1. UNLV. There's no way that UNLV should be considered a mid-major, but they don't play in one of the BCS conferences so they're often lumped in. Regardless, UNLV is the last team not from a power conference to win the National Title (1990). Since then, either 22-0 or 0-22, depending on perspective - it's been all big boys. Now Dave Rice enters his 2nd year in Las Vegas with a team that won't be favored to win it all like in 1990, but instead as one of many that have the talent to win it just the same. Their main issue will be figuring out who will be setting up the offense. Scorers (and defenders for that matter), they don't lack. Point guard Oscar Bellfield is gone, and several combo style guards are there to fill in. Anthony Marshall returns from a solid junior season, Justin Hawkins is back, transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC) can now play after sitting a year (though he's injured to begin the year), and freshmen Kaitin Reinhardt and Daquan Cook arrive ready to contribute. The front court has talent and depth. All-around stat stuffer Mike Moser returns and will likely add some hardware to his personal trophy case, a couple of 5* recruits in Khem Birch (transfer from Pitt, eligible in December) and Anthony Bennett join the fray - and then there's a who's who of guys to fill the gaps.
2. San Diego State. It took a while for Steve Fisher to elevate this program from one that is solid to one that reloads, but that's where the Aztecs are at. They lost Kawhi Leonard and three other starters two years ago and still finished tied atop the conference. And now they're going to be better, and deeper. But so will the Mountain West. Aztec fans can be confident that they have the best perimeter play in the conference. But what they need is for a couple of the six newcomers to step up and make a major impact. Right now it's wide open. There are seven guys 6-7 or bigger, and six of them are new. If that group can defend and rebound, then this team has a chance to make it's 2nd ever Sweet-16. If that group does more than that - this could be a historic run. Junior Jamaal Franklin has National Player of the Year potential, and senior sharpshooter Chase Tapley could easily be All-Conference.
3. New Mexico. The Lobos lose all-everything Drew Gordon as well as A.J. Hardeman, but return three other solid starters. Junior Kendall Williams and sophomore Hugh Greenwood provide a capable backcourt, while junior Tony Snell returns at the wing and as the top 3-point threat. But Steve Alford's teams get it done on defense and to keep that reputation up he'll need some new bigs to make their marks. Alford has great length to work with, as 6-11 Alex Kirk returns from a missed season due to injury, and Obij Aget* is a 7-footer from Sudan. But can Kirk stay healthy, and is Aget ready to contribute? 6-9 junior Cameron Bairstow from Australia returns, and he could blossom into a rebounding specialist, which is exactly what this team needs.
*I whiffed on Aget, who is sitting out the season.
4. Nevada. Coach David Carter enters his first season in the MWC with an All-Conference caliber point guard in junior Deonte Burton and a terrific senior shooter with Malik Story. That's a backcourt which can almost rival San Diego State's. 6-8 junior Jerry Evans returns as well, but the swingman needs to be more of an all-around player with the two bigs departed to graduation. JUCO transfer Cheikh Fall (candidate for the All-Name team) needs to use his big frame to keep opponents off the offensive boards. Of interest will be the Wolfpack tempo. Coach Carter has been in Reno for three seasons, and each season has seen a dramatic drop in tempo. With a team headed by a great backcourt and a frontcourt with questions, it will be interesting to see if he tunes it back up a notch.
5. Colorado State. Four of five starters return, including high volume Wes Eikmeier who - when he's at his best - can fill it up. They also add some much needed size with 6-10 Colton Iverson, a transfer from Minnesota. Iverson isn't much of an offensive threat, but does provide solid rebounding and defense. And this is what the Rams need. Their offensive efficiency was 51st nationally, while their defense was a woeful 174th (controlling for tempo). They were 265th at forcing turnovers, and 316th in blocks. At least some size will help with the latter. Senior Dorian Green made 43% of his threes as a junior, and needs to continue the hot shooting this season, especially since Jesse Carr has been lost to injury.
6. Wyoming. The Cowboys went 14-2 out of conference last season, but then struggled a bit to a 6-8 record in conference. Yes, they lose three starters, but they have a system in place which is tough to play against. Larry Shyatt's club is slow, deliberate, and they play smothering defense. They don't look to extend possessions, and they don't allow their opponents that luxury either. In short, it's a system designed to pull upsets, and they'll pull their share. Unfortunately, troubled senior Leonard Washington is the only real difference maker on this team, and he's perpetually in the dog house.
7. Boise State. The Broncos took their lumps last year. This year they should be more prepared to deal out a few. Rebounding shouldn't be an issue, as senior Kenny Buckner had the 2nd highest offensive rebounding % in the MWC, and a duo of sophomores (6-6 Anthony Drmic and 6-3 Derrick Marks) were both top-15 on the other end of the floor as freshmen. Jeff Elorriaga returns as the designated 3-point specialist, and he's joined by six newcomers and a few returnees who will be battling for playing time.
8. Fresno State. After struggling in the WAC, it's Fresno State's turn to struggle in the much deeper MWC. But don't fear Bulldog fans, the pieces are in place for this team to make a rapid ascension, but they're probably a year away. They have transfers. They have a legit 7-footer who was a consensus top-100 recruit, and they have junior Kevin Olekaibe who could be a star with the right supporting cast.
9. Air Force. It's a conference show of strength that Air Force - who will have a decent team - is picked to finish last. Like Wyoming they grind out possessions in an attempt to shorten the game, but the Cadets don't have anything close to Wyoming's defense. They do have senior Michael Lyons, who is capable of carrying this team on any given night. He took almost 32% of the shots when he was on the floor (most in the conference) and he made a solid 37% of his threes and 51% of his twos.
Jamaal Franklin, Jr., San Diego State (Player of the Year)
Mike Moser, Jr., UNLV
Deonte Burton, Jr., Nevada
Chase Tapley, Sr., San Diego State
Anthony Bennett, Fr., UNLV