LITTLETON, Colo. When it comes to men's basketball, the Mountain West Conference is undergoing a major makeover. With the exodus of several star players and an influx of five new head coaches, including Utah's Jim Boylen, the league, which is coming off a highly successful season boasting four teams that won at least 22 games, has a different look.
"It's going to be really interesting, especially the first time around in league play. Even the coaches that return have taken their programs to a certain level," first-year Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said Wednesday at the league's media day, held at The mtn. studios. "But we're all new to them, just like they're new to us. It's a very unique time to be in this league, for the coaches and for the fans. It's crazy to say this, but I think this league is going to be even more competitive than it has been."
Boylen, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Michigan State, feels right at home because the MWC has a bit of a Big Ten flavor. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher used to coach at Michigan; first-year New Mexico coach Steve Alford spent eight years as the coach at Iowa; and UNLV coach Lon Kruger is a former coach at Illinois.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm back in the Big Ten when I see those guys," Boylen said. At the same time, he added, the MWC has some things in common with the Big Ten.
"There are a lot of good coaches in our conference. There are some good rivalries in this league. Obviously, we have the BYU rivalry, but I hear a lot about Wyoming, too. Those rivalry games and those competitive things are all over the place in our league, which is cool. It reminds me of the Big Ten in a lot of ways."
Schroyer may be new to the MWC, but he is familiar with the league because he was an assistant at BYU under former coach Steve Cleveland from 1997-2001, before spending one season as a Wyoming assistant.
Certainly, the new coaching regimes will bring added intrigue to the MWC race, which starts in January.
"I don't know any of these players. I don't know the styles and systems of the coaches," Alford said. "I don't know who's back or who's good. This is probably the most difficult balloting you could have because half the league is uncertain."
Defending champion BYU was picked to repeat, though it lost the MWC player of the year, Keena Young, and two other starters. The Cougars received 15 of the 22 first-place votes.
"It's good for the credibility of our program, but we'll put as much stock into that as we did the year that they picked us ninth and we finished second (in 2005-06)," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "It's a real compliment to our players and how hard they've worked and the success they've had."
UNLV, which won the MWC Tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, was selected second while the Utes were tabbed third (with two first-place votes).
"I'm thankful they picked us third. I have no problem with that," Boylen said. "But we're going to work our butts off and try to finish first. That's our goal, to win championships. But we have to get better in a lot of areas. That's what we're going to work on."
Fisher, whose team was picked to finish in a fourth-place tie with New Mexico, noted that the media have selected the wrong champion every year but one. The Aztecs were predicted to finish No. 1 last year while UNLV, which ended up winning 30 games overall, was picked sixth. Fisher expects the Utes to bounce back from their 11-19 campaign a year ago.
"I think Jimmy Boylen landed on his feet with the program he inherited," he said. "Everybody will remember one of the worst seasons in how many years for Utah. We forget how many close losses they had. They're going to be very good."
Of the new coaches, Alford is the rock star of the bunch. As a player, he helped lead Indiana to a national title 20 years ago under coach Bob Knight. "I think it's been good changes for everybody," he said of the league's coaching turnover. "It's good for the other four (coaches) because there's a newness, a freshness, without leaving your school."
The league's other two new coaches are Air Force's Jeff Reynolds and Colorado State's Tim Miles.BYU center Trent Plaisted and Utah's Luke Nevill were named to the preseason All-MWC team along with New Mexico's J.R. Giddens, UNLV's Wink Adams and Wyoming's Brandon Ewing, who was also selected as the league's top returning player. BYU's Jimmer Fredette, a guard from Glens Falls, N.Y., was named the preseason top freshman.
Preseason rankingsRk. (1st place) . . . . Points
1. BYU (15) . . . . 181
2. UNLV (2) . . . . 146
3. Utah (2) . . . . 142
4. New Mexico (2) . . . . 128
San Diego St. (1) . . . . 128
6. Wyoming . . . . 120
7. TCU . . . . 58
8. Air Force . . . . 54
Trent Plaisted, Jr., F/C, BYU
J.R. Giddens, Sr., G, New Mexico
Wink Adams, Jr., G, UNLV
Luke Nevill, Jr., C, Utah
Brandon Ewing, Jr., G, Wyoming
Top Returning Player
Brandon Ewing, Jr., G, Wyoming
Ryan Amoroso, Jr., F, San Diego State