MWC ShootAround: BYU the favorite, but transfers and freshmen will have say

Updated: August 26, 2009

Howard Smith/US Presswire

After a health scare this summer, a reinvigorated Dave Rose is no doubt ready for the season to start.

10 offseason storylines

1. Dave Rose's scare: The entire college basketball community was shaken when the BYU head coach was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer in June. Shortly after a family vacation to Disneyland, Rose was rushed into emergency surgery, where doctors removed his spleen and part of his pancreas after the tumor was discovered due to internal bleeding. But what originally sounded like dire news instead turned miraculous when doctors declared Rose cancer-free shortly after the surgery. He's scheduled for his next scan next month, but already is back in control of the Cougars.

2. A new challenge: The Mountain West and Missouri Valley get into the mix of the preseason interconference battles this season. Rather than just randomly selecting matchups, this event smartly pairs teams based on their RPI in the previous season. It's a great way for both leagues to buoy their nonconference schedules and RPI as they try to receive more NCAA tourney invites.

3. Rebel with a cause: Coach Lon Kruger is understandably excited about his new point guard, Derrick Jasper. The Kentucky transfer, who would have started last season had he stayed at UK with Billy Gillispie, started the final 27 games of his freshman year, averaging 2.9 assists per game. Microfracture surgery held him out of 11 games his sophomore season, but he still shot 45 percent from behind the arc. That hot shooting, not to mention a 6-6 frame for a point guard, has Kruger and Runnin' Rebels fans anxious to see him on the court this season.

4. Rewarding success: Utah and Wyoming made sure the men who are orchestrating their current success aren't going anywhere. Jim Boylen, who has won 42 games in two seasons at Utah, has helped erase the sting of the two losing seasons that preceded him. With his name being linked to other jobs, including Arizona, the athletic department wisely signed him to a new five-year deal. In the meantime, Wyoming gave Heath Schroyer a two-year contract extension after the coach led the Cowboys to a 19-14 record and a CBI berth, their first postseason appearance in six years.

The Pit

AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf

The Pit might be getting a facelift, but don't expect it to be any prettier for opponents.

5. A facelift for The Pit: Offering one of the best home-court advantages in the country, New Mexico's historic arena is known for being exactly what its name implies -- a down-and-dirty, hard-to-play-in Pit. But even pits need to be cleaned up. So the Lobos are pouring $60 million into the 42-year-old building, adding club boxes and suites, wider concourses and more concessions. The one caveat: The seating bowl, which makes the Pit so unique, will remain intact. The renovations will continue through this season, but won't force the Lobos to find a new home.

6. Jonathan Tavernari sticks around: Not only did the forward eschew the NBA, withdrawing his name from the draft in late May, the Brazilian-born forward spurned multiple offers to play for some serious cash in Europe. Why? Because he knew with four starters back, this Cougars team could be even better than the three previous league winners.

7. Banged-up Carr: Despite missing several games with a groin injury, Colorado State's Jesse Carr led the Rams in assists and finished as the third-leading scorer among Mountain West freshmen. But that groin pain turned out to be a much more serious pelvis injury, which when announced in April, looked as though it would cause Carr to miss six to eight months. When and if the guard comes back will determine whether or not CSU can continue to steadily improve.

8. At last, Malcolm Thomas debuts: We think. The talented forward has had a twisted path to the Mountain West. Set to transfer to San Diego State from Pepperdine, he was instead declared academically ineligible and enrolled at San Diego City College. He poured in huge numbers at the junior college, good enough that he went so far as to submit his name for the NBA draft. But Thomas never signed with an agent and eventually withdrew his name. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said Thomas is on track to enroll this fall.

9. What happens with Air Force? Like DePaul in the Big East, the Falcons waited until the conference tournament to beat a league opponent, edging Colorado State in the first round. Head coach Jeff Reynolds is optimistically looking at a boatload of rising sophomores who got a ton of experience last season, but the losing and the rigors of Academy life make it tough for quick turnarounds.

10. Replacing Chris Walker: Well-connected in Texas, Walker developed a pipeline from the Longhorn State to New Mexico. Five of the current UNM players hail from Texas, including a few who played for the T-Mac All-Star team Walker helped run before leaving for Albuquerque. Now Walker has bolted east to his alma mater, Villanova. Steve Alford replaced him with Wyking Jones, who spent the past two years working as a team manager with Nike. His roots are in California.

10 key players

Jimmer Fredette, BYU: Without Lee Cummard, the rising junior will need to contribute even more. Fredette, who finished fifth in the conference in scoring (16.6 ppg) as a sophomore last season, spent part of the summer at the NCAA-sanctioned King of Kings tourney in New York, where he dropped 41 in one game.

