Top MWC storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. The MWC is deep this year, and it could very well return to being a multibid league, with Nevada and San Diego State poised to be in the top tier. The second tier is where the depth lies, with Fresno State, Boise State, UNLV, Wyoming, Colorado State and Utah State all capable of finishing anywhere from third to eighth.
2. Look for the MWC to be one of the most exciting, up-tempo leagues in the country. They were 11th overall in pace as a conference last year thanks to Wyoming and SJSU, but with SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico expected to make significant increases in tempo, the league should easily be top 10 as a whole.
3. Three new coaches enter the league this year, as Paul Weir goes from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, while Jean Prioleau takes over at San Jose State. Brian Dutcher slides into Steve Fisher’s chair at San Diego State as well, but that’s more of a coaching transition than a coaching change, as Dutcher has been Fisher’s associate head coach since before the Fab Five were in Ann Arbor.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Nevada– Eric Musselman continues to lure extremely talented former high-major players to Reno, and the Pack should reload to defend their MWC crown despite losing three key starters, including Cam Oliver. Musselman added Hallice Cooke from Iowa State, Kendall Stephens from Purdue, Darien Williams from St. John’s, and most importantly, the Martin twins from NC State. That’s in addition to a rotation that already includes returnees Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew, Elijah Foster and Josh Hall. Musselman should have more depth at his disposal after a season that saw him use his bench less than any team in the country except for Arizona State. Caroline heads the group of returnees as a versatile, high-scoring combo forward that can rebound on both ends, guard on the perimeter and draw a ton of contact in mismatches against defending 3s and 4s. He had a phenomenal first season in Reno (including 45 points in the wild comeback win over New Mexico), and with the influx of talent around him, defenses simply can’t key in on him. Foster and Hall will join him in the frontcourt, and both are key pieces in Musselman’s trapping defense with their versatility to play 3-5 (as you’ll note in this preview, position versatility is the main motif of Musselman’s roster). If Hall continues to develop as a shooter, he could have an under the radar solid sophomore season. Williams comes in from St. John’s and will be relied upon to help address the most glaring issue for the Pack: rim protection. Even with an athletic shot blocker like Oliver last year, the Pack still played some of the worst two point percentage defense in the MWC. Williams struggled at St. John’s, but he was an outstanding JUCO player with his ability to shoot the 3 and defend in the paint. That said, if Foster and Williams aren’t protecting the rim at a decent level, Musselman will quickly switch to a five-out offense and try to exploit mismatches on the other end. The piece de resistance of the frontcourt is the addition of the Martin twins. Caleb Martin has a good chance to be the MWC’s POY. He’s a three-level scorer with excellent athleticism at 6-foot-7. He’s been battling some nagging injuries, but the fact that he played in the Grand Canyon exhibition is an encouraging sign. Cody Martin is perhaps the most versatile player on the roster, and as I mentioned before, Musselman’s NBA pedigree has brought a "pace and space," positionless system to Reno, which Martin truly embodies. He can play 1-4, and he could even be the backup point guard behind Linsdey Drew. Speaking of Drew, the 6-foot- versatile (there’s that word again) point is one of the best top to bottom defenders in the league, capable of shutting down an opponent’s best scorer even if they’re on the wing. He’s also a plus rebounder for his position. Cooke will see minutes on and off the ball, especially if he’s hitting jump shots, an issue for the Pack last year. Purdue transfer Stephens will be relied upon to generate the spacing that Musselman’s offense often lacked last year. Stephens is a long 6-foot-7 "3 and D" wing who will start at the 3 immediately. The only real question mark for the Pack is on the defensive end in terms of rim protection. Otherwise, this is a team with a ceiling higher than simply repeating as MWC champs.
