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3 new coaches inherit high expectations

UNLV, Utah, AFA tabbed as the teams to beat this season

DENVER — There are three new men's basketball coaches — UNLV's Lon Kruger, Utah's Ray Giacoletti and Air Force's Chris Mooney — in the Mountain West Conference this season, but none of them will have the chance to ease into their respective jobs.

Right off the bat, expectations are high.

The Runnin' Rebels, Utes and Falcons are projected to finish 1-2-3 in the league, according to the preseason media poll released Sunday at the MWC's media day in the Mile High City.

While Charlie Spoonhour, Rick Majerus and Joe Scott are all gone, they each left their successors plenty of talented and experienced players.

"I've been very excited about the basketball IQ and work ethic of the guys that have been there for a couple of years," said Giacoletti, who previously coached at Eastern Washington. "We're not very deep but if we stay healthy, we have a chance to be very good."

The Utes return a number of their top players from a year ago, including Andrew Bogut, Tim Drisdom, Richard Chaney and Bryant Markson. Point guard Marc Jackson, who did not play last season, is back, too.

"Certainly, Ray's going to do things differently than Rick did," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland, who now has the longest tenure of any MWC coach and whose team was picked fifth in the preseason poll. "But there are a lot of different ways to have success. I don't think there's any exact model for winning games. I know Ray well. He knows he's got a good team. They know how to guard; they know how to play."

Prior to being hired at UNLV, Kruger spent four seasons in the NBA as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and an assistant with the New York Knicks. As a college coach, he was a two-time Southeastern Conference coach of the year at Florida and led the 1994 Gators to the Final Four. He also coached Illinois for four seasons.

Kruger, who has three returning starters, is somewhat familiar with the MWC. "I know the coaches in this league are highly respected and are very good," he said. "I know it's tough to win on the road. It's a very balanced league."

Of the three teams with new coaches, Air Force will be least affected by the change at the top. Mooney served as Scott's assistant for four seasons and the Falcons will continue to run the "Princeton" offense. Mooney will also benefit from the return of Nick Welch and Tim Keller.

A year ago, Air Force stunned observers and attracted national attention by claiming the league championship with a 12-2 league record. That performance serves as a reminder to other teams that are projected to end up in the lower tier of the conference this season.

"They picked Air Force to finish in last place last season," said BYU guard Mike Hall. "I'm not worried about (the poll) at all. No games have been played yet. Anybody can win it."

"I figured we were somewhere near the bottom. Fifth? That's probably higher than I had thought," said Cleveland, who lost three starters from last season, including NBA draft pick Rafael Araujo. "It's guesswork, obviously. It makes perfectly good sense to me that the media or any expert would think that we're not going to be picked to win the league. I understand that. The one thing we do have is a mindset and a tradition in the program that the expectations aren't going to change. We're hopefully going to contend for a conference championship and get back to the (NCAA) Tournament. That's how we're approaching the season."

This marks the first time UNLV has been picked to win the MWC since the league's inception in 2000. "It's a sign of respect," said Rebel senior forward Odartey Blankson. "But at the same time, it means nothing. It's a preseason prediction. We don't put much stock in it."

Bogut said he's okay with not being the league favorite. "I think it's less pressure on us, more pressure on UNLV," he said.

It should be another highly competitive conference race and the MWC is expected to be well-represented in the NCAA Tournament, according to commissioner Craig Thompson.

"I'm really excited. There are a lot of senior-laden teams in the league. I think it will be very similar to last year," he said. "Does that equate to four (NCAA) bids versus three bids or five bids? Depends on how they do in the conference season. The last three years, there are only six leagues that have a higher percentage of its membership play in the NCAA Tournament. We've had three bids for three straight years. I don't see that changing at all."

Projected order of finish

Results of the Mountain West Conference's preseason men's basketball media poll (first place votes in parentheses).

Rank School Points

1. UNLV (14) 182

2. Utah (7) 169

3. Air Force (4) 142

4. New Mexico 122

5. BYU 92

6. Colorado State 87

7. San Diego State 71

8. Wyoming 35

Preseason accolades

All-Mountain West Conference

Danny Granger, Sr., C, New Mexico

Odartey Blankson, Sr., F, UNLV

Andrew Bogut, So., F, Utah

Matt Nelson, Sr., C, Colorado State

Nick Welch, Jr., C, Air Force

Top Returning Player

Danny Granger, Sr., C, New Mexico

Top Newcomer

Justin Williams, Jr., F/C, Wyoming


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com