Thursday , Nov , 03 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Mountain West Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Mountain West Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Last season there was a clear-cut leader when it came to Mountain
West Conference basketball, but with the departure of the NBA’s top draft pick
Andrew Bogut, it looks like there might be a new sheriff in town. According to
the media, it is the San Diego State Aztecs who have the inside track at being
the league’s top squad once March rolls around. Considering SDSU has four
returning starters, of which Marcus Slaughter is considered the top returning
player across the board, in addition to having the best newcomer (Mohamed
Abukar) and one of the more accomplished head coaches (Steve Fisher) in the
conference, this selection might be a no-brainer. Even with the loss of Bogut,
Utah is not to be forgotten and should be in the mix right up until the end.
Always a threat to make some noise, the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV have taken on a
new marketing campaign to hype themselves, which could do wonders for the
team’s psyche. Despite always having to run with a smaller crew compared to
the rest of the teams in the conference (and the nation for that matter),
counting out Air Force would be a mistake, because the Falcons always fight
with a never-say-die attitude. New Mexico lost one of the league’s top overall
performers to the draft and is down three of its best players from a year ago
altogether, which means the unit will probably finish in the second half of
the standings as it tries to rebuild. Newcomer TCU has just two returning
starters and has to not only compensate for a loss of experience, but try and
do so while learning the ropes in a new conference. Bringing up the rear in
the Mountain West are a collection of established programs in BYU, Wyoming and
Colorado State, that have in year’s past, been big players in the final
outcome of the standings. However, they will be rebuilding in 2005-06.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. San Diego State; 2. Utah; 3. UNLV; 4. Air Force;
5. New Mexico; 6. TCU; 7. Wyoming; 8. BYU; 9. Colorado State


SAN DIEGO STATE: The fact that San Diego State is going to be one of the host
sites for the first and second rounds of the 2006 NCAA Tournament should be
enough to force the Aztecs themselves to want to be involved in the event on
the actual floor. Last year, coach Fisher picked up some soft wins early on
but then really struggled in league play, to the tune of an 11-18 record
overall and just 4-10 versus the rest of the MWC. The lack of a postseason bid
for the program should be more than enough to get Slaughter and Brandon Heath
to play up to and beyond their potential. Slaughter, a Second-Team All-MWC
performer last season, has increased his scoring average each season since
joining the Aztecs, finishing up with 17.8 ppg in 2004-05 to place fifth in
the league. Slaughter creates most of his own shots thanks to a rebounding
effort that provided for nine boards per outing last season. Heath, also a
Second-Team All-MWC choice, is not only the top returning scorer in the
conference at 18.3 ppg, but is also one of the best set-up men around, having
produced close to four assists per contest. Both of those juniors will be
leading a couple of returning seniors with guard John Sharper (6.0 ppg, 1.3
apg) and center Mohamed Camera (2.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) increasing their output to
the team’s bottom line. Abukar, who comes in as a junior, is expected to
produce right away, that is as soon as he is eligible in December. By opening
their season as part of the package at the Top of the World Classic in Alaska,
the Aztecs should get a strong idea of what they are made of and how far they
can take this season before March rolls around.

UTAH: Bogut was Utah basketball last season, end of story. Sure, there were
some other talented players on the squad that made it to the NCAA Tournament,
but without the big man from Down Under, this year will not be as fulfilling
by a long shot. Head coach Ray Giacoletti now has to really show how well he
can lead a program, rather than calling plays for Bogut every time down the
floor. The second-year coach, who has a career record of 146-89 over eight
years overall, has lost a combined 39 ppg in starters who have departed, but
all is not lost with seniors Bryant Markson and Tim Drisdom coming back for
another run at glory. Markson, a forward, brings a scoring average of 10.4
ppg, but will need to boost his rebounding effort (3.9 rpg) to make up for
losses in the front court. Drisdom isn’t a flashy player who posts huge
numbers, but at least he is a steady influence in the backcourt to help guide
the rest of the youngsters. Senior guard/forward Richard Chaney will have the
ball in his hands a lot more in 2005-06 due to the fact that after him there’s
not much experience in the ranks. Filling the shoes of Bogut will not be easy
by any stretch of the imagination, but the Utes are already planning on
unearthing another foreign star at some point with Misha Radojevic, Luke
Nevill and Jonas Langvad all checking in at 6-10 or taller.

