Here are five things I can’t wait to see in the Mountain West this season:
1. Jimmer Fredette’s senior season
Rare is the college star with NBA potential who stays for his senior season these days, so let’s savor being able to watch Fredette play in a BYU uniform for one more season. After scoring 37 points in a first-round NCAA tournament win against Florida showcased his skills on a national stage, Fredette went down to the wire with his decision to withdraw from the draft. His return gives the Cougars a chance to go even further this season since he has the ability to put the team on his back and score at will. The 6-foot-2 guard is the conference’s preseason pick for player of the year, and it should be a great scene when his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., rolls out the red carpet for him Dec. 8 against Vermont.
2. San Diego State at Gonzaga
Are the Aztecs deserving of the preseason hype? With one of the most highly anticipated games of the season’s first week, we’ll find out a lot about SDSU when it travels to Spokane on Nov. 16 as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon. San Diego State is the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, and Gonzaga should be a measuring stick for where the Aztecs stand nationally. With all five starters coming back, they have the experience to win this doozy, which features two of the top sophomores in the nation -- Kawhi Leonard and Gonzaga’s Elias Harris. The game is part of an important stretch for the Aztecs, because they open the season with a five-game, three-city road trip before getting to play their home opener.
Plenty of transfers have found the Mountain West to be a soft landing spot, and New Mexico brings in potential difference-makers in forwards Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu. Negedu is particularly worth watching because he missed last season with Tennessee after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest and having an internal cardiac defibrillator implanted in his chest. When the Volunteers wouldn’t clear him to play, he came to New Mexico and got immediate eligibility by appealing to the NCAA. Gordon hopes to make good on a second chance as well once he becomes eligible in December. A highly touted recruit at UCLA, Gordon averaged 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds last season, but left the program after clashing with Ben Howland. If this frontcourt duo can establish itself quickly, the Lobos will have a shot at repeating as conference champs.
4. How good can Kawhi Leonard be?
If Leonard began last season somehow overlooked after winning Mr. Basketball of California, he made sure people took notice after a 16-point, 21-rebound performance in the conference tournament championship game. As a freshman, Leonard led the league in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and led San Diego State in scoring (12.7 ppg). What’s next for the 6-foot-7 star forward? Becoming a threat with his outside game as a sophomore could turn him into an early entrant in the NBA draft. But first comes the possibility of him leading the team to a deep run in the NCAA tournament. As a veteran squad, the Aztecs have enough scorers to turn to that Leonard doesn’t have to carry the load every game. But by season’s end, count on him to be the go-to guy.
5. How does Tre‘Von Willis respond?
UNLV leading scorer Tre’Von Willis disappointed coach Lon Kruger and Rebel fans with his involvement in a domestic incident that led to his arrest in June and a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor charge. But how will the senior respond? His suspension lasts at least one regular-season game and could be extended if he doesn’t meet Kruger’s expectations. He won’t be able to play in two exhibition games, either. And don’t forget, Willis is also recovering from minor offseason knee surgery in August, and that kept the guard out of Friday’s team scrimmage. It’ll be interesting to see how he comes out of the gates after a turbulent offseason.