2. San Diego State– The Aztecs aren’t far behind the Pack, and with Brian Dutcher taking over for legendary Steve Fisher, this isn’t your typical coaching change transition. Dutcher was an assistant for Fisher for nearly 30 years, so this transition should be as seamless as possible, as he’s simply moving assistants up the ladder as well. What Dutcher will (and must) change, however, is Fisher’s offense, and with San Francisco transfer Dev Watson eligible, a top down restructure of the system will likely occur, as Watson can immediately take over on the ball as a dynamic scoring point. With Watson at the point, Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell can stay off the ball permanently, which will improve their efficiency, especially Kell, who shot a miserable 25 percent from 3 in MWC play. Watson, however, isn’t the same level perimeter defender that Zell is, and in SDSU’s defense perimeter defenders are expected to share their man’s jersey. Dutcher could very well play all three guards at the same time, with Kell shifting to the 3, but there are options on the wing, with Teki Gill-Caesar hopefully healthy and ready to show the promise that led to him being a four-star Missouri recruit. Max Hoetzel (sorry, it’s Max Montana now) is a stretch 4 who displayed some pretty poor shot selection, but some of that can be chalked up to being one of the only perimeter threats on the roster last year. Montana could lose minutes to prized freshman recruit Jordan Schakel, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter from the renowned California Supreme AAU team. Matt Mitchell is another top freshman recruit who can score from the wing at 6-foot-6. Mitchell was slated to be the best CSUF recruit in since… well, maybe ever, but he grew and improved his senior year and spurned the Titans. Mitchell’s a three-level scorer who can play at the 3 or 4 depending on the lineup. The frontcourt features the return of seemingly rarely healthy Malik Pope, who has NBA potential if he can stay on the court. Pope is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-10 with guard skills. He could thrive, again, if healthy, in Dutcher’s revamped offense that will feature far more transition opportunities with a three point guard lineup. Kameron Rooks and Jalen McDaniels will form a new frontcourt tandem, which means the typically impenetrable SDSU interior defense might be a little less stout this year. Rooks is more of a space eater than athletic rim protector like Skylar Spencer or Val Izundu. I expect high motor McDaniels to eventually be the starting 5, and it could come sooner rather than later. McDaniels is a much better fit on the back end for a team that’s likely going to see one of the biggest tempo increases in the country. The rebranded runnin’ Aztecs should make the MWC a two-bid league again, and they’ll challenge Nevada for the crown.
3. Fresno State– Rodney Terry copied his approach to building Fresno State’s defense from Steve Fisher and SDSU, and this year, with SDSU adjusting to a more up-tempo scheme, the Bulldogs should play SDSU defense even better than the Aztecs. Fresno State is physical on the perimeter with athletic, aggressive guards, but the typically stout interior defense has some question marks without Cullen Russo and Karachi Edo. Jaron Hopkins is the epitome of Terry’s brand of basketball as a 6-foot-6 point forward and the best perimeter defender in the league. Hopkins posted the league’s top steal rate and second-highest assist rate. Offensively, he’s a little inefficient, as he doesn’t have a jump shot and relies heavily on attacking in isolation off Terry’s ubiquitous three-man perimeter weave action. Deshon Taylor came in from UMKC and immediately established himself as a volume scoring combo guard. Jahmel Taylor is Terry’s only established perimeter shooter, but he’s one heck of a shooter. Taylor hit at 45 percent last year and has unlimited range. Ray Bowles out of Pacific and New Williams from Auburn (eligible second semester) provide Terry with some much needed depth on the perimeter. 6-foot-6 junior wing Sam Bittner is a glue guy who does whatever Terry needs, while Johnny McWilliams could have a bigger role on the wing in his second season. McWilliams was a three-star recruit for Terry. The frontcourt won’t be as athletic as Russo/Edo, but Terrell Carter is a big body at 6-foot-10, and Bryson Williams has a lot of upside on the block offensively. Carter is the better rim protector, but at nearly 300 lbs, his immobility leads to an exceptionally high foul rate, and he’s a general liability defensively in Terry’s constantly switching defense, especially in today’s game where every 4 and a lot of 5s are so mobile outside of the paint. Terry’s Bulldogs are the most physical team in the league, and with a talented backcourt that generates a lot of turnovers (highest turnover and steal rate in the league last year), they supplement an often stagnant offense.
