The Mountain West conference reached its peak a few seasons ago when they sent six teams to the Big Dance. There was a drop off in 2013-14 — only San Diego St., New Mexico and UNLV made March Madness; imbalanced seasons from Boise State and Nevada kept them out — but this is one of the most feared second-tier leagues in the country, and they have teams at the top that could challenge for a Final Four spot. Let’s examine how the Mountain West will shake up this year.

11. San Jose State Spartans

Last Year’s Record: 7-24 (1-17)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 2-16

Head Coach: Dave Wojcik

Key Players: Rashad Muhammad, Jaleel Williams, Devante Wilson

In his second season at the helm at San Jose State, Dave Wojick has the program headed in the right direction, but even he knows it will be a long uphill battle.

SJSU is still suffering from the mistakes of the previous regime, and they managed only one win in MWC play last year. While they will still struggle mightily, the Spartans should at least be a little better this season.

Senior leader Jaleel Williams will help the glut of young players develop and he should have a big season up front. Sophomore Rashad Muhammad was very impressive as a freshman and could be one of the league’s top players by his senior year. Three other starters, Isaac Thornton, Jalen James, and Devante Wilson are back as well and will all look to take a big step forward.

With an additional offseason to develop, San Jose State’s young players should come into this season more prepared. Still, in a league as talented as the Mountain West, the Spartans remained largely overmatched.

10. Utah State Aggies

Last Year’s Record: 18-14 (7-11)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 4-14

Head Coach: Stew Morrill

Key Players: Jalen Moore, David Collette, JoJo McGlaston

It was a mixed bag for Stew Morrill and Utah State in their first season in the Mountain West. The former WAC powerhouse struggled to adjust to the shift in talent, but still managed to pull off seven conference wins behind a group of solid veterans.

Now, all those veterans are departed, and Utah State will have to suffer through a rebuilding season. The Aggies lose all five starters from a year ago and will be throwing their young players into the fire right from the start.

Sophomores Jalen Moore and JoJo McGlaston will have to go from rotation players to go-to options offensively. David Collette, back from a LDS Church mission will help with rebounding and defense inside. Morrill is also hoping some of his Junior College transfers will be able to be suitable stop-gaps for the departing players from last season.

Utah State could be good a few seasons from now when their young players have a chance to grow and experience the ebbs and flows of the college basketball game. This year though, the Aggies will be one of the worst teams in the MWC.

9. Nevada Wolf Pack

Last Year’s Record: 15-17 (10-8)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 6-12

Head Coach: David Carter

Key Players: AJ West, Michael Perez, Marqueze Coleman

Nevada relied heavily on superstar Deonte Burton to lift them last season, and Burton managed to get Nevada to 10 wins in league play. He was aided by two other double-digit scorers Cole Huff and Jerry Evans Jr., but now all three are gone from the program.

Huff’s transfer was a big blow to David Carter, and now Nevada drops back in a major way this year. The good news for the Wolf Pack is that they do bring back AJ West, who was a key for them late last season and should be one of the best centers in the MWC. In addition, Michael Perez, a UTEP transfer, was a double-digit scorer who will now be the team’s best perimeter threat.

Marqueze Coleman and former Arizona recruit Eric Cooper will start in the backcourt, and they should at least be a decent combination. While Ronnie Stevens and D.J. Fenner will provide depth up front.

While they have some young talent, Nevada lacks the star-power overall to make any kind of serious push in a talented conference such as the MWC.

8. Air Force Falcons

Last Year’s Record: 12-18 (6-12)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 6-12

Head Coach: Dave Pilipovich

Key Players: Max Yon, Marek Olesinski, Kamryn Williams

Air Force could have been a sleeper team for a top five appearance in the Mountain West this season. But that was before the departure of Tre Coggins, who was one of the best scorers in the MWC a season ago.

Coggins departure may benefit the team’s chemistry as he had some problems off the floor, but on the court it’s tough to see how Air Force will be better off. Still, the Falcons bring back four starters and should once again stay competitive.

