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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Utah coach Jim Boylen and Johnnie Bryant have the Utes playing well as they enter MWC play this week with an 8-4 record.

New year, new coaches, new systems, new players.

Now, things should get really intriguing in the Mountain West Conference.

League play opens this weekend, marking the respective MWC debuts of five first-year coaches — Utah's Jim Boylen, Wyoming's Heath Schroyer, Air Force's Jeff Reynolds, New Mexico's Steve Alford and Colorado State's Tim Miles.

The race is expected to be wide open as teams get accustomed to each other.

"It's going to be really interesting, especially the first time around in league play," said Schroyer, a former assistant at BYU. "Even the coaches that return have taken their programs to a certain level. 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."

A year ago, the MWC boasted four teams that won at least 22 games — BYU (25-9), UNLV (30-7), Air Force (26-9) and San Diego State (22-11). The conference sent a pair of teams to the NCAA tournament as regular-season champion BYU fell in the first round while MWC tournament champ UNLV advanced to the Sweet 16. San Diego State won one game in the NIT while Air Force reached the NIT Final Four.

While five MWC coaches moved on, so did a number of the league's top players, including player of the year Keena Young of BYU, San Diego State's Brandon Heath, Colorado State's Jason Smith, Air Force's Dan Nwaelele and UNLV's Wendell White.

With new stars emerging and new systems being implemented, MWC play should be intriguing, indeed.

Here's a rundown of all nine teams in the conference, listed according to how they were predicted to finish in October. Preseason records are in parenthesis.

1. BYU (10-3): The Cougars are the only MWC team that will not open MWC play this weekend, with non-conference games against Loyola Marymount and Wake Forest still coming up. BYU has a 1-2 record against teams ranked in the top 10, and it earned a spot in the top 25. But that was before this past weekend, when BYU fell at Boise State, which knocked the Cougars out of the rankings.

Leading scorer: Trent Plaisted (17.0 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Trent Plaisted (9.8 rpg)

Best win: A 78-76 upset then-No. 6 Louisville.

Worst loss: A 73-70 setback at Boise State.

Worth noting: With Plaisted, Lee Cummard, Jonathan Tavernari and Sam Burgess, the Cougars are solid. But BYU needs to develop its younger players and improve its depth.

2. UNLV (11-3): The Rebels are trying to build upon their 2006-07 success — a trip to the Sweet 16 last March — this season. UNLV is red-hot entering conference play, having won seven of its last eight games. The Rebels narrowly lost to nationally ranked Arizona at home in December.

Leading scorer: Wink Adams (14.5 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Joe Darger (6.0 rpg)

Best win: A 79-67 triumph over in-state rival Nevada.

Worst loss: A 63-60 loss at UC Santa Barbara.

Worth noting: After losing a host of seniors from last year's squad, do the Rebels have leaders who can step up and guide them to a title?

3. Utah (8-4): Utah is one of the top shooting teams in the country. Before falling to Gonzaga on Monday, the Utes had won six of their previous seven games. They have a strong nucleus with center Luke Nevill, senior guard Johnnie Bryant, veteran Shaun Green and transfer Tyler Kepkay.

Leading scorer: Luke Nevill (14.0 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Luke Nevill (7.0 rpg)

Best win: A 67-65 road victory over Cal.

Worst loss: A 72-57 loss at home to Santa Clara.

Worth noting: Boylen has the Utes playing hard, but will that be good enough to finish among the league's upper echelon? They'll need to prove they can win close games, something they struggled with a year ago.

4. New Mexico (12-2): Under Alford, the Lobos are off to a great start. They enjoy a balanced attack led by J.R. Giddens, who caused strife in the program last season. This year, Giddens looks more like a team player. Guard Chad Toppert is among the nation's best in 3-point shooting.

Leading scorer: J.R. Giddens (12.1 ppg)

Leading rebounder: J.R. Giddens (7.8 rpg)

Best win: A 80-63 victory over Texas Tech and Alford's mentor, Bobby Knight, at The Pit.

Worst loss: A 71-62 loss to in-state rival New Mexico State.

Worth noting: The Lobos have a glossy record, but they've played a lot of home games. How will they fare on the road?

5. San Diego State (10-3): The Aztecs have won five of their last seven games since losing at California on Nov. 24. Kyle Spain, Lorrenzo Wade, juco transfer Ryan Amoroso and point guard Richie Williams are sure to cause MWC foes problems.

Leading scorer: Kyle Spain (14.0 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Ryan Amoroso (5.9 rpg)

Best win: An 89-72 triumph at Fresno State.

Worst loss: A 64-49 defeat at Saint Mary's.

Worth noting: Can coach Steve Fisher mold his team into contenders? The Aztecs have the talent to compete for a title, but they must fill the void left by Heath, the leading scorer in school history.

6. Wyoming (6-6): The Cowboys are experiencing some growing pains as they learn to buy into Schroyer's high-intensity defensive philosophy. The Cowboys have the best backcourt in the league with Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones.

Leading scorer: Brandon Ewing (16.9 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Brad Jones (7.2 rpg)

Best win: A 73-64 win over Colorado.

Worst loss: A 76-65 loss at Denver.

Worth noting: As a whole, the 'Pokes don't appear to be good enough right now to contend, but Ewing and Jones are good enough to help spring some upsets along the way.

7. TCU (8-3): The Horned Frogs are improving and they've found a star in transfer guard Henry Salter to go along with proven players like Kevin Langford and Brent Hackett. Before starting conference play Saturday, TCU faces Texas tonight.

Leading scorer: Henry Salter (15.3 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Henry Salter (6.5 rpg)

Best win: A 76-49 rout of Rice.

Worst loss: A 71-65 loss to SMU.

Worth noting: With the talent on the Frogs' roster, they could be the surprise team of the league. The toughest task for TCU could be winning on the road.

8. Air Force (8-5): The Falcons are, as usual, one of the top defensive teams in the country. Tim Anderson and Andrew Henke lead the way, but they have missed the departure of several experienced players from last season.

Leading scorer: Tim Anderson (13.2 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Andrew Henke (4.8 rpg)

Best win: A season-opening 67-38 win over Dartmouth.

Worst loss: A 60-50 setback to Colorado.

Worth noting: Air Force's stingy defense will keep it in a lot of games, and the Falcons are tough to beat at home.

9. Colorado State (6-7): The Rams have been up and down this season, with more downs than ups. Senior center Stuart Creason and transfer guard Marcus Walker have been the bright spots.

Leading scorer: Marcus Walker (15.3 ppg)

Leading rebounder: Stuart Creason (6.6 rpg)

Best win: A 69-56 victory over Oregon State.

Worst loss: An 83-69 loss at North Dakota State.

In order to contend: Don't expect it to happen this year. Miles has plenty of work to do.


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