Utah State, fresh off back-to-back Mountain West Conference Tournament championships, has been tabbed to finish third in the conference this season. That’s according to the MW preseason media poll released Wednesday morning.
San Diego State was picked to repeat as the regular-season champion, while Boise State took the No. 2 spot. The Aztecs picked up 14 first-place votes, the Broncos four and USU two.
The Aggies tied for second with Nevada at 12-6 in conference play in 2019-20 before winning the tournament at the buzzer over SDSU (30-2, 17-1). USU’s victory qualified the program for its 30th berth in the NCAA Tournament, but the event was canceled because of COVID-19.
This year, though, coach Craig Smith and the Aggies are saddled with an inexperienced backcourt after the departure of starting guards Sam Merrill, Abel Porter and Diogo Brito.
Merrill, who finished with the second-most points all-time for the Aggies and hit a clutch 3-pointer in the MW tournament to be named its MVP, has applied for the Nov. 18 NBA Draft. Brito signed a pro contract to play in Spain. Porter, meanwhile, transferred to Ohio State but last week disclosed a rare heart condition that will end his basketball career.
Together, they averaged 33.8 points and 9.9 assists per game.
The experience it lacks in the backcourt, USU makes up for in the front court with the return of juniors Justin Bean, a forward, and Neemias Queta, a center.
“They’ve still got one of the best front lines on the West Coast,” Boise coach Leon Rice said. “They’ve got size, they’ve got guys who can score the ball and great motors. That part of the team coming back is very, very valuable.”
The 7-foot Queta earned recognition on the preseason all-Mountain West team. He also took MW Freshman of the Year honors in 2019 but was hampered by a knee injury last season. He nevertheless managed to average 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Bean, meanwhile, is the only returning MW player who averaged a double-double last season (11.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game).
Filling out the preseason poll were UNLV was picked fourth, followed by Colorado State (5), Nevada (6), New Mexico (7), Fresno State (8), Wyoming (9), Air Force (10) and San Jose State (11).
UNLV swept up the Newcomer of the Year award and the Freshman of the Year award by adding David Jenkins Jr. and Nick Blake, respectively. Boise’s Derrick Alston was named the Preseason Player of the Year. The rest of the all-Mountain West team includes Alston, UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton, SDSU’s Matt Mitchell and Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-6 power forward and an all-MW First Team selection, joins small forward Jordan Schakel and center Nathan Mensah as returners from last year’s Aztecs team. SDSU also had the second-best recruiting class in the MW, according to 247Sports.com. Boise, meanwhile, picked up 10 newcomers this season, including five NCAA Division I transfers, to complement the Broncos' four returning starters.
Boise’s coach Rice said he isn’t upset his team didn’t pick up more first-place votes.
“Preseason polls are really a lot to do with the respect of the program as a whole, not just that team, because there are so many unknowns of each team,” he said. “I have a million unknowns on my team. Granted they have good lineage and they look the part, but they’re still unknowns.”
• Utah State also announced Wednesday it had signed Cedar City senior Dallin Grant, a 6-foot-8, 210 pound wing out of Cedar High School.
Grant was a second-team all-state selection as a junior. He led the Reds in scoring that year and as a freshman, when he also led the team in rebounds. For his career, he is averaging 15 points, nine rebounds and two assists per game, while shooting better than 57% from the floor.
MOUNTAIN WEST PRESEASON POLL
First-place votes in parenthesis:
1. San Diego State (14) 211
2. Boise State (4) 188
3. Utah State (2) 177
4. UNLV 160
5. Colorado State 141
6. Nevada 114
7. New Mexico 106
8. Fresno State 93
9. Wyoming 59
10. Air Force 39
11. San Jose State 32