The 2011-12 season was a banner year for the Mountain West. A lot of bobbleheads assumed that this league – which is really the top tier of the “mid-major” leagues, to the point where they really blur the line between “major” and “mid-major” conference – was going to suffer after losing Utah and BYU.
The Mountain stood tall, sending four teams to the NCAA Tournament, and produced one of the most valuable betting teams in the country with New Mexico (23-9 agianst the spread).
This year the league may be even better, with an influx of top-tier transfers joining some very highly-touted freshmen to give the Mountain West a talent infusion. Mix in Nevada, formerly of the WAC’s top-tier, and a bevy of veteran performers and I will be stunned if this conference doesn’t send at least three more teams dancing this March.
Here are my 2012-13 Mountain West Conference basketball predictions to help you with your college basketball picks, and the odds to win the MWC are in parentheses:
The Favorite: San Diego State (+200)
Steve Fisher has this program humming along. His teams have won 111 games over the past four seasons and have earned three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. And this year’s squad is absolutely loaded. He has five of his six leading scorers and four starters back from last year’s conference co-champions. And one of those starters is reigning player of the year Jamaal Franklin, a smooth 6-feet-5 junior guard that averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in 2011-12. The key for this team is that three transfers, Dwayne Polee (St. John’s), James Johnson (UVA) and J.J. O’Brien (Utah), as well as two Top 100 freshmen (Winston Shepard and Matt Shrigley), step in to provide depth and some X-factors. SDSU just needs two or three of those guys to step up and be solid, contributing rotational players to supplement the four veterans. This team has outstanding guard play and the new additions are all between 6-7 and 6-9. This group has an excellent blend of experience, talent and athleticism. They will be tough to beat and could threaten for a No. 4 seed or better in The Big Dance.
The Challenger: UNLV (+500)
As good as SDSU is, UNLV is not far behind. The Rebels have one of the best big men in the country in forward Mike Moser, who averaged a double-double last season, and a steady veteran guard to lead the way in Anthony Marshall. Like SDSU the Rebels are banking on instant production from some key newcomers. Freshmen Anthony Bennett is the school’s first McDonald’s All-American in nearly 30 years and is one of the 10 best recruits in the country. Also, sophomore forward Khem Birch was a highly-touted prospect heading to Pittsburgh but didn’t pan out and joins UNLV as a transfer. That duo will work with Moser to form an intimidating frontcourt. But the reason I have UNLV below SDSU is guard play. The Rebels lost two crucial pieces from last year’s club when Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellifield exhausted their eligibility. Freshman Katin Reinhardt and USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones look to fill the void. But until I see what they have to offer I can’t push them past the experienced Aztecs.
The Dark Horse: Colorado State (+1200)
I am very high on this team heading into the season. The Rams snuck into the NCAA Tournament field last year as a No. 11 seed before getting rocked by Murray State. But they return all five starters and add a crucial newcomer to give CSU the best team it has had in years. Colorado State is working with a new coach after Tim Miles jumped to Nebraska. But Larry Eustachy, who did excellent work at Southern Miss and Iowa State, is a capable headman. Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green are both three-year starters and give the Rams a talented, experienced backcourt. CSU played a lot of three- and four-guard sets last year and their weakness was shoddy interior play. But worker Pierce Hornung will be joined by 6-10 Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, who sat out last year but is no eligible. Iverson gives the Rams a force in the paint and completely changes the makeup of this squad. They don’t have the athleticism and they aren’t tough enough on the road to surge past SDSU and UNLV for the title. But they have a great chance to go dancing again.
The X-Factor: New Mexico (+175)
The Lobos won the MWC Tournament last year and were the only team in the conference to finish in the Top 25. They are not as good this year, but they still have some bullets in their gun. Kendall Williams is a stud at the point and is the best lead guard in the league. He will be asked to carry more of a scoring load, and that will change the team’s dynamic a bit. He has three other capable guards to work with, and Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker should be even better in his second year. But the Lobos lack the interior size that they have enjoyed the past several seasons. And while they are not devoid of experience, this team doesn’t compare to the senior-laden groups that Steve Alford has been working with the past two years. They will be a factor, but this is his weakest team in the last several seasons.
The ATS Machine: Air Force (+800)
I know: you wouldn’t think the Falcons would be able to compete in such a talented league. And they really can’t. They are too small and too slow and their players aren’t athletic enough to hang with the big boys on The Mountain. However, because expectations are so low for this group they have rare value. This team is much better than it has been the past four years when it averaged just 12 wins per season. A trio of three-year starters leads the Falcons. That includes unheralded scoring guard Mike Lyons and interesting forward Taylor Broekhuis. They are going to start four players 6-6 or taller, and that has been a major weakness the last several seasons. Air Force still utilizes the slow-down style of the Princeton offense. They will also likely be facing heavy, heavy spreads each night – in the +13 to +18 range – and I think they will be able to keep games respectable more then they will get blown out. I can see them sneaking above .500 and into a lower-tier postseason tourney.
The Disappointment: Nevada (+1000)
I was all over Nevada last year and made a pretty penny riding this team through the WAC. They were 28-7 and, honestly, they were an NCAA Tournament snub. (They were better than Colorado State last year, that’s for sure.) Guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story can play with anyone, and they have the athletes to get up and down in The Mountain. However, this team lacks size. And the Mountain West is a better, deeper conference than the WAC was – by far. Nevada was No. 296 in the country last year in bench minutes and lost its full starting frontcourt. So they are a little small and a lot inexperienced in the paint. That is going to be a problem in their first trip through this league. I still like this team. But they are not a real threat for the league crown, and I don’t see them breaking into the top four as they are projected to do.
Wyoming (+2000) – Larry Shyatt finally tapped into some of the potential that the Cowboys had been leaning on for a few years. Wyoming was a tough ‘W’ for opponents last year, and forward Leonard Washington was one of the best players in the league. He is back, along with No. 3 scorer Luke Martinez and athletic forward Larry Nance Jr. But, unfortunately, that is all that is back. Wyoming lost three starters and their bench is pretty young and feeble. If last year was an indication, Shyatt will get this program going. But this season should be a step back after last year’s 21-win campaign.
Boise State (+1500) – This is a team to keep an eye on, and I’m sure they will give some of the top-tier teams fits this season. Boise State has four starters back, and they have a seemingly endless supply of quick, pestering guards. This team doesn’t shoot particularly well and there are no seniors on the roster. But they attack the rim and put pressure on the perimeter. I don’t think that this team will find the postseason, but they should show some improvement before possibly making a jump next year.
Fresno State (+1200) – Rodney Terry is still working on things with this group, and the Bulldogs are still a long way from being competitive. But they shouldn’t be the walkover that they were last season when injuries and player defections crushed this roster. Kevin Olekaibe is a prolific scorer and go-to guy. Two other starters and a reliable big man join him. But the key to this team will be a transfer at the point (Allen Huddleston) and at center (Robert Upshaw). There are still more questions than answers. But this is another team that is made up of mostly underclassmen and is slowly building for the future.
Projected Mountain West Standings:
1. San Diego State*
3. Colorado State*
4. New Mexico
7. Air Force
8. Fresno State
9. Boise State
*Projected NCAA Tournament Teams
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has produced three consecutive profitable college seasons and four of five winning years overall. He earned his $100-per-Unit clients over $30,000 in the last five years with his nonconference handicapping. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.