Last year the Mountain West had an unprecedented seven teams in the post-season. The top four seeds — Boise State, UNLV, Wyoming, and Fresno State — all return a roster of veterans and can be expected to contend once again.
The middle three teams — Colorado State, New Mexico, and Nevada — all experienced heavy losses to their rosters. CSU and UNM signed multiple veteran transfers, hoping to avoid the dreaded rebuilding year. Either one of them could surprise people. But, with only three experienced players, Nevada is likely to drop out of the middle tier.
The gap between the bottom four teams and the rest of the league was pretty wide last year. Air Force and Utah State are more likely to close the gap than San Jose State and San Diego State. But none of those four teams appears to be in the title chase.
Unlike last year when there was no clear favorite, this year defending champion Boise State has established itself as the team to beat. But they are not a team that can expect to dominate the league. In fact the regular season champion is likely to lose three or four games once again. And multiple teams will have a shot at the automatic NCAA bid in the post-season tournament.
Here, in predicted order, is a brief summary of each team:
#1 Boise State has been to the NCAA tournament three of the last four years. And they have everyone back to defend their title except their versatile forward, Shalen Shaw. But those returning players, including all-conference guards Riley Lupfer and Marta Hermida, will be pushed by some highly-regarded newcomers. With injured center Marijke Vanderschaaf returning, the Broncos have depth at every position. Their biggest problem might be integrating the new players into the rotation without messing up the chemistry of the returning players.
The Broncos celebrated their historic 2017-18 campaign this past weekend! Check out the 🎥, which highlights the contributions of seniors Shay Shaw and Brooke Wheeler, as well as the team's Mountain West double 🏆🏆 and third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years! #BleedBlue pic.twitter.com/uo8aKTyRFH
— Boise State WBB (@BroncoSportsWBB) April 30, 2018
#2 UNLV only lost one starter from last year’s team that finished as co-champions of the MWC. But without all-MWC and Defensive Player of the Year Brooke Johnson, they appear to have lost some ground to Boise State. Still, four senior starters return, including all-MWC center Katie Powell and veteran point guard Nikki Wheatley. Plug in transfer LaTecia Smith, the third-leading scorer on a strong Seton Hall team, and the Rebels look to be Boise’s biggest challenger.
#3 Wyoming lost a golden opportunity to win their first MWC title last year when they closed the season with two losses to Air Force and Boise State. With the loss of conference Player of the Year, Liv Roberts, that opportunity may not come again. But they should at least be in the hunt with the return of three starters and MWC 6th Player, Marta Gomez. They will be led by junior Taylor Rusk, who has grown into one of the best all-around players in the league. She is surrounded by a mix of upperclassmen and freshmen with lots of international experience.
#4 Fresno State surprised a lot of people last year with their precocious freshmen. They were one of the best shooting teams in the conference, but lacked the inside presence to rebound and defend the more physical teams. With everyone back, including league-leading scorer Candice White, the Bulldogs have lots of scoring options. Plus, they have the depth to aggressively extend their defense beyond the arc. But to match up with the top posts in the league, they will need more contribution from their only true center, Katelin Noyer.
#5 New Mexico got off to a fast 11-0 start last year, but faltered in conference play. Seven players who accounted for two-thirds of the offense are gone, including four starters. The new-look Lobos start with all-conference post Jaisa Nunn, who averaged a double-double. But the cheese no longer stands alone with the addition of shot-blocking transfer, Nike McClure. Kansas transfer, Aisia Robertson, will likely replace Cherise Beynon as the floor general. The remaining rotation is up for grabs among three sophomores and five freshmen. The Lobos will be faster than ever before, but to contend, they will need their underclassmen to defend and score efficiently like veterans.
