BYU rated favorite in Mountain West

Updated: October 17, 2003, 1:36 PM ET

DENVER -- After a four-year run in Las Vegas, the Mountain West Conference men's basketball tournament moves to the Pepsi Center in Denver next March -- a decision lauded by most of the league's coaches because it creates a neutral-court environment.

Despite that major change, much about the Mountain West remains the same in 2003-04.

BYU, Utah and Colorado State, arguably the three best teams in the conference at the end of last season, were ranked 1-2-3 in a preseason media poll this year.

BYU and Utah shared the conference's regular-season title last season with 11-3 records. The Cougars went 23-9 overall and fell to Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Utes finished 25-8, defeating Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Kentucky in the second round.

Colorado State, meanwhile, won the MWC tournament to earn the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, losing to Duke in the first round.

BYU looks to be the class of the Mountain West, returning four starters and nine lettermen from last year's team as well as adding several talented newcomers, including swingman Mike Hall, a junior college All-American, and redshirt freshman forward Garner Meads.

Key returnees include 6-foot-11 center Rafael Araujo, who averaged 12.0 points and 8.9 rebounds last season; 6-7 forward Mark Bigelow (13.9 points, 3.7 rebounds); 6-9 forward Jared Jensen and point guard Kevin Woodberry.

"I don't think anybody understands the impact the freshmen and junior-college players are going to have," coach Steve Cleveland said, "but we're going to have a good team."

Colorado State coach Dale Layer would take it a step further. "BYU is head and shoulders above the rest of us," he said.

Added New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay, "I love BYU. They have experience and an inside presence. They will benefit from the addition of Mike Hall. They are going to be a Top 25 team."

McKay also said Utah "could be as good as ever if (6-10 freshman Andrew) Bogut is as good as advertised."

Bogut, an Australian, signed with Utah in the spring of 2002 but did not pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse. He has since completed additional courses required by the NCAA.

"I've seen Bogut on film and I like him," Ute coach Rick Majerus said. "But I haven't seen him play with us."

Bogut will join three returning starters in 6-9 center/forward Tim Frost (12.8, 4.9), guard/forward Nick Jacobson (13.3, 2.8) and point guard Tim Drisdom.

Frost and Jacobson are both seniors, but the rest of roster is made up of sophomores and freshmen.

"Young is not where you want to be in basketball," Majerus said. "We're probably going to start one freshman and a couple sophomores. It's going to be tough."

Colorado State, which went 19-14 overall and 5-9 in the conference a year ago, returns three starters, including one of the MWC's best big men, 7-0 junior center Matt Nelson.

Nelson, the conference tournament MVP after scoring 70 points in three games, averaged 16.9 points and 5.6 rebounds.

Forward Ronnie Clark and guard Micheal Morris also return, along with five other lettermen.

"How we replace Brian Greene and Andy Birley will be crucial for our team," Layer said, "as will Matt Nelson's health. He had his right knee scoped the first week of July. He's 100 percent healthy now, and he's gained weight, to almost 260 pounds. But he has not had a complete year where he has been injury-free."

UNLV (21-11, 8-6) lost a combined 36 points and 12 rebounds per game in the departed Marcus Banks and Dalron Johnson, but center J.K. Edwards and guard Demetrius Hunter return.

The Runnin' Rebels are hopeful that Hunter enjoys improved health. He has missed much of the last two seasons with ankle injuries, and had offseason surgery on both feet.

Coach Charlie Spoonhour also is counting on forward Louis Amundson and a transfer from Marquette, Odartey Blankson.

Wyoming (21-11, 8-6) also incurred significant losses in Donte Richardson and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, who averaged a combined 32 points per game.

Coach Steve McClain believes forwards Joe Ries and David Rottinghaus and point guard Jay Straight will take up the slack. Straight, who averaged 10.5 points last season, is perhaps the conference's best penetrator.

San Diego State (16-14, 6-8) lost four starters, including double-digit scorers Tony Bland and Mike Mackell.

The lone returnee, 6-9 forward/center Aerick Sanders, will be joined by guards Tommy Johnson and Wesley Stokes, a transfer from Missouri, and forward Chris Walton. Coach Steve Fisher hopes guard Travis Hanour is recovered from offseason knee surgery.

New Mexico (10-18, 4-10) will count on four returning starters to make up for the loss of the nation's leading scorer, Ruben Douglas, who averaged 28.0 points.

Guard Mark Walters and forward David Chiotti are the key returnees, and two transfers -- Danny Granger from Bradley and Troy DeVries from Portland State -- also will see action.

Air Force (12-16, 3-11) returns its top three scorers from last year -- Tim Keller (14.8), Joel Gerlach (12.1) and A.J. Kuhle (8.7).

Coach Joe Scott's Falcons led the nation in scoring defense at 57.0 points per game, but offensively they averaged only 57.2 and were severely outrebounded.

This story is from's automated news wire. Wire index