Wednesday, April 08, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

The Mountain West is not getting the recognition it deserves for this past season because it didn't have a great performance in the NCAA Tournament. But the fact that they entered the Mountain West tournament with a very realistic shot at five Tournament teams was remarkable. And even though they only got two in, they deserved three (San Diego State should have been in). And the computers viewed the Mountain West nearly as good as the SEC. The question now is, how are these teams now positioned for next season?

We'll start with Utah, the best team in the conference last season. On one hand, it seems like a good thing that three starters will be back, but that stat is incredibly deceptive. First of all, their two most important bench players will also graduate (Tyler Kepkay and Shaun Green, who both scored in double-digits per game last season). And more importantly, one of the starter graduations is the dominant 7'2" Luke Nevill (17 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 bpg, 61% shooting). They did have a Freshman that I liked who played about six minutes per game this past season: Jordan Cyphers. They also have a couple of nice recruits coming in, including two big time recruits who are about 6'9" apiece, and who each received offers from a number of big time programs: Jeremy Olsen and Matt Read. Olsen is probably more ready to play extended minutes next season. But with Morgan Grim transferring out, Utah is going to be short of experienced players next season. They'll still be good, and I think they'll be a Bubble team, but they won't be as good as they were this past year.

The other Tournament team out of the Mountain West this past season was BYU. They're in better shape than Utah in terms of graduations. They do have a tough loss in Lee Cummard (the team's leading scorer with 16.8 per game), but they do return two double-digit scorers, their leading rebounder, their leading assist man, and every other player who earned double-digit minutes per game last season. Their key player next season will be Jonathan Tavernari, who should be the centerpiece of the offense as a Senior. He led the team with 7.2 rebounds per game last season, and also scored 16 points per game, including a solid 76% from the free throw line for a big guy. The highest rated prospect coming in next season is either Tyler Haws (Scout: 34 SG) or 6'8" power forward Brandon Davies (reportedly turned down Gonzaga and California). There is a real chance that BYU will be improved next season.

The final team to tie for the regular season title was New Mexico, but they probably over-performed with that 12-4 record. They also lose their three leading scorers to graduation, headlined by star Tony Dandridge (15 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg). They continue to recruit well, with this year's class led by 5'9" Jamal Fenton (Scout: 25 PG). San Diego State is also probably taking a step backwards with two starters and two key reserves graduating. They lose their team leaders in points, rebounds and assists, including star Lorenzo Wade. They do have a blue chip recruit in Kawhi Leonard (Rivals: 76, Scout: 25 SF).

For UNLV, next year's team will practically be a whole new squad. First of all, they lose just about all of their stars to graduation. They lose three starters, including their two biggest stars: Wink Adams and Rene Rougeau. But at the same time, they do have some very nice returners. Tre'Von Willis is a big time talent who should do well with another year under his belt. Rising-Sophomore Oscar Bellfield also looks like he might soon be an elite Mountain West point guard. The Runnin' Rebels also welcome in two solid transfers: Chase Stanback from UCLA and Derrick Jasper from Kentucky. Both will receive big minutes right from the start. They also managed to keep star Las Vegas recruit Anthony Marshall (Rivals: 58, Scout: 12 SG) in town, and he should also be ready to contribute from Day One. UNLV might get off to a bit of a slow start as all of these new pieces learn to play with each other, but they will be a very talented team yet again.

Wyoming was a pleasant surprise this season, and actually nearly got themselves in the Bubble discussion in late January and early February. They do lose three very important starters, and only return one of their four double-digit scorers, but they are extremely well stocked with young talent. They got a ton of production out of Freshmen this past season, and they have a solid recruiting class. I think they might take a bit of a step backwards next season, but watch out for Wyoming to make some noise in 2011 or 2012.

One final team worth talking about is TCU. They do lose one starter, but every other key cog returns. They will start at least three Seniors next season, and will be very deep. They were also better than their record, as Sagarin's PREDICTOR actually rated them better than Wyoming. I would be very surprised if they're not better next year than they were this past year. I can't fathom TCU actually contending for the Mountain West title next season, but they could potentially get into the Bubble discussion. Here's how I see the standings playing out:

1. BYU
3. Utah
4. TCU
5. New Mexico
6. Wyoming

West Coast Conference

Another WCC season, another Gonzaga championship. But Gonzaga will have as much turnover of key players as they've had in several years, and it is no given that they will be nearly as good next season as they were this past year. Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs will all graduate. The young guns are going to have step up and become leaders rather than sparks. Two guys who really need to take a leap to another level are Demetri Goodson and Austin Daye. Steven Gray and Will Foster will also have extended playing time, and don't forget that they'll get one more season out of Matt Bouldin. They also have two blue chippers coming in: Sam Dower (Rivals: 119, Scout: 25 C) and Mangisto Arop (Rivals: 15 SF). Gonzaga will be the preseason favorites to take the WCC, and to make the NCAA Tournament again, but there is a real possibility that they won't be as good next year as they were this past year.

