Monday , Nov , 06 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Mountain West Conference

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) –
OUTLOOK: For the second straight year the San Diego State Aztecs and head
coach Steve Fisher were picked to finish atop the Mountain West Conference
standings in 2006-07 according to the league’s media. Although the Aztecs will
be missing out on one of the top performers west of the Mississippi in Marcus
Slaughter, the squad brings back a total of four starters, including Brandon
Heath who is considered the top returning player in the conference. With all
of that experience and depth it is hard to count against a team that finished
2005-06 with a 24-9 record and that was 13-3 in league play. The BYU Cougars
are in a similar boat, having lost only one starter from a year ago and
boasting one of the best young talents in the MWC in sophomore Trent Plaisted.
While there were some tough losses to swallow a year ago, it wasn’t until the
conference tournament and the first round of the NIT that the group dropped
back-to-back decisions. Air Force lost one of its top performers in Antoine
Hood, but because the program is built on defense, hopes are still high in
Colorado Springs. Utah appears to be turning over half the roster following a
disappointing 14-15 campaign that saw the group go just 6-10 in conference,
but the returning players are the ones who have been there during the good
times as well, so expect to see the Utes bounce back and keep from opening
league play with a 1-5 record as they did in 2005-06. The second half of the
standings in the Mountain West finds programs like New Mexico, which lists
just a single returning starter and no one who posted double-digit scoring
from a year ago. Calling this a rebuilding year for the Lobos might be harsh,
but it is probably accurate. The days of UNLV being a powerhouse are long
gone, but there are still a couple of capable players to keep an eye on coming
out of the Thomas & Mack Center. However, the talent level across the board in
the desert is not nearly enough to help the Rebels rebound from a 17-13 record
a year ago to get the group into the postseason. In the case of Wyoming, it is
not so much the scoring presence that the team will be without this season as
it is the defensive one that Justin Williams brought every night to the floor.
In addition to the Williams loss, the Pokes just don’t have enough senior
leadership to make an impact this season. Colorado State was just a game over
.500 a year ago and finished 4-12 in league action and despite the program
bringing back all five starters, the outlook appears eerily similar to what
the squad had to fight through in 2005-06. Certainly there’s room for Wyoming
and CSU to make some advancement in 2006-07, but the same does not hold true
for TCU, which loses three starters who combined for more than 35 points and
15 rebounds per outing.


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


SAN DIEGO STATE: Not only did Brandon Heath lead the Mountain West in scoring
last season with his 18.4 ppg, he seemed to put a little more effort into his
meetings with fellow conference foes, elevating his average to 19.5 ppg to
again lead the league. Needless to say, the senior guard is noted as the top
returning player in the conference and he’ll certainly need to live up to that
billing in order to get the Aztecs past the fact that they no longer have
Marcus Slaughter to lean on. An honorable mention All-American last season,
Heath was also the MWC Player of the Year and a member of the All-MWC
Conference Tournament squad. While we know what to expect from Heath, the
question really is what can the supporting cast do for his and head coach
Steve Fisher who is entering his eighth year with the group. Senior forward
Mohamed Abukar (14.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg) was often overshadowed by Slaughter at both
ends of the floor in 2005-06, but this year the post should open up for the
Florida transfer who was named the league’s Newcomer of the Year last season.
For a man his size (6-10), Abukar showed great touch at the free-throw line
where he was 81.4 percent successful. Considering Abukar was not available for
a portion of the beginning of last season, getting right into the lineup this
time around can only help what was the second-best scoring offense in the
league at 76.2 ppg overall. Although he is just a sophomore, forward Kyle
Spain will also profit some from Slaughter’s departure, which means his 9.2
points and 5.6 rebounds per game from a year ago should grow as his minutes

