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Mountain West basketball: Preseason rankings for the 2019-20 season

Sam Merrill
Sam Merrill and the Utah State Aggies will be favored to win the Mountain West this season. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

While each Mountain West basketball roster hasn’t been finalized just yet – Nevada, for example, has two open scholarships – the majority of the pieces are in place. The puzzles have been filled in enough I feel comfortable releasing my preseason rankings. So here they are, a look at the MW teams from top to bottom for the 2019-20 season.

1. Utah State

Last season: 28-7, 15-3 MW

In short: Utah State should be a unanimous pick to win the conference in the preseason poll. The Aggies shared the regular-season title with Nevada last year before winning the MW Tournament. And it returns the MW player of the year, Sam Merrill, and MW freshman of the year, Neemias Queta, who tested the draft waters before returning to school. Add Diogo Brito and Brock Miller and the Aggies return their top four scorers from last year’s 28-win team while adding impact JuCo Alphonso Anderson. Utah State could land in the preseason Top 25 and will play with a target on its back, unlike last year.

2. San Diego State

Last season: 21-13, 11-7

In short: I’m not sure about SDSU being this high, but the talent is always there. The Aztecs lost their top two scorers, including second-round pick Jalen McDaniels. Also gone is four-year stalwart Jeremy Hemsley, so it’s a new cast of characters. But Matt Mitchell returns and Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn and Santa Clara transfer KJ Feagin beef up the backcourt. Big man Yanni Wetzell, a grad transfer from Vanderbilt, also is added to the roster. SDSU has left some meat on the bone during the regular season in Brian Dutcher’s first two years as head coach. Will it do so again this season?

3. Nevada

Last season: 29-5, 15-3

In short: Nevada is the most intriguing team in the league. After winning three straight MW regular-season titles, which is tied for the most in conference history, the Wolf Pack enters this season as underdogs after losing its head coach and the entire starting five. Nevada has high-level talent in Jalen Harris, Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew and Eric Parrish and an elite backcourt, so it’s going to be a solid team. But can it win a conference championship with razor-thin depth and question marks in the frontcourt? It will require a great performance by first-year coach Steve Alford to accomplish that.

4. Boise State

Last season: 13-20, 7-11

In short: Leon Rice’s squad had a rare bad season last year, partially driven by luck (it was the unluckiest team in the nation, per KenPom). Boise State failed to win 20 games last year for the first time since 2011-12, its first season in the MW, but it should return to the 20-win standard in 2019-20. The team’s top four scorers are back (Justinian Jessup, Derrick Alston, Alex Hobbs, Roderick Williams) and Oregon transfer Abu Kigab becomes eligible midseason. Boise State’s ceiling hinges on Alston, a potential 2020 NBA draft pick who must take the next step in his development for Boise State to compete for a title.

5. New Mexico

Last season: 14-18, 7-11

In short: New Mexico worked to get Anthony Mathis a fifth year of eligibility and then he left the program for Oregon. So the Lobos lost their leading scorer, but talent shouldn’t be an issue. New Mexico’s list of one-time transfers includes JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (Kansas), Vance Jackson (UConn), Zane Martin (Townson) and Vanté Hendrix (Utah, eligible in December). The Lobos also return three players who averaged at least nine points per game last year (Makuach Maluach, Corey Manigault, Keith McGee) and add four-star recruit Antwan January. This is probably the MW’s most talented team. The Lobos couldn’t blend their talent last year. Will it be able to do so this season?

6. Air Force

Last season: 14-18, 8-10

In short: Air Force is the lone MW team to return its top five scorers (it also brings back scorers No. 7 and 8). So, the team cohesion will certainly be there. Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan-Ford are potential all-conference players and A.J. Walker was impressive as a freshman last season. Many preseason projections will have the Falcons higher than this, but I question the team’s ceiling. Air Force was 1-9 in Quad 1 or 2 games last season and 4-13 in Quad 1, 2 or 3 games. The Falcons will certainly be a tough team to beat, but will it truly be a top-five team in the MW, something it hasn’t done since 2007-08?

7. UNLV

Last season: 17-14, 11-7

In short: New coach T.J. Otzelberger inherited a tough situation with nearly an entire team in the transfer portal. He was able to fish some of them out in Amauri Hardy, Cheikh Mbacke Diong, Nick Blair and Bryce Hamilton. Grad transfers Elijah Mitrou-Long (Texas) and Vitaliy Shibel (Arizona State) have been added, but UNLV will not have the talent edge it typically has over MW foes. The Rebels do have good balance, with solid players in the backcourt, frontcourt and on the wing. But the overall depth is an issue and Hardy might be the only all-conference-caliber player on the active roster.

8. Fresno State

Last season: 23-9, 13-5

In short: Justin Hutson inherited a great situation last season when he took over a team with NCAA Tournament talent. That’s not the case this year as Braxton Huggins and Deshon Taylor, who combined for 36.4 ppg last season, have graduated. The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Noah Blackwell and New Williams will form a solid backcourt and Nate Grimes is one of the most proven big men in the league. Utah transfer Chris Seeley is eligible and Oregon State transfer Jordan Campbell can play at the semester break. Hutson’s coaching ability will be tested with this group, which is solid but lacks star power.

9. Colorado State

Last season: 12-20, 7-11

In short: Colorado State lost J.D. Paige to graduation and Anthony Masinton-Bonner and Deion James to transfers, so three of the four most talented players on last year’s team are gone. The lone returner in that quartet is double-double machine Nico Carvacho, who appears to be short on help again this season. Kris Martin, Kendle Moore, Adam Thistlewood and Hyron Edwards are all solid and experienced guards surrounding Carvach, so the Rams could overachieve this ranking, but I’m less bullish with the departures of Bonner and James. First and foremost, Colorado State has to get a lot better defensively.

10. Wyoming

Last season: 8-24, 4-14

In short: Wyoming just had the worst season in program history and lost an NBA draft pick off the roster (Justin James). So, yeah, I’m not super high on the Cowboys, who do return their second, third and fourth top scorers from last season in Hunter Maldonado, Jake Hendricks and Hunter Thompson. Trace Young was lost to transfer, but there’s decent young talent. Of the 14 players listed on the roster, 11 are sophomores or freshmen, which usually isn’t a recipe for success. I’d expect another long season in Laramie as the Cowboys learn how to play without James, who had a 35.6 percent usage rate last year.

11. San Jose State

Last season: 4-27, 1-17

In short: SJSU has finished in last place in five of its six seasons in the MW, so it’s a fair bet the Spartans retain this spot. SJSU’s top two scorers– Michael Steadman and Noah Baumann – transferred to Montana and USC, respectively, repeating a theme of SJSU losing the few players it has developed into standouts (Brandon Clarke went to Gonzaga, Ryan Welage to Xavier and Keith Fisher III and Jaycee Hillsman to Illinois State all in the last three years). Brae Ivey, Seneca Knight, Craig LeCesne and Zach Chappell all averaged between 5.3 and 9.2 pgg last season and will form the nucleus of the team.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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