After a convincing 21-point win over San Jose State on Saturday evening, the San Diego State men’s basketball team hits the road to begin likely its toughest stretch of conference games this season. Up first, the Aztecs head to Reno, Nevada to face the Wolf Pack on Tuesday.
The Aztecs, 17-4 and 8-1 in the Mountain West Conference, enter their 10th conference game looking for a 10th straight win against Nevada. The latest triumph – a 74-65 SDSU victory earlier this month at Viejas Arena – saw the Aztecs bolt to a 10-0 lead and withstand a late rally by Nevada.
By Monday morning it was official, Brian Dutcher’s team were back in the AP Poll and this time up to #22. The basketball program has been in & out of the rankings several times this season. And each time lines up with some tough matchups immediately following.
The Wolf Pack, 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the MWC, are a different team inside the Lawlor Events Center, however.
Head coach Steve Alford’s squad is undefeated at home this season. The team’s perfect 10-0 home mark features wins over MWC title contenders Boise State and New Mexico in overtime. The Wolf Pack would relish a win over the MWC’s top dog in the ‘Sons’ from Montezuma Mesa.
To do so, the Wolf Pack will need to tame the beast that Keshad Johnson has become. The senior from Oakland has delivered on his ‘Showtime’ nickname the last few games, as a human highlight reel. Johnson has played like a man possessed in the paint blocking shots, just ask the big from Utah State, and grabbing rebounds with authority.
On the offensive end, Johnson’s dunks in transition and on the back end of alley-oop passes serve as instant energy for the Aztec faithful and his teammates.
Last time out against San Jose State, Johnson scored a career high 16 points, hitting 7 of 10 shots from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked another shot. Over the last three games, he is averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Like Johnson, Lamont Butler has continued his solid play of late. Against the Spartans, the junior guard from Moreno Valley tallied eight points and contributed a team-high five assists. He committed zero turnovers. Butler’s +30 plus/minus rating was highest on the team.
Like Johnson, in Butler, we are seeing an upperclassman playing with confidence at both ends of the floor. He’s taking and hitting open shots, pressuring opponents on the perimeter and taking care of the ball. The Aztecs as a team only committed three turnovers versus SJSU, the fewest in a game against a Division I opponent since the start of the Mountain West in 1999-2000.
The most satisfying of it all is the performances have been consistent from both the friendly confines of Viejas Arena and on the rigorous Mountain West travel schedule.
The Wolf Pack welcome the Aztecs to town looking to bounce back from a tough loss to in-state rival UNLV. In the 68-62 defeat in Las Vegas on Saturday, senior guard Jarod Lucas led Nevada with 15 points. Do-everything guard Kenan Blackshear filled the stat sheet with 14 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Down low, Nevada’s 7-foot Texas transfer Wil Baker recorded his first double digit rebounding effort of the season pulling down 10 boards. But it was not enough as UNLV held the Wolf Pack scoreless over the game’s final four minutes.
What we know from the last time these two met
In the first match up, the Aztecs’ defense held Lucas, the Oregon State transfer, to 11 points, six below his season average. SDSU led 65-43 with about nine minutes remaining before facing some trouble with the defensive press and a few made shots from the Wolf Pack trimmed the lead to single digits.
For the game, SDSU outshot Nevada 50% to 39.7% and out-rebounded the visitors 33-29.
A similar game plan seems to be in order some three weeks later. Nevada enters Tuesday’s game ranked sixth in the conference in offense at 73.5 points per game and sixth in defense. The team from Reno’s 44% field goal accuracy ranks 10th in the MWC and its 3-point shooting is only slightly better placing ninth among MWC teams.
By contrast, SDSU ranks fourth in the conference in offensive and third in defensive metrics, respectively.
They say defense travels. If SDSU can force Nevada into tough, contested shots and rebound effectively, the Aztecs should be able to put a dent in the Wolf Pack’s pristine home mark this season.
It is doubtful SDSU can reproduce a defensive effort against Nevada that saw them hold SJSU to only 14 points in the first half. But keeping Nevada to their season averages should be enough to see the Aztecs leaving the Silver State with another win in conference play.
It’s a win SDSU might need as the schedule sees upcoming games against Boise State (home), Utah State (away), UNLV (home) and Fresno State (away).
SDSU and Nevada will meet at 8:00 pm Tuesday, with the broadcast on CBS Sports Network and San Diego Sports 760.