Editor's note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at the Mountain West.
1. How will UNLV integrate newcomer bigs Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett?
UNLV has been extremely successful with transfers and some under-the-radar players. Yet, in this instance, the Rebels pick up two of the higher-profile big men in the recruiting world from the past two years. Birch, who will be eligible midseason after transferring from Pitt, has the potential to be a force inside if he reaches his potential. And a top-10 recruit like Bennett comes with plenty of expectations. Coach Dave Rice will pair these two players with Mike Moser, one of the best rebounders in the country. The Rebels have even more depth with Savon Goodman and Quintrell Thomas. Vegas has a legitimate chance to pound the ball inside and play inside-out even more than last season.
2. How will Larry Eustachy coach a potential MWC title contender at Colorado State?
Tim Miles went to Nebraska for more stability and more dollars. But he left behind a loaded roster and a team that has no excuse not to return to the NCAA tournament. The Rams return their top scorers in Wes Eikmeier, Pierce Hornung and Dorian Green. Jesse Carr's torn ACL doesn't help matters, but there's still plenty of talent. Toss in big man Colton Iverson, a transfer from Minnesota, and the Rams have more experience than any other team in the Mountain West. The schedule is soft, meaning CSU will have to do its work in league yet again. Eustachy has low-post scoring at his disposal, but the Rams will have to defend better than they did a year ago, especially early in the season.
3. How will the league treat San Diego State on its way out the door?
The Aztecs have a possible player of the year candidate in Jamaal Franklin and a squad that has the pieces to outlast UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico. But will SDSU find life on the road in the Mountain West even more difficult in its final season? I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be the animosity surrounding the Aztecs’ departure in comparison to Missouri leaving the Big 12 or Texas A&M splitting for the SEC. And San Diego State's decision isn’t comparable to the bitterness that occurred after Boston College left the Big East for the ACC. Still, there is a chance of some vitriol directed toward the Aztecs, meaning that this team will have to be even tougher on the road.
4. Will New Mexico get the necessary production out of its frontcourt?
UNM coach Steve Alford says he has one of the best backcourts in the West, with a perimeter led by Hugh Greenwood, Tony Snell, Kendall Williams and Demetrius Walker. The question for the Lobos is whether can they get production out of Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, Nick Banyard and Devon Williams. New Mexico probably will go four out and one in to prop up the advantage it anticipates on the perimeter. The issue for the Lobos will be their ability or inability to rebound at power forward or center. If they can keep possessions alive, they can contend for a conference title again.
5. Will Nevada be more than Deonte Burton?
The Wolf Pack arrive in the Mountain West on an upward trajectory. Burton has a lot to do with that. But Nevada can’t win the MWC or finish in the top three with Burton alone. Fellow guard Malik Story returns and can take some of the pressure off his star teammate. The Pack did lose Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt, who were the two other double-figure scorers. Nevada has challenging road games at Marshall, Pacific, Washington and Oregon before conference play. We will know early on whether this team is a true contender.