Saturday, April 12, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

Another nice season for the Mountain West, with two Tournament teams and a third on the bubble. The thing is that most of these teams will actually be improved next season. As you can see on the chart above, very few players are graduating. And the recruiting classes are absolutely outstanding - the best I've ever seen for this conference.

Any discussion of this conference has to start with BYU. They have become nearly unbeatable at home. They lead the nation with a 46 game home winning streak, although only technically. They did a lose what was essentially a home game this past season to Michigan State, but technically the game was not a home game as it was played at the Delta Center (where the Utah Jazz play - about 45 miles away from BYU's home court). Regardless, BYU is still incredibly tough to beat at home, and they're pretty good on the road as well. They don't lose much to graduation, but a key will obviously be the decision-making of Trent Plaisted. The best player on BYU, he has declared for the NBA draft but has not hired an agent. He would almost definitely not be a first round draft pick, which means it would probably be in his best interest to come back. He strikes me as a pretty intelligent guy, so I wouldn't be shocked if he chooses to come back for his senior season. Obviously this will be a worry for BYU fans for the next couple of months, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Plaistad comes back for one more year.

The most pleasant surprise for the Mountain West this past season was probably UNLV, a team that had lost so many players to graduation yet found a way to get back into the Tournament. This time around they get to keep more of their talent. They get one more season out of the exciting Wink Adams (17 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg) and his backcourt mate Rene Rougeau (9 ppg, 6 rpg). UNLV will probably start three seniors next season and will be a very tough team to beat yet again. I don't think they'll be better than they were this past season, but they should be a bubble team. A very interesting team is New Mexico, which had a great season under ex-Iowa coach Steve Alford . The loss of star J.R. Giddens (16 ppg, 9 rpg) can't be underestimated, but most of their other regular players return. What makes this team interesting is Alford's first full recruiting class, which is pretty remarkable. The biggest names are Phillip McDonald (Rivals: 85, Scout: 17 SG) and Will Brown (Scout: 37 PF), but they are just part of this great recruiting class. You never want to put too much emphasis on freshmen, who can be unreliable, but there's a reasonable chance that this outstanding class can power the under-rated Alford and his Lobos into the Top 25.

Several other teams in the Mountain West will be improved. San Diego State was a bit below the radar this past season, but they were a solid RPI Top 100 team, and all five starters will be back. A sleeper team could be Air Force with a possibility of starting three seniors alongside a very solid recruiting class. No blue chippers coming in, but so many second tier recruits that you have to figure that some of them will turn out to be good (recruiting is a very inexact science, after all). Utah will also be a very good team with one more season of its powerful inside duo of Luke Nevill (15 ppg, 7 rpg) and Shaun Green (8 ppg, 5 rpg). TCU returns most of its talent and will be improved, but with the rest of the conference so good, just how much further up the standings could they possibly go? Even conference basement squad Colorado State will be back. This was a rebuilding season for them as five of their nine players that got double-digit minutes were freshmen. Their only senior was Stuart Creason, who did start when he was healthy, but missed much of the year to injury. I think it will be another year or two before the Rams can make a real Tournament run, but there's no doubt that their fans won't have to suffer through another 25 loss season.

With all of the improvement conference wide, I would be shocked if this was a one-bid conference next year. Most likely they will have about five or six teams on the bubble or better, with at least two getting in. Here's how I see the top of the standings:

1. New Mexico
2. San Diego State
3. BYU
5. Air Force
6. Utah
7. Colorado State

West Coast Conference

Possibly the best season ever for the WCC. With so many consecutive years of great seasons for Gonzaga, it is finally starting to attract top talent to some of the other schools in the conference. St. Mary's has become an extremely tough team to play in their home gym, and San Diego has also emerged on the scene as a very good squad.

Any discussion of the WCC, of course, must begin with the Zags. They have had several outstanding recruiting classes and just absolutely ooze with talent. One thing that was worrisome, however, was the way they seemed to underperform last season. Their trademark over the years has been a bunch of overperforming players. But this past season they seemed to have so much talent yet were unable to beat the elite teams in the nation - it just felt like they were underperforming for the first time in the nearly-decade long run. The problem is, I don't see any obvious reason why next year will be any different. Once again, the talent will be outstanding. Their most talented players will return, as it looks like all of their stars will skip the NBA and stick around one more year (Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt were all mentioned as possible NBA draft entrants). But meanwhile their one graduation loss is their best glue guy - David Pendergraft. So will this be another year in purgatory - good enough to win the WCC, not good enough to beat anybody good or get back to the Sweet 16? I'm actually going to take the glass half full approach here. I think Mark Few is too good of a coach to let his team underperform again. Also, with all of the attention paid to other freshmen nationwide, I don't think many college basketball fans realize how amazingly talented Austin Daye is. He is listed at 6'10" but moves like an athletic guard. At times he seemed a bit unsure of himself, but he should be better incorporated into the Gonzaga scheme next season. I think this Gonzaga team will be outstanding next season, and a real threat to indeed go deep in the Tournament once again.