4. Boise State– The Broncos have a lot of question marks, but with Leon Rice’s understated ability to adapt his scheme to his roster, yet another 20-win season is possible for BSU. Oh, and they have Chandler Hutchinson, probably the league’s best player. That helps. Hutchinson is the definition of a "do-everything" wing. He was fifth in MWC play in assist rate, free throw rate and defensive rebounding rate, and he shot 41 percent from 3-point range. As a 6-foot-7 wing with plus ball skills, he’s a matchup nightmare. Rice’s depth on the wing is the clear strong suit of the Broncos, as Justinian Jessup should have a breakout sophomore season playing off Hutchinson’s attention. He’s the best perimeter threat returning for Rice as well. 6-foot-4 Alex Hobbs showed promise as a three-level off-ball scorer at the end of his freshman season. His development was easily apparent from mid February on. 6-foot-4 Malek Harwell has arguably the most talent on the team outside of Hutchinson, but he’s been plagued by injuries since arriving in Boise. Hutchinson, Jessup, Hobbs and Harwell give Rice a lot of versatility on both ends, and I’d be surprised if Rice doesn’t return to his halfcourt trapping defense this year; he largely abandoned it last season, preferring to take away the 3-point line in a gamble-free man to man. No one in the MWC allowed a lower 3-point rate than the Broncos last year, and only 17 teams in the country were better in that regard. Rice’s defensive scheme is constantly adjusted, so it will be interesting to see what he chooses to do on that end with his wing depth this year. Point guard is a bit of a concern with the transfer of Paris Austin, but Rice was able to land Valpo grad transfer Lex Williams. He and sophomore Marcus Dickinson will likely share on-ball duties. In the frontcourt, another grad transfer should make a big impact. Former Fordham 4/5 Christian Sengfelder can immediately slide into the Nick Duncan stretch role. Zach Haney, David Wacker and Robin Jorch represent a solid but unspectacular three-headed monster at the 5. All three are juniors, with Wacker representing the best option on both ends of the floor. BSU will go as far as Hutchinson carries them, and he’s good enough for that to be a top-three finish and potential postseason bid somewhere.
5. UNLV– Marvin Menzies has UNLV rebuilding quickly after the worst season in program history, and he has a high talent level coming in that can play his disruptive, physical perimeter defense. Last year’s Rebels were horrific offensively. They shot below 30 percent from 3 in MWC play, and they had the worst two point percentage offense in the league, thus they scored at a league worst 0.95 points per possession. With two highly-touted newcomers in Shakur Juiston and Brandon McCoy joining the frontcourt and the addition of Milwaukee point guard Jordan Johnson, the offense should be significantly improved. With Johnson, who posted the nation’s third-highest assist rate two years ago, the entire UNLV offense will be restructured. It allows Menzies to move JoJo Mooring off the ball where he’ll have more freedom to attack the rim (a staple in any Menzies offense). Four-star recruit Amauri Hardy will give Menzies dual point guard looks that should help what was awful offensive spacing last year. That said, the Rebels are still light on consistent perimeter shooting. Mooring will see more open looks alongside Johnson and Hardy, but 6-foot-6 wing Kris Clyburn should be the main beneficiary. He shot just 29 percent from 3 last year, and that has to improve. NuNu Beck is an athletic option on the wing who can attack the rim with a massive 6-foot-7 frame. He’s essentially a perfect Menzies player. The additions of Juiston and McCoy to the frontcourt gives Menzies the imposing frontline that he used to dominate the WAC. His NMSU teams were always among the best two point percentage and rim protecting defenses on a national level. Juiston was rated the top JUCO prospect out of powerhouse Hutchinson CC, while McCoy is a five-star recruit with lottery potential. Cheick Dembele returns as a quintessential rim protecting Menzies big. With Johnson entering as the best distributor in the league, the outstanding talent around him should be effective immediately, and a significant offensive bump should be expected (albeit last year’s team set a pretty low bar). Menzies’ second season should also see his typical disruptive perimeter defense paired with brick wall interior take form. UNLV has top three potential this year if Morgan, Juiston and Hardy are as good as advertised.
