LWOS continues its conference previews with the 2020-21 Mountain West Basketball Preview. This league is arguably the best mid-major league in the country. It routinely gets multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. However, last season, it may have even had a number one seed. San Diego State made it deep into the season before taking their first loss. They were led by Malachi Flynn, a first-team All-American at the end of the season. Unfortunately, COVID-19 ended any National Title dreams the Aztecs had, and Flynn is off to the NBA. Still, SDSU appears to be the frontrunner for 2020-21. The Mountain West as a whole is also deep enough to produce multiple March Madness bids once again.
2020-21 Mountain West Basketball Preview
11. Air Force Falcons
Key Returners: A.J. Walker, Chris Joyce
Key Losses: Lavelle Scottie, Ryan Swan-Ford, Caleb Morris
Key Newcomers: None
Air Force has found success to be hard to come by during their time in the Mountain West. The Falcons have just one conference title and NCAA appearance as a member. There is nothing here to indicate that will change this season. However, the program finds a way to get playmakers now and then, and Walker appears to be that guy for the upcoming year. Air Force players will fight in every game, as is typical of the service academy programs. However, they will mostly be fighting to avoid a last-place finish.
10. San Jose State Spartans
Key Returners: Seneca Knight, Richard Washington, Ralph Agee
Key Losses: Brae Ivey, Craig LeCesne, Christian Anigwe
Key Newcomers: Jalen Dalcourt (JUCO), Michael Ofoegbu Jr., Nate Lacewell
San Jose State is a tale of two courts. There is experience in the backcourt, while the frontcourt is very young. The best reason for optimism at the guard position is Knight. He is an all-around playmaker for the Spartans and has the kind of talent that can land him on the first-team. He will make a lot of plays for this team to keep them competitive. However, the amount of playing time that will be expected of freshmen cannot be overlooked. A finish towards the bottom of the league is likely once again.
9. New Mexico Lobos
Key Returners: Makuach Maluach
Key Losses: JaQuan Lyle, Carlton Bragg Jr., Corey Manigault
Key Newcomers: Rodgerick Brown (JUCO), Javonte Johnson, Jeremiah Francis (North Carolina)
New Mexico comes into 2020-21 having lost quite a bit from the prior season. That may not be a bad thing, though. Many of the Lobos key players found themselves in trouble off the court, causing many disruptions on the way to a disappointing 2019-20 campaign. There is a lot of youth here that will be expected to contribute along with the junior college transfers. However, this will be a rebuilding year, which is not something Lobo fans are accustomed to. Patience may be wearing thin in Albuquerque.
8. Fresno State Bulldogs
Key Returners: Orlando Robinson
Key Losses: New Williams, Nate Grimes, Noah Blackwell
Key Newcomers: Devin Gage (DePaul), Kyle Harding (JUCO), Leonardo Colimerio
Fresno State saw a lot of talent walk out the door in the offseason between graduation and transfers. That leaves a lot on the shoulders of Robinson, who was an honorable mention for all-conference as a freshman. Transfers Gage and Harding are the only two upperclassmen on the roster. The Bulldogs are in the midst of another year geared towards development. However, the future appears bright for the program if things go according to plan.
7. Wyoming Cowboys
Key Returners: Hunter Maldonado, Kwane Marble II, Hunter Thompson
Key Losses: Jake Hendricks
Key Newcomers: Drake Jeffries (JUCO), Jeremiah Oden, Drew LaMont (JUCO)
Wyoming is still a fairly young team heading into the 2020-21 season. The Cowboys ended up bringing in the best recruiting class in the league, meaning the future is bright. As it is, the team showed improvement towards the end of last season, ripping off a few surprise wins in the Mountain West Tournament. A lot will still fall on the shoulders of Maldonado, but he should get some more support. Expect Wyoming to be one of the most improved teams in the conference this season.
6. Nevada Wolf Pack
Key Returners: Zane Meeks, Robby Robinson
Key Losses: Jalen Harris, Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew
Key Newcomers: Warren Washington (Oregon State), Desmond Cambridge (Brown), Grant Sherfield (Wichita State)
Nevada got taken by surprise when Jalen Harris decided to stay in the NBA Draft. That sets the Wolf Pack a little further behind than expected heading into 2020-21. That gap looks to be filled somewhat with the incoming transfers of Washington and Cambridge. However, there is still a lot to figure out in terms of the roles players will have heading into this season. Nevada will more than likely take a step back this season, but they should not stay down for long due to coaching and the talent that is there.
5. Colorado State Rams
Key Returners: Isaiah Stevens, David Roddy, Adam Thistlewood
Key Losses: Nico Carvacho, Kris Martin
Key Newcomers: Ignas Sargiunas (Georgia)
Colorado State does not have a single senior on the roster entering this season. In the Rams’ case, though, that youth was really important, helping them achieve a fifth-place finish last season. The young core will take on a little more responsibility with the loss of Carvacho. However, they should be up for the task. Colorado State is a sleeper pick in this league and has what it takes to potentially sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
4. Utah State Aggies
Key Returners: Neemias Queta, Justin Bean, Alphonso Anderson
Key Losses: Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito, Abel Porter
Key Newcomers: Marco Anthony (Virginia), Steven Ashworth, Rollie Worster
Utah State will have to learn to live without Sam Merrill. The generational guard graduated, but his lasting memory will be his game-winning three-pointer to win the Mountain West Tournament last season. His loss leaves the backcourt in flux and lacking experience, especially with Porter transferring. This team’s strength becomes the frontcourt with Queta, Bean, and Anderson. Utah State still has what it takes to compete for a title and an NCAA berth. However, there will be an adjustment period for those having to step into new roles.
