SARNIA, Ont. — Could the 2019 NCAA Tournament be the year that the Mountain West bucks the trend of one bid and send multiple teams back to the tournament?
The last time that the Mountain West Conference had more than two teams in the NCAA Tournament was back in 2015. The Boise State Broncos were in the First Four, fighting for an 11-seed against the Dayton Flyers, while the Wyoming Cowboys earned a 12-seed as conference champions and the San Diego Aztecs earned an 8-seed as an at-large pick.
Last season, the Nevada Wolf Pack made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament after receiving an at-large bid into the Big Dance as the 7-seed in the South Regional. The San Diego Aztecs earned the automatic berth after winning the conference tournament, and they earned the 11-seed in the West Regional.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, many feel as though that this could be the second consecutive year that the conference sends multiple teams to the tournament. After last season, several teams will be without their star players and faces of the program. New players will step up and take on expanded roles, while key returnees should finally get the national attention they deserve.
From All-Conference selections to breakout freshmen, the Mountain West Conference is full of underrated players. We did our best to narrow the list down to 10 players to keep an eye on as the 2018-19 season quickly approaches.
Note: Players from the Nevada Wolf Pack weren’t listed because they have been the talk of the town all off-season long, therefore people should be familiar with their names by now. Also, it was too hard to narrow down since the roster is immensely talented this season.
Sam Merrill – Utah State Aggies
2017-18 Stats: 16.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.0 spg; 50.4% FG, 46.4% 3PT, 84.9% FT
Last season, the Utah State Aggies had the best young back court in the Mountain West Conference, in sophomores Sam Merrill and Canadian Koby McEwen. The pair was considered the future of the program, at least for the next three seasons. But, like everything in life, all good things must come to an end at some point. Following the 2017-18 season, McEwen transferred from the program, committing to the Marquette Golden Eagles, leaving Merrill as the focal point moving forwards.
Building off a successful freshman season, Merrill was effective from all areas of the floor last season. He shot 50.4% from the floor, 46.4% from three-point range, and 84.9% from the free throw line. His 16.3 points per game also led the Aggies, and his scoring production increased by 6.9 points per contest from the season before. The native of Bountiful, UT hit at least one three-pointer in all but two games this past season. Merrill is one of the nation’s top three point shooters, and that will keep the Aggies competitive moving forwards. They return three of their top four scorers this season, so Merrill and company will look to improve on last year’s seventh place finish in the league.
Justinian Jessup – Boise State Broncos
2017-18 Stats: 11.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.3 spg; 46.5% FG, 45.7% 3PT
All eyes were on Chandler Hutchison last season at Boise State, and for good reason. The senior was selected with the 22nd pick in the First Round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. Along with Hutchison, the Broncos will be without the likes of Lexus Williams and Christian Sengfelder from last year’s team, which will provide opportunities for some of their younger players to step up and take on a leading role. One player that many fans think is in for a big year is junior Justinian Jessup, who will look to build off a strong sophomore season.
From his freshman season to last year, Jessup improved in all aspects of his game. Here are a look at both of his stat lines:
2016-17 (FR): 7.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.0 spg; 37.7% FG, 35.5% 3PT, 76.7% FT
2017-18 (SO): 11.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.3 spg; 46.5% FG, 45.7% 3PT, 79.5% FT
The native of Longmont, CO is the top returning scorer for the Broncos this season, and will likely be the go-to guy on the offensive end of the floor. He developed into a reliable three-point shooter last season, hitting three or more three-pointers on 18 occasions. When he gets hot from the field, Jessup has the ability to take control of games and go on mini runs of his own to help Boise State build momentum. Along with Alex Hobbs, who was the Sixth Man of the Year a season ago in the league, the future for the Broncos remains bright even with the departures.
Anthony Mathis – New Mexico Lobos
2017-18 Stats: 12.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.6 spg; 49.4% FG, 47.3% 3PT, 85.9% FT
The roster for the New Mexico Lobos will look considerably different in 2018-19 than it did the season before. Whether it was due to graduation or transfer, the likes of Sam Logwood, Antino Jackson, Joe Furstinger, and Troy Simons are all gone, which means the Lobos are without four of their top five scorers from 2017-18. However, they do load up by way of transfers, as JaQuan Lyle, Vance Jackson, and Carlton Bragg Jr. will don a New Mexico uniform this season.
New Mexico’s top returning scorer is senior guard Anthony Mathis, who is coming off a breakout season in 2017-18. Over his first two seasons in Albuquerque, the native of West Linn, OR never averaged more than 6.6 minutes per game in a season. In 2017-18, Mathis averaged over 22 minutes of court time per night, and he made the most of his opportunity. Mathis averaged 12.7 points per game, good for the second highest mark on the team behind Logwood (13.0). With his 47.3% shooting from long-range, Mathis is another impressive shooting guard in the Mountain West that you should know this season. With all of the turnover and uncertainty on the Lobos’ roster, having a familiar face like Mathis in the mix will be good for head coach Paul Weir.