Afam Muojeke, Wyoming: The league's rookie of the year last season will be asked to do even more now that Brandon Ewing has graduated. He can. Muojeke averaged 13.8 points and 5.5 boards last season.

Zvonko Buljan

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

It didn't take long for Croatia native Zvonko Buljan to get acclimated. He was the MWC Newcomer of the Year last season.

Zvonko Buljan, TCU: The Croatian junior-college transfer shone in his first season, earning the league's newcomer of the year honors. With the departure of Kevin Langford, the Horned Frogs' most reliable scorer, Buljan's role will be even more critical as Jim Christian tries to turn things around.

Matt Shaw, UNLV: Out last season with a knee injury, Shaw's return to his usual self -- he averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds the season before -- will help the Runnin' Rebels get over the loss of Wink Adams. The forward also gives UNLV some inside presence to complement its savvy backcourt.

JayDee Luster, Wyoming: He has yet to play a single minute for the Cowboys, but already the redshirt sophomore has been named team captain. Head coach Heath Schroyer has called him a born leader. A transfer from New Mexico State, the savvy point guard is expected to ease Wyoming's path as it transitions into its first season without all-time 3-point shooter Brandon Ewing.

Andy Ogide, Colorado State: The Ole Miss transfer played well in his first season but will have to continue to get better in a hurry. Marcus Walker and Willis Gardner graduated and Jesse Carr is sidelined, putting even more pressure on Ogide to produce.

Carlon Brown, Utah: Known for his highlight-reel dunk over Blake Griffin, the guard will have to be more than just a showman as the Utes try to replace their top four scorers. A top assist man, Brown has to look to score until juco helpers Jay Watkins and Matt Read get acclimated.

Billy White, San Diego State: He can shoot the lights out, as evidenced by his 66 percent shooting from the field and perfect 12-for-12 night against Wyoming. The junior will have to be near perfection as the Aztecs replace five seniors.

Noah Hartsock, BYU: The rising sophomore came on strong at the end of last season, scoring more points in his final two games than his previous 10. Will be interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off.

Roman Martinez, New Mexico: With five seniors gone, Martinez -- the Lobos' top returning scorer and rebounder -- will have to be the anchor for New Mexico. He's a great shooter who finished third in the league from behind the arc, but he'll need to be a reliable scorer as well.

10 freshmen we can't wait to see

Kawhi Leonard

Scott Kurtz

Kawhi Leonard leads a highly acclaimed group of newcomers that is expected to keep SDSU in contention in the MWC.

Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Diego State: Leonard may have been the most underrated prospect on the West Coast in the Class of 2009. His length, huge hands and feathery shooting stroke should equate to immediate playing time.

Anthony Marshall, SG, UNLV: Marshall is the quintessential glue guy whom all coaches covet. He isn't great at any particular skill, but he is an outstanding rebounder and has plenty of savvy for this game.

Jeremy Olsen, C, Utah: Olsen is a multiskilled big who has a soft shooting touch in the paint area, including a nice left-handed jump hook. His frame should fill out nicely, but he needs to play with more intensity at both ends to reach his potential.

Garlon Green, SF, TCU: Green, who is the brother of Gerald Green Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks, is the top sleeper of this bunch. His lengthy wing-type frame should fill out nicely and he has the athleticism to boot. If his perimeter skills continue to blossom, his ceiling is high.

Chad Adams, SF, New Mexico: Adams has all the intangibles to be a standout scoring guard. He has long arms, elite quickness and can really bounce in transition. His jump shot will need to improve to keep defenses honest.

Eric Lawton, SG, San Diego State: Lawton is an extraordinary athlete who may remind some of a poor man's Allen Iverson. He can get to the rim in a hurry and finish with a flush, but his jump shot is streaky.

Jordan Finn, SG, Air Force: Finn is a terrific all-around basketball player. He will not wow you with elite levels of bounce and quickness, but you'll appreciate his high basketball IQ and passing prowess.

Tyler Haws, SG, BYU: Haws is one of the most prolific jump shooters in the nation. His stroke is flawless and feathery. He should be deadly in the Cougars' offense due to his shooting prowess and passing ability.

Trevor Williams, C, Colorado State: Williams is a major project, but he does have many of the intangibles coaches look for while evaluating big men. His frame is impressive with very long arms and soft hands. He is a tad mechanical around the basket, but that should improve with coaching.

Carlos Lopez, PF, UNLV: Lopez could be the most versatile big man heading into the conference. His face-up skills are potent and he has the athleticism to take a defender off the dribble or shoot the midrange jump shot at the elbow.