Saint Mary's will definitely take a step back of their own, even if Patty Mills sticks around for another year. They lose three starters to graduation, including Diamon Simpson. Omar Samhan is a good inside player, but it will be a lot tougher for him without defenses having to focus on Simpson. But the real question, of course, is what Patty Mills will do. The rumors right now are that he is going to declare his eligibility for the draft, but that he won't immediately hire an agent. So he might still come back, but at this point I think he's going pro. And there's just way this team doesn't take a huge step back without Mills. Saint Mary's does have some decent young talent, but as far as I know they have no transfers coming in, and their recruiting class is fairly weak. They might still be a Bubble team, but at this point I don't see them returning to the NCAA Tournament.

A very underrated team this past season was Portland, a team that was actually a Bubble team for a while in early February. And with no Seniors on the roster, the only thing that will keep them from being far better next season will be the inability to deal with higher expectations. Santa Clara, on the other hand, is probably going to take a little bit of a step backwards, because one of the two key players they're losing to graduation is the 6'10" 305 pound John Bryant (18 ppg, 14 rpg, 60% shooting). They do have a very nice recruiting class, and they might be a more talented team, but it's going to take them a long time to learn how to play without the dominant presence of Bryant. I think this will be something of a rebuilding year for the Broncos.

Speaking of a team suffering under expectations, I think San Diego fell under that category. They had huge expectations for this season, and clearly couldn't deal with the expectations after their successful 2007-08 campaign. Even though they lose three key players, they could potentially be better next season simply because they will no longer have pressure to make the Tournament. One other thing to note about this coming season is that the gap between best to worst in the WCC should drop. Pepperdine and San Francisco are both very young teams that should only get better. And while Loyola Marymount loses two starters, they also have two very nice transfers coming in (Larry Davis from Seton Hall and Drew Viney from Oregon). All three of those teams should be a little bit better. Right now, here's how I see the conference playing out:

1. Gonzaga
2. Portland
3. Saint Mary's
4. Santa Clara
5. San Diego

Western Athletic Conference

Obviously this was a wonderful season for Utah State, but all in all this was actually a bit of a down year for the WAC. The fact that they entered March without a second Bubble team of any kind was pretty disappointing. And with their second best team (Nevada) losing its coach to Georgia, things will certainly be in flux at the top of the WAC. But with so many key players returning, there's no reason that the WAC can't be at least a little bit better next year.

We should start with a Utah State that will likely be solid favorites to take the WAC again. It's hard to say that they'll repeat this past year's performance, because they do have to move on without star Gary Wilkinson (17 ppg, 7 rpg, 58% shooting). But they do return everybody else. Look for rising-Senior Jared Quayle to be the floor leader for the Aggies. As for Nevada, I'm not sure that Mark Fox made the right move taking the Georgia job. It's not easy to win there, and he really had something special getting started at Nevada. They got a ton of production from Freshmen and Sophomores this past season, including star Freshman Luke Babbit (17 ppg, 7 rpg, 86% free throw shooting). And they've got another solid recruiting class coming in. I don't know if some players will transfer out because of the coaching change, but if not I would be shocked if Nevada isn't a Bubble team next season.

One team to watch out for is New Mexico State, which returns every single player that earned double-digit minutes per game. You may not yet have heard about the inside-outside combo of Wendell McKines and Jahmar Young, but you will if the Aggies make the Tournament next season.

With so many key players returning, expect many of the bottom teams from the WAC to improve next year, but one team I really want to focus on is Fresno State. They lose only one Senior from the roster, and return their leading scorer and leading rebounder. But they also have arguably the best recruiting class in the conference, as well as the highest rated recruit in the conference: 6'9" center Greg Smith (Rivals: 87, Scout: 14 C). They were better than their record last year, and should be vastly improved. I'd be shocked if they actually made a Tournament run, but they should be back in the top half of the conference. Utah State and Nevada should again be dueling atop the WAC, and here's how I see the rest of it playing out:

1. Utah State
2. Nevada
3. New Mexico State
4. Boise State
5. Fresno State
6. Louisiana Tech

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