New faces on bench define 2007-08 MWC

And you are … ?Kruger Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLon Kruger is one of the few holdovers from last season on the Mountain West sidelines.
There's this thing about sitting in a defensive stance for half a college basketball game: It gets old fast. Your knees ache. Your mind wanders. You lose focus and start doing things like cheating on screens and going over the top of them when you know such a decision will only lead to a back-cut and layup for the other guys.

San Diego State junior wing Lorrenzo Wade hopes that's a thing of the past with at least one Mountain West Conference opponent this season, that a change in coaching at Air Force might convince the Falcons to play a less deliberate and measured style, and his knees won't desire so much postgame ice.

That perhaps they become more like UNLV of the early 1990s.

Or at least a team willing to shoot every 20 seconds of each possession.

"Sure, that would be great," Wade said between laughs. "I wouldn't mind that at all. But I'm not counting on it. A lot of teams are going to play differently this year with all the changeover, but not that different."

With coaching turnover at Utah, New Mexico, Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming, the Mountain West's media day will be like walking into a high school freshman orientation. Fresh faces define the MWC benches, where five of nine teams employ new head coaches. Change often produces indecision, which returning players and coaches will assuredly have when preparing for familiar teams under new coaches.

So much for that annual advantage of familiarity.

"As a rule, when you have one or two schools [change coaches], the new guys are at a disadvantage because everyone else knows what one another does," said SDSU's Steve Fisher, who in his ninth season with the Aztecs now ranks as dean of the league's coaches. "But with five new guys, it levels things out a bit. It will put a premium on nonconference scouting.

"Instead of saying, 'We've gone against these guys for eight years and know exactly what they're going to do,' we're going to have to be like them and figure out everything new. It will be a matter of throwing away all the old scouting reports. It might not be realized by fans across the league. They will just see teams come in and see who is scoring, who is winning, who is losing. For coaches, it will be about getting every tape they can find on a team."

Here's a closer look at the fresh five:

Jeff Reynolds, Air Force: Reynolds earned his first Division I head coaching job after serving as a Falcons assistant to Jeff Bzdelik the past two seasons. Good luck trying to speed up the Falcons.

Tim Miles, Colorado State: Before arriving in Fort Collins in March, he served as head coach at North Dakota State from 2001 and oversaw the Bison's reclassification from Division II to D-I status. Under Miles, the Bison beat nationally ranked Marquette and Wisconsin in the regular season.

Steve Alford, New Mexico: Alford, the famed former Indiana player under Bob Knight, spent the past eight seasons at Iowa. If the former Hawkeyes head coach thought fan reaction turned nasty in Iowa City when things became stressful, wait until he loses three straight in Albuquerque.

Jim Boylen, Utah: Boylan was Tom Izzo's top assistant at Michigan State the last two seasons. He is the seventh former Izzo assistant to land a Division I head job.

Heath Schroyer, Wyoming: He won a Big Sky regular-season title as head coach at Portland in 2004-05 and was associate head coach at Fresno State the past two seasons.

"We're all going into a league with some experienced, battle-tested, tough coaches," Boylen said. "Steve Fisher is a very good coach. Lon Kruger [at UNLV] is a very good coach. Dave Rose [at BYU] is a very good coach. These are quality guys.

"I think there is something to the fact familiarity with a team can be comforting. In the Big Ten at Michigan State, we knew what Michigan and Wisconsin and Northwestern and everyone else liked to do. But you still have to go out and stop it. There's a little bit of fear with the unknown, but that's just the reality this first year. I think it's going to take all of us at least one time through the league to really learn about one another. You can watch all the film around on a team, but you really need to see them live to really gauge things like quickness and speed and size and tendencies."

Film won't be an issue. Each conference coach will have about 12 nonleague games to analyze before the first Mountain West game.

It's actually a good time to be a new coach in the MWC. This isn't a league with one or two dominant teams, but rather four or five that could prove good enough to win a title. Opportunity knocks immediately.