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A quick look around the league

Mountain West
Air ForceAir Force
The Falcons were winless in the conference last season and a quick glance at the stats explains why: Air Force was last in scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding, rebounding margin and free throw shooting. Won't win many games with those numbers. And now the Falcons have to move forward without their three leading scorers and without the promising Trevor Noonan, who transferred to Denver.

BYUBYU
Losing Lee Cummard hurts but the Cougars still return four starters, including Jonathan Tavernari and Jimmer Fredette. BYU should be the class of this league once more. The challenge this season: Can the Cougars last beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament? Or better yet, can they draw anyone but Texas A&M this season?

Colorado StateColorado State
The Rams won just four conference games last season, which may not seem like a lot. But consider that Colorado State was winless in the Mountain West the year before and that those four wins are the second most in the past six seasons at CSU. So things are improving. Coach Tim Miles adds a deep freshman class of four -- led by big man Trevor Williams -- that should help the Rams continue to build for the long haul.

New MexicoNew Mexico
Steve Alford's task is to find a way to replace 3,200 career points, the amount that Tony Danridge, Chad Toppert and Daniel Faris accounted for. So it's safe to say this is something of a rebuilding year for New Mexico. Alford has talent coming in with a strong recruiting class, but this will be a very young team.

SDSUSan Diego State
The Aztecs lose five seniors from their record-setting 26-win team, but welcome a recruiting class ranked the best among non-BCS schools and 15th overall in the country. Along with freshmen Kawhi Leonard and Eric Lawton, Steve Fisher brings in 6-11 Brian Carlwell from Illinois, as well as a pair of former high school and Pepperdine teammates, Tyrone Shelley and Malcolm Thomas.

TCUTCU
The growing pains have been as much for Jim Christian as anyone. Accustomed to winning -- he rolled off six consecutive 20-win seasons at Kent State -- the coach is anxious to right things for the Horned Frogs. He's on his way, with a class full of talented juco players. But it is the growth of players like Ronnie Moss, a guard who averaged 17.3 points over the final three games of his freshman season, that really bodes well for TCU's improvement.

UNLVUNLV
Without Wink Adams, the Runnin' Rebels will turn their team over to a new crew. The most promising candidates for leadership come in the backcourt, where Memphis transfer Tre'Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield combined for more than 100 assists. But Lon Kruger's team isn't going to have a lot of time for growing pains with a hefty nonconference schedule that includes games against Louisville, Kansas State, Arizona and Southern Illinois.

UtahUtah
The Utes will have to replace their top four scorers from a team that won the MWC tourney title and earned a 5-seed to last season's NCAA tournament. That means juco additions Jay Watkins and Matt Read will have to contribute in a hurry, especially considering Utah has a nonconference schedule that includes Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, Weber State, Illinois and Utah State.

WyomingWyoming
The simple question for the Cowboys: Can the new faces replace the old? Someone needs to take over for three-time Mountain West scoring champion Brandon Ewing, in both scoring and leadership. There are plenty of candidates as Wyoming adds a host of new faces: JayDee Luster, a transfer from New Mexico State; Boubacar Sylla, a 7-2 addition from Auburn; and Thomas Manzano, a juco transfer from Garden City (Kan.) CC.

2008-09 Mountain West standings

MWC record Overall record
Utah* 12-4 24-10
BYU* 12-4 25-8
New Mexico^ 12-4 22-12
San Diego State^ 11-5 26-10
UNLV^ 9-7 21-11
Wyoming% 7-9 19-14
TCU 5-11 14-17
Colorado State 4-12 9-22
Air Force 0-16 10-21
* NCAA tournament
^ NIT appearance
% CBI appearance

For all the Mountain West news and notes, check out the conference page.

2009-10 predictions

By Doug Gottlieb
ESPN

It's never too early for predictions. Doug Gottlieb offers up his thoughts on the upcoming season in the Mountain West:

1. BYU: Jonathan Tavernari and Jimmer Fredette are both back and Dave Rose has new studs Tyler Haws at a wing and Brandon Davies inside. BYU has never finished lower than second since Rose took over. Things should not change in 2010.

2. San Diego State: It may take awhile for all the transfers and newcomers to mesh, but there is some serious talent here. Tim Shelton and D.J. Gay return and an amazing recruiting class arrives. Kawhi Leonard is a big-time talent.

3. UNLV: Tre'Von Willis had a very solid first season after transferring in from Memphis. If new transfers Derrick Jasper (Kentucky) and Chace Stanback (UCLA) can be equally effective, the notion of UNLV as a "bounce back" recruiting school will explode. Keep an eye on frosh Justin Hawkins to play big minutes right away. Matt Shaw coming back off knee surgery is important, too.

4. New Mexico: Roman Martinez and A.J. Hardeman are left from a solid 22-win team that nearly snuck into the Dance. And Dairese Gary and Phillip McDonald should have huge seasons with Tony Danridge, Chad Toppert and Daniel Faris all gone to graduation.

