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New Mexico basketball picked to win Mountain West, CSU sixth

The Mountain West preseason basketball poll was released Tuesday morning and to no one’s surprise, New Mexico is the early favorite to take home this year’s crown.

The Lobos, winners of four of the last six MW championships, return four starters including reigning conference player of the year Kendall Williams. New Mexico received all but one first-place vote, that one belonging to UNLV. The second-place Rebels lost all-conference forward and No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett to the NBA, along with guard Anthony Marshall to graduation, and key role players Katin Reinhardt and Mike Moser to transfers.

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However, the Rebels return conference Defensive Player of the Year Khem Birch along ESPN top-100 recruit Kendall Smith. Tied at second place with the Rebels is last year’s surprise team, Boise State. The Broncos made a late-season run to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament last March. They return arguably the best backcourt in the conference with preseason All-Mountain West guards Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic.

Boise State is followed by fourth place San Diego State who will be try to rebound from the loss of guard Jamaal Franklin to the NBA with the addition of Josh Davis, a double-double machine by way of Tulane as well as freshman Dakarai Allen, the 106th ranked player in the class of 2013.

Conference newcomer Utah State rounds out the top five and a year removed from finishing second to New Mexico, CSU comes in at number six. The Rams are followed by rival Wyoming at No.7, Fresno State at No. 8, and Nevada, Air Force and San Jose State round out the bottom three.

The Rams return Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year Daniel Bejarano, but will be tested after losing five seniors who accounted for 77 percent of the team’s scoring last year. Guard Jon Octeus will step into the vacant point guard role for the Rams, while the return of defensive standout Dwight Smith and the addition of transfers JJ Avila (Navy) and Marcus Holt (Paris JC) will fortify a strong frontcourt.

After a 2012-13 season where the Rams exceeded expectations by finishing second to New Mexico, players and coaches aren’t putting much stock in being ranked sixth this year.

“We were picked last in the Big 12 one year at Iowa State, and we won the conference title, so these rankings really mean nothing,” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said.

Whether the Rams were picked first, middle, or last in the polls doesn’t have an effect on the team going forward this year.

“Preseason polls don’t determine how we play basketball, we want to play defense and rebound, so that’s what we’ll do,” Octeus said.

One of the biggest questions for the Rams is replacing the five graduated seniors who changed this program from a squad that went 0-16 in Mountain West play in 2008 to a team that reached the NCAA Tournament both of the last two years.

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“Guys just have to step into roles; myself, Dwight Smith, Gerson Santo, Daniel Bejarano, everyone on this team has to step up and produce,” Octeus said.

Although there are a handful of new faces on this year’s squad, expectations of a return to the NCAA Tournament and competing for a conference championship have not diminished.

“That’s really the ultimate goal, we have little goals we want to reach throughout the year but only we know what we have on this team and we’re going to continue to get better together,” Avila said.

The Rams kick off their 2013-14 campaign with an exhibition match November 2nd against Regis, and begin the regular season the following Friday against the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Sports Writer Keegan Pope can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.

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