| ||Sunday, October 31|
Special to ESPN.com
|The Mountain West conference may be entering its maiden season, but it will already have the ability to garner a lot of national attention because of three premier teams in Utah, New Mexico, and UNLV.
Those three programs are well-known and bring instant credibility to a new conference. In addition, the league has two of the top 10 places to play in all of college basketball -- The Pit in New Mexico and Huntsman Center at Utah. That helps bring a lot of basketball tradition to a first-year league right away.
Everybody knows about the success -- and the down times -- at UNLV. Look at Rick Majerus, one of the nation's best coaches, and the job he has done at Utah, transforming the program into a national power. Meanwhile, New Mexico has been one of the top 25 programs in the nation.
The Mountain West jumps immediately to the forefront as one of the top six conferences in the nation. And that's before the first game has even been played.
Lamont Long, senior, G, New Mexico: 24.4 ppg, 6 rpg
Alex Jensen, senior, F, Utah: 12.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg
Hanno Mottola, senior, F, Utah: 15.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg
Ugo Udezue, junior, C/F, Wyoming: 20.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg
Kaspars Kambala, junior, C, UNLV: 12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg Player of the year: Lamont Long
I would select Long over Jensen as my preseason player-of-the-year choice because I think he will have better numbers as an offensive scorer. Both players can beat you in different ways. Long, capable of carrying the Lobos, wins out because of his offensive ability. All-newcomer team
Kenny Dye, junior, G, UNLV
Trent Whiting, junior, G, Utah
Wayland White, junior, F, New Mexico
Rafael Berumen, freshman, F, New Mexico
Aaron Abrams, freshman, G, Wyoming Newcomer of the year: Trent Whiting
Whiting, my newcomer of the year, will lead Utah to the Mountain West championship. I think people will see that it's the system that continues to work for Rick Majerus. The Utes lost All-America point guard Andre Miller to the NBA, but they plug in Whiting and keep on going. Majerus loves his toughness. Best backcourt: New Mexico
Lamont Long, Kevin Henry and John Robinson II all started for the Lobos last year. What they have over other backcourts is scoring ability. All three averaged in double figures last year, led by Long at nearly 17 points per game. Best frontcourt: Utah
Other teams may have better individual talent, but I like the Utes as a group. Nate Althoff started in the middle last year. Alex Jensen is the team's -- and maybe the conference's -- most valuable player. Hanno Mottola, a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor, is the league's best NBA prospect. Team on the rise: Wyoming
The Cowboys have five returning starters from a team that won 18 games last year. This is Steve McClain's second year, so the team has confidence in his system. They have an all-conference player in Ugo Udezue. McClain has two freshman guards who will push the returning guards for not only playing time but possibly starting positions by Jan. 1. Team on the fall: Colorado State
The Rams suffered two major losses in Andre McKanstry and Milt Palacio, two guards who averaged a combined 32 points a game. Ritchie McKay doesn't have anyone coming in to replace those numbers. Colorado State will drop off because of its inexperienced guard play. Unsung player: Phil Cullen, Utah
At 6-10, Cullen is a Hanno Mottola type of player who played last year as a true freshman. Late in the year, he was averaging more than six points a game. I know Majerus is high on his athletic ability. I think we will see Cullen's name a lot of times averaging double figures in scoring. He is on the verge of a breakout year. Toughest road game: New Mexico
Although I pick Utah to win the conference, I still think the fans at New Mexico are just outstanding. At The Pit, the fans are right on top of the players and fill up the arena. The Pit is still one of the largest places in the country and always worth a few wins for the Lobos. Postseason teams
NCAA: Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming
NIT: UNLV, Colorado State