Ten months ago, Larry Nance Jr. went down with a knee injury, all but wrecking the rest of Wyoming’s promising basketball season and leaving his future in question.
The future is here, and everything has been answered. Nance is back and as good as ever. The 6-foot-8-inch senior forward is arguably the best player in the Mountain West, which opens conference play today with five games.
Nance will get an argument from UNLV freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, the league’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, and the two will meet on opening night.
Vaughn and the Rebels (9-3) take on Nance and the Cowboys (11-2) at 6 p.m. in a unique New Year’s Eve party at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie, Wyo.
“We can do it. I definitely feel we can win the conference,” Vaughn said.
The race to the top of the mountain is led by defending champion San Diego State and includes Colorado State, UNLV and Wyoming. Those four are the leading contenders, and there’s not much separation. The unbeaten Rams are the league’s only ranked team at No. 24.
“We always talk about it, but it’s absolutely wide open this year with a lot of good teams,” said coach Dave Rice, whose Rebels finished 10-8 and tied for third in MW play last year.
Rice is relying on major production from five freshmen. Cowboys coach Larry Shyatt is counting on Nance, averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting 57 percent from the field, to do a lot of everything. Nance is making an impressive return after suffering a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in late February.
“What a breath of fresh air to have a person who’s fun to be around and understands the game mentally,” Shyatt said.
Shyatt said it’s “absurd to speculate” on Player of the Year candidates and the league race at this point.
“UNLV has had the signature win of our league, so to speak,” Shyatt said, referring to the Rebels’ 71-67 upset of then-No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 23. “Once you get in league play, every game seemingly will be a dogfight. There are surprises that will flower for the next two months, and we’re hoping we’ll be one of them.”
From the beach to the desert to the mountains, the conference road always is treacherous. It’s challenging to navigate and prognosticate, but here’s the predicted order of finish (based on voting by the Review-Journal’s Ed Graney, Adam Hill and Matt Youmans):
1. San Diego State (10-3) — It seems doubtful that senior forward Dwayne Polee, who collapsed on the court in a Dec. 22 game, will return this season. The Aztecs, already weak offensively, are going to miss Polee’s perimeter shooting. But it’s a tough team that will defend and rebound, and coach Steve Fisher puts enough talent on the floor to deserve the favorite’s role. Winston Shepard, a junior forward from Findlay Prep, must lead the way, for better or worse.
2. Colorado State (13-0) — Rams coach Larry Eustachy said, “I never thought we’d go undefeated in nonconference.” Colorado State’s resume — victories over Colorado, Georgia State, New Mexico State, Texas-El Paso and UC Santa Barbara — is not eye-popping, but Eustachy’s team is not phony, either. Senior guard Daniel Bejarano attacks from the outside with inside help from J.J. Avila and Stanton Kidd.
3. UNLV (9-3) — In the unbalanced 18-game schedule, the Rebels do not go to Fresno State or host Colorado State, and that’s an edge for the Rams. Chris Wood, a 6-11 sophomore forward, needs to be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor for UNLV to make a run at No. 1. Wood averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds in victories over Arizona and Southern Utah last week.
4. Wyoming (11-2) — Nance is coming off a 31-point game in a win at Montana State. The Cowboys have another talented senior forward in Derek Cooke Jr., and Josh Adams and Riley Grabau are veteran guards. Shyatt, who prefers a slow, grinding pace, described his team as “not always pretty, but pretty consistent.”
5. Boise State (10-3) — Senior guard Derrick Marks (16.7 points per game) will have to carry a team that just took a huge setback. The Broncos lost Anthony Drmic, one of the MW’s top all-around players, for the season to an ankle injury.
6. New Mexico (8-4) — Starting point guard Cullen Neal might not return from an ankle injury. The Lobos could be facing a rebuilding year, but they are getting solid production from senior guards Deshawn Delaney and Hugh Greenwood as 6-9 forward Jordan Goodman begins to emerge.
7. Utah State (7-5) — Aggies coach Stew Morrill upgraded the talent after a rough 7-11 debut season in the MW. But Morrill still needs more. Jalen Moore, a versatile 6-7 sophomore wing, is the team’s top scorer and rebounder.
8. Air Force (7-4) — The Falcons can be a factor by knocking off a couple of the contenders. Dave Pilipovich is a crafty coach, and Air Force ranks in the nation’s top 20 in field-goal percentage (.495).
9. Fresno State (5-8) — Junior guard Marvelle Harris can be a dynamic scorer, but the Bulldogs miss point guard Cezar Guerrero, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and remains questionable to return.
10. UNR (4-8) — The Wolf Pack showed positive signs recently, but they lack depth and are a long shot to finish in the league’s top half. D.J. Fenner, Marqueze Coleman and Michael Perez are talented guards, and AJ West is a powerful 6-9 forward.
11. San Jose State (2-10) — Spartans coach Dave Wojcik has a mess to clean up, with five players currently suspended, and his team might be lucky to win two conference games.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.
UNLV vs. WYOMING
■ WHEN: 6 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Arena-Auditorium, Laramie, Wyo.
■ RADIO: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
■ LINE: Wyoming -6