Can the Mountain West reach its first Final Four?
The Mountain West is just 15-33 lifetime in the NCAA tournament, and no team from the league has ever made the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four.
Given this checkered past, it may seem foolish to speculate on the league's potential to reach the 2013 Final Four. But that's exactly what I'm going to do: UNLV, New Mexico, and San Diego State all project to be very good this season.
The Runnin' Rebels should have one of the top frontcourts in the nation, at least by New Year's. At 6-8, Mike Moser's one of the finest defensive rebounders in Division I, and the threes that didn't fall for him last season just might drop this season -- at least if 78 percent shooting at the line is any indication. Freshman Anthony Bennett is a 6-8 McDonald's All-American, and 6-9 Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch will be eligible after the fall semester. There's nothing mid-major about that front line, and if guards Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins, and Bryce Dejean-Jones (currently out with an injured non-shooting hand) can do their bit, UNLV is the favorite in this league, period.
New Mexico will have to replace the points and rebounds that used to come from Drew Gordon, but the good news for head coach Steve Alford is that his team enters the season with the most room for error. Last season the Lobos were easily the best team in the Mountain West on a per-possession basis, and, anyway, Alford has Kendall Williams and other coaches don't. The shamefully underrated Williams is a long (6-4) and remorselessly consistent point guard who draws fouls, dishes assists, and hits shots from both sides of the arc. The question mark for UNM is in the paint, though Alford says 7-0 sophomore Alex Kirk is ready to go after missing all of last season with back issues.
San Diego State shared the regular-season Mountain West title with New Mexico, and this season Steve Fisher returns the core of that rotation, including reigning conference player of the year Jamaal Franklin. The Aztecs' strength last season was on defense, where SDSU combined excellent interior D with a lack of fouling. That combination alone will put San Diego State in contention for another league title. And if the Aztecs improve last season's (woeful) perimeter shooting, look out.
Who will win player of the year?
Defending champion Jamaal Franklin will continue to be a high possession-usage star for San Diego State, but I have to like Kendall Williams' chances. The New Mexico point guard was excellent as a freshman alongside Dairese Gary, and he was just as outstanding as a sophomore when he shared the spotlight on offense with Drew Gordon. Now as a junior Williams will be the Man, relatively speaking, on a team that should contend for the league title. My dark horse candidate is Wyoming's Leonard Washington, a USC transfer who made 62 percent of his twos as the featured scorer for a struggling team last season.
Which team could surprise?
Wyoming. The aforementioned Leonard Washington returns as the Cowboys look to improve on last season's 6-8 finish. Larry Shyatt enters his second season in Laramie, and with luck we'll find out whether last season's defense was a fluke. No one was paying much attention, but what Shyatt achieved with his new team on D (at a new much slower pace) was fairly remarkable. Shyatt's career path is non-traditional. He got his chance at the big time at Clemson in 1998, coached five not terribly successful seasons, took a year off, then put in seven seasons on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida. Now Shyatt's doing surprising things as a head coach in the Mountain West, and I, for one, am watching.
Who's the league's top newcomer?
It's October, so every freshmen is a potential first-team All-American. None of these players has scored a point yet. I recognize that. Still, the praise surrounding Anthony Bennett at UNLV has been pretty consistent. For instance here's teammate Mike Moser on Bennett: "You can see it just by looking at him. My man is 6-foot-9, he can shoot the ball from 35 feet, he can put it on the floor, he jump out of the gym." I wouldn't recommend Bennett launch too many from 35 feet -- he can get 14 feet closer and still net the same amount of points for a make -- but the precedents here are fairly encouraging. He's the highest rated recruit to come to the Mountain West in at least eight years, and past players at or near his ranking (No. 7 in the 2012 ESPNU 100) include the likes of Perry Jones III and Terrence Jones.
How many NCAA tournament bids will the conference secure?
With just nine teams (Nevada and Fresno State join the league this season; San Diego State and Boise State will leave after this season), the Mountain West isn't in a position to put large blocks of teams into the NCAA tournament. In fact it looks like come March the selection committee will likely give the league just three bids: UNLV, New Mexico, and San Diego State. But what the Mountain West's tournament teams may lack in quantity they'll more than make up for in quality. I'll be surprised if any of these three have to worry about hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. In fact this could be the year when the brackets, at long last, push a Mountain West team forward all the way to the Final Four. Sure, the chances are slim, but they always are for the Mountain West. This year those slim chances are fatter than they've been for a while.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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