BRIGHAM YOUNG: Head coach Dave Rose, now in his second season with the
Cougars, watched his team pummel some weak competition (Southern Utah, Lamar,
Northern Kentucky) in the early going of 2005-06, in addition to a handful of
quality programs (Washington State, Boise State and Tulsa) and with four
returning starters this season, he should get similar results. A year ago at
this time BYU wasn’t completely sure what it had in forward/center Trent
Plaisted, but now it does, a player who made the Freshman All-American Second
Team and was easily the choice for the Mountain West Freshman of the Year.
Ranked eighth in the conference in scoring, Plaisted paced the Cougars with
his 13.6 ppg and was also the top rebounder for the group with 6.9 rpg.
Seniors Keena Young and Rashaun Broadus will provide some experienced
leadership for the group, but the Cougars will go only as far as Plaisted will
take them. Young put up 10.3 ppg and worked hard in the paint for his 5.8 rpg,
while Broadus added nine points and a team-best 3.7 assists per game from the
backcourt. One area in which the Cougars have to be concerned is out on the
perimeter, specifically who is going to fill in for long-distance shooter
Brock Reichner, who accounted for 53 of the unit’s 202 three-point baskets.
Senior guard Jimmy Balderson could be the solution, considering he made 44.4
percent of his threes in conference play.

AIR FORCE: Once again the Falcons were head and shoulders above the rest of
college basketball in 2005-06 with respect to their scoring defense, allowing
a national-best 54.7 ppg. Unfortunately, the program was 267th in terms of
scoring offense with only 64.2 ppg, a number that had a lot to do with the
unit coming in 296th in rebounding margin. When it came solely to conference
games, Air Force was last in the MWC with a paltry 61.4 ppg, and yet the
academy still finished tied for second in the standings with a record of 12-4.
Antoine Hood is the only starter that the Falcons lost from last year’s group,
but he just happened to be the top scorer with 14.9 ppg. On a positive note,
there are just two other letterwinners that are no longer with the Falcons
(Marc Holum and Ben Walker) and they contributed less than two points per game
to the offense. After earning All-Conference Second Team honors a year ago
when he averaged 12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals per
game as a junior, forward Jacob Burtschi now finds his name on the Preseason
All-MWC First Team. With all but one game in 2005-06 seeing the exact same
lineup, continuity is critical to the success of the Falcons, which is why
bringing back Nick Welch is so important to the team’s success this year. Last
season, Welch was forced to take a medical redshirt after the center put up 12
points, 3.6 rebounds and three assists per game in 2004-05. Putting Welch
alongside senior forward Dan Nwaelele (11.8 ppg) will go far in establishing
an inside presence for one of the shortest teams in college basketball. Senior
leadership is always an important component to team success, and with the
Falcons there is plenty of experience to be found at every position, thanks to
senior guard Matt McCraw (10.8 ppg) who was one of the team’s leading passers
a year ago.

UTAH: Except for a trip to Santa Clara for the second game of the season on
November 18, the Runnin’ Utes of Utah have the luxury of playing five of their
first six games at home in Salt Lake City. However, unlike many programs that
try to salt the non-conference schedule with lower-tier Division I opponents
or even Division II schools, the Utes and head coach Ray Giacoletti are
preparing for the arrivals of Colorado, Rice, Weber State and Washington State
during that stretch. Of the four returning starters from a year ago, junior
guard Johnnie Bryant is the one who should get the most attention after he was
an All-MWC Honorable Mention following a 2005-06 campaign in which he placed
second on the team in scoring with 13.1 ppg. Against other teams from the
Mountain West he opened up the offense a little bit more and came away with
15.4 ppg while shooting an impressive 49 percent from three-point range. As
the team’s leading rebounder with better than six and a half boards per
contest, Luke Nevill emerged as one of the top freshmen in the MWC a year ago.
This season the sophomore, who stands 7-1, should get off to a fast start and
will in turn improve upon his 11.6 ppg and team-best 27 blocked shots.
Shooting 53.2 percent from the floor was rather good for a first-year player,
but he should edge that number up even higher while improving his aim from the
free-throw line where he was just 67.1 percent accurate. For a team that
finished sixth in the conference in scoring with only 64.8 ppg, there may be
some growing pains early on to find some shooters who can fill in the gaps,
but eventually the team that shot 41 percent from three-point range in league
games a year ago should be on its way.

