Few college basketball conferences were impacted quite like the Mountain West when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season back in March. Utah State had just punched its ticket to the dance behind Sam Merrill’s heroics and San Diego State was set to enter March Madness as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
But all of that is wiped away now, and those teams’ stars — Utah State’s Merrill and SDSU’s Malachi Flynn — are departed as well. So as much as the league would like to boast about last year’s success, it’s time to turn the page just like everyone else.
Once again, the MWC figures to be a competitive league with notable transfers and the potential for multiple NCAA Tournament bids. Our full 2020-21 preview, beginning with power rankings, is below.
11. air force falcons
Last season: 12-20 (5-13 MWC); No. 210 in DPI
Head coach: Joe Scott (6th year with school)
Key returners: A.J. Walker, Chris Joyce
Notable newcomers: CJ Haut
The Academy returns to foundation building following the dismissal of Dave Pilipovich in March. Pilipovich’s firing caught some by surprise, but with only one winning season in eight full years and a disappointing ’19-20 campaign, it was time for the move.
The program’s successor, Joe Scott, is a familiar face. His previous four-year Falcons tenure concluded with a 2004 NCAA Tournament appearance before moving on to Princeton and later Denver. After two assistant stints, Scott returns to Colorado Springs with his slow, methodical Princeton offense. In his nine years with Denver, Scott’s teams consistently ranked top 20 nationally in effective field-goal percentage, 3-point attempt rate and assist rate.
To accomplish these benchmarks this winter, Scott will have to work his magic. The Falcons roster is gutted with senior departures, leaving A.J. Walker and Chris Joyce as the only returning players who averaged more than four points a game last season. New faces will emerge for the Air Force program as always, but this will be a multi-year project for Scott’s staff like it was in the early 2000s.
10. san jose state spartans
Last season: 7-24 (3-15 MWC); No. 312 in DPI
Head coach: Jean Prioleau (4th year with school)
Key returners: Seneca Knight, Richard Washington
Notable newcomers: Sebastian Mendoza
For the first time in years, San Jose State’s best players are back on campus. Wing duo Seneca Knight and Richard Washington combined to average 27.4 points and 10 rebounds per game last season and will lead the way once again. Since being named head coach in August 2017, Jean Prioleau has seen double-digit scorers Michael Steadman, Noah Baumann, Ryan Welage, Keith Fisher III and, most notably, Brandon Clarke transfer.
The Spartans are easily the Mountain West’s least accomplished basketball program. So when it comes to changing culture, minimizing offseason departures and increasing roster continuity is hugely important. Instead of finding a go-to guy like most years, San Jose State will now need to learn how to build around its stars.
Sophomore Omari Moore is a promising piece. The 6-6 wing played his best basketball down the stretch, tallying 17 points and eight steals in a Mountain West tournament loss. Moore is already the best defender on the team and should make significant strides in Year 2. Also keep an eye on freshman guard Sebastian Mendoza, a California product who enjoyed scoring explosions in high school and is an impressive rebounder for his size.
9. fresno state bulldogs
Last season: 11-19 (7-11 MWC); No. 188 in DPI
Head coach: Justin Hutson (3rd year with school)
Key returners: Orlando Robinson, Anthony Holland
Notable newcomers: Devin Gage, Isaiah Hill, Alec Hickman
Who let the dogs out? Seven Bulldogs transferred, three graduated, and another, Niven Hart, turned pro this spring. Whether almost everyone departing from an 11-win team is a good thing or not, a COVID-19-shortened offseason is certain to impact Justin Hutson’s rebuilding project.
Fortunately, the team’s top scorer, Orlando Robinson, is one of the few returning contributors. The 6-10 forward is the future of the program, having picked Fresno State in 2018 after receiving offers from Kansas, Louisville, Arizona State and others. Robinson averaged 12.2 points per game in Year 1 and could see that average eclipse 15-plus points this season by virtue of increased usage.
DePaul grad transfer Devin Gage should stop the bleeding in the backcourt, a 6-2 Chicago native hoping to return to his ’18-19 productivity. Transfer waivers could be the difference this offseason with Tulsa’s Isaiah Hill and UTEP’s Deon Stroud still waiting on eligibility rulings at the time of this writing. Given the roster turnover, any added depth would be valuable.