|UNLV's Mike Moser is a giant in the Mountain West. (cfbsection.com)|
Conference Champion: UNLV
The Mountain West is top-heavy, as witnessed in the spring when four of its eight teams made NCAA tourney trips. With the conference realignment fray focused intently on football, the MWC remained relatively unscathed (well, aside from losing gridiron flagship TCU to the Big 12) and actually added two solid basketball schools in Fresno State and Nevada.
The Runnin' Rebels are a perennial entrant to the NCAA tournament, but this season may provide their best shot at snagging a conference championship and making postseason noise that has been absent in their recent forays. Head coach Dave Rice has put together a team that includes transfers from Pitt, USC and — pending a successful appeal — Connecticut. That's in addition to forward Mike Moser's second year in the program after transferring across state lines from UCLA and averaging a 14-point, 10.5-rebound double-double for the Rebs last season. Oh, and a Top 30 recruiting class according to Rivals.
There's firepower in Las Vegas this season. San Diego State and Fresno State brought in top-flight recruits (Winston Shepard and Robert Upshaw, respectively), but neither school can claim to have made a coup over Kentucky like UNLV's commitment from five-star big man Anthony Bennett.
Given his reputation, Rice should be able to make this team gel and use his frontcourt to compensate for, if not complement, any preseason questions about which first-year player will start point guard.
Dark horse Team to Watch: Colorado State
The Rams finished fourth in the MWC and made it into the bubble in time for Murray State to bounce them from the big dance last season, but after a nine-year drought and a 22 years without an at-large bid, Colorado State has to feel good.
They are still the number three or four (depending on where you place the depleted New Mexico Lobos) in what the national media could pigeonhole as a two-team conference, but Wes Eikmeier is back to lead the Rams' corps of guards after a first-team All-MWC season in which he averaged 15.6 points. Among the other important pieces returning is Pierce Hornung, who showed up in a big way with a 12-17 double-double at the NCAA tourney and is expected to nab rebounds at a clip rivaling his per-game average of 8.4 from 2011-12.
If the Rams' six seniors — including Hornung, Eikimeier and his backcourt brethren Dorian Green and resident facilitator Jesse Carr — are going to surge in conference play, 2012-13 offers the perfect storm of confidence, roster continuity and offensive efficiency (CSU's 47.6 field goal percentage was good for 25th in Divison-I competition last season).
The Rams' outside-in play is due to a lack of depth, which is less than ideal in a conference suddenly ripe with big men. The other question is whether new head coach Larry Eustachy can pick up where Tim Miles left off when he accepted a gig at the helm of Nebraska hoops. In the past, Eustachy had off-court issues not flattering of a coach, but his coaching prowess is validated, including a a turn with Southern Mississippi that took the Golden Eagles to the NCAA tourney in March.
Player of the Year: Mike Moser, UNLV
Moser is far and away the best player in the conference. One summer after his working his double-double magic, there is a distinct possibility that Moser eclipses those statistics as his fellow big men demand more attention in 2012-13. Shooting guard Anthony Marshall's presence will work against opponents running zone defenses, too, and should give Moser a few easier looks at the basket.
Newcomer of the Year: Anthony Bennett, UNLV
Believe it or not, there are not a bevy of five-star recruits playing in the mid-major Mountain West. Bennett will share touches with the other scorers on the Runnin' Rebels' roster, but by no means will he be denied his opportunities. With respect to Moser, Bennett will be fed the ball until he defers. He didn't deny Coach Cal to meander around the western states. Bennett's the standard-bearer for all incoming freshmen in the conference.
Coach of the Year: Steve Alford, New Mexico
This goes against all other pieces of conjecture here, but Alford's case is tough to argue. His Lobos have captured the MWC championship in three of the last four season (2009, 2010 and 2012) and his team's defense-first mindset will overwhelm lesser teams and at least challenge the conference's upper echelon. Minus graduated forward Drew Gordon and 7-foot true freshman Obij Aget, who suffered a knee injury, the pressure is on the Lobos' remaining big men. But if there's one person in the MWC that can be counted on to get the most out of his team, it's Steve Alford.
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