The service academy will need Max Yon to continue to lead them in Coggins absence. Yon has the capability of being the team’s best player after he put up solid numbers a season ago of 13.2 points an 2.5 assists. Air Force’s other guards are all unproven so Yon will have to play big minutes this season.

Up front, Air Force brings back a solid trio of forwards. Kamryn Williams was voted team MVP last season and is a double-double threat. Marek Olesinski is the team’s best three-point threat who should expand his game this year. Justin Hammonds is a capable power forward who can score and rebound.

Air Force will likely be thinking what-if this year playing without Coggins, but they have enough returners to still pull off an upset or two over the upper half of the league.

7. Wyoming Cowboys

Last Year’s Record: 18-15 (9-9)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 8-10

Head Coach: Larry Shyatt

Key Players: Larry Nance Jr., Riley Grabau, Josh Adams

Like most league’s, the middle of the Mountain West is extremely close and tough to project. Wyoming has enough talent to perhaps finish in the top five, but they just miss out in the preseason projections.

The Cowboys will need Larry Nance Jr. to come back healthy and make a major contribution once more. Nance Jr. tore his ACL on February 18th and Wyoming’s season never fully recovered.

With Nance Jr. back in the fray, Wyoming is once again dangerous. Nance Jr. will be the team’s leader up front while Josh Adams and Riley Grabau, two double digit scorers from a season ago, will lead the backcourt. Grabau was a prolific shooter from distance and the free-throw line, while Adams showed the ability to be a go-to scoring option.

The issue for Wyoming is that their depth is lacking outside of their top three players. They will need Charles Hankerson, an Alabama transfer to play better this season, while Derek Cooke will play a major role up front in the starting five.

Wyoming will rely heavily on Nance Jr. to stay healthy. If he can, and their young players make solid contributions, Wyoming could surprise.

6. Colorado State Rams

Last Year’s Record: 16-16 (7-11)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 9-9

Head Coach: Larry Eustachy

Key Players: Daniel Bejarano, J.J. Avila, Antwan Scott

Colorado State was another MWC team that fell victim to a key transfer, as Jon Octeus decided to take his talent’s to SoCal to play for UCLA in his final season.

Octeus was a big part of the Rams success last season, but Larry Eustachy has enough to replace him and still improve. J.J. Avila a 6-7 forward led the team in both points and assists last year and he returns as a vital piece for CSU in his senior season. Avila will be a dominant force inside force while the team’s backcourt will need Daniel Bejarano to continue to excel from the outside. Bejarano, an Arizona transfer came in last year and made an immediate impact, scoring over 16 points per-game and grabbing over eight rebounds.

Avila and Bejarano forms one of the better one-two punches in the MWC but they won’t be alone. Antwan Scott was Grambling State’s leading scorer at over 15 points per-game last season, and he will use his final year of eligibility at Colorado State. Fred Richardson III is a big-time freshman that should be able to fill Octeus’s shoes. Joe De Ciman is another returning starter that is a deep threat.

Losing Octeus obviously hurts Colorado State, but behind Avila and Bejarano they still should be in the mix for a tourney bid.

5. Fresno State Bulldogs

Last Year’s Record: 21-18 (9-9)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 10-8

Head Coach: Rodney Terry

Key Players: Cezar Guerrero, Paul Watson, Marvelle Harris

Say what you want about post season tournaments that are not the big one, but Fresno State coach Rodney Terry certainly appreciates them.

The Bulldogs accepted an invitation to the CBI, after getting passed over for the NIT despite a 9-9 finish in the Mountain West. Fresno State had won eight out of their last ten MWC games and went into the CBI with a ton of momentum. They parlayed that into a run to the tournament finals where they eventually fell to Siena in Game 3 of the best of three title series. Despite coming up just short, Terry got a chance to practice, and play meaningful games with his young players for an extra month, well into March. That experience should help FSU greatly and they have the potential to be a sleeper this season.

