It took a bit longer than the folks in Albuquerque had hoped, but it appears fourth-year head coach Ritchie McKay finally has New Mexico back on track.
The Lobos failed to reach the postseason in both of McKay’s first two years. But thanks in great part to the play of forward Danny Granger, who transferred to New Mexico from Bradley after McKay arrived, the Lobos bounced back with a 26–7 record, won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and went to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1999.
The versatile Granger must be replaced, along with 3-point shooting specialist Troy DeVries, who was a third team All-MWC pick, as well as forward Alfred Neale, who started 13 games.
However, McKay has two key starters back in workmanlike 6-9 senior center David Chiotti, who was a third-team All-MWC pick, and senior swingman Mark Walters, an honorable mention all-league pick who can play four different positions. Walters underwent back surgery in the offseason but is expected to be ready to go in the fall.
Whether the Lobos can make a run at another NCAA bid, however, could very well depend on how well two highly touted junior college transfers -- forward Joel Box and swingman Justin Holt -- can make the transition to Division I basketball, and how well point guard Kris Collins can bounce back from a broken foot that sidelined him the final half of the season.
6. TCU (21–14, 8–8 C- USA)
The Horned Frogs make the transition from Conference USA, where they finished a very respectable 8–8 a year ago en route to an overall record of 21–14, to the Mountain West Conference this year.
Fourth-year head coach Neil Dougherty, a former assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas who is regarded as an excellent recruiter, must replace five seniors from that squad, including point guard Corey Santee, a third team All-Conference USA choice, and shooting guard Marcus Shropshire.
The strength of the team figures to be a frontline led by 6-9 junior center Femi Ibikunle, a two-year starter who has improved steadily during his time in Fort Worth, and 6-6 power forward Chudi Chinweze, who was averaging 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season before going down with a knee injury. Senior guard Nile Murry, a transfer from Temple who averaged 12.5 points per game last season, is the Frogs’ top returning scorer.
7. Colorado State (11–17, 3–11)
For the first time since arriving in Fort Collins six years ago, Dale Layer won’t have Matt Nelson’s large 7-1 frame nearby. Nelson, who led the Rams to an NCAA tournament berth in 2003, redshirted during Layer’s first season and battled a series of injuries during the remainder of his career. But when healthy, he was one of the league’s most dominating players.
Don’t feel too sorry for Layer about losing his star center, however. One thing Colorado State doesn’t lack is size.
Jason Smith, a 7-footer who plays small forward, was the MWC Freshman of the Year last season when he averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Another 7-footer, sophomore Stuart Creason, also started part of the time last year.
The Rams, who finished a disappointing 11–17 during an injury-plagued 2004-05 season, also added highly touted 6-10 junior college star Michael Harrison.
A big key for Layer and company will be the return of swingman Freddy Robinson, who sat out the entire 2004-05 campaign with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Robinson, an athletic slasher, exploded for 31 points in a game against UNLV as a sophomore.
8. Wyoming (15–13, 7–7)
The natives are getting a little restless in Laramie, where Steve McClain’s Cowboys, who earned a share of the Mountain West Conference title in 2001 and won the title outright in ’02, failed to make the postseason for the second straight year.
With the loss of four starters, including first team All-MWC pick and all-time conference assist leader Jay Straight, the Pokes could be looking at a hat trick.
The good news is 6-10 forward Justin Williams, who broke the conference single-season blocks record with 81, is back after earning MWC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Derek Wabbington, a 6-9 senior who came off the bench to average 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds, also returns.
The big question mark will be: Who replaces four-year starter Straight? Brad Jones, a sophomore transfer from Arkansas-Fort Smith Junior College, and highly touted prep recruit Brandon Ewing from Chicago will vie for that honor.
The Cowboys will also need big years out of guard Steve Leven and swingman Kevin Lewis to have any chance of making to the postseason.
9. BYU (9–21, 3–11)
First-year head coach Dave Rose has only one place to go after replacing Fresno State-bound Steve Cleveland in mid-April.
The Cougars, who were forced to use 18 starting lineups last season due to injuries and inconsistent play from a young squad, finished a disappointing 9–21 overall and just 3–11 in Mountain West Conference play. This just a year after the Cougars went 21–9 and played in the NCAA tournament.
Just two months after getting the job, Rose then found out that 6-8 junior forward Garner Meads, a former McDonald’s All-American who was one of the top recruits in school history, had decided to quit basketball for at least this upcoming season following a rash of injuries.
Rose does have some players to build around in junior guard Austin Ainge -- the son of former NBA and BYU star Danny Ainge -- who was an honorable mention all-conference pick last season, and freshman swingman Lee Cummard, who decided to return early from a two-year LDS Church mission.