UNLV: The biggest problem with the UNLV program in the last couple of years
has been finding the right fit at the coaching position. This season Lon
Kruger takes his second shot at success in the desert after getting the Rebels
into the second round of the NIT in 2005 where they fell to South Carolina.
It’s not going to be easy for the Rebels, who are going to have to fight an
uphill battle after losing star forward Odartey Blankson. It also doesn’t help
that occasional starters Romel Beck and Jerel Blassingame have also moved on.
Senior forward Louis Amundson, who was one of just a handful of players in all
of college basketball last season to have at least 20 points and 20 rebounds
in a single game, brings his 7.8 ppg and 7.5 rpg back to the UNLV table, but
he is still far from a consistent go-to guy down on the blocks. Junior guard
Michael Umeh is second only to Amundson in experience, which is why he should
be able to increase his 9.7 ppg and 1.4 apg with more playing time available
to him this season. The rest of the roster for the Rebels is relatively
unknown. Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing UNLV this season is the fact
that not a single player stands above 6-9, which means they’ll have to rely
more on speed and movement at the offensive end of the floor if they are going
to get easy baskets.

AIR FORCE: Year after year the Falcons take a look at their roster and wonder
where all the height is and how they are going to deal with their lack of
stature, and every year the program ends up being one of the top defensive
groups in all of college basketball. Somehow it always works out, but this
season it is going to be a little tougher with Second-Team All-MWC selection
Nick Welch having to sit out following ankle surgery in September. Welch was
to be one of the top returning scores (12.0 ppg) and rebounders (3.6 rpg) for
the group, but he won’t be back in an Air Force uniform until 2006-07. A
consistent defensive stopper for the Falcons, Welch was a huge part of a team
that led the nation in scoring defense once again last year, giving up a
meager 54.3 ppg. Considering the academy averaged barely 23 rebounds per game
a year ago, the loss of Welch is going to hurt on a number of levels. That
means senior guards Antoine Hood (13.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) has even more pressure to
perform and nurture the younger players who need to gain game experience to be
useful to the Falcons down the road. Beginning his first season with the
program, head coach Jeff Bzdelik doesn’t have a lot of options at his disposal
and isn’t exactly in the best position when it comes to recruiting, since
there are no scholarships available to Air Force basketball players. At least
the new leader can be pleased with the fact that there is little turnover in
the ranks and has three juniors: Jacob Burtschi (8.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Matt
McCraw (9.0 ppg, 1.8 apg) and Dan Nwaelele (7.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg) ready and able
to beef up their numbers.

NEW MEXICO: The Lobos had the greatest scoring margin in the Mountain West
Conference last year, posting an average of 11.2 ppg more than opponents, but
that probably won’t be the case in 2005-06 with so many changes afoot in
Albuquerque. Head coach Ritchie McKay, now entering his fourth season, is not
in an enviable position, having to find replacements for three of the top
scorers in the conference. Senior forward David Chiotti did finish last year
as an All-MWC Third Team member after starting all 33 games for the program,
but he was just one of five players on the squad to average double-digit
scoring a year ago (10.4 ppg). Joining him in that group is senior guard Mark
Walters (10.5 ppg), while Kris Collins (8.0 ppg) was on his way to that level
before going down with injury. After gauging the ability of those three
returning starters, it’s clear that the Lobos have some talent to start each
game. The real problem begins when New Mexico looks to its bench for support.
Of the remaining five returning letterwinners for UNM, not one scored more
than three points per game, and that’s a dangerous thought considering there
are now seven newcomers to the program that McKay has to assess. Like the
Runnin’ Rebels, the Lobos have an issue with height, being rather average with
only three players standing taller than 6-8. Unlike Air Force who can make a
lack of size work in its favor, UNM hasn’t proven it can handle that handicap

