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Mountain West 2016-17 Post-Mortem

June 29, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The Mountain West was a fun conference to watch in 2016-17, in large part because very little went as expected, at least in the race for the conference title. Take the preseason predictions and throw them out the window, because the only pick the coaches got right was picking Fresno State to finish fourth, and only two teams finished one spot away from where they were picked.

The surprises start right at the top. San Diego State was thought to be a fairly comfortable favorite, though that might have been underselling Nevada a bit. The Wolfpack were going to need a couple of newcomers to become key players, and that’s never a sure thing, but there was no shortage of talent on the defending CBI champions. With Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline making instant impacts alongside holdovers like Cameron Oliver, the Wolfpack were basically the best team in the conference all season long, and they finished the job by winning the conference tournament. San Diego State, meanwhile, was good in non-conference but got out of the gates slowly in conference play and finished sixth with a .500 mark.

Colorado State was picked seventh, but led the conference for stretches despite losing three key players due to academics in January. The Rams overcame a lot of adversity, and Larry Eustachy might have done his best coaching job to get this team to the conference title game and then win a game in the NIT.

Boise State was a wild card of sorts, a tough team to project given personnel losses, but also some good holdovers. With Chandler Hutchison and Paris Austin emerging, the Broncos were right there in contention for a lot of the season and finished third. They went on to beat Utah in the NIT before bowing out at Illinois in the second round. What gives you an idea of how this team’s season went is that they were a remarkable 5-0 in games decided by three points or less, with four of those coming in conference play. Leon Rice continues to do a great job there, meaning what fans might have to worry about most is if some other program could snag him at some point.

New Mexico was the perhaps the frustrating team. The Lobos had talent and experience, about as much as any team not named San Diego State coming into the season. You couldn’t knock anyone who picked them second, or even to win if they thought San Diego State wasn’t quite as good as others thought. The Lobos won their first two conference games, but a three-game losing streak that featured a badly blown game against Nevada and a loss to cellar dweller UNLV was damaging. They rebounded nicely to win four straight, but were inconsistent after that.

Wyoming was a pleasant surprise, reaching the CBI and then giving the conference the CBI champion for the second year in a row. With that, Allen Edwards became the seventh coach in NCAA history to win a postseason tournament in their rookie season as a head coach. The Cowboys rode some great three-point shooting to the title, with Justin James being the tournament MVP.

There is some potential among the teams that finished near the bottom of the league. UNLV has most of it, for obvious reasons, as they have a lot going for them but had an expected down year this season after a great deal of player and coaching attrition. Marvin Menzies can coach, and he showed that this year, getting 11 wins out of this team. Talent is on the way, so they don’t figure to be down for long.

Speaking of coaches, that’s one area where there was some noteworthy movement this off-season. Only two of the 11 schools changed coaches, but they were big ones. Steve Fisher retired after a great run that featured 18 seasons and 386 wins at San Diego State, turning them into a consistent winner. Brian Dutcher, who had been designated to succeed him, moved up into the top spot. New Mexico fired Craig Neal with the program not exactly trending up, replacing him with the coach from their arch-rival, former New Mexico State head coach Paul Weir. That means the last two head coaches at New Mexico State are now coaching in the Mountain West, with predecessor Marvin Menzies at UNLV.

The Mountain West had five teams reach postseason play, with three winning at least one game in the tournament in which they competed. That helped the conference post its best non-conference winning percentage since 2013-14, though it is still a ways off from the great three-year run they had from 2010-13. The real story was in the regular season, however, as very little went as predicted.

Final Standings

Mountain West
Colorado State
Boise State
Fresno State
New Mexico
San Diego State
Utah State
San Jose State
Air Force

Conference Tournament

As unpredictable as the regular season was, the conference tournament was a surprise with just two games won by the lower seed. Also surprising is that seven of the ten games were decided by double digits.

Three of them came on the first day, with No. 8 Utah State dominating No. 9 San Jose State 90-64, No. 10 Air Force knocking off No. 7 Wyoming 83-68 and No. 6 San Diego State handling No. 11 UNLV 62-52.

The quarterfinals saw one dandy, and it was the game you might expect. After No. 1 Nevada sent Utah State home with an 83-69 decision, No. 4 Fresno State held off No. 5 New Mexico 65-60. No. 2 Colorado State blew out Air Force 81-55, then San Diego State scored the second and final win by a lower seed in knocking off No. 3 Boise State 87-68.

