Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Entering the 2015-16 college basketball season, at least four teams have a legitimate shot at the Mountain West Conference regular-season title. Some would argue there are a couple more.
The only thing I’m confident in is that preseason picks at the top will be all over the place, and San Jose State will be last.
Here are my selections for the All-Mountain West first team and a predicted order of finish.
The league will announce the official preseason poll results Oct. 13 in Las Vegas.
Order of finish
1. San Diego State. The Aztecs have won at least a share of the regular season Mountain West title four of the past five years. A defense that rated fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, returns key pieces including Shepard and senior Skylar Spencer. Also, forward Malik Pope had a chance to leave for the NBA Draft and returns for his sophomore season as a potential lottery pick in 2016.
There hasn’t been much new information since CBS Sports reported Sept. 15 that San Diego State was under investigation by the NCAA for a potential Level 1 violation relating to the recruitment of a player. As long as something related to that doesn’t affect this year’s roster, the league’s most consistent team of the past decade is the one to beat.
2. Boise State. In early December last season, Drmic went out for the year with an ankle injury After a four-game losing skid, a comeback against UNLV sparked an eight-game winning streak. The emergence of Webb, the 2015 Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, led the Broncos to a share of the league title and an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Well, they were sort of in the tournament. Boise State was slotted for an opening-round game and shipped to Dayton, Ohio, to play Dayton in its home arena. So while they were denied a real tournament experience, the Broncos return lots of experience in James Webb III, Drmic, sharp-shooting big man Nick Duncan and senior guard Mikey Thompson, a Canyon Springs High grad.
3. UNLV. The Rebels have all the pieces — or at least they seem to. We don’t know, because as has been the case the past few years, UNLV’s roster has some of the highest turnover in the league. Three freshmen and four transfers (two of whom practiced with the team last year) could see significant minutes this season, so it’s impossible to predict precisely how these puzzle pieces fit.
This year, UNLV coach Dave Rice is committed to full-court pressure, something he has talked about since taking over in 2011 but rarely run, and the roster seems perfect for it. While they haven’t played much together yet, the Rebels are balanced in overall experience — at least three players in each class — and they have the talent to finish first … or sixth. It’s on Rice and his staff to get the most out of the personnel.
4. Utah State. The Aggies return all five starters, including three players who shot at least 40 percent behind the 3-point line last season. I wanted to pick them second but decided that a first-year coach, in this case longtime Utah State assistant Tim Duryea, could drop them all the way to sixth, so I copped out and split the middle.
Sean Harris and his flattop were lost to graduation, but Jalen Moore and his fro are back for a junior season. Hopefully Collette’s mustache will make an appearance as well.
5. Fresno State. Senior Marvelle Harris will be on the preseason all-league team, and with senior Julien Lewis, the Bulldogs have two high-volume shooters who will win at least one league game all by themselves. Plus, senior Cezar Guerrero is back for what feels like his eighth season, so if things fall right, this could be a top-three team.
Player of the Year
Anthony Drmic, senior guard/forward, Boise State: This almost always ends up going to the best player on the first-place team, and even if the Broncos win, Drmic could lose to a teammate, junior James Webb III. But I thought Drmic was the right preseason pick last year, and since he seems healthy, I’ll roll with him again.
Freshman of the Year
Stephen Zimmerman, freshman forward, UNLV: Zimmerman stayed in Las Vegas with dreams of being the hometown hero. The Rebels will give him a chance to shine.
Newcomer of the Year
Ike Nwamu, senior guard, UNLV: New Mexico’s Tim Williams, Colorado State’s Emmanuel Omogbo and even Nwamu’s teammate Jerome Seagears would be reasonable picks here. I went with Nwamu because if things click, he could be the Rebels’ X-factor.
6. Wyoming. Mountain West Tournament MVP Josh Adams is the lone returning starter, but the Cowboys bring back a couple of potential breakthrough players from the bench, and coach Larry Shyatt will make sure they’re a difficult team to play.
7. New Mexico. Guard Cullen Neal scored 49 points in New Mexico’s first two games before an ankle injury ended his season in game three. Neal, the son of third-year coach Craig Neal, gets another shot at his sophomore season, and between Neal, transfer Tim Williams and junior Obij Aget, the Lobos have a team that could finish much higher than I’m predicting.
8. UNR. The Mountain West’s other first-year coach will get his start up north as former Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings coach Eric Musselman takes over the Wolf Pack. If Musselman is above average, his roster should be good enough to make a run.
9. Colorado State. Larry Eustachy might be the second-best coach in the league, so I wouldn’t put it past him to make something great of his roster. But I’m predicting it’s going to be the kind of rebuilding year that has Eustachy tipping back plenty of Diet Cokes.
10. Air Force. Coach Dave Pilipovich’s best finish was in his first full season, 2012-13, when Air Force went .500 in league play. The Falcons have gone 12-24 since then, and they’re probably another year away from making a run at the middle of the pack.
11. San Jose State. Bishop Gorman High’s Rashad Muhammad and Durango High’s Darryl Gaynor transferred from San Jose State to Miami (Fla.) and the College of Southern Idaho, respectively. The less said about the Spartans the better.
All-Mountain West First Team
• Pat McCaw, G, UNLV. McCaw already was the Rebels’ most complete player, and when Rashad Vaughn went down, he proved he could be the go-to scorer on top of it. McCaw grew an inch in the offseason and the Rebels added elite alley-oop targets in freshmen Stephen Zimmerman and Derrick Jones, setting up for another season of contributing all over the court.
• Anthony Drmic, G/F, Boise State. My preseason player of the year in 2014 played in only seven games before an ankle injury ended his season. A medical redshirt means another year of the guy you hate unless he’s on your team, and for that, Drmic and I both are grateful.
• Winston Shepard, F, San Diego State. Shepard likely will be voted the preseason player of the year, and I wouldn’t argue it. He’s a senior leader of what I expect will be the best team in the league and one of the best defenses in the nation.
• David Collette, F, Utah State. He’s the best post player in the league, and Utah State surrounds Collette with enough outside shooters to let the 22-year-old go to work. I would watch a tape of Collette’s post moves and counters with the same interest as another set of Derrick Jones dunks.
• A.J. West, F, UNR. One of only two Mountain West players to average a double-double last season — the other was UNLV’s Christian Wood — West’s spot on this team likely will depend on his team’s success. But his offensive rebounding alone should be enough for inclusion. I’m glad the NCAA gave West an additional year, so I get to watch him play.