They will have to play without Tyler Johnson, their leading scorer from a year ago, but they do return the other four starters. Cezar Guerrero is a fantastic overall guard who can do a little bit of everything. Paul Watson won the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, and the 6-7 forward is a dual threat slasher who can score from the wing or inside. Then there is Marvelle Harris who was an honorable mention All-MWC after averaging 14.3 points and over five rebounds. The fourth starter back is Alex Davis who was a big body inside that could block shots and be a stalwart defensively. Former Texas starter Julien Lewis who was about as good of a sixth man you’ll find last year in the MWC, could join the starting five this year.

Fresno State has a plethora of bench options to go with their starting five, and they are deep, young, and athletic. Terry will assuredly return to the postseason this year, but this season a CBI trip would be a disappointment. Fresno State is at the very least a solid NIT team but also has an outside shot at an NCAA bid if everything comes together.

4. New Mexico Lobos

Last Year’s Record: 27-7 (15-3)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 11-7

Head Coach: Craig Neal

Key Players: Jordan Goodman, Hugh Greenwood, Cullen Neal

Despite their struggles in the NCAA Tournament, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk will leave behind nothing but adoration amongst New Mexico fans for their contribution to the Lobo’s program. For the second straight year last season, New Mexico won 25 plus games and won 15 plus games in the Mountain West, behind the leadership of the three aforementioned seniors.

Now coach Craig Neal will have to begin a new era at New Mexico, and he is hoping that despite the departure of those players, UNM will once again be a threat in the Mountain West.

Australian guard Hugh Greenwood doesn’t have major numbers from his three seasons in Albuquerque, but he does have experience, and he should get a much bigger opportunity with shots cleared up for him. The coach’s son Cullen Neal will be the starting two guard and he was solid a season ago, especially from distance.

Greenwood and Neal will each have to play bigger roles, but they should be able to step up. Deshawn Delaney is a solid returner who started 23 games a season ago and he should complete the backcourt returners. Those players are inexperienced at being leaders, but do have big-time playing experience and have won a lot of games.

In the paint, Neal is hoping that incoming freshman Jordan Goodman will be able to take over right away. Goodman was heavily recruited and he showed a tremendous ability to score inside and rebound in high school. J.J. N’Ganga and Tohi Smith-Miller are two more big bodies that come in to the forward mix and should make a big contribution. 7-1 Obij Aget had limited minutes a season ago but the big man should have a bigger role this season if he’s up for it.

New Mexico has a lot of young players, but they also have some returners ready to make strides and take bigger roles. They won’t be able to recreate the success they have had the past two seasons, but they still should be amongst the better teams in the Mountain West and push for a tournament birth.

3. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

Last Year’s Record: 20-13 (10-8)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 12-6

Head Coach: Dave Rice

Key Players: Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan, Jelan Kendrick

This year’s UNLV team won’t look much like the one that was on the floor last year. In fact, it will look completely different.

The top five scorers from last season’s 20-win team have moved on including Bryce Dejean-Jones, Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. Why then, do I expect UNLV to actually perform better in the Mountain West this season? One word: freshman.

No one was paying attention to what Dave Rice was doing in the recruiting game this offseason. Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and of course Kentucky made up the headlines, but the Runnin’ Rebels quietly managed to acquire three of the top 30 players and were ranked fifth in incoming classes by Rivals.com.

In the MWC, the shear talent of these athletes will likely gave UNLV an outside shot at a conference championship despite their youth.

It starts with Rashad Vaughn, ranked in the top-ten overall by many respected recruiting sites. Vaughn is a 6-6 two guard who can score from all different spots and will excite the Thomas and Mack center with his tremendous dunks. Dwayne Morgan was ranked 15th by Rivals and will serve as the Rebels top interior threat. He is lanky at 6-8 and might struggle defensively, but his offensive game is refined and versatile. 6-10 Goodluck Okonboh is the third top thirty player who will be Birch’s replacement in the post. He should be a dominant rim protector and rebounder.

In addition to that big three, shooting guard Patrick McCaw and swingman Jordan Cornish round out this tremendous class that should be able to make an impact right away. San Francsisco transfer Cody Doolin only has one year left, but he will help those young players develop and should serve as the lead guard.

In addition to the newcomers, Kendall Smith and Jelan Kendrick bring back at least some experience from a season ago. Both got spot starts and were in the rotation all season, as was 6-11 Christian Wood.

