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Basketball, Not Bats: A few early takeaways from the first week of Mountain West hoops

Every team was in action this week! Let’s overreact—or underreact!

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NCAA Basketball: Cal St. Fullerton at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-24 Mountain West men’s basketball season is underway, with all 11 teams in action this week! With each team having played their season opener, let’s hop into a few very early takeaways from the start of the season!

Jaedon LeDee fits perfectly as San Diego State’s new center:

While we saw LeDee at the 5 sporadically last season off the bench, Monday offered the first full-time opportunity we’d see him at center without Nathan Mensah.

Spoiler alert: He blossomed.

In San Diego State’s season debut against Cal State Fullerton, LeDee, standing at 6-foot-9, had 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 10-of-15 from the free throw line, in addition to 10 rebounds, one steal and one block.

His high motor on the offensive glass, defensively and on the interior near the rim were in full display, but perhaps no better depiction of LeDee’s night came on a thunderous coast-to-coast slam midway through the second half when SDSU needed a jolt.

Even though his role was minimal offensively in his first season with San Diego State, don’t be surprised if LeDee leverages his way into the Mountain West Player of the Year conversation this year. The very overreactionary one-game sample suggest it’s on the table.

Shorthanded UNLV suffers worst loss of week:

Air Force and UNLV were the only two MW Teams to suffer losses in their opening game.

Air Force, projected to be the worst team in the conference preseason, as a ranked No. 157 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted-efficiency rankings entering the week and lost by seven to Portland State. The Vikings, coming off a 12-19 season, entered as the 191st-best team, per KenPom, with the 62nd-most returning minutes across Division-I.

UNLV was shorthanded without Kalib Boone (one-game suspension), Keylan Boone and Shane Nowell, but were still 20.5-point favorites against a Southern team coming off a 33-point loss to TCU Monday and were ranked No. 326 (out of 362) in KenPom’s rankings.

The Runnin’ Rebels, ironically enough, got ran out of the building, suffering a 14-point loss and trailed by at least 18-20 for most of Wednesday’s showdown, shooting only 42.6 percent to Southern’s 56.7 percent (34-60; 11-18 3PT).

Last year’s UNLV squad went 11-1 in non-conference play, including winning 10 straight to begin the season. Wednesday’s loss matches their non-conference loss total from a year ago, plus adds a Q4 loss after it went 5-0 in such games last year.

For perspective, the Mountain West collectively went 51-11 in Quad 4 games last year, but seven of those 11 losses came from the bottom-four teams in the conference; in 2021-22, that record spikes to 89-12, with nine of the losses coming from the five-worst teams. That’s not ideal.

Regardless of who was active, it’s a suboptimal start for a team with high hopes heading into the season. Teams such as Boise State and Utah State have had early season blemishes in year’s past and still had long-term success. If anything, it’s better to get the bad eggs out now while the team’s still tinkering with rotations and trying to get their legs under them ... but it’s still a bad loss any way you slice the pie.

The future is bright in Albuquerque, N.M.:

The Lobos earned a 40-point over Johnny Jones’ Texas Southern squad Tuesday evening, led by Donovan Dent, Jamal Mashburn and Jaelen House.

But what I wanted to hammer home was the play of New Mexico’s two freshmen: JT Toppin and Tru Washington.

Toppin was UNM’s best player off the bench Tuesday, tallying 11 points and nine rebounds—in addition to two steals and two blocks in 18 minutes. He was everywhere on the offensive and defensive glass, using his athleticism and instincts to impact both ends of the floor. Washington’s stat line wasn’t as potent, tallying six points and six rebounds in 16 minutes, though was active on the defensive end and showed brief shot-creation chops off the dribble.

Behind veterans Mashburn, House, Dent and Nelly Junior Joseph, the Lobos have serious youth off the bench to help impact their rotation—in addition to seventh-year senior Jemarl Baker Jr. and Sebastian Forsling. It was as encouraging of a debut that you could ask for if you had any looming questions about potential standouts off the bench.

Steve Alford—not a fan of bats:

A colony of bats invaded Lawlor Events Center towards the end of Nevada’s 14-point win over Sacramento State Tuesday, prompting a brief stoppage of play.

It’s fair to say Wolf Pack head coach Steve Alford wasn’t a fan.

This isn’t the first time they’ve made their way inside Lawlor. In fact, in 2017, there were bats reportedly living inside the arena temporarily.

I wonder if these same problems will persist when Nevada’s new arena is built.

On a more serious note—Alford’s right. Nevada might be deeper than it was last year:

Nevada lost two impact rotation players this offseason in Darrion Williams and Will Baker, who transferred to Texas Tech and LSU, respectively.

Though in the Wolf Pack’s opener, they received valiant contributions from backup guard Hunter McIntosh, who struggled after returning from a midseason knee injury last season, plus freshmen Jazz Gardner and Tyler Rolison.

The Wolf Pack may not be as talented, but it appears they’re deeper top-to-bottom at most every position—and this was without Tylan Pope (injury) and Tyler Powell (healthy scratch). There’s continuity with Kenan Blackshear and Jarod Lucas at the head of the snake, but a bigger, more physical Wolf Pack squad could be upon us.

We’ll get a better idea of their depth when they travel to Seattle, Wash, to take on Washington this weekend.

Sam Griffin, Trey Anderson stand out for Wyoming and San Jose State, respectively:

Wyoming had a disastrous 2022-23 season without Graham Ike for the entire season. San Jose State, meanwhile, was on the polar opposite of the spectrum, having their best season in over three decades with Player of the Year Omari Moore.

Though without Ike and Hunter Maldonado, there were plenty of questions about who would stand out for the Pokes. The answer was Sam Griffin and Akuel Kot, who combined for 44 of Wyoming’s 104 points in their 48-point victory over Northern New Mexico.

Moore graduated, leaving questions about who would step in the rotation entering 2023-24. SJSU gutted an eight-point over UC Irvine, a fringe top-100 program that made the NIT and went 23-12 a season ago.

Though the Spartans—without Robert Vaihola and Garrett Anderson due to injury—had four double-figure scorers in Tuesday’s win. But perhaps nobody stood out more than Trey Anderson, who had 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Alvaro Cardenas orchestrated its offense well while Myron Amey Jr. and Tibet Gorener also provided worthwhile contributions on both ends.