In the semifinals, Nevada beat Fresno State 83-72, then Colorado State ended any hopes of a run by San Diego State with a 71-63 win over the Aztecs.

That set up the championship game, which was a good one between the two best teams in the conference for the balance of the season. Nevada jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half and led 44-32 at the break, and after two double-digit wins earlier in the tournament, looked ready to make it three in a row. But as they did all season, the Rams fought back, tying the game twice before running out of gas. They held Nevada to 4-22 from the field in the second half and got hot from long range, but Nevada prevailed 79-71.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Gian Clavell, Colorado State
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Marshall, Nevada
Coach of the Year: Larry Eustachy, Colorado State
Top Freshman: Koby McEwen, Utah State
Defensive Player of the Year: Dakarai Allen, San Diego State
Sixth Man of the Year: Justin James, Wyoming

All-Mountain West Team
Brandon Clarke, So. F, San Jose State
Gian Clavell, Sr. G, Colorado State
Chandler Hutchison, Jr. G, Boise State
Marcus Marshall, Sr. G, Nevada
Emmanuel Omogbo, Sr. F, Colorado State

Season Highlights

  • Wyoming won the CBI, the second straight season a Mountain West team has won that tournament.
  • Wyoming set a conference record for three-pointers with 369, hitting double-digit threes in 14 of their final 15 games.
  • San Diego State won the Diamond Head Classic, winning all three games by double digits.
  • Colorado State’s Emmanuel Omogbo was the only player in the conference to average a double-double on the season.
  • Nevada placed three players in the conference’s top ten in scoring and two in the top five in rebounding.

What we expected, and it happened: UNLV contended for the cellar. Marvin Menzies will get this program winning again, but with a depleted roster, it wasn’t going to happen this year. There is good talent coming in, though, so teams needed to beat them while they could this year.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: San Diego State was thought to be a fairly comfortable favorite; some thought they were borderline prohibitive favorites. The Aztecs never really got going in Mountain West play, though, losing their first three games before winning three straight and then backsliding with two more losses. This followed an impressive showing at the Diamond Head Classic, where they won three games by double digits to claim the title.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Boise State was a contender. The Broncos were really a hard team to peg, though more was certainly expected of them a year ago. They won every close game and were right there in the mix for the top for most of the season.

Team(s) on the rise: Wyoming, UNLV. The Cowboys got hot and won the CBI, and Justin James leads a good cast of holdovers that should have them contending for a higher finish next season. As for the Runnin’ Rebels, naturally they can only go up from here, but the rise should be quick and steep with the talent they have coming in, led by big man Brandon McCoy. There are a lot of recruiting advantages there, and Marvin Menzies and his staff are taking advantage of them already.

Team(s) on the decline: New Mexico. There is a reason Craig Neal got fired at a school where expectations are high: the Lobos were trending down, and with Elijah Brown transferring they don’t seem likely to be better next season. Paul Weir can coach, but winning big next year looks like a long shot.


2017-18 Mountain West Outlook

The conversation about favorites for 2017-18 should begin with Nevada once again. The Wolfpack lose some significant pieces, with Cameron Oliver leaving for the NBA Draft in addition to Marcus Marshall being out of eligibility, but Eric Musselman is building something really good in Reno.

Who has the best chance of unseating the Wolfpack? We can start with San Diego State, though Zylan Cheatham’s transfer to Arizona State hurts. Malik Pope has not lived up to his potential, but he returns and so does Trey Kell, another who would surely like to end his career on a better note, and Jeremy Hemsley should be an all-conference player.

Colorado State should be good, but they will greatly miss the dynamic duo of Clavell and Omogbo, the latter of who was a double-double machine. Boise State returns a lot, led by Hutchison and Austin, and Leon Rice has a good thing going. Wyoming could be primed for a big jump with Justin James and Hayden Dalton leading the holdovers from the team that won the CBI. Fresno State should be in that group, too, as Rodney Terry has steered a steady ship and has Deshon and Jahmel Taylor and leading the holdovers.

UNLV will be primed for a jump with a solid recruiting class coming in, and they will be the wild card. New Mexico loses a lot, so they may drop further in the standings in Paul Weir’s first year. San Jose State could have some forward momentum, with Brandon Clarke leading the holdovers, while Utah State will build around the conference’s top freshman this past year in Koby McEwen and Air Force loses their best player.

If next season goes anything like this season, though, we’ll look back at this early guess and wonder how we came to any of it.

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