The Mountain West Conference had been so good for so long. Every year, it seemed to get better, deeper, and look like it might compete with the Pac-12 some years. Getting several teams into the NCAA Tournament looked like the norm; as it is, the conference went 15 straight years with at least two teams in the field.
Then came 2015-16. The conference was having such a good run, you almost wonder if it was due for a season like this, a correction of sorts. And that’s what happened.
It wasn’t a year to remember, as the conference slipped to 11th in conference RPI, behind the likes of the CAA and MAC and not far ahead of the Summit League. The depth that was there in recent seasons was not there this time around, though San Diego State, the signature program right now, also slumped, even losing non-conference games at home that they normally don’t. The strength wasn’t there at the top and it wasn’t there further down.
Some numbers help explain this a little more. The 11 teams combined to return 79 letterwinners from 2014-15, including 32 starters. That comes out to less than three returning starters per team. Additionally, there were 39 seniors who returned from last year, 42 juniors and 51 sophomores. It was, in all, a less experienced conference. Only Nevada and Utah State returned all five starters, with Fresno State returning four.
Interestingly, the non-conference record was better this year than in 2014-15. However, the conference hasn’t been able to reach the heights of 2010-13, when conference teams won over 70 percent each year. They struggled against the big boys as well, winning just four games against Power 5 foes for a 4-22 mark. They also went a combined 3-4 against the American Athletic Conference, Big East and Conference USA.
There is hope that this could be temporary, though, as there was some redemption in the postseason. San Diego State made it to New York in the NIT, though they were out-classed against George Washington in the semifinals, and Nevada won the CBI. There is reason to think both teams should be better next season.
After the season, two coaching changes took place, though one school had quite an adventure in that respect. Larry Shyatt retired after doing a fine job the past six seasons at Wyoming, and is replaced by Allen Edwards. The adventure was at UNLV, where Dave Rice was fired in January just for starters. Interim head coach Todd Simon didn’t get the permanent job and moved on to become the head coach at Southern Utah, and the school initially hired former UALR head coach Chris Beard to take over. But Beard lasted just 19 days and had not formally signed a contract when Texas Tech came calling, and he left for a place that was more like home for him given the family he has near Lubbock, Texas. The school eventually hired former New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies, a fine coach and not a bad ending considering the situation.
The Mountain West appears to have had a correction in 2015-16, including early in the off-season. This, too, shall pass, and the conference remains fundamentally a strong one.
|San Diego State||16-2||28-10|
|San Jose State||4-14||9-22|
The biggest story with the conference tournament might not have had anything to do with this season, but rather, future years. It seemed all but a done deal that starting next season, only the top eight finishers would be in Las Vegas for the conference tournament, but during this year’s tournament, they reversed course and planned to bring all 11 members back each year, for now at least.
This year’s Mountain West Tournament began and ended with a lower seed winning. No. 9 Utah State handled No. 8 Wyoming 88-70 to get things going, then No. 7 UNLV won a triple overtime thriller 108-102 over No. 10 Air Force, giving the home crowd plenty of value for their money. No. 6 Colorado State closed the day by taking care of No. 11 San Jose State 80-61.
Three of the quarterfinal games were decided by single digits, starting with No. 1 San Diego State surviving against Utah State 71-65. No. 5 Nevada then edged No. 4 New Mexico 64-62, before No. 2 Fresno State scored the only double-digit win of the day in knocking off UNLV 95-82. Colorado State closed the day by ending No. 3 Boise State’s up-and-down season 88-81.
The semifinals saw the higher seed win both times, with San Diego State beating Nevada 67-55 and Fresno State taking care of Colorado State 64-56.
That led to the championship game, a well-played one at that. San Diego State had a big edge in the paint, but Fresno State’s defense came through, especially late in the game. With a one-point lead after holding the Aztecs down defensively, they stopped the Aztecs twice and made late free throws in the final minute to seal a 68-63 win to take home the conference’s NCAA Tournament bid.
Player of the Year: Marvelle Harris, Fresno State
Freshman of the Year: Jeremy Hemsley, San Diego State
Newcomer of the Year: Elijah Brown, New Mexico
Coach of the Year: Steve Fisher, San Diego State
Defensive Player of the Year: Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
Sixth Man of the Year: Brandon Clarke, San Jose State
Josh Adams, Sr. G, Wyoming
Elijah Brown, So. G, New Mexico
Marvelle Harris, Sr. G, Fresno State
Trey Kell, So. G, San Diego State
James Webb III, Sr. F, Boise State
- San Diego State’s Skylar Spencer set a conference record for wins with 109 in his four-year career.
- Williams helped San Diego State lead the country in field goal percentage defense and rank third in the country in scoring defense.
- San Diego State also ranked tenth nationally in blocked shots, while Nevada was a little ahead of them in seventh.
- Marvelle Harris became Fresno State’s all-time leading scorer and the first in program history to top 2,000 career points.
- Wyoming’s Josh Adams was third in the country in scoring.
- Nevada was sixth in the country in blocked shots.
What we expected, and it happened: San Diego State still ruled the conference, winning the regular season by three games despite a so-so non-conference showing. Yes, they beat California, but they lost three times at home, including against UALR and Grand Canyon – good teams, but teams they should beat at home.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Boise State was thought to be a top contender, but the Broncos lost four out of five after coming out of the gates at 5-1 in conference play and never felt like much of a contender before they bowed out in the quarterfinals.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Fresno State appeared to have the pieces for a nice season, and even contending. They didn’t just contend, though, finishing second, winning the conference tournament, and winning the most regular season games (25) in over 30 years.
Team(s) on the rise: New Mexico. Losing Cullen Neal hurts, but they didn’t have him most of this season due to injury, so they have already played without him. The Lobos bring back two of the conference’s top four scorers as a good starting point.
Team(s) on the decline: UNLV. This is an easy one. Marvin Menzies and his staff will really have their work cut out for them initially, as the bottom has fallen out with numerous player defections. Forget the PR aspect of the Chris Beard situation; the Runnin’ Rebels have been jumping through hoops (pun intended) just to have enough bodies to conduct practice next season since the new staff inherited just a handful of scholarship players. There will certainly be steps back before steps forward, though Menzies is a very good coach and has assembled a solid staff led by former UConn and Providence assistant Andre LaFleur and former Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter.
2016-17 Mountain West Outlook
Thinking about favorites for next season starts once again with San Diego State. The Aztecs still have Steve Fisher on the bench, which is a great start, and they return plenty of talent and experience in Kell, Hemsley and Malik Pope, which should help offset the losses of Spencer and Winston Shepard.
New Mexico and Nevada should be the top contenders behind the Aztecs. The Lobos bring back two of the top four scorers in the conference, while the Wolfpack look ready to build on a CBI title despite losing key starters Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell. D.J. Fenner, their second-leading scorer, returns, while Cameron Oliver was among the conference leaders in double-doubles as a freshman and Lindsey Drew also showed promise in his inaugural campaign. Colorado State could be a sleeper, as the Rams finally seemed to catch on late in the season and will have much of this season’s team back.
Boise State will probably take a step back with James Webb III leaving early in addition to the seniors they lost. They won’t fall off a cliff, but contending seems like a long shot. At the bottom, San Jose State may have some unlikely competition in UNLV as the Runnin’ Rebels start life under Marvin Menzies with a depleted roster. The other conference schools will have to enjoy this, though, because Menzies can coach and there is plenty to attract talent to that school, so chances to beat up on them will likely be short-lived.