MW Tournament preview: SDSU Aztecs vs. Nevada Wolfpack

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Credit: Nevada Athletics

MWC Tournament Semifinal
#1 SDSU vs # 5 Nevada
6:30 pm CBS Sports Network
Las Vegas, Nevada
March 12, 2021

Defeating a team three times in one season is a tall task.

The SDSU Aztecs will need to do so twice in two days to advance to their fourth consecutive tournament title game. The Aztecs defeated Nevada twice in early January by a combined seven points. The highlight of the series was Trey Pulliam’s buzzer-beater in game two to lift State to victory.

The Wolfpack is exactly what one would expect from a fifth-place team.

On any given night, they could defeat the best team or lose to the worst team. Their loss to Air Force was the biggest upset of the conference season. Conversely, their win over Colorado State in the final game of the year showed Nevada could defeat anyone in the league.

The Aztecs should have their hands full with the Wolfpack, who are led by one of the top guard combinations anywhere in college basketball.

Point guard Grant Sherfield averages 18.3 points and 6.08 assists per game. His backcourt mate Desmond Cambridge averages 16.3 points a contest and has the second most rebounds on the team. Sherfield was a First Team All-Mountain West selection and also won conference Newcomer of the Year. Cambridge was on the Third Team All-Mountain West.

Here are the Three Keys to an SDSU Victory

1. Free Throws

Nevada and San Diego State shoot a lot of free throws. On the season, the teams have combined for 1,008 attempts. Whichever team shoots at a higher percentage will have a clear advantage, but there is another aspect of foul shooting that could prove just as important. SDSU often shoots from the charity stripe while keeping their opponents off the line.

State has attempted 87 more free throws than its opponents this year. Nevada, meanwhile, gets to the line but also gives up a ton of free throws. They have put up 24 fewer shots from the line than their opposition. In close games like the two Nevada played in San Diego earlier in the season, a disparity in the number of attempts can be the difference in the game. The Aztecs won by a combined seven points and attempted 14 more free throws than the Wolfpack. Matt Mitchell was especially adept at drawing fouls. He was 20- 21 on the series. The first key to the game is seeing which team thrives most at the line.

2. Competitive Toughness

The semifinals in the Mountain West is traditionally the best basketball played all season. Usually matching up the top teams in the leagues, the games have a feel and competitiveness worthy of March Madness. Fresh legs matter more than game plans, and the brilliance of individual performances shines brighter.

Nevada Athletics

The team that wins is usually the team that best deals with the adversity it faces. In the 2018 Mountain West Tournament Semifinal (SDSU vs. Nevada), the Aztecs came out on fire from the field. There was no way to predict it would happen, but the Wolfpack responded by packing it in. Instead of having the competitive toughness to keep it within MWC Tournament Semifinal striking distance, SDSU’s lead ballooned to 30 at the half. Nevada composed themselves in the second half, but it was too late. SDSU easily advanced.

In the 2019 Mountain West Conference Tournament Semifinal (SDSU vs. Nevada), Jordan Caroline, Nevada’s star post player, was a late scratch from the game. He was held out for precautionary reasons. Coach Dutcher at the time said losing Caroline made the Wolfpack “a wounded animal.” In reality, Nevada reacted poorly, and SDSU once again built a double-digit lead. When Nevada eventually came back from the hole it dug, it was the Aztecs turn to show their competitive toughness. SDSU did just that primarily on the defensive end. The Aztecs won and advanced to the final.

Looking back at the 2020 Mountain West Conference Tournament Semifinal (SDSU vs. Boise State). With five minutes remaining in the first half, the Aztecs found themselves down by 16 after the Broncos improbably went on a 35-12 run. SDSU showed its competitive toughness. Instead of limping into halftime, the Aztecs responded with an amazing 19-3 run to tie the game at the half. Boise State melted. SDSU continued their torrid pace in the second half and advanced to the final. Each team today will face an obstacle no one could have predicted. It will be a one-off occurrence unique to this game. Whichever team can show the greatest competitive toughness will advance.

3. How will Nevada Guard Matt Mitchell

Hinted at above. No one on Nevada can consistently guard Matt Mitchell. The same was true Thursday against Wyoming. The Cowboys did not try to disguise where the double team was coming from. They essentially doubled Mitchell in the post before he caught the ball. They dared Trey Pulliam and Lamont Butler to beat them from the outside.

Will Nevada try the same strategy? Conversely, how will Mitchell and the Aztecs respond? Postgame coach Dutcher and Nevada coach Steve Alford praised the depth of SDSU’s roster and the ability of multiple people who can score. And yet, can the Aztecs survive another game when Mitchell only attempts four shots? His value to the team is unparalleled, and most of what State was able to do against Wyoming was due to Mitchell’s presence on the court. It is difficult to believe the Aztecs will advance to their fourth conference title in a row without their senior leader carrying more of the offensive load.

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