We are still five months from the tip-off of 2016-17 season, but it’s never too early to take a look at the most important players from the Mountain West. Remember these names, because it won’t be the last time you hear about these players.
Air Force Falcons: Jacob Van
Our last impression of Jacob Van was a 37-point outburst in a triple overtime thriller against UNLV in the MW Tournament. The incoming sophomore bursted onto the scene down the stretch, averaging 19.4 points per game in the last seven games of the season despite failing to record more than eight points in his first 28 career games. Expect a lot more from Mr. Van this upcoming season.
Boise State Broncos: Paris Austin
The heavily recruited point guard from Oakland, CA showed glimpses of the future this past season for BSU. However, the Boise State coaching staff will hope that Paris Austin can take his game to the next level in 2017. With the losses of five senior guards, the 5’11” sophomore will determine whether the Broncos regress towards the middle of the pack or remain in contention for a MW title.
Colorado State Rams: Gian Clavell
CSU fans continue to await the NCAA’s decision on granting a medical hardship waiver for elite scorer Gian Clavell. The former JUCO transfer averaged 20.8 points per game before shoulder and hand injuries prematurely ended his season after 10 games. Similar to Josh Adams with Wyoming this past season, no player will mean more to his team than Clavell will with Colorado State in 2017. That is, of course, if the NCAA declares eligibility to the Puerto Rican, who will be turning 27 in August.
Fresno State Bulldogs: Deshon Taylor
Replacing Marvelle Harris’ 20.7/4.7/4.5 slash line will be no easy task, but UMKC transfer Deshon Taylor could help soften the blow for the 2016 Mountain West champs. The 6’3” guard averaged 7.6 points per game with UMKC before sitting out the 2015-16 season due to transfer rules. In order for Fresno to repeat as MW champs, Taylor might be an important piece.
Nevada Wolf Pack: Marcus Marshall
Despite appearing to be in rebuilding mode prior to last season, first year coach Eric Musselman helped guide UNR to 24 wins and a CBI Tournament title. The Wolf Pack appear ready to compete with San Diego State in 2017, and Missouri State transfer Marcus Marshall could be the key ingredient. Marshall is an incredibly pure shooter, nailing 45.6% of his three-point attempts and 89.9% of his free throws as a junior. Marshall sat out this past season due to transfer rules.
New Mexico Lobos: Obij Aget
We already know of the best duo in the Mountain West - Elijah Brown and Tim Williams - but Craig Neal will need this big man to shine for the Lobos to compete for an NCAA bid in 2017. Aget finished 2016 with a 64% shooting percentage, but his defense will be needed for New Mexico. The Lobos can score as well as anyone, but the defensive intensity must be improved during a decisive year in Albuquerque.
San Diego State Aztecs: Malik Pope
The x-factor of all x-factors, Malik Pope, has returned for his junior season after originally expecting to be a one-and-done prospect. Pope has displayed glimpses of brilliance in his first two seasons, but is far from scratching his surface as a future superstar. When Pope scores eight or more points, the Aztecs are 16-1, with the only loss coming against Fresno State in the MW Final. When Pope is on his ‘A’ game, SDSU is nearly unbeatable.
San Jose State Spartans: Brandon Clarke
The Spartans are at least a few seasons away from sniffing an NCAA bid, but improvement is imperative for Dave Wojcik’s job security. Brandon Clarke was a bright spot in a fairly difficult season for the Spartans, as the freshman forward averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. If Clarke can take a sizable step in the right direction in 2017, he could play a major part in San Jose’s rebuilding project.
Utah State Aggies: Jalen Moore
Senior forward Jalen Moore withdrew from the NBA Draft in May, and will carry the torch for the Aggies once more. Moore was unable to build off of an outstanding sophomore campaign (seeing a slight decline in shooting percentages), but is still the go-to guy for Tim Duryea’s squad. Moore recorded double-digit points in all but three games last season, but it will be his defensive output that could put Utah State in the 20+ win range in 2017.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels: Cheickna Dembele
First year head coach Marvin Menzies has embraced a sinking ship in Vegas. Mali native Cheickna Dembele, a 6’10” physical freak, might end up being the most important recruit of Menzies’ tenure. Dembele will assume a huge role with the loss of Stephen Zimmerman to the NBA Draft, but he appears to be ready for the challenge. Like many other players on this list, defense will dictate the success of Dembele’s season, who is already a fairly decent rim protector. Dembele is extremely raw, but has the physical tools to help rejuvenate UNLV basketball in the present as well as the future.
Wyoming Cowboys: Jason McManamen
Josh Adams 2.0? Here’s another talented scorer who might need to single-handedly guide the Cowboys through stretches in 2017. Despite Adams’ heroics in his senior season, McManamen finished with significantly higher effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage ratings. Wyoming is in full rebuild mode after the losses of Josh Adams and head coach Larry Shyatt, but the senior McManamen could at least make things interesting in Laramie.