We’ll see how many of those freshman are still playing with UNLV next season, but if Dave Rice can convince them to stay, UNLV will be special. This year, there will be bumps in the road while they continue to get acclimated to the college game, but still UNLV should be a tournament team.

2. Boise State Broncos

Last Year’s Record: 21-13 (9-9)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 13-5

Head Coach: Leon Rice

Key Players: Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks, Mikey Thompson

Leon Rice was offered a position in the offseason at his alma mater Washington State, a Pac-12 school, but turned it down to stay in Boise.

One possible reason? He didn’t wanna miss out on this year’s version of the Broncos.

BSU has easily the most revered duo in the league with Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. Drmic and Marks both have surpassed 1,000 points in their careers and they are both seniors looking for one final run to finish their careers.

Marks scored 20 points nine times last season and averaged 14.9 points per-game, while Drmic has led Boise State in scoring three years in a row and put up 15.9 points a year ago.

In addition to that duo, Rice brings back starter Mikey Thompson who is a solid contributor in the backcourt both scoring wise and assist wise. Fellow returners Igor Hadziomerovic and Nick Duncan give Boise State returning depth.

Meanwhile, Boise State also has brought in some exciting newcomers that should help aid the Broncos in the deep Mountain West. Four-star recruit Chandler Hutchinson is a 6-7 freshman who gives Boise State length and athleticism in their front line. David Wacker had offers from several major tier programs but chose Boise State, and the former Texas 5A Player of the Year gives the Broncos a big body who can bruise on the interior and matchup with opposing big men.

The Broncos should be a lot of fun to watch and with the talent they have, they should push for a Mountain West conference championship.

[caption id=”attachment_1781” align=”alignleft” width=”300”]Viejas Arena Scoreboard. (Photo taken by SD Dirk) Viejas Arena Scoreboard. (Photo taken by SD Dirk)[/caption]

1. San Diego State Aztecs

Last Year’s Record: 31-5 (16-2)

This Year’s Projected MWC Record: 15-3

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Key Players: Winston Shepard, Dwayne Poole II, J.J. O’Brien

Throughout his illustrious career, Steve Fisher has proven time and time again that he can work with what he’s got, and still make a damn good team out of it.

Last year it was no different, as San Diego State turned what was supposed to be a down season into 31 wins and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. The Aztecs lose star Xavier Thames from that team, but if they could replace Jamaal Franklin two years ago, they can replace Thames this year.

San Diego State will need players to take big steps up, but under Fisher’s tutelage that shouldn’t be a major problem. Winston Shepard is the air apparent to Thames and should be SDSU’s best player this year. Shepard has potential NBA talent at 6-8, 205. He has tremendous athletic ability and can get to the rim and sky above the basket. He also has a good outside game and should be able to up his scoring average above 15 points per-game this season.

Aside from him, San Diego State’s frontcourt will need senior Dwayne Poole II to establish a bigger presence. Poole II came off the bench a season ago but will start after Josh Davis graduated. Poole II is another great athlete who can score in many different ways and defend very well. Returner JJ O’Brien is a returning starter who can score in double figures and play big inside. Arizona transfer Angelo Chol has also come on board, and Chol should fit in right away playing a similar style to what Fisher looks for out of his bigs. The fifth post player completing the dominant front line is 6-10 Syklar Spencer who started every game for the Aztecs a season ago.

I haven’t even yet mentioned five-star recruit Malik Pope, so that gives you an idea of just how good San Diego State’s front-line can be this season.

The backcourt doesn’t have the same kind of intimidation factor as the bigs do, but it should still compete just fine in the Mountain West. Aqeel Quinn is a veteran who was in the rotation a season ago and should become a starter at point guard. Dakarai Allen and D’Erryl Williams played sparingly last season but should be able to be in the mix this year as sophomores. Freshman Trey Kell and Kevin Zabo will also help as they are a part of San Diego State’s top-20 recruiting class.

SDSU is once again the class of the Mountain West this season and should have no issues securing the regular season championship. The question will be how high up they will find themselves on Selection Sunday, which will depend largely on how they perform in the non-conference.

Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.