— Lobo Women's Basketball (@UNMLoboWBB) October 4, 2018
#6 Colorado State saw their four-year reign atop the MWC standings come to an end last year. Afterwards, eight players graduated or left the program, leaving the Rams with a major rebuild. The core of the returnees is hustling seniors Annie Brady and Myanne Hamm and sophomores Grace Colaivalu, Lore Devos, and Liah Davis. JC All-American Mollie Mounsey gives them an outside scoring threat. After that, it is anyone’s guess as to who will play. But you can be certain that Coach Williams will have them playing stingy defense and efficient match-up offense.
#7 Air Force rose above their usual place at the bottom of the standings last year with a late season surge. Unfortunately, three starters from that team graduated, leaving the cadets with a rather young squad. Sophomores Kaelin Immel and Emily Conroe are proven scorers, and junior Kassady Huffman returns from injury to give the fly girls some much-needed height. There is no reason to believe Air Force will slip back down to the cellar but they will need help from newcomers to climb further up in the standings.
#8 Utah State is coming off a disappointing year. Despite having everyone back, they played worse than the preceding year when they were the youngest team in the league. Rachel Brewster had an especially tough year as conference foes focused their defense on stopping her from scoring. But Hailey Bassett (now Meacham) blossomed in the second half of the season. With everyone back and a few new faces, the Aggies are looking to bounce back but they will need to improve their outside shooting to break out of the bottom half of the standings.
Lobos take a shot, Hailey Bassett says, "NOPE!" pic.twitter.com/y74cvsA2gk
— USU Women's Hoops (@USUWBasketball) February 15, 2018
#9 Nevada moved up from 10th to 7th last year and had a strong post-season. But five of their top eight players are gone. Senior Jade Redmon has the mid-range skills to replace T. Moe as their “go to” scorer. Senior Terae Briggs brings experience and athleticism to the front line and combo guard Camariah King provides a deep threat. But beyond those three, there is virtually no experience to call upon. Their six freshmen will have to grow up fast to avoid a U-turn back to the bottom of the league.
#10 San Jose State had to replace four starters last year and it showed as they fell from 8th place to 11th. This year they must replace their two best players, MyMy Ladd and Taylor Turney. But they have some experienced players and a couple of sharp-shooters in Analyss Benally and Megan Anderson to build upon. Their team is built for speed and transition play, but the lack of a true post puts them at a disadvantage when their opponent controls the tempo.
#11 San Diego State lost five of their top six players from last year to graduation. All-MWC freshman Naje Murray will likely face tougher defenses this year unless someone steps up to take the pressure off of her. The Aztecs have a choice of going big with 6-6 Naomi Ekwidike or going quick with 6-1 Baylee Vanderdoes. Either way, they are in danger of dropping to the cellar.
BACK-TO-BACK threes for the Aztecs!! ☔☔
Najé Murray's three puts the Aztecs up 57-50 with 8:40 left. pic.twitter.com/pvCfm6fqQF
— SDSU Aztec Women’s Basketball (@AztecWBB) February 24, 2018
Jaisa Nunn (UNM) – Player of the Year
Candice White (FSU)
Riley Lupfer (BSU)
Katie Powell (UNLV)
Taylor Rusk (Wyo)
Marta Hermida (BSU)
Nikki Wheatley (UNLV)
Kaelin Immel (AFA)
Jade Redmon (Nev)
Marta Gomez (Wyo)
Newcomers (Transfers and JUCOs) to watch:
Latecia Smith (Seton Hall to UNLV) – Newcomer of the Year
Aisia Robertson (Kansas to New Mexico)
Nike McClure (Wash. State to New Mexico)
Jayde Christopher (Kansas to Boise State)
Mollie Mounsey (JC A-A to Colorado State)
Lydia Friberg (JC to Fresno State)
Freshmen to watch:
Jade Loville (BSU) – ESPN #72, PN #83 – Freshman of the Year
Justice Ethridge (UNLV) – ESPN #82, PN #129
Jayla Everett (UNM) – ESPN #94, PN #126
Mallory Adams (SDSU) – ESPN 90 rating, PN 4-star
Haley Jones (AFA) – ESPN 90 rating