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Sorting Mountain West basketball teams into tiers for 2019-20 season

Jazz Johnson
Jazz Johnson and the Wolf Pack could win the Mountain West title if all breaks right. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

I put out my first Mountain West basketball rankings of the offseason last week (you can read that here), and one of the things I noticed is how flexible the middle of the rankings were. For example, I could have ranked Nevada anywhere from second to sixth and been comfortable with it. You could justify slotting the Wolf Pack in any of those positions. So it might be more appropriate (or accurate) to sort the Mountain West teams into tiers rather than rigid rankings. Let's do that here.

Tier I (the favorite)

* Utah State: The Aggies are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference with star power (Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta), returning experience (Diogo Brito, Brock Miller) and a quality head coach (Craig Smith). Nevada showed us last season you can never give a team a league title before the season starts, but Utah State belongs in its own tier after returning the top four scorers from last season's two-time MW winner and NCAA Tournament team.

Tier 2 (title contenders)

* San Diego State: The Aztecs have finished fourth or better in the MW all but one season since 2005-06, so SDSU has nearly a decade-and-a-half proof it is an upper-tier team. This year's version of the Aztecs lost three of their top four scorers, so there's a minor rebuild going on. SDSU will be heavy on transfers (namely Washington State's Malachi Flynn, Santa Clara's KJ Feagin and Vanderbilt's Yanni Wetzell), but the talent is there to warrant a spot in tier two.

* Nevada: The Wolf Pack's margin for error is thin considering its lack of depth, especially in the frontcourt, but it does have perhaps the best four-player core in the conference with Jalen Harris, Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew and Eric Parrish. Scoring should not be an issue, but defense and rebounding could be. The team also has to adjust to a new coach (Steve Alford). If this team can defend, it can end up at the top of tier two by the conclusion of the season.

* Boise State: The Broncos had finished in the top three of the MW for four consecutive seasons prior to last year when they went 7-11 in conference play to finish tied for seventh. Boise State returns its top four scorers (Justinian Jessup, Derrick Alston, Alex Hobbs, Roderick Williams) and will add former four-star recruit Abu Kigab, an Oregon transfer, before MW play begins. The Broncos should return to the second tier after getting lots of bad breaks last season.

* New Mexico: Talent is not a problem here. Add JaQuan Lyle (formerly of Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (formerly of Kansas), Vance Jackson (formerly of UConn), Zane Martin (formerly of Townson) and Vanté Hendrix (formerly of Utah) to proven players like Makuach Maluach, Corey Manigault and Keith McGee, and the Lobos are deep, long and athletic. New Mexico could use a pass-first point guard to keep everybody happy (Lindsey Drew would be perfect here).

Tier 3 (looking for a first-round bye)

* Air Force: Many would have the Falcons in tier two thanks to the team returning its top five scorers from a team that finished 8-10 (sixth) in the MW last season. It's just hard for me to put them in the same class as San Diego State, Nevada and New Mexico from an athleticism standpoint, which limits Air Force's ceiling for me. The Falcons haven't finished in the top five of the MW since 2007-08 and hasn't been above-.500 in league play since 2006-07, but both are in play this season.

* UNLV: T.J. Otzelberger's rebuild is not as massive as the one Marvin Menzies had to overtake, but he also doesn't have a roster that indicates he'll be able to fulfill the "win now" mandate he has been handed. UNLV doesn't have the proven stars or depth to make it into tier 2 for me, although the team has capable players in Amauri Hardy, Cheikh Mbacke Diong, Nick Blair, Bryce Hamilton and Elijah Mitrou-Long.

* Fresno State: The Bulldogs were a tier two team last season under first-year coach Justin Hutson but enters this season a notch below after losing two of the top 10 players in the league in Braxton Huggins and Deshon Taylor. Hutson is an excellent defensive coach, so Fresno State's defense should be solid but the big question is who is going to replace the 36.4 points per contest Huggins and Taylor combined for last season.

* Colorado State: The Rams could have moved up a tier if Anthony Masinton-Bonner didn't transfer to Missouri State and Deion James didn't transfer to Washington State. Colorado State did retain Nico Carvacho, one of just three players on the All-MW first or second team to return to the conference. The Rams also have a decent guard rotation of Kris Martin, Kendle Moore, Adam Thistlewood and Hyron Edwards.

Tier 4 (Trying to stay out of last)

Wyoming: The Cowboys are really young, so I don't see them moving up a tier after last season's 4-14 performance in conference play (Wyoming also lost second-round draft pick Justin James). I actually considered dropping Wyoming into the tier below this, but I'll keep the Cowboys above San Jose State because the Spartans are simply on another level of ineptitude.

Tier 5 (Why are they in the conference?)

San Jose State: The Spartans are 14-94 in MW play during its six seasons in the conference, although seven of those wins came in 2016-17 when Brandon Clarke, a first-round pick in this year's NBA draft, was a sophomore. Take away that season and SJSU is 7-83 in MW play, a winning percentage of .078 percent. I don't anticipate much better from this roster.

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