Pope: Mountain West preseason basketball predictions

Keegan Pope

We’re just five weeks into the 2015 college football season. But we’re also at my favorite time of the year – the beginning of basketball season. The 2016 Mountain West conference race is setting up to be a very interesting one.

Though I didn’t fill out an official ballot this year as a member of the league’s media corps, I thought I’d post my predictions and award votes. Feel free to let me know your thoughts, even if you disagree.

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Predicted Order of Finish:

1. San Diego State
2. UNLV
3. Boise State
4. Utah State
5. New Mexico
6. Colorado State
7. Fresno State
8. Wyoming
9. Nevada
10. Air Force 
11. San Jose State

San Diego State- The Aztecs’ offense is always a question, and losing JJ O’Brien and Dwayne Polee II doesn’t help to answer that question in the slightest. But SDSU’s defense give them a shot to beat anyone, and a breakout year for potential lottery pick Malik Pope is on the horizon.

UNLV- UNLV should win this league, based on talent alone. The Runnin’ Rebs lost their two stars from last season – Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn – but this may be the deepest and most talented team Dave Rice has had in Vegas. UNLV is beginning to employ a full-court press, similar to the one San Diego State frustrates its opponents with. It’s always a question if Rice can get a team with this much talent to play together, but I think even he can’t mess this up.

Boise State- Derrick Marks is gone, and for most teams that would be a crippling blow. But Anthony Drmic is back after being injured last season, and James Webb III might be one of the three best players in the Mountain West this year. Alongside them are a talented group of role players, and you can never count out a team with a sharpshooter like Aussie Nick Duncan.

New Mexico- It’s almost shocking to think Lobos could finish outside the league’s top-four for two consecutive years. They will have high-volume scorer Cullen Neal back, and transfers Elijah Brown and Tim Williams will be among the better newcomers in the league. Defense will be the question for UNM though, and without a dominant post presence, they’ll likely struggle to score in the paint.

Utah State- There likely won’t be a more experienced group in the Mountain West this year, which is a complete 180 from last season, when the Aggies were among the least-experienced teams in the league. Jalen Moore and David Collette could both end up on the All-Mountain West teams, and so could guard Chris Smith. The Aggies return all five starters from a year ago, along with a handful of transfers who should have an immediate impact. And as always, the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum will be one of the toughest road venues in the league.

Colorado State- Outside of Wyoming, CSU was hit the hardest by graduation this past spring. Three of the Rams’ four leading scorers are gone, and replacing what JJ Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano meant to this program will be nearly impossible. The cupboard is by no means bare, with talented scorers Joe De Ciman, Gian Clavell and John Gillon returning alongside bruising center Tiel Daniels. There’s a lot of youth on this CSU team, though, so expect to see some growing pains.

Fresno State- Last year I picked the Bulldogs to finish in the top tier of the conference. And I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, there is ton of perimeter talent in Fresno, but somehow Marvelle Harris, Paul Watson and Cezar Guerrero can’t seem to coexist. The lack of consistent post scoring will always hurt them, and relying on the aforementioned trio to produce enough scoring to beat the top teams in the league isn’t realistic.

Wyoming – As mentioned above, no one lost more than Wyoming this offseason. Larry Nance Jr. was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of the first round in the NBA draft, and Derek Cooke Jr. and Riley Grabau are playing overseas in Greece and Germany, respectively. All that’s left from the starting lineup of Wyoming’s NCAA Tournament starting lineup is Josh Adams, who is likely an All-Mountain West pick at the end of the year. But beyond him, there’s not a lot for Larry Shyatt to work with. Laramie is a tough place to play, but the Cowboys are going to take a big step down this year.

Nevada – This offseason, Nevada hired former NBA coach Eric Mussleman to turn around its struggling program. He and his staff have had relative success recruiting for the future, but for now, the present isn’t very bright. Forward A.J. West is a double-double machine, but he won’t have much help.

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Air Force- To the delight of Mountain West fans, guard Max Yon finally graduated. The exodus out of Colorado Springs over the past few years hasn’t been replaced by much young talent, and Dave Pilopovich has to feel his seat getting warm.

San Jose State- There’s not much new to say here that hasn’t already been said. The Spartans lost their best player, Rashad Muhammad, who transferred to Miami during the offseason. There is one bright spot, though: the Spartans are officially off NCAA postseason sanctions.

Awards:

Player of the Year: Malik Pope, San Diego State

A lot of people think Winston Shepard will be in this spot at the end of the year, and they aren’t completely wrong. When he’s on, Shepard is a nightmare to stop. But he is far, far too inconsistent. One night he’ll be the best player on the floor, and the next you won’t even notice his presence. Pope showed flashes of brilliance last year, and was even considered a fringe lottery picked based on potential alone before he decided to come back to school. As it has played out over the past decade, the player of the year award goes to the best player on the team with the best record. This year, that will be Pope.

Freshman of the Year: Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV

There isn’t a freshman that has come into the UNLV with more hype than Zimmerman. The Vegas native spurned powerhouse programs like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas to stay at home and play for Dave Rice. The hometown favorite has the weight of a city on his shoulders, but he’s got the game to back it up. There isn’t a more complete freshman in the Mountain West, especially with “Big Zimm’s” frame and skill set.

Newcomer of the Year: Tim Williams, New Mexico

The former All-SoCon first-teamer is a load at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds. As a sophomore at Samford, Williams finished seventh in the country in field goal percentage and led the team in points, rebounds, blocks and steals. The Lobos missed having an interior presence last year, but Williams should be able to provide that to make a nice inside-outside duo with Cullen Neal.

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.