SDSU can breathe a little easier for now after coming home from a hard fought 80-75 win at 7,220 feet in Wyoming. Next up on the schedule is a Tuesday night matchup at Viejas Arena vs the Nevada Wolf Pack, a team that is also undefeated in conference play.
As unlikely as it is, the winner will be in sole possession of 1st place in the Mountain West standings. Tip-off is scheduled for 8pm and will be aired on CBS Sports Network.
Nevada (14-3) has been one of the surprises in college basketball this season. The Wolf Pack were picked to finish 9th in the Mountain West pre-season poll and Head Coach Steve Alford should get conference coach of the year award consideration for the job he has done revamping his roster in the offseason.
Nevada (4-0 in conference) has home victories over Boise State and Colorado State coupled along with road wins at Air Force and at an improved San Jose State squad. The Wolf Pack annihilated the Spartans 67-40 last Saturday.
Coach Steve Alford’s team boasts one of the tallest starting lineups in the Mountain West. They pair 4 guards who are all 6’4 to 6’7 to play around the perimeter along with a 7’0 center. This potentially can spell problems as the Aztecs’ 3 losses this season have come against teams with length.
Leading the team in scoring is shooting guard Jarod Lucas at 17 ppg. Aztec fans may be familiar with him from off season recruiting speculation, where Lucas named SDSU as a finalist before choosing Nevada. The Oregon State transfer has been playing to his potential as he is shooting 38% from beyond the arc.
Point guard Kenan Blackshear is second in scoring at 14 ppg, followed by center Will Baker at 12 ppg.
6’ 7 forward Tre Coleman is Nevada’s best on-ball defender and will likely be tasked with trying to slow down Matt Bradley who is coming off a clutch late game performance in the victory at Wyoming.
Keys to Victory
1. Contest, Contest, Contest
Nevada is at their best when they are running screens, sharing the basketball and taking catch and shoot style of shots. The Aztecs were poor at closing out on perimeter shooters against Wyoming who shot 45% from deep.
It is crucial that first and foremost SDSU do a better job defending on the perimeter in order to win this game. Wolf Pack players, like Lucas, will take tough contested shots—when they do they’re not as efficient on offense. The Aztecs need to force Nevada to take less than ideal shots and keep Nevada’s score under the 60 point threshold.
2. Attack the Big Man
While Nevada has good overall size in their lineup, their only backup center 6’10 KJ Hymes is out for the season after having back surgery. This leaves 6’8 freshman Nick Davidson playing the center position for the Wolf Pack when Baker is on the bench.
If the Aztecs can pound the ball down in to the post with Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Jaedon LeDee, they can then attack from the perimeter with Keshad Johnson and Micah Parrish. This should allow them to wear down Baker and likely get him into foul trouble.
When Baker is not on the floor, the Aztecs should be able to score inside at will as well as dominate the paint in rebounds and defense.
3. Speed Blackshear Up
Kenan Blackshear is a mismatch for many teams playing the point at 6’6 and Steve Alford knows it. Blackshear is utilized in 28% of their possessions and could create problems with his height similar to 6’7 Wyoming guard Hunter Maldonado. The same Maldonado who scored 20 against SDSU.
Since Nevada runs a lot of pick & roll with Baker and Blackshear, it makes sense for Lamont Butler at 6’2 to be the primary defender in charge of taking on Blackshear. In this scenario, you counter height with quickness.
If Lamont, who is quicker, can pick Blackshear up at 3/4 of the court and hound him on the perimeter without fouling, this gives the best chance of forcing Blackshear into playing faster than he may be comfortable with. The main goal is to pressure bad decisions—the kind that results in sloppy play and turnovers.
The Aztecs should be favored to win the game by about 5 points. Here are some additional questions to ask. Since students are still on break, will fans at Viejas Arena provide the energy needed to make it a true home court advantage?
Will Brian Dutcher play Darrion Trammell and Butler together in the same lineup for long stretches or will he stagger them throughout the game to compensate for Nevada’s taller guards?
Coach Dutcher and Alford are two that have been around the block together many times before. This will be an interesting chess match, one that if Viejas can get rocking, can get under Alford’s skin who is known to blow a fuze from time to time.
With all the pressure of first place on the line, it will be worth the price of admission.