Justin James – Wyoming Cowboys
2017-18 Stats: 18.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.1 spg; 47.2% FG, 72.6% FT
Like New Mexico, and several other teams in the Mountain West Conference this season, the Wyoming Cowboys will look vastly different than they did a season ago. Hayden Dalton, Alan Herndon, Louis Adams, and Alexander Aka Gorski have all graduated from the program. The four players ranked second through fifth in terms of points per game for the Cowboys in 2017-18. That leaves Justin James to lead the way for Wyoming in 2018-19, and the 2017-18 First Team All-Mountain West selection is a name that the nation will be familiar with by season’s end.
James is well-known in the Mountain West circle, as he has been putting up impressive numbers over the last two seasons with the Cowboys. He is the league’s top returning scorer this season, as he averaged 18.9 points per contest as a junior. His 6.0 rebounds per game were good for the second-best mark at Wyoming last season, trailing only Herndon in that category. James was a Third Team All-MW selection in 2016-17 as a sophomore when he averaged 16.0 points per game, and earned himself First Team honours after last season’s breakout season. Given the turnover in the league this season, James is one of the front-runners for Player of the Year heading into the season. It’s tough to consider the top returning scorer in a conference as underrated, but on a national level, James hasn’t received the level of appreciation that his game deserves. That changes in 2018-19.
Jalen McDaniels – San Diego State Aztecs
2017-18 Stats: 10.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.8 spg; 58.6% FG, 78.8% FT
The next wave of stars has arrived at San Diego State. Last season, the Aztecs had five players average double-digit points per game, and two of them were freshmen: Jalen McDaniels and Matt Mitchell. With the pair of Malik Pope and Trey Kell having graduated, there is potential for both of these young stars to have even better sophomore seasons. Alongside senior guard Devin Watson, the young forwards give the Aztecs one of the stronger core groups in the league.
At 6’10”, McDaniels gives San Diego State a big body inside that can impact the game on both ends of the floor. He was one of three players on the Aztecs to average 10.5 points per game (Mitchell, Kell), while his 7.5 rebounds per game led the team. While he struggled out of the gate as a freshman, recording a combined eight points and 12 rebounds over his first four games, McDaniels found his groove as the season moved on and became an impact player on both ends of the floor. He recorded nine double-doubles over the course of the season, pulling down 13 rebounds in a pair of them. In the First Round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament against the Houston Cougars, he went for a season-high 18 points and nine rebounds in front of a national audience. The young front court pair of McDaniels and Mitchell will be a big problem for the rest of the Mountain West Conference over the next three years, assuming they stay in school that long.
Lavelle Scottie – Air Force Falcons
2017-18 Stats: 12.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.7 spg; 45.7% FG, 72.5% FT
While a 6-12 record in conference play may not seem like a step in the right direction for a program, it was for the Air Force Falcons in 2017-18. Their six wins in Mountain West competition were their most in a season since the 2014-15 campaign, in which they won six. They won five games in 2015-16, and four the season after that. Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Falcons will lose their fair share of talent from last season as they enter 2018-19. However, leading scorer Lavelle Scottie returns in 2018-19, and he will look to help the Falcons take another step forwards in 2018-19.
As a sophomore in 2017-18, Scottie saw his minutes jump to 26.6 per contest after averaging 14.3 minutes per game as a freshman the season before. With the increase in minutes came an increase in production across the board. Scottie led the Falcons with 12.2 points per contest, up from his 5.5 points per game average as a freshman. His three-point shooting dropped down to 35.2% as a sophomore, but he also attempted 105 shots from long-range against 24 the season before. When he gets hot from the field, Scottie can take over a game and help build momentum for the Falcons. He’s also a consistent scorer, as he recorded double-digit points on 12 occasions over a 14-game stretch from December 22 through to February 17th.
Deshon Taylor – Fresno State Bulldogs
2017-18 Stats: 17.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.5 spg; 43.9% FG, 83.3% FT
Heading into the 2018-19 Mountain West season, the race for Player of the Year is wide open. Given the player turnover across the conference, the award is anyone’s for the taking. The last time that a player from Fresno State won the Player of the Year award was back in 2015-16, when Marvelle Harris took home the award. The Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA Tournament that season as a 14-seed. Fast forward to the 2018-19 season, and the Bulldogs have a top contender for the Player of the Year award in leading scorer Deshon Taylor.
