Pope: Mountain West preseason men’s basketball ballot

Keegan Pope

While the conference basketball season is more than three months away, preseason ballots were due Monday and will be announced October 14 as part of the Mountain West’s Digital Tipoff. 2014-15 is shaping up to be one of the most open conference races in recent league history with the top seven teams having a legitimate shot to take home the regular season title. The same goes for player awards and all-league teams. There is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to college hoops and this year is no different.

Below are my picks for the predicted order of finish, preseason player awards and the All-Mountain West team. Read at your own risk.

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Predicted Order of Finish:

1. San Diego State

The Aztecs lost last year’s regular season player of the year in Xavier Thames, but they return almost everyone else. The addition of Angelo Chol, as well the emergence of forwards Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II, makes SDSU the team to beat in the Mountain West yet again. Offense was hard to come by at times for the Aztecs last year, but you can bet Steve Fisher will have one of the best defensive teams in the country yet again.

2. Colorado State

Look at the Rams roster from a year ago and look at it now. Gone are starting guard Jon Octeus, center Gerson Santo and key reserves Dwight Smith and David Cohn. But this Rams team may be the most talented we have seen in Fort Collins in years, including the one that lost to eventual national champion Louisville in the third round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Transfers Stanton Kidd, Dantiel Daniels, Antwan Scott and Fred Richardson will fill the holes left by Octeus and Santo and if head coach Larry Eustachy can again get his team to buy into the “Team Together” concept, the Rams are going to be a very scary team.

3. UNLV

There is no doubt the Rebels have the most talent in the Mountain West, but there’s also no question as to the amount of inexperience the Rebels possess. Not a single starter returns from last season’s team that severely under performed. But head coach Dave Rice showed again why he is one of the best recruiters in the country, adding three top-100 prospects in Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh. If UNLV can get through a brutal non-league schedule without any major injuries or chemistry issues, they could very well contend for the title.

4. Fresno State

I’ll likely take some flak from most people for this, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the stable of guards the Bulldogs have. Cezar Guerrero, Paul Watson and Marvelle Harris will team with Texas transfer Julien Lewis to make up the best backcourt in the league, hands down. What they lack in a true post presence will be covered by their athleticism and shooting. With Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow gone, the only returning true post in the league is Wyoming’s Larry Nance, Jr. After finishing tied for fifth place a year, look for the Bulldogs to take a step up into the top third of the conference in 2014-15.

5. New Mexico

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Simply put, the Lobos lost a lot this offseason. The aformentioned Kirk and Bairstow are off the NBA in Cleveland and Chicago, respectively. High-scoring guard Kendall Williams is playing overseas to the delight of CSU fans, who are glad they don’t have to see him anymore. Hot-and-cold guard Cullen Neal is back along with Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney, who took a huge step forward at the end of last season with increased minutes. Junior college All-American Jordan Goodman should compete for Newcomer of the Year honors but it will we tough to overcome their lack of experience.

6. Wyoming

The Cowboys are the hardest team to predict in my mind. Despite the loss of senior guard Nathan Sobey to graduation, Wyoming returns four starters from a team that was one of the hottest in the league before star forward Larry Nance, Jr. went down with a knee injury. Nance insists he will be 100 percent by the start of the year, but we will wait and see. Uber-athletic guard Josh Adams is among the league’s best athletes and began to make huge strides as a complete player last season instead of just a human-highlight reel. With all that said, there isn’t much behind Nance and Adams and the Cowboys will again struggle to score should that duo have an off night.

7. Boise State

You’re probably wondering if I’ve lost my mind picking the Broncos as the seventh-best team in this league. And to be fair, they could easily jump into the top four if Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic have career seasons. But I just don’t see it happening. While both are very talented guards, they have little to no help returning along with them. Double-double machine Ryan Watkins is gone. So are three-point marksmen Thomas Bropleh and Jeff Elorriaga. Without the emergence of another true offensive threat, teams will be able to focus their attention solely on stopping Drmic and Marks who will likely see their scoring numbers jump, but not the team’s win total.

8. Air Force

No team has been hit harder by the loss of one player more than the Falcons. When guard Tre Coggins announced he was leaving the program, Air Force’s hopes of contending in the top half of the conference went with him. Four starters return as well as a handful of reserves, but Coggins was the engine that made that train go. Max Yon is one of the better guards in the league and may be able to carry them in a few games but overall the Falcons will simply be outmatched by the top seven teams in the league.

9. Nevada

Everyone knew the Wolfpack would take a hit with the loss of one-man wrecking crew Deonte Burton to the NBA. But forward Cole Huff transferring to Creighton is the straw that will break Nevada’s collective back. Starters Michael Perez and AJ West return but outside of that duo, there isn’t much to be excited about in Reno.

10. Utah State

Transitioning from the WAC to the Mountain West was going to be arduous enough for head coach Stew Morrill and Co., but the mass exodus that occurred at the end of last season will make it that much harder. The Aggies don’t return a single starter and their returners combined to average less than ten points per game a year ago. Utah State welcomes ten new players along with the returning four and will struggle mightily against just about everyone in the league.

11. San Jose State

Simply put, the Spartans just aren’t very good. While they return four starters and standout freshman Rashad Muhammad, there also isn’t much to look forward about in San Jose. Due to NCAA APR violations, San Jose State is ineligible for postseason play, including the Mountain West conference tournament. Expect them to struggle yet again, possibly leapfrogging only Utah State or Air Force in the final league standings.

Awards:

Player of the Year: Larry Nance, Jr., F, Wyoming

When healthy, Nance is one of the most athletic players in not only the league, but the entire country. If he has fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered last season, expect a huge season to parlay into a possible selection in the NBA Draft.

Newcomer of the Year: Stanton Kidd, F, Colorado State

After leaving North Carolina Central two years ago, Kidd expressed that he wanted a chance to play at a higher level and be seen more by pro scouts. At times last season, Kidd was CSU’s best player…in practice. His ability to score from anywhere and to rebound makes him a possible first-team all-league selection and one of a few newcomers who should make a big impact for the Rams.

Freshman of the Year: Rashad Vaughn, G, UNLV

There hasn’t been a more highly-touted recruit to land in the Mountain West than Vaughn in recent memory. Rated as the No. 5 overall player in the class of 2014, Vaughn is a legitimate pro prospect and should be the best player on an immensely talented Rebels team.

All-Mountain West team:

Larry Nance, Jr., F, Wyoming

Refer to the above paragraph about Nance.

Daniel Bejarano, G/F, Colorado State

According to coaches, Bejarano has added nearly 15 pounds to his frame and fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. Despite playing on a hobbled leg, Bejarano was one of the league’s best players a year ago and should be even better this season.

Dwayne Polee II, F, San Diego State

Overshadowed by Xavier Thames’ outstanding senior season was the emergence of Polee as a key player for the Aztecs. He was one of the most efficient players in the league and was terrific in the conference tournament. Expect another big jump in his senior year.

Rashad Vaughn, G, UNLV

It’s tough to pick a player who has never competed on the college level to be on the all-league team, but I fully expect Vaughn to be among the league’s five best players.

Marvelle Harris, G, Fresno State

Harris is primed for a breakout year after averaging just over 14 points per game last season. The addition of Julien Lewis will force teams to focus on more than just Harris and will open him up to a big year.

Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.