This is year two of the Mountain West's grand experiment to televise its games on its own network. Unlike the Big Ten, which undertook a similar venture for the 2007-08 school year, the MWC took this step while simultaneously severing its relationship with ESPN. Because of a lack of exposure through satellite distributors, the MWC's network (called "the mtn."), and thus the vast majority of MWC basketball games, are available only to parts of a seven-state footprint in the west. The games that do appear on national television are relegated to networks that are not yet familiar to the casual sports fan (CSTV and Versus.).
In an era where the proliferation of televised games has driven the popularity of the sport to unprecedented levels, the MWC is playing a dangerous game. There wasn't a noticeable drop-off in league play last season. The MWC put two teams into the NCAA Tournament and two more into the NIT, a typical year for the conference. However, the real test comes this season, in a year when the league faces less continuity that in any other season in its nine-year history. While returning players in the power conferences make up 60-70% of the minutes played last season, the MWC's figure in that regard is barely over 50%. It's the lowest number among the top 11 conferences.
Average Returning Minutes by Conference
Pac 10 69.4%
Big East 68.7%
Big 12 65.9%
Big Ten 63.8%
This is the first big recruiting class under the new TV contract, a class that will be expected to keep the league at its typical 6-7-8 range in the RPI. The MWC should suffer this season, and whether it can recover in 2009 will determine whether the TV deal is one of the bigger blunders in the history of college athletics.
Perhaps more importantly for the long-term health of the league, there are five first-year coaches in the MWC. Steve Alford takes over at New Mexico, but the other four coaches (Tim Miles, Heath Schroyer, Jeff Reynolds, and Jim Boylen) are hardly household names. Even with an effective TV deal, it would take work for recruits to get to know these guys. With all of the uncertainty this season, don't be surprised if the conference struggles to put forth a viable at-large candidate.
Let's take a look at who is likely to surprise and who is likely to struggle in the MWC.
The Cougars return two starters, wing Lee Cummard and center Trent Plaisted, both juniors, from a team that won the regular-season title in '07. Plaisted is the best athlete on the team and unusually nimble for someone who's 6'11". He's one of the best in the nation at drawing contact, but shot less than 50% from the line, which neutralizes that talent. This came after Plaisted shot a not-so-horrifying 61.6% in a similar number of attempts his freshman season. He's also one of the best at dishing out contact, which isn't a skill to be valued, of course. He did manage to lower his foul rate from 5.1 per 40 minutes to 4.5 last season, but that's still too high for a guy that will be the best player for the Cougars this season.
The most heralded reserve who played last season is 6'6" sophomore Jonathan Tavernari. The Brazilian is a very good rebounder for his size, posting a pedestrian 8.8 OR% last season, but a whopping 18.5 DR%. Tavernari has all the earmarks of a guy who will put up excellent numbers if given minutes, and barring injury, he will get the minutes this season after averaging just 12.2 mpg last season playing behind MWC Player of the Year Keena Young. The main thing to know about Tavernari is that he had an eFG% of 57.7 while taking 28.9% of his team's shots while on the floor. He also posted an impressive steal percentage of 3.0%. The Cougars may field an inexperienced backcourt, but with Plaisted and Tavernari, they'll have two of the most talented players in the conference.
The Rebels were the other NCAA Tournament team from the MWC in '07, and like the Cougars, they lose a lot of experience off last season's squad. The only returning starter is senior shooting guard Wink Adams. Adams isn't terribly effective in that role, shooting a respectable 35.8% on three-pointers, but just 40.3% on twos (and he took 203 two-point shots). Last season, UNLV was among the national leaders in offensive turnover rate. With the loss of steady point guard Kevin Kruger, the Rebels will be turning to sophomore Marcus Lawrence to pick up most of the minutes at the position. Lawrence's per-minute turnover rate was nearly identical to Kruger's, but Lawrence was much less involved in the offense (22.6% of possessions used for Kruger to just 12.6% for Lawrence). Lawrence will have to be more involved in the offense, perhaps much more so with the entirety of UNLV's front line being replaced. It will be interesting to see what happens to his ball-handling and to UNLV's turnover rate in general.
Ray Giacoletti is out after three seasons, with Utah winning 29, 14 and 11 games during that time. Former Michigan State assistant Jim Boylen is in as the head man. He inherits a team that wasn't as bad as its '07 record, and that returns the most minutes in the MWC. At their low point last season, the Utes were 5-12 with three overtime losses and five other losses by three points or less. To make matters worse, two of the losses were to opponents that didn't make a single free throw. Among the five wins were double-digit victories over future top-four seeds Washington State and Virginia. From that point on, Utah managed to go 6-6 in MWC games before bowing out in the MWC Tourney in what a was a road game against UNLV. Given the step back most teams in the league will take this season, Utah could easily reverse its 6-10 MWC mark from '07 and even do better. Junior Luke Nevill, at 7'2", is one of the most effective centers in the nation, but his plodding style hamstrings what Boylen can do offensively. Therefore, Utah fans will probably not see a much faster pace than during the Giacoletti years.
The Cowboys return a backcourt, in Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones, that logged more minutes than any other guard combo in America last season. For the past two seasons the Wyoming offense has been built exclusively around the two guards. Neither is a great shooter, but both are effective using penetration to get points somehow, including an uncanny ability to get to the free-throw line.