6. Wyoming– Allen Edwards essentially took his old boss Larry Shyatt’s system and injected uncut speed into its veins. The Pokes did almost everything the same as a typical Shyatt team (limited transition opportunities defensively by eschewing offensive rebounds, shot the 3 at an extremely high rate and attacked the rim when they didn’t launch from deep), but they did it at a much faster pace, as Edwards’ first season saw Wyoming average 10 more possessions than most Shyatt teams. Edwards truly embraced the positionless basketball revolution while pushing the tempo to the nation’s 12th-fastest pace, as 6-foot-8 Hayden Dalton and 6-foot-7 Justin James were his best distributors, with the idea being whoever grabs the ball off the defensive glass can rip it and go. James should be the focal point of the offense after mostly coming off the bench last year. James shot a lethal 47 percent from the 3, the best mark in MWC play, while also leading the league in fouls drawn per 40. James’ versatility makes him one of the toughest covers in the league, as he can legitimately play point to post. Alex Aka Gorski and Lou Adams are dichotomous wing duo. Gorski is volume spot shooter while Adams is a relentless rim attacker who can lead the break in transition as a good rebounder for his position. As to "true point guards" (which don’t really exist in Edwards’ system), Washington State transfer Nye Redding and sophomore walk-on Cody Kelley can both play on the ball, but three-star recruit Anthony Mack could push them both for minutes. Unfortunately Mack is a little behind in his development after missing most of practice with concussion related symptoms. The frontcourt is another example of Edwards’ embrace of positionless basketball, as Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon are both volume 3-point shooters, but Dalton is the team’s best defensive rebounder and a skilled passer, while Herndon is the best rim protector on the roster. Andrew Moemeka is a human highlight reel in the frontcourt and emits instant energy off the bench. Buddha Jones is something of an x-factor in the frontcourt for Edwards. He’s a former top-100 recruit that committed to UTEP and has outstanding athleticism and versatility for his size. Jordan Naughton is Edwards’ only true post, but he couldn’t keep up with the new up-tempo pace. Hunter Thompson is a true freshman and Edwards’ top recruit. The 6-foot-10 stretch four originally committed to Creighton but is a likely redshirt target with James, Herndon, Dalton and Jones all ahead of him on the depth chart. Edwards enjoyed a highly successful first season at the helm in Laramie, which included a CBI title, and his up-tempo, positionless philosophy is a good pairing with Laramie’s altitude. However, a leap into MWC title contention doesn’t seem likely given the strength of Nevada and SDSU, but the Pokes are solidly in the second tier that could claim third and another postseason bid.
7. Colorado State– I’m hesitant to pick the Rams this low after Larry Eustachy’s squad exceeded everyone’s expectations last year, but Gian Clavell was the league’s most important player, as he dominated shots and possessions while being highly efficient, and he never left the floor. His production can’t be replaced, but Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige give Eustachy a veteran two-way tandem in the backcourt, and Nico Carvacho is due for a massive sophomore year in the frontcourt. Offensively, CSU might should actually be a little more cohesive, as it won’t just be Clavell creating on his own on that end. Nixon should be the team’s primary ball handler, while Paige will run off the ball as a shooter, but both can penetrate off the dribble and both are solid perimeter defenders. Florida State transfer Robbie Berwick is another shooter added this year, while JUCO import Raquan Mitchell has had his athleticism effusively praised by Eustachy. On the wing, Che Bob returns from the academic issues that forced Eustachy into a seven-man rotation last year. Bob’s length and versatility allows him to defend 2-5, and his per 40 block rate was off the charts. Lorenzo Jenkins is eligible on the wing after transferring from Arkansas, and at 6-foot-7 he gives Eustachy even more versatile perimeter length on both ends. With the Clavell era over in Fort Collins, the heart of Eustachy’s team will once again lie with the frontcourt. Eustachy’s teams have always been among the most dominant rebounding teams in the country on both ends. I’ve discussed at length on my blog about his penchant for going under screens defensively to entice jump shots and crash the glass. Last year’s team certainly encouraged jumpers, but they didn’t rebound at a typical Eustachy level, as CSU’s offensive and defensive rebounding rates were by far the lowest of his five-year tenure in Fort Collins. With Carvacho (the league’s best offensive rebounder) being joined by JUCO D2 POY Deion James, I would suspect those rates return to typical Eustachian levels, especially with Bob and Jenkins being proficient rebounders on the wing where depth issues forced Eustachy to play atypically small. CSU doesn’t feel like a seventh place MWC team to me, but I can’t find a way to move them up with some offensive issues likely to arise in Clavell’s wake.
