Picked to finish first and second in the preseason polls before the season, the Mountain West Conference scheduled the Aztecs/Broncos series for the final week of the regular season. The conference wagered the games on Thursday and Saturday would determine the championship and the number one seed in the conference tournament.
The Mountain West, a conference known for its mismanagement, managed their schedule well this season. While Colorado State and Utah State are still in the hunt for the title, the scheduling of SDSU and BSU in this final weekend turned the eyes of the college basketball world away from the autonomous five and towards two games this week in San Diego.
It was perfect!
Until, inexplicably, the conference scheduled games next week and took some of the luster and importance from these still pivotal contests.
Boise State enters the week 18-4 overall. It is a near-unanimous choice among bracketologists to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Kenpom has the Broncos rated 55th in the country. They enter the week winners of four straight.
Perhaps, the only negative on their resume is a 6-4 record on the road; though, one of those road victories came in Provo, Utah over BYU. One or two victories over the Aztecs would certainly strengthen that weakness.
They are led by senior forwards Derek Alston Jr and Abu Kigab. Alston leads the team in points and is second in assists. Kigab fills the stat sheet even more. He is second on the team in points, second in rebounding, and third in assists.
San Diego State, meanwhile, comes into the series riding an eight-game winning streak. That total rises to ten if the two games New Mexico forfeited are added to the total.
Coach Dutcher refers to the two games in each series as four quarters of one contest. His stated goal is to win every quarter of the series. During the eight-game winning streak against the conference’s bottom portion, SDSU won 15 of the 16 halves. The only half where they were outscored was the second half against Wyoming on January 28th in a game they won by 30.
Feasting on the lower echelon of the conference has improved SDSU’s metrics and rankings. They are in both major polls – No. 22 in the AP and No. 25 in the coaches poll. They are a universal pick among bracket experts to make the NCAA Tournament. Their resume is far from perfect; however, they have yet to secure a coveted Quad 1 win on the season. Boise State currently sits at No. 32 in the NET.
There is a good chance Boise State will finish in the top 30 in the NET and become a Quad 1 win by the season’s end. Unless the Broncos slip up against Fresno State next week or in their opening round of the Mountain West Tournament, they should rise just enough. A sweep of the series could be enough for SDSU to earn a top seven seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Three keys to an SDSU series Sweep
1. What does Leon Rice have planned for the Aztecs?
Leon Rice is second to Steve Fisher for the most games coached in Mountain West History. He has been the head man at Boise State for more than a decade. He has turned an institution known solely for football into a terrific basketball school. Rice has won 20 or more games in eight of his ten seasons.
San Diego State has had the luxury of having the most experience and the best coaching staff for much of the past two decades. Game in and game out, their fans could be confident the Aztecs would not get outcoached. Rice’s elevation in the profession, however, puts SDSU in the rare situation where getting outsmarted by the opposing coach would not be a shock.
“Experience,” Coach Dutcher emphatically declared when asked what make Rice such a good coach. “He’s got two hundred-plus wins at Boise. Once you go through things — I’m finding out still, even though I’m old in age, experience-wise, this is only my fourth year as a head coach. You continue to learn things, and Leon’s been doing this a long time. His teams get better as the season goes on. He fixes things that are broken and things they are good at. He continues to get better at. Leon’s a very good coach. I’ve learned a lot by watching his teams play over the years.”
“I think they (Boise State) are tied with us for first,” Matt Mitchell added, “because they are well-coached. They are well-coached, and they play hard.”
There will be a couple of wrinkles Rice will throw at the Aztecs. He might design a unique look on defense. He could make subtle changes to the offensive sets to make Boise State even more potent. He could employ a different substitution pattern. Only Rice knows. How SDSU’s players respond on the fly and how their coaching staff recognizes and adjusts to the Rice’s terrific coaching will be key to the series.
2. Throwing Multiple Defenders at Derek Alston Jr.
January 5, 2019, was Alston’s coming out party in the Mountain West. As a redshirt sophomore — in his first career game against the Aztecs — he led Boise State to a win over SDSU. He scored what was then a career-high 30 points. In his three subsequent games against the Aztecs, however, success has been harder to come by. He scored 33 points total in those games. How Alston fairs in his fifth and sixth career games against SDSU is the second key to the series.
The “Derek Alston” SDSU plays this week will be the best version of “Derek Alston” they have seen to date. He flirted with going pro last season but wisely returned to school and has made the most of the opportunity. Like Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell, Alston is simply a man amongst boys.
He is craftier, more in control, and he has improved his shooting significantly. He is 22nd in the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 42.6%. While SDSU’s sharpshooters get their shots off using a quick release, Alston uses his 6-foot-9 frame to shoot over the opposition. Alston is averaging more points with fewer turnovers and fouls than last season. His two-point and three-point field goal percentage are up. He is a better, more efficient player and is also the reigning Mountain West Player of the Week. He averaged 24.5 points a game in a series sweep of Utah State.
Containing Alston will not be a one-person job but will require a team effort. Spearheading the efforts, though, will be the players directly guarding him. Alston is a mismatch for each defender, but several players will try to make him uncomfortable.
Mitchell, Schakel, and Adam Seiko should be able to make Alston more perimeter-oriented, though their lack of height is an issue. Aguek Arop might be the best prepared to match up, but AG has been in and out of the lineup with Vertigo, and when he has played, his minutes have been limited. Perhaps, the most intriguing option for the Aztecs is Keshad Johnson. His length and athleticism surpass Alston’s, but his defensive skills are still lacking.
“Derek Alston is a very, very good player,” Mitchell said. “He is very, very good getting downhill, going to his right. They also have other pieces to the puzzle.”
The quadruple “very” in Mitchell’s statement sums it up well. To counter Alston, SDSU will need to be very, very good.
3. Big Game Nerves.
The Mountain West regular-season championship comes down to the final weekends of the season nearly every year. This year, in particular four teams, have a chance to hang a banner. When asked what it was about the conference that makes running away with the regular-season title difficult, coach Dutcher said this:
“It’s really good coaching,” Dutcher said. “It’s good talent, and it’s hard places to play. Obviously, this has been a year like no other, so we’re not playing in front of crowds at all. We’re playing in empty arenas by and large, so it’s been different challenges this year than ever. But, the coaching remains really good. The talent in this league remains really high. Hopefully, we get multiple bids to this year’s NCAA tournament.”
The older players on the team have experience playing in games of this magnitude. Much of that experience has come in the conference tournament. SDSU has not been in a regular-season race this close since the 2014-2015 season when they tied with Boise State for the title. How the young players react — particularly in the Thursday’s game — is something to keep an eye on. Dutcher, Mitchell, and Schakel all mentioned keeping the same practice routine as one way to help the younger players acclimate to the situation.
“Tell them how important it is to be locked in at practice because that’s where it starts,” Schakel said what the message would be to the younger players. “There’s an element of youth that (changes) with experience. Once they get these games under their belt, they’ll be more comfortable. Just giving them confidence, making sure that they are as confident as they can be, and as prepared as they can be when the game comes.”
“These guys haven’t been rattled all year, so I don’t expect that to change.”