BYU figures to be picked by most to emerge the best of the nine, but UNLV was picked sixth last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

"I would think all the coaching changes will make those preseason [predictions] even more of an inexact science this season," Kruger said. "Whenever you have five new coaches in any league, it will make it difficult on all of us to learn personnel and what certain guys like to do.

"But it's not like we have to play any of them the second game of the season. By the time conference rolls around, everyone should have a pretty good grasp on the other teams."

Grasp this: Air Force isn't becoming UNLV of 1990.

After that, it's anyone's guess as to what happens.

Heath departs
The most prolific scorer in conference history departs in San Diego State guard Brandon Heath. He was the first Mountain West player to top 2,000 career points, finishing with 2,189. He also left as the league's all-time leader in shots (1,815), baskets (749), 3-point attempts (798) and steals (217). He was an all-conference pick in each of four seasons at SDSU, being named the league's player of the year in 2005-06. With Heath gone, it's a wide-open race to see which player can emerge as the face of the conference. None of last season's five first-team all-conference selections returns this season.

Kruger update
Kruger had an annual stress test in late July and ended up undergoing open-heart bypass surgery shortly thereafter. The operation (in which doctors performed six bypasses in four hours) was a success and the 54-year-old Kruger was back at work within several days. Last season, Kruger became just the fifth coach to lead four different schools to the NCAA Tournament, joining Jim Harrick, Lefty Driesell, Rick Pitino and Eddie Sutton.

2006-07 Standings/Stats

* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant

Fast breakMWC

Air ForceAir Force
The feeling among conference teams is that the Falcons might be in for a little payback, given how successful they have been the last two seasons (50-16, including a school-record 26 wins last season) and the fact they lose four starters that combined for 48.6 points, 16.6 rebounds and 9.3 assists. Tim Anderson is a senior captain and honorable mention all-conference pick who averaged 9.1 points and 3.5 rebounds last season for a team that advanced to the NIT semifinals, the furthest a Mountain West school has gone in the postseason tournament. The only returning player with significant experience besides Anderson is junior guard Andrew Henke, who played in 33 games and scored a career-high 16 against Wyoming in the conference tournament.

If you're going to lose three starters (including MWC Player of the Year Keena Young), it's best you at least return talent with size. The Cougars do so in two-time all-conference pick Trent Plaisted at center. The 6-foot-11 junior scored in double figures 20 times last season and averaged 12.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and a team-high 1.4 blocks. Another player whose numbers should increase is returning starter Lee Cummard, a 6-6 junior guard who has started 48 games over the past two seasons. Cummard led BYU with 50 steals as a sophomore while shooting 53 percent from the field and 43.5 percent on 3s. Sophomore guard Jonathan Tavernari averaged 21.4 points during a summer trip through France and Monaco, where BYU went 5-0.

Colorado StateColorado State
The Rams are promoting a fresh and optimistic outlook under new coach Tim Miles. They'll likely need all those positive thoughts once games begin. CSU has just one senior and returning starter in 7-foot center Stuart Creason, who averaged 10.2 points and 5.5 rebounds while playing alongside first-round NBA pick Jason Smith. In addition to losing Smith a year early to the NBA, Miles did not offer prep recruit Stephen Franklin a scholarship and did not renew the scholarship of starting guard Tyler Smith. Also, prep recruit Donte Poole failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Ronnie Aguilar, a 7-foot sophomore center, is healthy after being limited to just 11 games with various injuries last season.

New MexicoNew Mexico
It's not as if Alford arrived in Albuquerque to an empty cupboard. The Lobos return four starters -- all seniors -- and 77 percent of their scoring, 67 percent of their rebounds and 71 percent of minutes played. It's enough to think New Mexico can greatly improve on a 4-12 conference record. One of the league's more consistent players is Tony Danridge, a 6-5 senior guard who started all 32 games last season while averaging 12.5 points and 2.5 rebounds. J.R. Giddens didn't completely live up to the hype that surrounded his arrival from Kansas, but the athletic senior guard averaged a team-best 15.8 points and earned an all-conference honorable mention.

