A Friday Night Showdown: Aztecs vs Broncos for 1st Place

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The #22 ranked San Diego State took their 1st road loss of the season on a Tuesday night of frustration in Nevada-Reno, 75-66. The Aztecs led the Wolf Pack 60-59 with 4:32 left in the game before their offense stumbled and their defense crumbled.

The Aztecs were unable to sustain their scoring and their defense faltered down the stretch to contain the Nevada big-3 in their lineup, despite some incredible plays and highlight reel efforts.

The reality of yet another back-breaking loss, immediately after being ranked, was made fully known when a court storming by Nevada fans broke out immediately after the final buzzer. The loss dropped the Aztecs into a tie for 1st place in the Mountain West conference (8-2) coincidentally with their next opponent on the schedule: Boise State.

In this month of February, the Aztecs play 4 games against teams in the top 40 of the NET rankings. In addition, three of these games will be on the road at elevation and in hostile environments. This Friday night’s game however will be at home vs the Broncos.

SDSU (17-5) can ill afford to drop all four games if they want to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and keep their Mountain West title hopes alive.

Most respected NCAA tournament bracketologists believe the Mountain West is a three bid league. Currently, many project Utah State and Nevada to be on the outside looking in. Four more losses in conference play against the top teams of the league could put the Aztecs in jeopardy of being on that same cut line come ‘Selection Sunday’.

If that is the case and the Aztecs don’t win the Mountain West tournament, the thought of an NIT home game after having such high preseason expectations is not something that SDSU faithful want to consider.

Thus begs the question: Is Friday night’s showdown for Mountain West supremacy a must win game for the Aztecs?

Consider how difficult it has been for Mountain West teams to win road games this season. The Aztecs themselves have struggled on the road against conference bottom feeders Wyoming, Colorado State and Air Force.

The friendly confines of Steve Fisher court at Viejas Arena may provide the best opportunity for SDSU to pick up a quality win that would move them closer to locking up an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

Lose at home to the Broncos? In that horrible scenario, in order to stay off the tournament selection bubble, the Aztecs will have to win at least 1 of 3 road games that they will most likely be underdogs in.

Coach Dutcher’s team will have plenty of motivation going into the game. Boise State won all 3 games in 2022—including the Mountain West tournament championship 53-52. The Aztecs hadn’t lost 3 games in a row to an opponent in one season since 2017 (Colorado State).

The bitter taste of those defeats, combined with the loss to Nevada, should make the Aztecs hungry to send the Broncos home in the loss column.

The Broncos A Year After the Championship

Boise State reloaded their roster in the offseason. Gone from last year’s championship squad are All-Conference players Abu Kijab and Emmanuel Akot, along with big man Mladen Armus.

Who did return are late game clutch performer Marcus Shaver, 2022 MW Freshman of the Year Tyson Degenhart and key role players Max Rice and Naje Smith.

Also added was San Diego local high standout, Chibuzo Agbo from St. Augustine high. Agbo transferred in from Big-12’s Texas Tech.

The Broncos are the highest ranked Mountain West team in the NET rankings (#20) and KenPom (#25). All 5 starters are significant contributors with Degenhart leading the way scoring 14 points per game. Shaver leads the team in assists and is a great perimeter defender.

Meanwhile, Agbo and Rice are sharpshooters from behind the arc- hitting over 42% of their 3-point attempts. Smith on the other-hand is a good interior defender with 25 blocks for the season.

Coach Leon Rice likes to run a lot of motion on offense to create favorable match ups and get his outside shooters open shots. Statistically, the Broncos are solidly efficient on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Their strengths are defending the 3 point shot, defensive rebounding, limiting turnovers and shooting 3 pointers.

Their weaknesses however are lack of depth, offensive rebounding and they don’t get to the free throw line as much as other teams.

A major development to monitor is the health of starters Shaver and Smith, whom Coach Rice said he was concerned about after Boise State’s win at Air Force on Tuesday. 

With lack of depth being a concern, if both players are playing at reduced minutes due to injury, Coach Rice may have to play his reserves more minutes than he would like to against a stacked & healthy SDSU.

3 Keys to Victory

Ball Movement

Boise State does a great job of defending at the rim and beyond the arc. They want teams to take long 2-point shots that are not as efficient as the other two types of shots. This is a trap and a recipe for a loss if the Aztecs play isolation ball with Matt Bradley and Darrion Trammell.

Instead, for more success against this Bronco defense, moving the ball along the perimeter and finding outside shooters like Micah Parrish, Adam Seiko, or the four Aztec big men cutting to the basket should be a more sought after approach.

With possibly a smaller bench due to injuries to Shaver and Smith, more ball movement will force Boise State to defend harder and could wear them out in the 2nd half.

Neutralize Max Rice

If you take away one of Boise State’s two best 3 point shooters and force them to have an off night, you improve your chances of winning. Butler and Trammell need to stick to Rice and make him uncomfortable on offense.

In Boise State’s 5 losses, Rice shot a combined 20% from 3 point range—less than half his normal average.

No Mercy

The Aztecs need to take advantage against a quality opponent at home. If the Aztecs can land the first punch and get out to a good start with the momentum and the crowd behind them, a depleted Broncos rotation could wilt under the pressure.

The Aztecs need to adopt a Cobra Kai mentality by stepping on the Broncos’ throat from the opening tip—in other words, no mercy. On Wednesday, Utah State was able to defeat New Mexico in Logan by racing out to a large lead. Despite the Lobos attempts to crawl back in the game, the large deficit to start in a crazy road environment was insurmountable for them.

The longer the Aztecs allow the Broncos to hang around in the game, the more opportunity the Broncos have to get a road win. Deliver the kill shot early and the Aztecs likely walk away in sole possession of 1st place in the Mountain West.

Final Takeaways

Viejas Arena has not been at 100% capacity for much of the season despite announced sellouts. What will the crowd look like for a 6pm tip on Friday night as fans fight rush hour traffic to get to the arena? There may not be a more important home game the rest of the season.

SDSU looked really sharp in their last 2 home games in convincing wins over Utah State and San Jose State and are looking for revenge on Boise State from last season. While there are still many concerns about SDSU’s play on the road, the home court advantage at Viejas Arena and familiarity with its basketball rims has the Aztecs primed to put on another show for their fans and end the losing streak against Boise State. 

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