NEW MEXICO: Entering his fifth year with the Lobos, head coach Ritchie McKay
is facing his toughest test to date. New Mexico finished 2005-06 with a record
of 17-13 and was 8-8 in league play, good enough for fifth place, but that all
came with a host of talented players who could hold their own against the rest
of the Mountain West. The good news is that there are seven players returning
from a year ago for the Lobos, the bad news is that only one of them was a
starter last season. Junior guard/forward Tony Danridge was responsible for
8.4 ppg and 3.6 rpg as the only player returning player to have seen action in
all 30 games. Over the summer Danridge stayed active by playing overseas and
raised a few eyebrows with strong performances against Japan and Korea, but
that won’t be nearly enough to keep him and the rest of the Lobos from
slipping into the bottom half of the league standings. However, even though
the team lost a boatload of talent and experience, there is one other factor
working in favor of the Lobos and his name is J.R. Giddens. The Kansas
transfer who is now eligible to play after sitting out all of last year, was
one of the top players in the Big 12 a couple years ago and figures to produce
even more than his 10.7 ppg and 3.7 rpg. However, McKay needs more than just
Danridge and Giddens to have strong seasons after losing four starters who
accounted for more than 37 ppg a year ago. Sophomore guard Ryan Kersten (4.7
ppg) showed that he could score a little in 2005-06, but with Giddens stepping
into the backcourt the question now is, how much will Kersten even see the

UNLV: Getting talented players to show up at the Thomas & Mack Center to star
for the Runnin’ Rebels has not been much of a problem over the last two
decades, but keeping them in the desert has been. Guard Jason Petrimoulx, who
suffered a season-ending foot injury on March 1 last season against New
Mexico, figured to be one of the primary pieces of the UNLV puzzle this year
for head coach Lon Kruger, but the third-year man had to announce the
departure of the sleek backcourt performer in July due to his performance in
the classroom. Taking out Petrimoulx and frontcourt beast Louis Amundson means
that the Rebels will have to retool somewhat. Senior guard Michael Umeh is the
top returning scorer for the group after putting up 11.0 ppg and handing out
two and a half assists per outing, while sophomore guard Jo’Van Adams (10.9
ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.4 apg) figures on getting a lot more touches out on the
perimeter for a team that finished second-to-last in the MWC at 34.5 percent
from three-point range. It will certainly help that Kruger’s son, Kevin
Kruger, has transferred in from Arizona State. The younger Kruger will be able
to play this season due to the NCAA’s new rule which allows a fifth year of
eligibility for players that have completed their bachelor’s degree. Kruger is
excited to be playing for his father and brings a shooter’s mentality to
UNLV’s perimeter game. UNLV had no problem distributing the ball, placing
second in the conference and 40th in the nation in assists per game with 15.7,
but when a team converts only 67 percent at the free-throw line there’s
something wrong and that issue has got to be addressed this year by Kruger if
the Rebels are to stay out of the MWC basement. Curtis Terry figures to
reprise his position as a starting guard/forward after putting up 7.4 ppg and
3.0 rpg, but senior guard Wendell White could prove to be even more valuable
as someone who is capable of filling the void left by Petrimoulx. White, who
works hard and was second on the team in rebounds (5.3 rpg) and sixth in
scoring (7.3 ppg) despite missing the first seven games of 2005-06.

