Upon hearing Nevada received all but one of the 19 first-place votes from conference media in the preseason poll at the Mountain West Basketball Media Summit last month in Las Vegas, Wyoming coach Allen Edwards interrupted a reporter’s pending question with one of his own.
“Who else got the other one?” Edwards wondered aloud.
San Diego State was the answer, but that was beside the point. Edwards’ inquiry doubled as a moment of near disbelief, further feeding the storyline that’s dominating the conference as it embarks on another season: It’s Nevada and everyone else.
The voting shows how overwhelming of a favorite the Wolf Pack are to capture another MW regular-season championship this season, and it’s not just because Nevada has won the last two. The Wolf Pack have nearly all of their key pieces back from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including league preseason Player of the Year Caleb Martin. Martin’s twin brother, Cody, and senior forward Jordan Caroline made up 60 percent of the preseason All-MW team voted on by the media.
The immense respect for the Wolf Pack isn’t just a regional thing. Nevada, which had its tournament run ended with a 69-68 loss to Loyola Chicago, came in at No. 7 in The Associated Press preseason top 25, becoming the first MW team to ever crack the top 10 in the preseason poll.
“I think a lot of the hype right now that we’re receiving, a little bit of it has to do with how we finished the year for sure,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “We had a great ending to the season and were a basket away from being in the Elite Eight.”
It also has to do with the work Nevada has done within the conference under Musselman, a former NBA coach who’s accumulated an 81-29 record in Reno entering his fourth season at the helm. The Wolf Pack finished 10-8 in the league in Musselman’s first season before a four-game improvement in 2016-17 gave them the league’s regular-season title. The Martin twins joined the mix last season after transferring from North Carolina State, and Nevada only got stronger, repeating with a 15-3 mark in the conference.
“That’s one of the points I’d like to make is Nevada was really good last year (at the beginning),” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I just think they were underrated.”
Nevada was one of just two MW teams to make the NCAA Tournament last year along with San Diego State. The Aztecs were picked to finish second in the conference, but will anybody really challenge Nevada’s bid for a three-peat?
San Diego State might be the best bet. Leading scorers Malik Pope and Trey Kell are gone, but the Aztecs return 3-point specialist Devin Watson (12.2 points per game) and one of the league’s most skilled bigs in Jalen McDaniels to go with another strong recruiting class under second-year coach Brian Dutcher.
Boise State was the runner-up to Nevada last season after going 13-5 in MW play, but the Broncos lost three starters off last year’s NIT team, including the conference’s leading scorer and first-round draft pick Chandler Hutchison. New Mexico, which was picked to finish third in the league after finishing there a season ago, has the league’s preseason Newcomer of the Year in UConn transfer Vance Jackson. But the Lobos lost their leading scorer and the league’s top rebounder in former five-star signee Brandon McCoy, who left for the NBA after one season in Albuquerque.
Fresno State will be an interesting team to watch under first-year coach Justin Hutson with preseason All-MW selection Deshon Taylor back after leading the Bulldogs in scoring last season. Taylor will get some backcourt help with two Division I transfers in Braxton Huggins (New Mexico State) and Noah Blackwell (Long Beach State).
UNLV and Wyoming each have players that can carry a team. Shakir Juiston, the MW’s leader in field-goal percentage last season, averaged a double-double with 14.1 points and 10 rebounds in his first season with the Runnin’ Rebels. The league’s top returning scorer, Justin James, who joined Taylor, Caroline and the Martin twins on the preseason All-MW team, is a legit Player of the Year candidate at Wyoming after averaging 18.9 points, six rebounds and 3.1 assists last season.
Colorado State and Utah State are starting over with new coaches. Air Force hasn’t finished better than ninth in any of the last five seasons while San Jose State went winless in conference play a season ago.
But as good as Nevada has been against the rest of the league, the Wolf Pack haven’t been invincible. Wyoming handed Nevada its first MW loss last season in Laramie while UNLV went to Reno and handed the Wolf Pack their lone home loss. San Diego State picked Nevada off twice, the latter coming in the Mountain West tournament as the Aztecs claimed the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament by winning the tournament title.
“Every night, you have to be ready to compete. There are ups and downs,” Edwards said. “Nevada is Nevada, but we lost to them at their place and beat them at our place. There is no, ‘Oh, we’re just going to show up and win.’”
Nobody else in the league is ready to concede anything either.
“I think they put their pants on the same way we do,” Air Force forward Ryan Swan said.
But it’s hard to consistently beat talent, and Nevada has gobs of it. Caleb Martin (18.9 points), Cody Martin (14.0) and Caroline (17.7), all of whom tested the NBA Draft waters in the spring before ultimately withdrawing their names, were the Wolf Pack’s top three scorers last season. The 6-foot-7 Caroline also averaged a team-best 8.6 rebounds.
Their versatility can create matchup problems at any spot on the floor. After playing at power forward most of last season, Cody is moving to the point for the time being in place of Lindsey Drew, who’s still recovering from a ruptured Achilles he suffered last season. Caroline, who was the Wolf Pack’s primary center last season, is moving to small forward.
Nevada has to replace fourth-leading scorer Kendall Stephens as well as sixth-man Josh Hall, who transferred, but there’s an influx of young talent that can help with that, starting with freshman Jordan Brown. The first five-star signee in program history, the 6-10 Brown was a McDonald’s All-American last season after averaging 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks at California’s Prolific Prep.
“We’re a talented team for sure,” Musselman said. “We’ve got a lot of guys back. We’re a veteran team. But we’ve got a lot of moving parts and new pieces that we’ve got to try to figure out how they’re going to fit.”
Having that amount of skill makes for the kind of problem any coach would love to have, but Nevada isn’t exactly celebrating another MW championship just yet. The Wolf Pack know teams are gunning for them, and they’re brushing aside any notion of a gap that’s perceived to exist between them and the rest of the league.
“We don’t want people to think they’re doing the chasing all the time,” Cody Martin said. “We’re still hungry to play a lot of these other teams, too. So we don’t want them to think just because of the national attention and things like that that it’s just one-sided. We’re looking forward to playing a lot of teams, too.”