3 Keys for an SDSU victory over New Mexico

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Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

1. Take advantage of Viejas Arena

San Diego State left Utah late Wednesday night with tired legs and wounded egos.

“We are really not used to playing three in five days, but that’s no excuse,” remarked Keshad Johnson to media after their 75-57 loss to Utah State. “Attitude is a challenge, but we just got to overcome that challenge.”

The defeat stings, but San Diego State is a proven resilient program when encountering defeat. Brian Dutcher’s teams have been 12-1 in their last 13 games immediately following a loss. The one setback was to the 2020-20221 Aggies, who beat them twice in a row in Logan. This next contest tips off at Steve Fisher Court, where they have won 19-straight when the next match immediately following the loss is a home contest.

“We have four days [before facing New Mexico],” said Coach Dutcher after the loss on Wednesday evening. “We do not have six [days], but we have time to get back, rest our legs a day and then get back to work.”

The Aztecs have been resting at sea level, with the luxury of their next opponent being New Mexico. At Montezuma Mesa, SDSU is 6-1 in the last seven versus the Lobos, including a 25.5 average margin of victory during the 2019-2020 season, the largest by any UNM opponent in at least 25 years.

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Look for Dutcher’s team to make up for the lack of defense in front of a raucous Viejas Arena. Four of the next six Aztec games are at Viejas Arena but have a Friday meeting at elevation in Fort Collins, Colorado, to take on the Rams. Righting things for SDSU starts with a renewed focus on defense and defending home court.

2. Break up the Lobo backcourt chemistry

New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino is in his first year coaching in Albuquerque. Over the summer, Minnesota fired him in his role, and many speculated that Brian Dutcher would take over at his alma mater. Pitino, son of famed head coach Rick Pitino, is starting fresh with a rebuild of the Lobo program.

In the all-time series, UNM holds the edge with a 48-42 record since the 70s. Dutcher’s team did not play against New Mexico last season because COVID cases within the Albuquerque program forced the league to declare the meetings as forfeits.

This iteration of the New Mexico team features a dangerous backcourt in two skilled transfers. Jamal Mashburn Jr, son of NBA journeyman Jamal Mashburn, followed his coach to the Pit and now leads the team in points at 18 points per game. Jaelen House transferred from Arizona State and now averages 16.4 points per game.

“There has not been a lot of moments when [Mashburn and House] have both been great at the same time,” said Richard Pitino in their post-game conference where they beat San Jose State 86-70. “[Against the Spartans], they were both really good. House passing the ball was terrific, and guys made big shots.”

The Sundevil transfer played against the Aztecs last year in Tempe but recorded only three points in 13 minutes. For Monday’s matchup, House poses more of a threat than Mashburn because he is an elusive player that performs under pressure like Boise State’s Marcus Shaver and Utah State’s Steven Ashworth, or he can find the open man for easy buckets.

Against San Jose State, he recorded a rare double-double performance with 18 points and 13 assists, resulting in four Lobos breaking 10-plus points.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

San Diego State, with enough rest, has to adjust their close-outs on the perimeter and reduce the number of open-look jumpers. Whether that’s a healed Trey Pulliam or Lamont Butler to frustrate House when bringing the ball up or pursuing on set screens, it will take an agile Aztec to defend him the length of the court.

3. Get back to basics – defend and rebound.

The Aztecs know they were bad on defense, with Utah State shooting close to 50 percent throughout the contest.

“We [have] to get back in the groove,” said Chad Baker-Mazara after their defeat on Wednesday night. “[We have] to play the best defense the way we do.”

The good news? They are primed to correct the course on Monday. Despite the Lobos averaging 77.2 points per game, Boise State’s top 10 defense kept them to 63. Pitino boasts about his guard play because the rest of the roster has disappeared. If the Aztecs can lockdown the guards, there is more pressure on their inexperienced role players to perform.

Freshmen Sebastian Forsling, a 6-foot-11 center with a 240-lb frame, would have likely redshirted this season, but transfers and injuries forced the head coach’s hand. With rawness elsewhere on the roster, they are getting beat on the board. During league play, New Mexico has allowed opponents to average 37 rebounds per game to their 26.4 rebounds per game.

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Matt Bradley corralled most of the Wednesday night’s rebounds at six. Definitely, not a good look for either Nathan Mensah or Aguek Arop, who combined for a total of four. Mensah looked a step behind defensively and encountered foul trouble early, rendering him ineffective at altitude. The same can go for Arop, who only appeared for eight minutes in the 18-point rout. With rested legs and ego, Aztec bigs have the potential to out-muscle defenders and give the home team more second-chance points.

The Aztecs have to excel at their core identity – execute their defense and rebound – if they want to jumpstart their home winning streak.

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