Two Teams That Could Exceed Expectations in 2019-20
Returning trios could help these teams prove the pollsters wrong
Who will exceed expectations in 2019-20?
When the Mountain West poll was released earlier this week, there weren’t many surprises. The poll nearly mirrored the predictions made by our own writers, with only Nevada and Boise State swapped. And it makes sense. Five teams — Utah State, San Diego State, New Mexico, the Wolf Pack, and the Broncos — have seemingly separated themselves from the rest of the conference.
It makes sense. Utah State has rings from last year’s Mountain West season and returns its core, including reigning POY Sam Merrill and reigning DPOY Neemias Queta. Both players were chosen in the preseason voting to repeat as winners of their respective awards. SDSU and UNM both bring in scores of talent, largely from transfers, to add to already-talented rosters. Nevada is coming off three consecutive MWC regular season titles and has an experienced head coach in Steve Alford. Boise State was a huge disappointment last year, but with preseason All-MWC first-teamer Derrick Alston leading a very experienced group, the outlook is generally positive for Leon Rice’s club.
But keep in mind that the preseason poll was not very accurate last year. Utah State was picked to finish ninth, while New Mexico and Boise State were slotted in at numbers three and four, respectively. Predictions often go awry, no matter how much research gets done in the offseason.
With that in mind, here’s a look at who might rise above their station and exceed expectations in the 2019-20 season.
The Bulldogs were a 23-game winner last season under first-year head coach Justin Hutson, finishing third in the Mountain West with a 13-5 mark, despite being picked to finish fifth in the league in the preseason poll. It seems that the pollsters may not have learned their lesson, tabbing the team to finish sixth this time around.
Sure, the leading scorers from last year’s squad are gone. Braxton Huggins and Deshon Taylor were one of the highest-scoring backcourt tandems in the country last year. Obviously, their absence will be notable. But it also opens the door for three returning seniors to make their marks on the program.
Probably the most well-known of the trio is Nate Grimes. The big man averaged roughly 12 points and nine rebounds nightly last season, to go along with his 2.5 “stocks” (steals plus blocks). Those numbers should, at the very least, hold firm again this season. A slight uptick in scoring wouldn’t be a surprise either. And though he may not get the same attention for his defense as Neemias Queta, make no mistake: Grimes is one of the best interior defenders in the league.
While Grimes should remain a constant for the team, if the Bulldogs are going to replicate the success that they had last season, they will need their senior guards to step up. Noah Blackwell and New Williams got plenty of playing time last season, averaging 29 and 26 minutes per game, respectively. Blackwell dished out 3.6 assists per game with a 22.2% assist rate, both marks being good for second on the team behind Taylor. He also shot 41.5% on 130 three-point attempts, making him the team’s top returning deep threat.
Williams, for his part, took more threes last year, but struggled to find consistency with them. His 32.9% clip on 164 attempts needs to improve this year, especially considering that nearly three-quarters of his shots came from beyond the arc. His relative inefficiency from distance was easy to sweep under the rug while Huggins, Taylor, and Blackwell were all knocking down threes. But the spotlight will be more firmly affixed to Williams this year, so his shooting could be the bellwether for how Fresno State’s season goes.
There’s a reason that Fresno State was picked to finish sixth this year. Questions about depth and how the team moves on from Taylor and Huggins are well-founded. But considering the job that Hutson did last season — which earned him the Joe B. Hall Coach of the Year award — it’s far too early to write them off. Just look how last year went.