford is also working his magic on the recruiting front and appears to be building a solid program in Albuquerque.

J.R. Giddens was a first-round NBA draft pick, but the return of Tony Danridge should help fill the scoring void and the Lobos should have a more balanced team without Giddens in the lineup.

All the talk this year is around freshman Phillip McDonald. This top 100 prospect turned down Big 12 scholarships to play for Alford. Also, Isaiah Rusher is a 6’9″ post player who should get minutes as a freshman.

Daniel Faris cemented his place in the middle of the lineup by starting every game and earning honorable mention All-MWC player last season. He should continue to improve in his senior season and welcome freshman Will Brown, who adds some additional beef in the middle.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 16 at Creighton
Nov. 10 at San Diego
Dec. 13 vs. Mississippi
Dec. 20 at Texas Tech

The return of Danridge and another year under Alford should help the Lobos be competitive again this year. The will hold their own, especially in The Pit, but may struggle on the road as they seek to integrate seven new faces onto this year’s roster. They’ll likely earn an invitation to the NIT when the season comes to an end.

5. Utah Utes
2007-08 record: 18-15, 7-9 MWC (6th place)

Projected starting five:
Tyler Kepkay, Sr. G
Lawrence Borha, Sr. G
Carlon Brown, So.G
Shaun Green, Sr. F
Luke Nevill, Sr. C

Coach Jim Boylen put down a solid foundation in his first year as a head coach. As promised, he helped the team increase its defensive intensity, which kept them in more games. He now has a team loaded with seniors and one of the best big men around.

Luke Nevill (7’1″) is one of the most talented big men in the country but has lived in the shadow of BYU’s Plaisted for the last three years. With Plaisted and other big centers out of the way this year, Nevill will have every opportunity to prove that he is NBA-caliber. He has been prone to foul trouble, which has limited his minutes in key games. Kim Tillie, a 6’9″ junior, will provide some help for Nevill down low.

Guard Johnnie Bryant (14 ppg) was instant offense last year and his scoring ability will be missed. Shaun Green had an off year in his junior campaign, but look for him to be right up there with Nevill as far as putting points on the board this year. Tyler Kepkay transferred in last season and secured a role as point guard. Lawrence Borha is the defensive stopper on the perimeter.

Sophomore Carlon Brown started some games as a freshman and should continue to show improvement with additional minutes this year.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 28 at Missouri State
Dec. 3 vs. Oregon
Dec. 10 vs. California
Dec. 13 at Oklahoma

If Nevill can stay on the court and out of foul trouble, the Utes are capable of knocking off any team in the conference on any night. This team is filled with seniors, and that combined with Boylen’s discipline should upset a few of the top teams. In the end, they may just be good enough for the NIT.

6. Air Force Falcons
2007-08 record: 16-14, 8-8 MWC (5th place)

Projected starting five:
Evan Washington, So. G
Andrew Henke, Sr. G
Anwar Johnson, Sr. F
Matt Holland, Sr. F
Grant Parker, Jr. F

A sixth-man for the past couple of years, Andrew Henke is the top scorer among returning players at 11 points per game. That says something about the experience of this year’s squad and where they may end up.

The cadets will definitely miss the services of Tim Anderson and his 14 points per game. Anderson was the link to the Top 25 teams from a few years back. Now Henke will need to provide leadership and scoring.

Alongside Henke in the backcourt will be Evan Washington, who was one of the top freshmen in the conference last season. Washington averaged about 7 points per game a year ago and will get more looks this year.

Military schools are typically short on size, and this year’s Air Force roster is no exception. Returning forwards Anwar Johnson and Matt Holland will do what they can inside, but perimeter shooting and movement are the keys to the Falcons success. Freshman Sam Schafer provides some much-needed size at 6’9″ and will try to work his way into the lineup.

Clune Arena has been very good to the Falcons. They posted a 12-4 record at home last season but were just 3-8 on the road. This year may be much of the same.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 26 at Stanford
Dec. 6 at Northern Colorado
Dec. 27 at Portland

Air Force will continue to shoot bombs from the outside and look to win with perimeter shooting and controlling the clock. Some nights it will prove successful, but don’t look for them to be one of the top teams in conference this year.

7. Wyoming Cowboys
2007-08 record: 12-18, 5-11 MWC (8th place)

Projected starting five:
Brandon Ewing, Sr. G
Sean Ogirri, Sr. G
Joseph Taylor, Jr. F
Bienvenu Songondo, Jr. F
Travis Nelson, Sr. C

The backcourt tandem of Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones just wasn’t enough to help first-year Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer to a successful season. All too often the Cowboys were over-matched and out-gunned. Ewing is one of the best players in the league and would vie for Player of the Year honors if he played for another school. With Jones gone now, it’s hard to see how the Cowboys are going to see much improvement unless their transfers really hit the ground running.

