It’s August, which means CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein is going through each conference and picking where teams will land.

In the Mountain West Conference, Rothstein picked the San Diego State Aztecs to take the top spot, which is no surprise after they made it all the way to the NCAA Championship Game last April. For the Colorado State Rams, Rothstein is projecting 6th. But more on that in a minute.

Back to the Aztecs, who lost their top scorer in Matt Bradley (12.6 PPG) but were able to retain four, key seniors who were all crucial to last season’s success. Reese Dixon-Waters, the transfer guard from USC, is ready to put his skills on display after career-highs in scoring (9.8) and rebounds (3.2) last year.

SDSU finished 32-7, meanwhile the New Mexico Lobos went 22-12, but Rothstein projects them to come in second this year. The Lobos added center Nelly Junior Joseph (Iona) and forward Mustapha Amzil (Dayton) who the college hoops expert guesses will start, while Jamal Mashburn Jr. is back for his senior season. Mashburn led the team with 19.1 points per game last year.

In third are the Boise State Broncos, who finished 24-10 last season and added 6’9″ Cam Martin from Kansas, a wildcard. Down in sixth—following Nevada and UNLV—are the Colorado State Rams.

Rothstein’s top 6 are:

  1. SDSU Aztecs
  2. New Mexico Lobos
  3. Boise State Broncos
  4. Nevada Wolf Pack
  5. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
  6. Colorado State Rams

Here’s Rothstein’s write-up on the Rams, including key losses, and additions:

Colorado State men's basketball projected lineup.

Credit: Jon Rothstein

Notice anything interesting?

What sticks out is Niko Medved’s projected starting five, specifically the guards besides Isaiah Stevens. Stevens, of course, will start after he announced he will be back for the Rams.

As for Jalen Lake and Josiah Strong, Lake has a better shot at starting, but it could be that neither start this season. Lake showcased his shooting prowess last year as a sophomore, and he started 21 games last year, but the Rams went out and signed two big-time transfers in Nique Clifford and Javonte Johnson.

Strong played in only seven games last year, so it seems unlikely he won’t come off the bench this season.

For a way-too-early guess at the starting five, I’d have both Clifford and Johnson–who played club basketball together in high school in Colorado Springs–in there.

So, really, Colorado State’s starting five would look more like this:

  • PG Isaiah Stevens
  • SG Nique Clifford
  • G/F Javonte Johnson
  • F Joel Scott
  • C Patrick Cartier

With that starting five, and Lake coming off the bench as likely the sixth man, the Rams have a chance of finishing north of 20 wins this year.

Stevens is an assist machine who knows how to score when needed, with career-highs of 17.9 points and 6.7 assists per game last year. And Rams fans remember the grittiness and rebounding Cartier brings, while he also knows how to score (12.3 PPG last year).

But what about the other three?

Javonte Johnson could be a fan favorite

Johnson and Clifford are similar players to one another, but when looking at both their stats from 2022-23, Johnson is a more accurate shooter and came on late in the season.

At UNM, Johnson started 33 games last season, averaging 5.8 points and 3.6 rebounds, nearly identical stats to Clifford’s. But his shooting percentages—45.8-37.4% FG, 31.0-28.8% 3PT, 91.3-60.6% FT—are markedly better than Nique’s.

In this highlight of New Mexico’s win over Utah State last year, Johnson’s range and smooth stroke are on display:

That doesn’t mean Clifford won’t bring a lot to Colorado State next year. But some journalists who covered CU Basketball said he was a bit too erratic offensively and looked to create his own shots too often.

It’s possible Stevens’ stellar passing can set Clifford up for easy scoring, and it’s also possible being on the team with his high school friend Johnson will increase the level of his play, too.

Finally, there’s Joel Scott, who brings good size at 6’7″ and 225 pounds. He’s the wildcard because he played at the DII level the last four years, but if he can make a smooth transition to DI, he could be a key piece of that front court. Scott averaged a double-double last season (23.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG), but again, it was at Black Hills State in DII.

Rothstein has a difficult job, projecting the finishes of all the conferences out there. But, one has to wonder how much higher the Rams would have been ranked in his list if Clifford and Johnson were in the starting five over Lake and Strong.

Colorado State men’s basketball tips their season off likely in late October, but the schedule hasn’t been released yet.

Speaking of Jon Rothstein, he announced the Rams will face the Washington Huskies on Dec. 2 as part of a double header with Gonzaga vs. USC as the other matchup.