TCU: The Horned Frogs made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT last season,
which is why the squad played an exhausting 35 games. The team did well
against non-conference opponents, but when it came to schools within
Conference USA, TCU was a mere 8-8 and finished eighth in the standings.
Unfortunately, if fourth-year head coach Neil Dougherty thinks he’s going to
have that sort of moderate success now that he and the Horned Frogs have
jumped to the MWC, they are sorely mistaken. Senior leadership is at a premium
in Fort Worth these days after a total of five seniors (Corey Santee, Marcus
Shropshire, Marcus Sloan, Aaron Curtis and Corey Valsin) all played they’re
last games for the Frogs a year ago. That leaves quite a number of newcomers
and inexperienced performers to learn the ropes from the likes of Nile Murry
and Femi Ibikunle. Murry, a senior guard, is the top returning scorer for the
group with his 12.5 ppg and is also the most experienced passer with almost
two and a half assists per outing. Ibikunle’s 5.4 rpg in 2004-05 were the best
on the squad, which tells you that there’s probably going to be a need for
some inside help on defense this time around. In all likelihood, Chudi
Chinweze will make the transition from backup to starter now that he’s a
senior and has shown he has scoring potential with better than 11 ppg a year
ago. Fellow forward Judson Stubbs (6.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) should also seen
increased playing time, but that doesn’t exactly mean the Frogs will be all
that successful with a new bunch of regular foes.

WYOMING: The Cowboys have their work cut out for them this season. In a year
that has non-conference meetings against the likes of Washington State,
Southern Illinois, Princeton and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, this team might be
heading into league play already desperate to get the campaign over with.
Considering eighth-year head coach Steve McClain has just one returning
starter to rely on for guidance, that scenario may not be that far-fetched.
There isn’t a single player returning to the fold in Laramie who scored at
least nine points per game last season, with senior forward Justin Williams
coming closest with his 8.9 ppg to go along with 6.4 rpg. Fellow forward Steve
Leven (8.5 ppg) also has some scoring potential, but he was picking up those
points coming off the bench, usually fresh against spent defenders. Derek
Wabbington (6.3 ppg) has some starting experience, but that’s a lot different
than being a focal point in a starting role. It’s scary just how young this
unit really is, with as many as nine guys suiting up who are either first or
second-year players. At 15-13 in 2004-05, the Cowboys failed to make it into
the postseason, and after showing that they will probably have trouble on the
road again this year, there’s no reason to think Wyoming is going to raise any

BRIGHAM YOUNG: Figure this one out…the Cougars have four returning starters
from last season and still they are projected to finish at or near the bottom
of the Mountain West Conference standings. In his first year as a head coach
with any major college basketball program, Dave Rose has a lot of work in
front of him as he tries to raise this BYU group to a respectable level. Talk
about a tough run, starting with their final game of the calendar year versus
Tulsa at home on December 30, the Cougars alternate with games on the road and
at home from then on until the first week in March when they get both Colorado
State and New Mexico in Provo to close out the regular season. There isn’t a
single double-digit scorer from a year ago returning to campus, then again
there was only one in that category last year anyway (Mike Hall, 13.9 ppg).
Unlike Air Force which can get away with not having a single standout
performer for the most part, BYU struggled to a 9-21 mark last season under
the direction of Steve Cleveland who bolted for the open position at Fresno
State. Junior guard Austin Ainge (9.5 ppg, 4.1 apg) is the most recognizable
name in the starting lineup again, but simply being the son of former NBA star
Danny Ainge is not going to be enough to carry this team. Junior forward Keena
Young (7.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) had some strong outings a year ago and needs to
perform more consistently if the Cougars hope to stay out of the MWC basement.

COLORADO STATE: The Rams are going to have a tough time getting off the
“matts” this season, the Matts being Nelson (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Williams
(11.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) that is. Both standout performers are no longer with the
program, which means Jason Smith is now the top returning scorer with his 10.5
ppg. Smith, the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, added another
5.8 rpg as a starter last season, but to expect the sophomore forward to carry
the load for this program is asking quite a lot. Sixth-year head coach Dale
Layer has said his club is going to be more up tempo and more fun in 2005-06,
which essentially means the squad is going to be running up and down the floor
at break-neck speed. Senior guard Michael Morris (7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) brings
some experience to the starting five, but he’s not a player who can be the one
that leads the Rams back from a disappointing 11-17 record in 2004-05, even
though he was one of the top three-point shooters in the conference last year.
Sophomore center Stuart Creason (4.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg) had better watch his back
because it wouldn’t be that hard for Layer to sit him down in favor of junior
college transfer Michael Harrison, even though the newcomer is two inches
shorter and is more of a forward than center. Another player to keep an eye on
is Cory Lewis, a junior guard who was an all-conference performer at Dodge
City C.C. He could also find himself in the starting lineup once things get
going in Fort Collins.