WYOMING: Now entering his ninth year with the Cowboys, head coach Steve
McClain has to start thinking about rebuilding his program out in Laramie.
Rather than stay for his senior season Steve Leven decided to abandon Wyoming
after the team finished 14-18 a year ago and was just seventh in the
conference standings with a record of 5-11. Add to that the departure of
defensive beast Justin Williams and center Derek Wabbington and the squad has
some serious issues with talent and depth on the front line. The good news, if
there is such a thing for a team that was picked to finish seventh in their
conference, is that both starting guards from a year ago are back in Brandon
Ewing and Brad Jones. Although just a freshman last season, Ewing made a huge
impact on the program as he led the team in scoring with 13.2 ppg. Named a
member of the All-MWC Third Team, Ewing also set MWC Freshman scoring records
with 423 points overall and 255 points in league contests. Jones, who combined
with Ewing to record more than six assists per game, chipped in with 10 ppg
and also found his way inside on occasion to come up with four and a half
rebounds per game as well. Senior forwards Chris Anderson (3.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
and Daaron Brown (5.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg) figure on getting even more time on the
floor this year for a team that scored as many points as it surrendered, but
chances are pretty good that those numbers will not remain the same in
2006-07, especially after the squad ranked first in the conference and 35th in
the nation in field goal shooting defense (40.4). Add to that the fact that
Wyoming was last in the Mountain West and 317th in the country in three-point
shooting with only 4.2 long-range baskets per game, and this could be a very
long season for the Pokes.

COLORADO STATE: With all five starters back for the Rams one would assume that
there are good things waiting to happen for the squad from Fort Collins.
However, the truth is Colorado State is not a squad that scares too many
opponents, after the team finished 16-15 a year ago during Dale Layer’s sixth
season in charge. CSU was the third-best scoring team in the Mountain West
Conference with 74 ppg, but the squad was second to last in scoring defense,
allowing 71.6 ppg. Ranked first in the league and sixth in the country,
Colorado State shot a remarkable 49.1 percent from the field, but in
conference games that sort of accuracy was still not enough to lift the Rams
from a woeful 4-12 record. After winning all but two games in the months of
November in December, the team lost all but one outing in January, which meant
there had to be a question of character in there somewhere. Named to the
Preseason All-MWC Team this year, junior forward Jason Smith expects to answer
some of this questions with his play on the floor in 2006-07. Smith, who was
fourth in the conference in scoring with 16.2 ppg and was one of the leading
rebounders with close to seven and a half boards per outing, also showed a
knack for passing the ball with better than two assists per game. Now his
focus has to be on cutting down his turnovers, which numbered almost four per
game. Senior forward Michael Harrison (12.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg) can get physical
with anyone in the league, while senior guard Corey Lewis (10.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
knows exactly how to keep defenses off their game with his 4.5 assists per
outing. Although just a freshman last year, guard Stephan Gilling demonstrated
considerable ability to shoot the long ball for the Rams, hitting three
pointers at a 42.3 percent clip.

TCU: The change over the to Mountain West Conference may have been rather easy
for the football team from Fort Worth last year, but the hoops squad often
looked lost and gasping for air. Head coach Neil Dougherty has not had an easy
time of it with TCU, posting a 48-75 record over four years thus far, but
there’s no way he could have foreseen such an abysmal effort by the Horned
Frogs last year. Over the first two months the team had to be satisfied with
beating the likes of Jackson State, Texas-Arlington, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and
Grambling State, but from then on there were just two more victories to be
recorded (Colorado State and Utah). TCU was the only school in the league to
finish with a negative scoring margin (-7.6 ppg) as it shot a dismal 37
percent from the field. As one of the top performers in the MWC those sort of
numbers had to be tough for Nile Murry (16.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) to handle, but at
least he won’t have to suffer through it anymore. Instead, the leadership role
for the Horned Frogs now falls to Brent Hackett, the top returning scorer who
put up 10.4 ppg. The junior teams with fellow returning starters Femi Ibikunle
and Neiman Owens who combined to average just 7.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg a year ago.
A couple of seniors (Blake Adams and Neil Dougherty), along with two
sophomores (Rob Staky and Allen Taylor) finish off the list of returning
players for a program that has eight new faces in the locker room. Again,
there are some winnable games on the non-conference slate for TCU (Centenary,
Stephen F. Austin, Grambling State) but it’s the back-to-back meetings with
Texas Tech and Oklahoma that will tell the Frogs where they really stand.