Mountain West Conference
This was an interesting conference this past year in a lot of ways. The year started with a seemingly invincible Air Force team playing great basketball and looking like an elite team on the national level. As they started to falter, however, UNLV took the front. They were soon replaced by BYU, and even San Diego State finished strong. Air Force eventually collapsed all the way out of the Tournament, while teams like Wyoming and Coloardo State finished strong. Honestly, there wasn't a real bad team to be had in this conference. And I don't expect that to change next year. In fact, it should be more of a free-for-all, since several of the top teams are crippled by graduations while many of the lower teams return tons of scoring and experience.
Let's start with the only Sweet 16 team of the bunch, UNLV. The team had a great season, and turned it on when it mattered most, but Runnin' Reb fans need to be honest with themselves about the near future. They aren't rebuilding the early '90's teams. This was a one-time shot, with a lot of players in their fourth or fifth years. Four players getting 20 minutes per game or more will be gone, including Wendell White and Kevin Kruger. The recruiting class isn't even all that great either. I think we have to expect UNLV to take a pretty big step back next year.
BYU, also, will probably take a little step back next year. They lose six Seniors to graduation, highlighted by leading scorer Keena Young (17.4 per game). They do have a decent crop of young players, and I would expect them to still be a contender near the top of the conference, but I think they just lose too much experience. If I was a BYU fan, I would view 2007-08 as a "Reloading year." They could be real good in 2008-09, especially if their recruiting classes pan out. The best recruit for next year is three-star recruit Chris Collinsworth.
Air Force, as well, is decimated by graduations. Including their top four scorers. If I had to pick one thing they're going to miss most, it's size. They need to find a big man who can play big minutes. They have a good coaching staff, but without a good recruiting class I just don't see where the talent is going to come from. Besides, nobody knows how they (or Clemson, for that matter) will deal next year with the psychological collapse they suffered in 2007.
An intriguing team could be Colorado State. Their trio of Jason Smith, Tyler Smith and Stuart Creason could be almost unstoppable. No team in the country can defend two seven-footers with talent playing 30 minutes a game each. Unfortunately, this team won't be building on what it did last year. Their athletic director overreacted (in my opinion) and fired the head coach. The replacement, Tim Miles of North Dakota State, is a good coach. But changing coaches will generally cause players to jump ship. In this case, Jason Smith is most likely going to jump into the NBA draft. A lot of people are predicting him to be a late-first round pick. If he stays, this immediately becomes a potential at-large team. But I'm assuming he doesn't stay, and Colorado State remains further down in the conference standings.
TCU and Utah will both be improved next year. New Mexico also brings in a good recruiting class, and has a lot of returning talent. They also get a good coach in Steve Alford, who may have struggled in the Big 10 but is absolutely a steal for the Lobos. But the most interesting of the remaining teams is San Diego State, a school that has continually brought in excellent talent. There's no replacing Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar, but they will have plenty left. A key will be the size (with Abukar gone) of 6'10" Jerome Habel (11 ppg, 6 rpg). Billy White (Rivals: 50 SF) will be a good recruit, but the key will be the younger players that will have to take a larger role next year. Rising-Juniors Lorenzo Williams and Richie Williams, along with Rising-Sophomore Jon Pastorek all have the potential to be stars. This team will definitely have a lot of depth next year, they just need a star to take the place of Brandon Heath.
All in all, it's really hard to separate out the top teams in the Mountain West. My guess is that there will be very little difference between the top team and the 6th team next year:
2. New Mexico
3. San Diego State
4. Colorado State
West Coast Conference
I don't think anyone is going out on a limb to predict Gonzaga back on top of the WCC again. They lose their best offense-creator in Derek Raivio, and the odds are that Josh Heytfelt is done playing basketball, but most of the other pieces remain. Jeremy Pargo, David Pendergraft, and Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes (who took a step back last year, but should be improved in '07-'08) should all remain elite players in the WCC. It's also not earth-shattering news that the Zags have another elite recruiting class (Rivals puts their class 13th in the nation). A lot of people are predicting Austin Daye (Scout: 14 SF, Rivals: 25) to be an elite wing scorer off the bat. That will take pressure off Pargo, who might otherwise have to do too much. Of course, the WCC as a whole has improved, so 14-0 records aren't to be expected from Gonzaga anymore. But they should have enough to continue their reign atop the conference.
Improved teams next year will inclue Portland and San Diego. Santa Clara loses too much to compete for a title again, but expect Saint Mary's to continue to contend. The young duo of Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan should be dominant next year. Another interesting team could be Pepperdine, which graduates a ton of players from a starting lineup that didn't do too much last year anyway. They probably have the second best recruiting class in the WCC, so expect them to improve a lot as the year goes on. They could be a real contender by next year.
As a whole, the WCC graduates a lot of Seniors. But the conference also brings in a slew of good recruits, even at schools that don't normally see elite talent (like Pepperdine and San Francisco). That says to me that this conference will have a lot of teams that start out the year slowly and improve as the young players mature:
2. Saint Mary's
3. San Diego
Western Athletic Conference
Nevada has dominated the WAC for years, but it's very possible that the reign could be at an end. Obviously, Nick Fazekas will be a gigantic loss. But Nevada not only loses two other starters to graduation, but they could lose their other two starters to the draft. Both Ramon Session and Marcellus Kemp would be smart to stick around another year, and that's what I'll assume. Those two guys should be enough to keep Nevada near the top of the conference. But I'm sure that Wolfpack fans won't relax until the Draft comes and goes with those two guys still around.
One thing that can't be ignored when looking at the WAC is how many Juniors played significant roles this past year. That means we're going to have a lot of Senior-heavy rosters next year. Hawaii, Utah State and Fresno State could all start four Seniors next year. There will be a dearth of stars, but a lot of solid and deep teams.
One team that really interests me is New Mexico State, a team that got a little bit of at-large attention this past year but ended up not all that close to a bid. 2007 was really more of a building year for them. They return five rising-Seniors that scored 6 points per game or more last years, meaning that they should have a very balanced offensive attack. And not only do they return a lot of talent, but they also bring in the best recruiting class in the conference. That distinction is due to the coup that is Herb Pope (Scout: 8 PF, Rivals: 24), a 6'8" swing forward who plays like a guard. He won't be a big time rebounder or defender, but should be able to score a lot of points without much pressure as long as the Seniors around him can help nurture him. Anytime a WAC team stills a player who got offers from Pitt, Texas, Louisville and Maryland, that's a story for sure.
Here's how I see it:
1. New Mexico State
3. Utah State
4. Fresno State