But as we learned this past season, you don't need to win the WCC to make the Tournament. So what about Saint Mary's and San Diego? Saint Mary's loses two of its regular rotation players to graduation, but they return their team anchor Diamon Simpson (13 ppg, 10 rpg, 2 bpg). Simpson also has a very nice sidekick in rising-sophomore Patrick Mills (15 ppg, 4 apg). I see no reason why Saint Mary's won't be improved next season. Of course, this past year's team did end up with a better RPI and ranking than they really deserved. They did struggle really badly away from home, and did a great job at scheduling almost all of their tough opponents at home. Next year's schedule (I haven't seen it yet) probably won't be so kind. But while Saint Mary's was overrated this past season as a Top 40 team in the country, they will probably actually earn that high seeding next season. They could finally win a Tournament game.

As for San Diego, you can see in the chart above that they return all five starters. But it's not just the starters - they graduate absolutely nobody. Their overall talent level will still be lower than the big two at the top of the conference, but they will definitely be improved. This team already took the WCC Tournament and made the second round of the Tournament, so an improvement means that there will be a very good team in the unfortunately-named Jenny Craig Pavilion yet again.

Will anybody else in the conference close the gap with the top teams? Santa Clara will still be a tough team to play with John Bryant (18 ppg, 10 rpg) returning for one more season. San Francisco returns almost all of its top talent, although you've really got to wonder if their messed up coaching situation is going to cause problems. I do not understand their thinking by hiring Eddie Sutton just so he could stick around for a few weeks and get his 800th win. To me, the top challenger will actually be Pepperdine. They graduate no starters and will hope to see even more improvement out of the stellar rising-sophomore duo of Tyrone Shelley (15 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 spg) and Malcolm Thomas (13 ppg, 9 rpg, 2 bpg).

The WCC is really starting to challenge some of the lower level Pac-10 teams in terms of its ability to attract top talent from the west coast. 2007-08 was probably the most successful season in the history of the conference, and I see no reason why 2008-09 won't be even better. here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

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

Western Athletic Conference

Boise State pulled a couple of small upsets to sneak their way into the Tournament, but I don't think even the most fervent Broncos fan sees that coming again. They lose four starters to graduation, and don't have nearly the recruiting class coming in that some of the other WAC teams had. The fact was that they took advantage of a very, very weak season for a conference that has traditionally been pretty good. I have no doubt that the conference will be at least a little bit better next season.

The start of that improvement will be with Nevada, a school that has put together a pretty strong program. Certainly Marcelus Kemp (20 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg) will be a big loss, but none of the other key pieces will be graduating. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, JaVale McGee (14 ppg, 7 rpg) is expected to go pro early. Armon Johnson ( 12 ppg, 3 apg) had a great freshman season and will be expected to star in Kemp's absence. But what is most encouraging for the Wolf Pack is the recruiting class, ranked in the Top 25 nationally by both and The gem of the class is Luke Babbitt (Rivals: 34, Scout: 6 PF), but there are others to go with him. As far as the inside situation with McGee gone, Wolfpack fans will probably be looking towards the young duo of Matt LeGrone and Malik Cooke. It remains to be seen if Babbitt will provide a big inside presence as a freshman, and if he can't it will be up to the aforementioned LeGrone and Cooke to hold down the fort inside. Nevada's perimeter players will almost surely be the best in the conference, which makes the frontcourt the key.

Outside of Nevada, the rest of the conference should converge with regards to talent. The bottom two squads should be improved. San Jose State could be a real threat at the top of the conference with five double-digit scorers returning. Without any recent experience at the top of the WAC, it's incredibly hard to see the Spartans actually winning the whole conference, but they could easily finish in the top four. Fresno State is a team that will be hard to read. They graduate five players that had 19.9 minutes per game or more last season. But at the same time, the cupboard isn't entirely bare. I like rising-junior Byran Harvey (11 ppg, 81% free throw shooting) and they have a blue chip recruit in the athletic Reggie Moore (Scout: 36 PG). In some ways it will be a rebuilding season for Fresno State, but I wouldn't be shocked to see them up at the top of the conference again.

Both Hawaii and Boise State should take a step back as they're completely decimated by graduations. utah State loses three starters as well, but has much more in reserve. With the possibility of a weak front line on a team like Nevada, a key for the Aggies will be rising-senior Gary Wilkinson (13 ppg, 7 rpg, 58% shooting). The final team to keep an eye on is New Mexico State, another squad which loses three starters. Their key will be a solid returning trio that should fill out the stat sheet. They've got a nice creator and outside scorer (Jonathan Gibson), a solid inside scorer (Herb Pope), and an inside force who could be a walking double-double next season (Wendell McKines). New Mexico State might be thin next season, but they'll have a good starting lineup.

1. Nevada
2. New Mexico State
3. San Jose State
4. Fresno State
5. Utah State

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