Most FTA's by Players 6-2 or Shorter, 2007 Season
1. Mike Green, Butler............264
2. Brad Jones, Wyoming...........253
3. Bo McCalebb, New Orleans......248
4. Brandon Ewing, Wyoming........241
Almost entirely on the strength of the two guards, Wyoming got to the line very often (12th-highest free throw rate in D-I). Even though the Cowboys have a new coach, former Fresno State assistant Heath Schroyer, the personnel on this team will dictate little change in offensive philosophy from his predecessor. Schroyer has a reputation for focusing on defense, which is verified by his track record as a head coach at Portland State for three seasons. Wyoming will need it, as their defense was awful over the last six weeks of the season, rarely forcing turnovers and sending opponents to the line with shocking frequency. Combine that with the fact that they held just one of their final 11 opponents below 50% eFG, and this is a team that needs major help to get the defense back to a respectable state.
After a run of mediocrity at Iowa, Steve Alford decided to part ways with the Hawkeyes and accept the job at New Mexico. His main challenge in 2008 will be dealing with J.R. Giddens. Giddens arrived from Kansas two seasons ago, and in his first season of eligibility with the Lobos focused on showcasing his skills for NBA scouts. He took a whopping 31.6% of the Lobos' shots during his time on the court, posting an eFG% of 49.9. Considering how much he shot, that isn't horrible. Giddens has a reputation of being an underachiever on defense, but he does rebound amazingly well (21.8 DR%, and he had to play with Aaron Johnson who had the fifth-best DR% in the nation at 27.3). Given how rarely he gets to the line, the Lobos would be better off if Giddens were a little more selective in asserting himself. The Lobos got bad news a week ago when second scoring option Tony Danridge broke his leg in a pickup game. He may not return until midway through the conference season.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Steve Fisher enters his ninth season with the Aztecs still looking for his first NCAA Tournament victory with the school. It doesn't seem likely to happen this season because Fisher has to replace his three best players. Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar will be off playing pro ball somewhere this season, and JC transfer Jerome Habel was kicked off the team after one season in San Diego. This was a team that was thin anyway--just six players averaged at least 10 minutes per game. So Fisher's freshman class of four, to go with JC transfer Kelvin Davis and Marquette transfer Ryan Amoroso, will get the chance to play. Experience will exist at point guard with the return of junior Richie Williams, who has a pedestrian assist rate and rarely shoots. San Diego State's offense, which was dysfunctional in '07, will likely be led by 6'6" junior Lorrenzo Wade, who was the most frequent shooter last season among the returners. Amoroso should give the Aztecs more offense from the power forward position. His most notable trait at Marquette was a refusal to commit turnovers. The Aztec defense carried the team last season, and in particular, Wade has the combination of block and steal rates that few players possess.
The secret about last season's team was that it had the best defense of Air Force's Princeton-offense era. Falcons' guard Tim Anderson stole the ball an average of 3.6 times for every 100 possessions he was on the floor, even though this was the first time the Falcons didn't finish in the top ten nationally in steal rate since 2003 (they were 97th in '07). Anderson is the only returning starter from a team that made the NIT semifinals and finished third in the MWC regular season. The Falcons will have a new lineup and a new coach. Jeff Reynolds, who sat on the bench as Jeff Bzdelik's assistant the past two seasons and was thought to be following Bzdelik to his new job at Colorado, will take over as head coach this season. Given the turnover in personnel, and the increasing ability of the MWC to defend the Princeton offense (witness last season when Air Force's offense steamrolled non-conference competition, but was close to ordinary against conference foes), the Falcons seemed destined to take a step back this season. This should still be a team that relies on the three-pointer, but is extremely accurate on twos and plays at a very slow pace.
Neil Dougherty enters his sixth season at TCU, having accumulated a 24-57 conference record so far. Typically, that kind of record would not earn you another year as head coach. However, since Dougherty has the pedigree of being apprenticed by Roy Williams, and his employer has little hoops tradition, he is back for at least one more season. The Horned Frogs returned five of their top six players by minutes played, so there are at least some expectations in Fort Worth in 2008. The problem is that those players were part of a woeful offense that couldn't shoot or take care of the ball. Alvarado Parker is the best player this team has on either end of the floor. At 6'8", he's the center on this vertically-challenged squad, but he's the most reliable scorer on this team and is the best returning shot blocker in the conference.
The Rams feature almost an entirely new roster and coaching staff, so good luck figuring out what the future holds. The only returning player off of Dale Layer's 2007 squad who got significant minutes is seven-footer Stuart Creason. Creason made 67% of his shots last season, though he was aided greatly by playing next to fellow seven-footer Jason Smith, who left for the NBA after his junior season. If all goes well, Creason will be playing alongside another seven-footer for most of the '08 season. Ronnie Aguilar has been hampered by injuries during his first two seasons of eligibility. He played just 19 minutes last season after redshirting his first season in Fort Collins. The Rams welcomed Tim Miles as head coach in April. Miles led the Bison of North Dakota State to a 20-8 record last season, their second against a full D-I schedule. Miles' approach will be well-suited to a big team. Even with much less size at NDSU, his teams shot the three rarely (but very well) and were excellent rebounders on both ends of the floor.
To quote Clubber Lang, "Prediction? Pain..." The thing most certain about the MWC is that they will take a beating in 2008. The conference has been able to claim that it's been the best or second-best non-power conference during its existence, but that's unlikely to be the case in 2008. As far as the conference teams themselves, I'm going with a persistence forecast, giving BYU and UNLV the benefit of the doubt even with some big personnel losses, since there aren't any obvious contenders that appear ready to challenge for a conference title. Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming each have an outside chance in that regard. No matter who ends up atop this league, they figure to take on a few losses, and may need to win the conference tourney to get happy news on Selection Sunday.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
BYU 12.4 44.5 11-5
UNLV 9.9 43.0 10-6
Utah 5.2 80.7 9-7
Wyoming 6.1 65.2 9-7
New Mexico 5.8 75.7 8-8
San Diego St. 9.7 51.2 7-9
Air Force 11.4 28.2 7-9
TCU 3.9 71.5 6-10
Colorado St. 7.7 14.8 3-13
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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