SDSU’s Challenge: 5 Games to a Conference Championship. First up—Fresno State

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As we enter the second week of February, 13 games into the Mountain West Conference basketball schedule, you’ve got to give credit to the preseason prognosticators. They accurately predicted where San Diego State and Fresno State find themselves entering Wednesday night’s game in Fresno. 

In the preseason poll, SDSU was slotted first, just ahead of Wyoming. Fresno State was not rated as highly, coming in seventh before any games were played. 

With less than a month of conference games remaining, the Aztecs, at 11-2 in conference play, have lived up to the billing and sit alone in first place in the MWC. Fresno State on the other hand? The Bulldogs sitting at 5-8, occupy the seventh spot, tied with UNLV.

Just as predicted.

The Aztecs arrive in California’s central valley ranked #21 in the AP poll and #20 in the USA Today Coaches poll. Behind Keshad Johnson’s scintillating start – nine of the team’s 14 points in about five and half minutes of play – SDSU jumped all over, around and through the Running Rebels at home on Saturday, leading 43-23 at the break.

As evidenced by 14 assists on 17 made baskets in the first half, the SDSU offense operated at an efficient pace early against UNLV. The trouble, as it’s been many times before, was keeping that great ball movement and defensive intensity throughout the second half. 

A late run by the Rebels, aided by the Aztecs lack of defensive effort and sloppy play, made the final score, 82-71, a little more respectable for coach Kevin Kruger’s visiting Rebels.

Johnson finished the afternoon’s contest with 14 points on 6 of 9 field goals and grabbed four rebounds. Fellow senior Matt Bradley also was highly efficient shooting the ball. The starting guard hit 6 of 8 field goal attempts, including 3 of 5 from behind the arc, and tallied 17 points.

For his efforts against UNLV and the game prior versus Utah State, Bradley earned MWC Player of the Week honors on Monday. The transfer from Cal shot 72% from the field and averaged 17.5 points over the two games to earn his second MWC weekly honor this season.

Originally tweeted by San Diego State Men’s Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) on February 13, 2023.

Not to be outdone, super-senior Adam Seiko enjoyed another hot shooting game last time out. The three-point-marksman connected on 6 of his 10 long-distance shots for a game-high 18 points. Seiko is shooting an eye opening 50.6% from the bonus distance on the season.

Seiko is part of a stellar group coming off the bench for Head Coach Brian Dutcher. Over the last four games, the Aztec subs have outscored the opposition’s bench players 123-49.

That’s domination, holmes. The kind that will need to be sustained over the final five games, if the Aztecs are to hang another banner in Viejas Arena rafters.

First Up: Fresno State

In Fresno State, the Aztecs will face a team that hangs its hat on tough, physical defense. The Bulldogs, under former SDSU assistant coach Justin Hutson, play hard on the defensive end and rank second in the conference in scoring defense giving up only 65.4 points per game.

It’s on the offensive end where Fresno State has struggled. The Bulldogs rank last in the MWC in points per game, team field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. They’re also last in rebounding margin averaging three less rebounds per game than their opponents.

The Bulldogs’ offense is led by Jemarl Baker Jr., the senior transfer from Arizona. The 6’5” guard averages 12 points per game on 38% shooting from the floor and nearly 31% from three-point land.

His backcourt mate, Isaiah Hill, adds another 12 points a game for Fresno State. The senior transfer from Tulsa recorded 20 points in the Bulldogs’ loss to Nevada on Friday.

Senior guard/forward Anthony Holland shoots a team-best 39% from behind the arc and knocked down six three-point shots against San Jose State last month. His three at the half-time buzzer pulled Fresno State within two at the break against Nevada. 

With 6’10” forward Isaih Moore having missed the Bulldogs’ last three games, his status is uncertain against the Aztecs, expect the Fresno State guards to carry the bulk of the team’s scoring. 

SDSU will need to avoid getting beat on the perimeter on dribble penetration and will want to force the Bulldog guards into tough twos and contested threes. This is not a team that has shown it can dominate a team from the outside consistently.

Sporting quality bigs in Nathan Mensah, Johnson, Jaedon LeDee and Aguek Arop, the Aztecs have shown a willingness to crash the offensive glass this season. The team ranks second in the MWC in offensive rebounding. Behind Mensah’s seven offensive rebounds, the team claimed a season high 18 offensive boards in Saturday’s win over the Rebels.

If the shots aren’t falling for the SDSU guards, it’s the big guys in the post who can challenge for second-chance buckets by being active and aggressive in the paint.

Conversely, the Aztecs must emphasize defensive rebounding. Although Fresno State is likely to shoot better at home at the Save Mart Center, there still will be lots of missed shots to track down. If the Aztecs can rebound well and trigger its transition game, it lessens the impact of the Bulldogs’ vaunted half-court defense.

On paper, all signs point to another positive step toward the conference title for the Red and Black Wednesday night. But games aren’t played on paper. 

Have no doubt, Coach Hutson will have his squad prepped and ready to complete against his former employer. Coach Dutcher and his team know they will have to play well and play hard to avoid the upset on the road. Something no one at Sons of Montezuma is predicting.

The Aztecs and Bulldogs square off at 8:00 pm PT. The game can be found on CBS Sports Network and San Diego Sports 760.

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