5. Utah: Carlon Brown and Luka Drca are the only key contributors returning as the Utes must replace their four leading scorers: Luke Nevill, Lawrebce Borha, Shaun Green and Tyler Kepkay. Ouch. But they do get David Foster back from his Mormon mission, which will at least make them competitive.

6. Wyoming: Brandon Ewing and Sean Ogirri are both gone, but the Cowboys get JayDee Luster at point guard after he transferred from New Mexico State and sat out a year, as well as Boubacar Sylla, a transfer from Auburn. MWC Freshman of the Year Afam Muojeke, their style of play and the home-court advantage in Laramie should make the Cowboys a legit sleeper.

7. TCU: Zvonko Buljan, Ronnie Moss and Edvinas Ruzgas all return to a team that was better than expected last seasoan under first-year head coach Jim Christian. Despite the loss of Kevin Langford, the Frogs should continue to build on a stable foundation.

8. Colorado State: Marcus Walker (17.1 ppg) is a huge loss, but CSU should be improved again. Watch out for Andy Ogide, Andre McFarland and Jesse Carr if he can return from injury.

9. Air Force: Joe Scott built a great program in Colorado Springs. Three coaches later, the Academy has returned to its traditional spot at the bottom of the conference. Sammy Schafer and Grant Parker are good, solid players but symbolic of a roster that is deep, but nothing more than average. At least on the court.

10 nonconference games we can't wait to see

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN

Bradley at BYU, Nov. 13: This one should be entertaining -- a nice example of why the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge is a good idea. The Cougars like to shoot and so do the Braves. Bradley returns a veteran crew from a team that went to the CollegeInsider.com finals a year ago.

Utah State at Utah, Nov. 18: Can this year's version be as exciting as the 2008 classic? Doubt it. A tip-in by USU's Tai Wesley with less than a second left will be tough to top, but this intrastate rivalry will continue to entertain as the Utes reload and the Aggies return much of their core.

Louisville at UNLV, Nov. 28: The rematch of last year's Runnin' Rebels upset at Freedom Hall, where Oscar Bellfield's layup over Samardo Samuels sealed the victory. Both teams have holes to fill, but plenty of talent remains. Think Rick Pitino will get razzed a little by the Vegas student section?

California at New Mexico, Dec. 2: The Bears will be among the Pac-10 elite and perhaps a handful for the young Lobos. But both teams are trying to identify an inside presence, which could even things out. And there's nothing in the Pac-10 quite like The Pit.

Arizona State at BYU, Dec. 8: Cougars fans have been waiting an entire year for this one. ASU won in controversial fashion last December when a buzzer shot by BYU's Charles Abouo was first ruled a game winner and then was overturned on replay. The James Harden-less Sun Devils can expect an even more hostile crowd than usual at the Marriott Center in Provo.

Michigan at Utah, Dec. 9: The Wolverines should be a top-20 squad but the game against the Utes will be a good barometer. Both teams are well-disciplined and Utah's stingy defense coupled with Michigan's offensive growing pains could make every point count. By the way, things don't get any easier for the Utes after this one. Oklahoma comes to town three days later.

UNLV vs. Kansas State, Dec. 12: Lon Kruger coaches against his old program at the Orleans Arena in Vegas. The Wildcats have a well-regarded recruiting class mixed with a good crop of veterans. Could be an interesting backcourt matchup, with K-State's Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen matching wits against Tre'Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield.

Wyoming at Tennessee, Dec. 15: The Vols are loaded thanks to the return of basically the entire team, led by Tyler Smith. For a Cowboys team trying to legitimize itself, this will be a big road game to see where it stacks up.

Arizona at San Diego State, Dec. 19: The Aztecs are trying to build on the momentum they generated with a run to the NIT semis at MSG. But these are the kind of games that make the difference between an NCAA and NIT bid (SDSU lost at Tucson by 13 last season). Arizona might take a slight drop this season, but has a super-talented group of newcomers and will be no pushover.

Dayton at New Mexico, Jan. 1: The Flyers should be the class of the Atlantic 10 and Chris Wright is a legit NBA prospect. But traveling to Albuquerque and playing in the high altitude will be a real test for Dayton.

Final shots

• If you can't get enough of rankings, check out Andy Katz's Top 25 and Dick Vitale's Top 40.

• Many felt the Mountain West deserved more than one at-large bid to last season's NCAA tournament. What is Joe Lunardi projecting for 2009-10? Bracketology

• Which early-season events are Mountain West teams taking part in? We have a list of the tournaments that will be scattered around the first two months of the college basketball calendar. Schedule