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Brian Mull | | November 6, 2015

College basketball: 5 Mountain West questions to be answered this season

San Diego State returns forward Winston Shepard.

Last season, baskets were hard to come by in the Mountain West. Five teams held conference opponents below one point per possession, and the overall offensive efficiency in conference games ranked 25th (out of 32).

San Diego State deserves part of the credit. The Aztecs again had one of the nation’s stingiest defenses (4th in adjusted efficiency). Coach Steve Fisher returns long, athletic stopper Winston Shepard and two other starters from a 27-win team that shared the regular season crown. Scoring against the Aztecs should remain difficult. They are the overwhelming favorite and should reach the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive year.

In general, the offensive sluggishness reflected a slight downturn for the Mountain West, which put five teams in the 2013 NCAA tournament but has seen that number fall to two and three the last two years. The Aztecs earned the highest seed of any MWC team, an 8, and lost to national champion Duke in the Round of 32.

After peaking at No. 5 (of 32) in the 2013 conference ratings, the Mountain West slipped to No. 12 last season.

With an influx of talented newcomers and key veterans returning, however, expect an upswing in 2015-16. Ponder these five questions as it unfolds.

What’s the status of Boise State guard Anthony Drmic?

The smooth 6-6 Australian is healthy and was granted a medical redshirt season after an ankle injury ended his 2014-15 after seven games. Even without Drmic, who has scored 1,528 points in three-plus seasons, the Broncos compiled a 14-4 record a year ago and shared the MWC regular season title with San Diego State. He can ease back into form, if necessary, because 2014-15 Newcomer of the Year James Webb III, a 6-9, 202-pound forward is versatile and productive. He averaged 11.2 points per game, made the All-Defensive team and shot 40 percent behind-the-arc. Adequately replacing point guard Derrick Marks is pivotal for Boise State.

Can Fresno State make a jump and become a contender?

The Bulldogs are trending in a positive direction under coach Rodney Terry, the former longtime Texas assistant who started a serious rebuilding project five years ago. They’ve increased their conference win total in each of three seasons as a Mountain West member, finishing sixth at 10-8 in 2014-15. It’s hard not to like a team with veteran guards, and the Bulldogs meet that criteria, returning three double figure scorers in the backcourt. Mountain West preseason Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, who averaged 16.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, and 3.8 apg last season, leads that group. He scored 40 of the team’s 69 points in a win over Nevada in January. The Bulldogs like to pressure teams and created turnovers on one-fifth of opponent’s possessions last season, best in the MWC.

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Who are the newcomers to know?

UNLV, looking to bounce back from an 18-15 overall, 8-10 MWC season, adds two talented freshmen: McDonald’s All-American center Stephen Zimmerman, and forward  Derrick Jones. Transfers Jerome Seagears (Rutgers) and Ben Carter (Oregon) should also bolster the Rebels’ rotation. New Mexico welcomes Tim Williams, who averaged 17.6 points and hit 60 percent of his shots in 2013-14 at Samford along with Elijah Brown, who played one season at Butler. Boise State freshman Paris Austin is a 5-11 point guard who teamed with Ivan Rabb (California) to lead Bishop O’Dowd to a state championship in California.     

Are the Lobos bound to rebound?

Losing seasons are rare as UFO sightings in New Mexico. Prior to going 15-17 last season, the Lobos had reached three consecutive NCAA tournaments and strung together seven seasons of 22-plus victories since their last losing one. But fate turned against second-year coach Craig Neal once his son - and perimeter weapon - Cullen Neal suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the third game. New Mexico ranked 247th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency as it committed turnovers on one-fifth of its possessions and shot 30.8 percent on 3-pointers (307th). Neal’s return should help the Lobos score more than 62.0 points per game. The 6-5 redshirt sophomore shot 35.9 percent on 3s as a freshman and was 8 of 16 with 51 points last season before his injury.

How will Utah State look in its first season without coach Stew Morrill?

While it won’t feel the same in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum without Morrill roaming the sidelines, the veteran Aggies coach left his longtime assistant Tim Duryea a loaded deck entering the program’s third year in the league. All five starters return for Utah State, which was 18-13 overall and 11-7 in the Mountain West. Jalen Moore is an explosive 6-8 wing (15.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Chris Smith can fill it up from deep (47.4 percent on 3-pointers). If the Aggies can protect the glass better (300th or worse in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage), they could vie for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.   

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