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Newcomers crucial, on and off court
By Phil Miller, Special to CNNSI.com
|Rick Majerus is back with the Utes after a one-year hiatus.
Number of consecutive winning seasons by under-the-radar Colorado State, a school record and longest current streak in the conference, but one that figures to end this season
"You miss a year and people think you change. You don't change. I'm just back."
-- Rick Majerus, who rejoins the Utes after missing last season to
attend to his mother's health and his own.
The competition for Newcomer of the Year may be as intense in the
Mountain West this season as for the conference championship. At least,
there are more preseason contenders.
New Mexico has added a 7-footer, Moustapha Diagne of Senegal, to work
amid Fran Fraschilla's impressive collection of speedy guards. Marcus
Banks, the best small man in junior college hoops last year, figures to
give Charlie Spoonhour's offense at UNLV a jolt of adrenaline.
State has a trio of new players -- Tony Bland, Mike Mackell and Brandon
Smith -- that may be as good as any the Aztecs had a year ago. Even
stripped-down BYU welcomes back church missionary
Mark Bigelow, technically not a newcomer since he was Freshman of the
Year in 1999, but still an exciting new face for the defending
But the newcomers who are most likely to affect the race atop the
league standings aren't players at all. Wyoming and Utah, conference
heavyweights who were upstaged last season by co-champ BYU, should be
better in 2001-2002 because of the coaches on their sidelines.
The Utes' addition is the most obvious, and the most critical. Rick
Majerus, who missed all but the season opener a year ago because of
health problems and his mother's illness, is back to work his
better-than-the-sum-of-their-parts magic on his club, which suffered a
what rates as a "down" year -- a share of its seventh straight league
title, but no NCAA berth -- in his absence.
Wyoming hopes its addition leads to subtraction on the scoreboard.
Assistant coach Heath Schroyer, who helped design and implement the
league's best defense (62.7 points per game) at BYU, switched
allegiances over the summer and will work under Steve McClain in Laramie
Schroyer will handle Wyoming's major failing; with a chance
to win the outright championship in their regular-season finale last
season, the Cowboys allowed UNLV to score 106 points in a difficult
loss. If the Cowboys, who own the league's most feared front line in
Marcus Bailey, Josh Davis and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, are motivated to play
defense half as hard as they attack the basket, Wyoming should tear
through a soft non-conference schedule and show up in the national
"I'm a little uncomfortable that Heath stayed within the conference,
but there's no doubt that he's got a great opportunity to help Wyoming,"
said BYU coach Steve Cleveland, who brought Schroyer with him from
Fresno City College four years ago.
The league's biggest question, though, is whether the Mountain West
will have more than one NCAA tournament opportunity. Thanks to weak RPI
numbers and few notable non-conference games, much less victories,
dropped the MWC into the ranks of automatics-only.
"It was a problem that we asked our members to address, and tried to
help them address, by scheduling better games," said commissioner Craig
Thompson. "It's a difficult undertaking because some conferences view
our teams as dangerous games, particularly on the road. It's a circular
argument: Our RPI is low because people won't play us, but they won't
play us as long as our RPI is low."
Still, there are some big-name programs on the league's schedules this
year, like Stanford (which will play BYU and New Mexico), Duke (against
San Diego State), Cincinnati and Texas (both to face UNLV).
be enough talent to earn at least one at-large berth this season, which
should go to the runner-up of the Utah-Wyoming battle; figure SDSU, UNLV
and New Mexico, a darkhorse that could challenge the big two for the
title if Ruben Douglas and Marlon Parmer get enough help, to be on the
bubble come Selection Sunday.
Colorado State, which graduated most of its shooters, and Air Force,
undersized but now comfortable with coach Joe Scott's backdoor offense,
will fight to stay out of the cellar.
Two seasons ago, Marcus Banks was the backcourt mate of point guard
Maurice Baker at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. Banks watched
last year as his former teammate blossomed into the Big 12 Newcomer of
the Year at Oklahoma State, finishing in the top 10 in scoring, assists
That's the sort of impact Banks would like to make in his hometown of
Las Vegas this year for UNLV. The 6-1 guard, who led a Baker-less Dixie
to a 34-2 record last season and earned NJCAA all-America honors,
committed to the Rebels before former coach Bill Bayno was fired. He
briefly thought about going elsewhere, but new coach Charlie Spoonhour
convinced him to stay.
