1. NEW MEXICO LOBOS. This team is going to be a monster. Last year they won 22 games and just missed out on an NCAA bid, and this year they return basically their whole team including basically automatic MWC Player of the Year as long as he doesn't go crazy or get suspended or anything in Drew Gordon. The only player they're missing off last year's squad is Dairese Gary, which is actually a big deal because he was there point guard and was all-conference last season, but they have a great nucleus back and plenty of options to take over the point, including Demetrius Walker, a combo guard who transferred from USC and was the main subject of the recent book about AAU ball. Really though, assuming they get competent point guard play this should be a sweet 16 team.
2. UNLV RUNNIN' REBELS. The Rebels lose Tre'Von Willis and Derrick Jasper and they will be missed, Willis especially, but UNLV has plenty coming back and anything less than an NCAA bid will be a big-time failure for first year coach Dave Rice. Combo guard Oscar Bellfield is a potential stud, especially since he'll be playing more SG with Willis out plus the emergence of Anthony Marshall, and Chace Stanback is probably the best player in the conference outside of Drew Gordon and can do it all. The teams biggest issue, and the real problem for them all year, will be in the frontcourt. They were weak there last year as well and made due, but five of their six leading rebounders last year were perimeter players. I'm predicting first round NCAA exit here.
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4. COLORADO STATE RAMS. You know how when the Gophers were looking for a coach everybody was all like "Tim Miles blah blah blah" and mostly it was just because NDSU beat Monson's Gophers? Well maybe he's pretty decent, because the Rams have gone from 0-16 in conference play a few years ago, to a CBI berth two seasons ago, to an NIT bid last year. That may not sound all that great, but remember this is a CSU program that hasn't done shit since 2003. This year could be tough because they lose their two leading scorers and front court starters, so it will be up to some reserves to step up - or this could be a breakout season for redshirt freshman center Chad Calcaterra, a name you probably recognize because he either spurned the Gophers or they spurned him, I don't remember. And this is probably too many words about CSU already so I'll just say there's enough talent on the perimeter to get them to fourth and another probably NIT bid - tough to see an NCAA bid coming just yet.
5. AIR FORCE FALCONS. Air Force has gone from 0 conference wins, to one, and then jumped to six last season and thank god because while a super slow paced team that wins is kind of beautiful in a weird Betty White kind of way, a super slow paced terrible team is like spending time in a nursing home. I don't remember where I was going with this. Go Air Force!
7. TCU HORNED FROGS. TCU has something the two teams below them don't have, and that's a standout player and that's good enough for 7th place. The Horned Frogs have Hank Thorns who led the country in assists at 7.0 per game and did it with an impressive 2.71 assist-to-turnover ratio, all while averaging double figures in points per game. He's not much of a shooter, but he did notch 4 double-doubles last year of the points/assists variety which I'm going to assume led the nation. Unfortunately TCU's actual best player, and Thorns back court mate, Ronnie Moss was suspended last year and transferred out, or this would have been a legitimately exciting and intriguing back court. Oh well. Not like anybody cares if it isn't football anyway.
7. BOISE STATE COWBOYS. If you're anything like me, and god help you if you are, you don't know dick about Boise State's basketball program because other than Utah State and Magnum Rolle nobody pays attention to the WAC. According to what I read, they were a CBI team last year but are losing their top 4 scorers from last season and returning just one guy who played more than 18 minutes per game last season. There's a bunch of blah blah newcomers, but really it's going to be a rough one for Boise. They're stepping up in class conference-wise at the same time their team is taking a step backwards, but at least they aren't last.
8. WYOMING COWBOYS. In all my years of college basketball watching I'm almost positive I've never seen a Wyoming game. That's probably a good thing. The good news is that they hired a new coach, Larry Shyatt, who was part of the mini-Florida dynasty that was going on. The bad news is that when they hired him their best two players decided to split. Basically they're now relying on a midget point guard, a guy who has had two knee surgeries in as many years, and Larry Nance's kid. I don't think I'll be seeing them on TV any time soon.