SDSUSan Diego State
If the Aztecs are to challenge for a conference title and their third straight season of at least 22 wins, they will do so by going small. SDSU was going to return three starters until Fisher dismissed 6-10 senior center Jerome Habel (10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) from the team in August for a violation of team rules. The league's most athletic player is arguably junior wing Lorrenzo Wade (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Junior point guard Richie Williams led the conference in steals last season, ranked second in assists and has already started 64 career games. Marquette transfer Ryan Amoroso is a 6-8, 270-pound junior forward who should make up for some of the inside space lost with Habel's dismissal. SDSU has made the postseason four of the last six years under Fisher.

In their third season of Mountain West play, the Horned Frogs might be able to compete enough to avoid the conference tournament play-in game. TCU began conference play 2-0 last season with a home win against New Mexico and a road victory against Utah, but then lost 12 of its next 14 to finish tied for eighth. Four starters return, led by junior forward Kevin Langford (13.2 ppg, 6 rpg) and senior guard Brent Hackett (team-high 66 3-pointers last season and four 20-point efforts against league opponents). Sixth-year coach Neil Dougherty is 61-92 at TCU, which last made the NCAA Tournament in 1998. The Horned Frogs will try and build off some momentum gained in going 5-1 over seven days of a Central America tour this summer.

Boylen has one goal for his first season as coach: Get the Utes to play more as a team, especially on the defensive end. He certainly has enough returning talent and key newcomers to make a run at the conference title after Utah went 11-19 last season and posted consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1983-84. Utah returns four starters, including three (center Luke Nevill, guard Johnnie Bryant and wing Shaun Green) who averaged between 11.1 and 16.3 points. Bryant shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range and now will be helped with the arrival of first-team juco All-American point guard Tyler Kepkay, who averaged 27.9 points as a sophomore at the College of Eastern Utah.

Four starters are gone from a Sweet 16 team that went 30-7, but it's obvious fourth-year coach Kruger has returned the Rebels to a place where they could annually contend for a conference title. Wink Adams, a junior shooting guard who averaged 13.9 points, is the lone returning starter and one of the conference's best players. Much will be expected of sophomore Marcus Lawrence, who takes over full-time at point guard for departed leader Kevin Kruger. New faces must produce for UNLV to challenge, led by sophomore forward Lamar Roberson (who sat out last season after transferring from Houston), 6-10 junior college transfer center Emmanuel Adeife and prep recruit Beas Hamga, a 7-foot center who chose the Rebels over, among others, Kentucky.

There isn't a better guard tandem in the conference than junior Brandon Ewing and senior Brad Jones, and it's difficult to discover a better one nationally. The two combined for 38 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.6 assists last season. Ewing (who led the conference in scoring with a 19.9 average) is the fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 career points, while Jones led the conference in minutes and ranked among the league's top 15 players in seven categories. But as good as the Cowboys will be outside, they are just as suspect inside. Six new recruits are on the roster. One who will be expected to contribute immediately is juco transfer Tyson Johnson, a 6-6 forward from Blinn Community College.

More drills
Home cooking
BYU enters the season ranked second nationally to Memphis in consecutive home wins with 31 at the Marriott Center, just one victory behind the Tigers. UNLV also appears on the top-10 list, tied for 10th (with Indiana) with 17 straight wins at the Thomas & Mack Center.

100 and counting
Utah celebrates its 100th season of basketball in 2007-08 and ranks 10th in NCAA history with a .657 winning percentage. The Utes have won three national titles: the 1916 AAU championship, the 1944 NCAA crown and the 1947 NIT.

Sprucing up The Pit
Alford should soon have a nicer arena in which to entice recruits. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has pledged $15 million to improving the school's athletics facilities, and the focal point is an $8 million down payment for the renovation and modernization of the The Pit. The arena opened in 1966, and it has been 24 years since Jim Valvano ran around the court after his North Carolina State team won the national championship in Albuquerque.

Last season was a banner year for the Mountain West with UNLV making the Sweet 16 and Air Force reaching the NIT Final Four. What teams will be in the postseason this March?

Early 2007-08 Bracketology

-- Joe Lunardi

For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here to go to the archive.

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.