In 2016-17, Taylor was named to the Third Team All-Mountain West as a sophomore. Last season, he earned himself a First Team All-Conference selection after leading the Bulldogs in scoring with 17.8 points per game. Taylor also averaged 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and shot an impressive 83.3% from the free throw line. In his second season at Fresno State after transferring from the UMKC Kangaroos, Taylor enjoyed a breakout season that saw him develop into one of the conference’s premier players. He scored in double figures in all but four games over the course of the season, and posted 11 games with 20+ points. Look for more of the same from the Riverside, CA native as Fresno State looks to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Shakur Juiston – UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
2017-18 Stats: 14.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.9 spg; 63.9% FG
Coming into the 2017-18 season, there was a lot of positive buzz surrounding the year for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. From a five-star big man in Brandon McCoy, to one of the top JUCO transfers in Shakur Juiston, there was a ton of potential star power on the roster. However, the influx of talent didn’t lead to immediate on-court results, as UNLV finished tied with Utah State for seventh in the conference. Now, with McCoy having declared for the 2018 NBA Draft after his freshman season, Juiston is the focal point of the attack for the Rebels as they enter 2018-19.
Prior to UNLV, Juiston played at Hutchinson Community College, where he was named the 2017 NABC Junior College Player of the Year after averaging 17.3 points and 12.1 rebounds per contest and winning a National Championship. In his first season with the Rebels, he put up similar numbers, averaging 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per contest, trailing only McCoy in both categories over the course of the season. The 6’7” forward posted three straight double-doubles to open the season, and he pulled down 19 rebounds in the fourth game of the year. Juiston finished the year with 15 double-doubles on the season. With his ability to grab rebounds on both ends and finish around the rim at a high clip, Juiston is the type of forward that any coach would love to have on their roster. By season’s end, Juiston should be a household name on the national level, or it’ll be a damn shame.
Nico Carvacho – Colorado State Rams
2017-18 Stats: 9.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 0.7 bpg; 50.7% FG, 60.8% FT
Colorado State has had its fair share of off-court distractions in recent years. From the issues with Larry Eustachy, to the suspension of players in 2016-17, the attention surrounding the Rams has been more focused on those issues than on their play on the court. The Rams haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, but fans are hoping that the 2018-19 season will be the year that they make it back to the Big Dance. The return of Nico Carvacho should help the Rams climb out of the cellar of the Mountain West standings, in which they finished 10th last year.
The 6’11”, 240-pound big man from Frisco, TX is one of the top rebounders in the nation. Carvacho finished with an average of 10.3 rebounds per game last year, which tied him for 15th in the country last season with Brandon McCoy (UNLV) and Jock Landale (Saint Mary’s Gaels). He also shot above 50% from the floor for the second season in a row, while his 9.2 points per game were good for the fifth-best mark on the Rams last season. In the first two games of the season, Carvacho tallied a combined 35 rebounds, pulling down 20 in their second contest of the season against the Winthrop Eagles in a four-point win. Carvacho is a double-double threat each night out, and given the personnel losses that the Rams will have to deal with this season, he will take on an expanded role with the offense.
Alex Hobbs – Boise State Broncos
2017-18 Stats: 8.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.6 apg, 0.4 spg; 48.9% FG, 87.8% FT
Bench players and role players don’t always garner the attention that they deserve, but they are vital pieces to the puzzle for any program across the NCAA. Some players earn All-Conference selections or honourable mentions, while one player per conference will earn the Sixth Man of the Year award for their contributions the season prior. However, if you were to ask coaches across the country, most would likely rave about their role players. It’s time to shed some light on Alex Hobbs, who is in for an expanded role at Boise State in 2018-19 after being named the Sixth Man of the Year in the Mountain West Conference as a sophomore in 2017-18.
The 6’4” guard from La Porte, TX finished fifth on the Broncos in scoring last season, averaging 8.7 points per contest, while also finishing second on the team with 2.6 assists per contest. Hobbs appeared in all 32 games in 2017-18, making eight starts along the way. He scored in double figures in 12 games, seven of which came consecutively to open the season. Hobbs posted 21 points in the season opener against Eastern Oregon, going a perfect 9-of-9 from the floor in the Broncos’ 104-64 blowout win. In 2018-19, Hobbs will become a regular face in the starting lineup for Boise State, as they look to make up for the losses of Hutchison and Sengfelder. Look for Hobbs to build on his strong 2017-18 and take another big step forwards in 2018-19.
Five More to Watch
Deion James – Colorado State
Lindsey Drew – Nevada Wolf Pack
Dwayne Brown Jr. – Utah State
Matt Mitchell – San Diego State
Makuach Maluach – New Mexico
Follow along with each conference as it’s released on Twitter, as we have created a #TakeNote moment that will have each player listed as the articles are released.
– T. Bennett