Forget revenge, the #22 San Diego State Aztecs basketball team needs to have much loftier goals in mind when they renew acquaintances with the New Mexico Lobos in the famed “Pit” in Albuquerque this Saturday evening.
At 13-2 in league play, a Mountain West Conference title sits tantalizingly within reach for Coach Brian Dutcher’s crew. But a slim one-game lead over second-place Boise State provides SDSU no wiggle room in their quest to wrestle back league supremacy from the Broncos.
Counting Saturday’s contest, three MWC games remain, including a road contest in Boise, Idaho. The Aztecs need to get a win against either New Mexico or Boise State to assure themselves of a shot at an outright league title. A loss Saturday means the advantage shifts to the Broncos, and two losses, well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The Aztecs enter the game in a sold-out Pit riding a sustained hot streak. The guys from Montezuma Mesa have won five in a row and nine of their last 10 games, one of the hottest teams in the country.
They dominated Colorado State earlier in the week at home, 77-58, with five players scoring in double figures.
TCU transfer Jaedon LeDee filled in for Nathan Mensah, who went to the bench with two early fouls, and dominated. The muscular forward poured in 10 points in the first half, finishing with a team-high 14. He also grabbed six rebounds and went 6-of-6 from the free throw line.
To win in New Mexico, SDSU will need LeDee to continue to be a physical presence in the paint on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. LeDee, along with his fellow big men Mensah, Aguek Arop and Keshad Johnson, will be matched up against the league’s top two rebounders in New Mexico’s Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick.
In New Mexico’s win at Viejas, Udeze had his way inside grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 10 points. The Wichita State transfer leads the MW with 12 double-doubles on the season. With 18 points and 14 boards, he led the Lobos in their 82-77 loss Wednesday against Boise State.
The night before, the Aztecs also received outstanding efforts from starting guards Matt Bradley, Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammel in disposing of the Rams. Bradley enjoyed his fourth straight double-digit scoring game as he chipped in 13 points on the evening.
Butler and Trammell combined for 22 points, 10 assists and just three turnovers in 53 minutes of play. Trammell’s 11 points represented a much-needed scoring outburst from the Seattle transfer who had struggled at the offensive end in recent games.
But it was the duo’s defense that made it an uncomfortable night for the visitors from Fort Collins. The two hounded the opposing team’s ball handlers forcing them to work hard to bring the ball up the court and get into offensive sets.
Their perimeter defense will be key to containing the Lobos’ top-flight guards, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House.
Aztecs fans will no doubt remember House and his demonstrative antics throughout the teams’ first game in January. The transfer from Arizona State gestured after nearly every bucket and backed up his trash talk to the Viejas Arena crowd that night with 29 points for the game, 21 in the second half alone.
House is a spark for the Lobos. The team missed his on-court presence, he’s the league leader in steals, as he missed a few games with a hamstring injury.
In fact, New Mexico comes into the game against the Aztecs having lost four of its last five outings. The team that opened the season 14-0 had just broken a four-game losing streak by beating San Jose State by 28, before falling this week to the Broncos after leading 37-31 at the half.
Sitting squarely on the March Madness bubble, New Mexico would relish a second win over a ranked SDSU team. The Lobos will have the support of a vocal, home crowd and an urgency to enhance its NCAA Tournament résumé. Expect them to come out firing behind their emotionally-charged point guard and try to put SDSU in a hole early.
How the Aztecs weather the anticipated onrush will be the key to the game. Now is not the time to overreact to the other team’s play or rabid fans.
SDSU has an experienced and senior-laden squad that should be able to keep its focus on its keys – connected, physical defense, and a team-first mindset on offense that doesn’t rely on one player to carry the load.
The road to a Mountain West championship is clear. Can the Aztecs navigate it without hitting any pitfalls?
Saturday’s game between SDSU and New Mexico tips off at 7:00 pm PT. The game can be found on CBS Sports Network and San Diego Sports 760.