3. UNLV Rebels
Key Returners: Bryce Hamilton, Cheikh Mbacke Diong, Marvin Coleman
Key Losses: Amauri Hardy, Elijah Mitrou-Long, Donnie Tillman
Key Newcomers: David Jenkins Jr. (South Dakota State), Moses Wood (Tulane), Caleb Grill (Iowa State), Jhaylon Martinez
UNLV exceeded expectations in T.J. Otzelberger’s first season. The bar will be raised even higher for 2020-21. It all starts with standout guard Bryce Hamilton. He averaged 16 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, earning first-team recognition. He will be joined in the backcourt by Jenkins, who followed Otzelberger from South Dakota State and sat out last season. The Rebels gained a lot of experience last season on their way to a second-place finish. There still is not enough there to think the Rebels can overcome the teams at the top, but they could be a potential NCAA bubble team.
2. Boise State Broncos
Key Returners: Derrick Alston, Abu Kigab
Key Losses: Justinian Jessup, Roderick Williams, Alex Hobbs
Key Newcomers: Emmanuel Akot (Arizona), Mladen Armus (East Tennessee State), Marcus Shaver (Portland)
Bronco fans breathed a sigh of relief when Derrick Alston decided to remove his name from the NBA Draft. He is one of the preseason favorites for Player of the Year and is the catalyst for Boise State. Alston will be joined by Arizona transfer Akot to form a dangerous backcourt. Meanwhile, Kigab holds his own in the paint. The Broncos have the pieces to get themselves back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons. However, they have their sights set on a Mountain West title first.
1. San Diego State Aztecs
Key Returners: Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Nathan Mensah
Key Losses: Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell, K.J. Feagin
Key Newcomers: Terrell Gomez (Cal State Northridge), Joshua Tomaic (Maryland), Che Evans
Aztec fans most likely spent all offseason wondering what could have been. San Diego State was one of the best teams in the country, finishing at 30-2 and making it to late February before suffering their first loss. However, it is time to put last season behind them. Flynn, who garnered every award you could imagine, is gone, as are key players Wetzell and Feagin. Still, there are plenty of important returns as well, most notably Matt Mitchell. San Diego State also nabbed prized transfer Gomez. While the Aztecs will most likely not repeat what they did last season, they will still be dangerous and have the makings of an NCAA Tournament team.
2020-21 Mountain West Basketball Preview Award Projections
Player of the Year: Derrick Alston Jr., Boise State
Alston’s decision to return to school puts him at the forefront of the player of the year race. He averaged 17.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.1 assists last season while being named to the league’s second-team. He would have been a first-teamer in most leagues, but the talent pool is always deep here. Alston should lead the Broncos back to the NCAAs and take this honor home along the way.
Defensive Player of the Year: Neemias Queta, Utah State
Queta is as dominant as it gets when it comes to post players. He is the kind of guy that deters players from driving into the paint due to his shot-blocking abilities. He averaged 1.7 blocks per game last season on his way to winning this award. There is nothing that indicates that he won’t be coming home with it again in 2020-21.
Freshman of the Year: Jhaylon Martinez, UNLV
UNLV held off a few other Mountain West rivals to bring in a prized recruit in Martinez. He is a three-star prospect from Arizona and was rated as a top 50 center by 247 Sports. Martinez should be one of the first options off the bench for UNLV, and his talent should adapt fairly well. He is one of the big reasons why the future of this program is so bright, but for now his expected role this season should give him plenty of opportunities to win this honor.
Newcomer of the Year: Terrell Gomez, San Diego State
Gomez was sought after by many power programs when he announced he was leaving Cal State Northridge. As a Matador last season, he was a first-team All-Big West selection after averaging 19.8 points and 2.3 assists per game. He also has a lethal three-ball, shooting 44 percent from long-range a season ago. He will start for the Aztecs and be a big reason why they will be dangerous once again.
Sixth-Man of the Year: Zane Meeks, Nevada
Meeks’ projection here assumes that he does not earn a starting role for the Wolf Pack. He was a solid bench player last season, averaging 6.4 points and 3.7 rebounds over 16.6 minutes per game. Meeks will take more responsibility as a sophomore, and his continued development should see those numbers increase. That kind of improvement will help Nevada compete this upcoming season.
Coach of the Year: Brian Dutcher, San Diego State
This may seem like a safe pick, but Dutcher has the inside track to repeating this honor with the team he has returning. It can be difficult to help keep a team focused after having the type of season the Aztecs did last year. However, Dutcher is up for the task and has put together another roster that will earn the respect of the league and the nation.
All-Conference First-Team Projection: Bryce Hamilton (UNLV), Derrick Alston Jr. (Boise State), Terrell Gomez (San Diego State), Matt Mitchell (San Diego State), Neemias Queta (Utah State)