Banks played a physical, attack-the-basket style in junior college that
will likely be toned down against bigger Division I players. Still,
Spoonhour likes Banks' get-out-of-my-way mentality. "I
expect the adjustment to this level will be very quick for Marcus," the coach said. "He's
so explosive, not many people can guard him."
HOT: The Jon H. Huntsman Center
Utah hasn't lost a conference game
there since January 1996, a 44-game streak that is the nation's longest.
NOT: UNLV G Jermaine Lewis
Projected to either start or be scoring sixth man after averaging 9.3 points as a sophomore, Lewis will miss at least two months and possibly the entire season after surgery on his right knee.
HOT: BYU coach Steve Cleveland
After delivering an NCAA berth just four
years after taking over 1-25 program, he became the first basketball
coach in school history to sign a contract longer than one year.
NOT: Utah G Kevin Bradley
The Utes' leading scorer and most
athletic player a year ago didn't keep his grades up and likely won't
play at Utah again.
San Diego State didn't exactly test itself with its non-conference
schedule a year ago -- the Aztecs didn't even leave California until mid-
January -- so a little more intensity was probably in order. Intensity. Not insanity.
But the Aztecs overcorrected, trading in one of the league's easiest
schedules for what is almost certainly its most difficult. Steve Fisher
will get to see some of his old Big Ten buddies, since they visit Lubbock
to take on Bob Knight and Texas Tech, then Las Cruces to take on Lou
Henson and New Mexico State. SDSU gets Jerry Tarkanian and Fresno State
at home, then flies to Hawaii for a game. And just as they are
getting over their jet lag, they head to Durham to take on Duke.
"I wanted to harden us for what we'll see in the Mountain West," said
Utah assistant coach Dick Hunsaker
Thrust into unexpected spotlight
when Majerus took a year off, he held team together and won a share
of MWC title, then moved back to supporting role when the big man
Wyoming F Marcus Bailey
Easily overlooked on a team with good
interior players, he quietly led the league in scoring as a sophomore,
but he's also a good rebounder and the Cowboys' best defender.
San Diego State F Myron Epps
For two years, he was the lone
threat on horrid Aztec teams, but now has willingly turned offensive
focus over to others in order to make the team better.
The race for the Mountain West championship figures to
come down to the season's last day, or maybe even the last shot. Utah and
Wyoming, the surest bets to sit atop the league, close the season with a
showdown in Laramie on March 2.
The home team has won 13 straight games in this matchup, dating back to
January 1993, so a road victory by either team -- they also meet in Salt
Lake City on Feb. 4 -- could be decisive in the league race, the MWC
tournament seedings, even on NCAA Selection Sunday.
It's never easy, however, as the Utes learned last January. After
building a 13-point second-half lead, Utah melted down, going scoreless
for five minutes as the Cowboys roared back for a 78-77 overtime victory.
Even though its campus will be used to house athletes, Utah
plans to play home games against Air Force and New Mexico during the 2002
Winter Olympics in February. The Falcons will bunk at nearby Hill Air
Force Base during the road trip. ... Point guard Chris McMillian has
started every game in his three seasons at Wyoming, but the streak is in
jeopardy. The senior from southern California broke his fibula while
playing softball in July, and there's a chance he might not be ready by
opening night. ... The Lobos will play 16 of their first 17 games in New
Mexico, 15 at home and one at New Mexico State. The Lobos only real road
trip before late January is a Nov. 28 game at Cal. ... Utah forward Phil
Cullen spent the summer pitching for a Seattle Mariners' rookie-league
team. ... San Diego State guard Al Faux was suspended indefinitely in
late October for breaking unspecified team rules, though
Fisher expects him to return at some point. ... Colorado State graduated
all four of its leading scorers, or roughly 80 percent of its offense.
... New Mexico has finished at .500 or better for 18 straight seasons,
sixth-longest current streak in the nation.
Phil Miller covers the Mountain West for the Salt Lake Tribune. His "This Week in the Mountain West" column will appear weekly during the season.