8. Utah State– Tim Duryea’s first two seasons replacing legendary Stew Morrill have been mediocre at best with a combined 14-22 record in league play. To be fair, Duryea has been running the same stagger screen heavy and baseline runner off ball motion that his mentor Morrill ran, but his teams simply haven’t been able to compete athletically in the MWC. The Aggies are still shooting the 3 at a top-50 clip nationally, and the ball movement as indicated by assist rate is very Morrill-esque, although the turnover rate offensively was the highest in the league. The issues on the defensive end have been that the guards can’t defend against dribble penetration, and the interior hasn’t been physical enough to cover it up. Thus, Duryea has had to use a lot of zone defenses, which means his teams have been slaughtered on the offensive glass. Duryea has to replace one of the MWC’s most efficient and consistent offensive players in Jalen Moore, but he has a solid young backcourt to build his offense around. Koby McEwen is a big, penetrating guard who could develop into an elite MWC scorer in just his second season. McEwen was second in free throw rate in league play while hitting 43 percent of his 3-pointers. McEwen combines with fellow sophomore Sam Merrill to give USU a potent 1-2 punch in the backcourt. Merrill posted the league’s third-highest assist rate as a freshman, and he nailed 45 percent of his 3-pointers. Duryea also added Crew Ainge (Danny’s son), who can play on the ball immediately as a freshman in three-guard looks with either Merrill or McEwen shifting down to the 3. The wing corps is solid with three-star recruit Brock Miller and JUCO DeAngelo Isby being added. They’ll need to be versatile and able to play at the 4, as Norbert Janicek’s injury shifts everyone down. Alex Dargenton can play as a floor-stretching 5, and he’s a capable shot blocker as well, while Quinn Taylor showed some offensive promise as a sophomore. Daron Henson is a three-star redshirt freshman who can stretch the floor, while another redshirt frosh, Klay Stall, is the only true center on the roster without Janicek. I love the McEwen/Merrill backcourt as slashing/shooting duo with good size, and Duryea surrounded them with solid backcourt/wing talent, but USU’s lack of physicality around the rim on both ends could hold them back again. That said, this roster has a pretty high relative ceiling, and a top-half finish is a realistic possibility.
9. New Mexico– The tumultuous Noodles Neal era is finally over in Albuquerque, as Paul Weir comes over from NMSU, which should throw some more gasoline on that heated rivalry. There’s not much left of Neal’s roster, which is probably fine with Weir, who would like a fresh start with a new system. Weir is going to pressure full court, and the Lobos will likely play the fastest pace in the MWC and one of the fastest in the entire country, especially if their exhibition with BYU is a true indicator of how often Weir is actually going to press. (The Lobos scored 73 points in a whopping 82 possessions.) The player who benefits the most from the Weir system will be Sam Logwood, the key holdover from Neal’s roster. Logwood’s an athletic 6-foot-7 wing that can play inside and out. Leading the charge in the backcourt will be Akron grad transfer Antino Jackson at the point, and he’ll spearhead the trapping pressure defense as well. JUCO scorer Troy Simons has a chance to lead the team in scoring if it’s not Logwood. Former Western Kentucky combo guard Chris McNeal can shoot and distribute and could play alongside Jackson in dual PG looks in Weir’s up-tempo offense, while Anthony Mathis is one of the few remaining players from Neal’s tenure. On the wing, Jachai Simmons comes in from the JUCO ranks, and he can play the 3 or 4 and even slide down to the 5 if Weir feels like Joe Furstinger and Connor MacDougall aren’t quick enough to play at his preferred speed. That said, Furstinger is the best rebounder and shot blocker on the team, and Weir needs quality minutes out of him this year. Dane Kuiper on the wing is Weir’s best perimeter shooter, an area that’s likely to be an issue all year. The Lobos likely won’t be near contending for an MWC title, but the effort level should be consistently high (which couldn’t be said for the Neal era), and the brand of basketball will be exciting. Weir also has a mega recruiting class eligible for next year, so one of the nation’s most consistent programs with a passionate fan base won’t be down for long.
