Predicting the Top 3 Mountain West Basketball Teams in 2019-20
How are the best team next year?
Who are the contenders?
For the second year in a row, the Mountain West has a clear-cut favorite that will likely debut in the preseason Top 25, but there are a few teams that could give them a run for their money. Let’s take a look at which schools should finish in the top three of the MWC standings in the upcoming year.
1. Utah State
Craig Smith’s club is almost surely a lock to open the 2019-20 campaign in the national polls – and with good reason. The reigning league and tournament champions, Utah State returns nearly everybody from a 28-win squad that finished in the AP Top 25. Headlining that returning cast is the thunder-and-lightning duo of Sam Merrill, the reigning MWC Player of the Year, and Neemias Queta, the conference’s top newcomer a year ago. Both players have been featured on Andy Katz’s preseason watchlists for their respective positional awards and both should be playing professionally before too long. The competition for this season’s POY award may very well end up being a horse-race between these two teammates.
But it’s not just Merrill and Queta that make this team click. Brock Miller started every game as a freshman and will continue to be a threat from downtown, as will last year’s sixth man, senior Diogo Brito. Junior Abel Porter thrust himself into the starting lineup in mid-January and helped the Aggies to go 15-1 down the stretch before the team’s first-round loss to Washington in the NCAA Tournament.
With these stellar pieces back in place, the Aggies look primed to repeat as the league’s champions. Even if they fall short in the MWC Tournament, I believe that this team will be good enough to garner a high at-large bid from the Selection Committee. If everyone stays healthy, Utah State has a great shot at being a second-weekend squad.
This begs the question: which team boasts the best chance at sneaking up and stealing the limelight, much as USU did last year? I think the team outside of Utah with the highest ceiling is San Diego State.
2. San Diego State
The Aztecs finished fourth in the MWC last season, posting a very respectable 21-13 record. While they do lose both of their leading scorers from 2019 – Devin Watson to graduation and Jalen McDaniels to the NBA draft – don’t sleep on Brian Dutcher’s crew.
The biggest reason why SDSU is primed for success is graduate transfer KJ Feagin. This 6-1 guard made a name for himself at Santa Clara, finishing his junior season in 2018 with averages of 17.5 points and four assists per game. A broken thumb cost him his final year with the Broncos, but Feagin is poised to walk into the Aztec locker room and become the leader of this team from day one. But he won’t be doing it all by himself in the backcourt.
Feagin’s running mate next season will be Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn, who sat out the 2019 campaign after coming over from Pullman. Like Feagin, Flynn showed the ability to score and distribute the ball in his two seasons with the Cougars. In the frontcourt, junior wing Matt Mitchell brings back his ten points per game, while the Aztecs will look for continued development from their promising young bigs, most notably Nathan Mensah and Nolan Narain. Incoming high-flyer Keshad Johnson could also provide a spark as a freshman.
If Feagin and Flynn are as good as advertised, SDSU has a golden opportunity to play spoiler to Utah State, just as the Aggies did to Nevada last season.
After Utah State and SDSU, the field gets muddier. A case can be made for a number of teams, including Nevada, UNLV, and perhaps even Boise State. But the Wolf Pack lost almost everything (though they have a few promising pieces coming in), while the Rebels and Broncos have brighter outlooks for next season after snagging some high-profile sit-out transfers.
With that in mind, it’s New Mexico that may be the best bet to finish third. Yes, the Lobos underwhelmed last year – outside of that huge upset of Nevada in The Pit, of course – but there’s plenty of reason for hope in Albuquerque.
3. New Mexico
I’d be remiss if I didn’t open with the biggest offseason development for UNM, which is the transfer of leading scorer Anthony Mathis. After being granted a final year of eligibility, Mathis decided to migrate north to join best friend and former high school teammate Payton Pritchard in Oregon’s backcourt. And while it’s a tough pill to swallow for the Lobo faithful, it’s also not a death sentence.
In fact, Mathis’ departure may clear the way for a few transfers to shine in the backcourt. Former Ohio State standout JaQuan Lyle may be the more well-known name, but Towson transfer Zane Martin is no slouch, either. Martin scored nearly 20 points per contest for the Tigers in 2018, shooting 38% from beyond the arc. Lyle may not have been as prolific a scorer, but he was an efficient shooter in his sophomore season with the Buckeyes and, more importantly, led the team in assists. The Lobos are also bringing
While those additions at guard are certainly exciting, the Lobos’ frontcourt should also be a strength. Vance Jackson and Carlton Bragg Jr. both return for coach Paul Weir, as do a pair of experienced, serviceable forwards in Makuach Maluach and Corey Manigault.
Taken in whole, the Lobos look to be stacked heading into 2020 — just maybe not quite as good as they did before Mathis bolted.
The road to the Mountain West title should go through Logan this season, but the league has a decent chance at getting three bids in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Of course, that success will invariably hinge on how well the patchwork backcourts come together for SDSU and UNM – but the pieces are there.
Andrew Dieckhoff covers basketball for Mountain West Wire. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a website for college basketball analytics and bracketology.