Wichita State transfer Sean Ogirri should help fill in for Jones on the perimeter, but he only has one year of eligibility. Freshman A.J. Davis will back up Ewing. There is a sharp drop-off after Ewing, who has led the Mountain West in scoring twice.

Mikhail Linskens out of Belgium returns for his sophomore season and provides a big presence in the middle. He will be surrounded by Ryan Dermody at the power forward position as well as Tyson Johnson, who averaged 7 points per game off the bench. Transfer Djibril Thiam from Baylor will be eligible after the first semester and will help improve the frontcourt depth.

The Cowboys have high hopes for Mahamoud Diakite from France. He played at a junior college in California last year and could make an immediate impact.

Key out of conference games:
Dec. 3 at Boise State
Dec. 13 vs. Northern Iowa
Dec. 23 at UCLA

With a pretty friendly non-conference schedule, Schroyer will try to integrate a bevy of junior college players into the mix early and try to turns things around in Laramie. This is likely a transition year as Ewing will be the focal point among a number of new faces.

8. Colorado State Rams
2007-08 record: 7-25, 0-16 MWC (9th place)

Projected starting five:
Marcus Walker, Sr. G

Willis Gardner, Sr. G
Andre McFarland, So. F
Andy Ogide, Jr. F
Ronnie Aguilar, Jr. C

The 2007-08 season was a rough year for this Rocky Mountain school, as they failed to win a single conference game at home or on the road. But they did manage a victory over Wyoming in the conference tournament, so maybe that’s a positive sign. Coach Tim Miles, previously from North Dakota State, is better than this and will get things heading in the right direction.

Big man Stuart Creason has graduated and so the Rams are likely to transition from a low-post focused team to one with more emphasis on the perimeter. Ronnie Aguilar will likely start the year at center but will need to stay healthy this year if he is going to be effective. The Rams will also get help inside from two transfers, Andy Ogide from Ole Miss and Dan Vandervieren from Purdue.

Marcus Walker and Willis Gardner will form the backcourt tandem and are the only seniors on the team. Walker was Newcomer of the Year in 2007-08 and averaged 17 points per game as a junior. Gardner averaged about 10 points per game and led the team in assists.

Key out of conference games:
Nov. 22 vs. Minnesota
Dec. 2 vs. Nevada
Dec. 10 at Colorado
Dec. 14 vs. Stanford

Miles will have his hands full again this season, but they will win a few conference games this season and regain a little credibility. They have a long way to go before they can compete with the top teams in the conference.

9. TCU Horned Frogs
2007-08 record: 14-16, 6-10 MWC (7th place)

Projected starting five:
Keion Mitchem, Jr. G
Jason Ebie, Jr. G
Kavon Rose, Fr. G
Kevin Langford, Sr. F
Zvonko Buljan, Jr. F

The Horned Frogs successfully got out of the Mountain West cellar last year, even though they were 1-7 on the road in conference play and 1-12 away from home overall. They did manage to pull some upsets at home and will look to do more damage this year.

Kevin Langford led the team with 13 points and 5 rebounds per game last year, which was consistent with his prior year’s performance. He will be called upon to bear much of the scoring burden and provide team leadership in this final season.

Brent Hackett was a streaky outside shooter, and his 11 points per game will certainly be missed on the perimeter. Keion Mitchem should be able to increase his scoring ability with more minutes and experience this year. Junior Jason Ebie will also get plenty of playing time at the guard spot.

Kavon Rose should provide a spark as a true freshman and could crack the starting lineup. He is one of the top-rated freshmen in the league who originally signed with a Pac-10 team.

There aren’t a lot of big bodies on the roster. A couple of international players, Zvonko Buljan and Edvinas Ruzgas will try to fill that space.

New coach Jim Christian from Kent State will try to do what his predecessor Neil Doughtery could not do since joining the Mountain West, which is posting a winning conference record. But don’t expect it this year.

Key out of conference games:
Dec. 3 at Colorado
Dec. 8 vs. Wichita State
Dec. 10 at Indiana
Jan. 6 at Texas Tech

The Horned Frogs will struggle again this year. Lots of new faces, only one proven scorer and a new coach do not sound like a recipe for success in the upcoming campaign.

MWC Summary

This figures to be an improved year in the Mountain West. UNLV appears to be the cream of the crop but BYU, San Diego State and New Mexico will test the mettle of the Runnin’ Rebels. With senior-laden teams up and down the conference, experience should translate into exciting and competitive matchups all around.

Look for two teams to go dancing and another two to be included in the NIT when the season comes to a close.


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