10. Air Force– It should be another long year for Dave Pilipovich, who does the best with what he’s given to work with at a service academy. The Falcons haven’t had a winning league mark since 2006-07, which springboarded Jeff Bzdelik to Colorado. Because of the lack of MWC caliber athletes he can recruit to an Air Force commitment, Pilipovich has to stick with Princeton-esque motion offense and zone defense to help offset his constant lack of height in the frontcourt. Pilipovich at least has continuity in the backcourt this year, with Jacob Van returning at the point, as well as Trevor Lyons and C.J. Siples – all three are seniors. Lavelle Scottie, Sid Tomes and Pervis Louder should see increased roles as sophomores, with Scottie potentially turning into a dynamic scorer with a season under his belt in Pilipovich’s offense. The motion scheme requires that the bigs be able to shoot, and that’s exactly what Ryan Manning and Frank Toohey bring to the table at the 4 and 5. What they don’t bring is any real rim protection – hence the frequent zone defense that has tended to get picked apart. The good news is that the Falcons rebound well out of nearly every position, which is a necessity with so much zone. Only once in Pilipovich’s five years at the helm has the offense been more efficient than what the defense allowed on a points per possession basis. That was his first season when he inherited the league’s best scorer, Michael Lyons.
11. San Jose State– SJSU hadn’t won more than six games in conference play since the 2000-01 season when they were in the WAC until the Spartans tallied seven league wins last season. Then the offseason happened. Dave Wojcik unexpectedly resigned late in the summer and then leading-everything Brandon Clarke left the team. With the coaching carousel almost completely settled, SJSU had to quickly hire Colorado assistant Jean Prioleau. Prioleau will immediately bring Tad Boyle’s motion offense and commitment to pushing in transition off the defensive glass whenever possible with him to SJSU. Clarke’s impact on the Spartans last year was massive, and he was probably the most important player to his team in the league. He was essentially a top-10 player in every statistical category expect 3-point shooting. Prioleau will at least have a 5th year point guard in Jalen James to run his motion, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see redshirt freshman Nai Carlisle move him off the ball. James could be more comfortable at the 2, and Carlisle is more of a distributing option at the point. A solid shooting stretch 4 in Ryan Welage returns, as does Jaycee Hillsman, who proved to be an effective rim attacker from the wing last year but will probably have to play out of position some at the 4 this year. Rebounding is an exceptionally important part of Tad Boyle’s scheme at Colorado, as he likes to probe for easy buckets off misses before settling into an offense, so I expect that to be an area of emphasis for Prioleau as well. That means heavy minutes for Keith Fisher, a three-star redshirt freshman, and Oumar Berry, a major JUCO recruit out of Guinea. The importance of Clarke on last year’s team was immense, and Prioleau simply didn’t have enough time to even attempt to offset that. It would be wholly unexpected if he’s able to build off the momentum of last year.
FINAL OUTLOOK: The MWC should return to being a multibid league, with Nevada and SDSU easily the most likely candidates to do it. But the league overall is deep, with Fresno State, Boise State, UNLV, Wyoming, Colorado State and even Utah State all capable of posting 20-win seasons. After a few down years, the MWC looks to be back.
MWC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchinson, Boise State
ALL MWC FIRST TEAM:
Chandler Hutchinson, Boise St
Caleb Martin, Nevada
Jordan Caroline, Nevada
Kendall Stephens, Nevada
Trey Kell, San Diego St
ALL MWC SECOND TEAM:
Brandon McCoy, UNLV
Dev Watson, San Diego St
Justin James, Wyoming
Koby McEwen, Utah St
Jaron Hopkins, Fresno St