The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
Here’s our look at the Mountain West.
Last year, for the third straight season, San Diego State finished atop the Mountain West conference and, for the third straight season, the Aztecs lost in the championship game of the conference tournament.
Fresno State — a team that followed up a sub-.500 season in 2015 with a 25-win campaign last year — took home the crown and a ticket to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs would fall to No. 3 seed Utah in the first round of the tournament, but once again the Mountain West proved that no one is safe at the top.
Elijah Brown transferred to New Mexico in 2014 from Butler and, due to NCAA transfer rules, was forced to sit out a season before donning the Lobos jersey. But last year, the redshirt sophomore was eligible, and boy did he make the most out of his opportunity.
Brown averaged 21.7 points (most in the Mountain West), 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game last season, enough to make him a unanimous selection to the All-Mountain West First Team and the choice as the MW Newcomer of the Year in his first season for the Lobos.
New Mexico will need a similar output from the 6-4, 200-pound guard this season. The Lobos definitely improved last year, but New Mexico hasn’t had a 20-win season since 2013-14 — the last year they qualified for a postseason tournament.
This year, Brown has already been named the MW Preseason Player of the Year and picked as one of 20 players on the preseason watch list for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award. If the can post numbers like he did in his rookie campaign in the conference, those preseason accolades might seem prescient.
Sure, there are reasons to be hesitant in picking San Diego State to capture the Mountain West crown this season (the Aztecs inability to finish a championship run, for one), but those pale in comparison to San Diego State’s upside.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Aztecs are the preseason favorite to finish the regular season in first place. The past three times they earned that honor, they proved the fortune tellers of the conference right and finished with at least a share of the regular season title. This season should be no different.
San Diego State had three players honored on the preseason award list — more than any other Mountain West squad. Trey Kell, who started all 38 games last year while averaging 12.6 points, 3.7 boards and 1.4 assists, was named to preseason All-MW Team. The junior guard tallied 71 three-pointers last season at 38.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, both of which were the best on the team. Jalen McDaniels, a 6-9, 190-pound freshman, was named the Preseason Co-Freshman of the Year. The only other player to earn that award for San Diego State? Kawhi Leonard. That’s good company to keep.
The final key addition to an Aztec team that returns three starters is Montaque Gill-Caesar, a sophomore transfer from Missouri, was named the Preseason Newcomer of the Year.
So what happens when you take the best team in a conference and give them some of the best new players? With San Diego State this season, we’re about to find out.
It seems counterintuitive to pick the defending conference champs as a sleeper team, but that’s exactly what Fresno State is.
The Bulldogs increased their conference win total for the fourth straight season last year — making them one of only eight schools nationwide to accomplish that feat — but were still selected to finish fourth in the preseason Mountain West coaches’ poll this year.
Add to Edo a handful of more veterans and two Division I transfers in all-around guard Jaron Hopkins (Colorado) and deep threat guard Deshon Taylor (UMKC), and the Bulldogs should be able to continue their upward swing — potentially towards another Mountain West title.
Freshman to Watch:
Last season was somewhat of a middle-of-the-road campaign for Utah State. The Aggies went 16-15 (7-11, Mountain West), making it three straight years that the program has failed to tally 20 wins in a season.
Koby McEwen looks to change that. The 6-4, 195-pound guard has an impressive ability to finish at the rim, a capable outside shot and exceptional court vision. He’ll join a team where 10 of its 15 players are underclassmen, including seven freshmen. If any squad in the Mountain West needs a young star to have a breakout year, it’s Utah State. Look for McEwen to be that star.
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