SDSU Aztecs vs New Mexico Lobos basketball preview

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT Sports

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT Sports

The San Diego State Aztecs head to Albuquerque to face the New Mexico Lobos. New Mexico came into the season as one of the favorites to win the conference but has not yet lived up to that billing. They will be looking to right the ship, as well as exact revenge over last year’s loss on a buzzer-beating shot.

The Aztecs are coming off a close game against San Jose State, in which Jay Pal prevented the game from going into overtime with a clutch block at the rim. SDSU will need to have a better performance to pull this road contest.

General Observations

The Aztecs have faced a lot of teams that play fast this season. New Mexico will add to that list as one of the fastest, ranking 17th in the nation.

The Lobos are a very balanced team without many weaknesses. They eschew three-point shots for attempts at the rim, preferring to play aggressively. Playing assertively can also get them into foul trouble on the other end, so there is some give and take with it.

To date, UNM has played a low level of competition. According to the NET, they have the 314th (out of 362) hardest out-of-conference schedule, meaning they played a bunch of poorly ranked teams.

How to guard New Mexico

The Lobos like to run the floor in transition, especially after forcing turnovers, which they are skilled at doing. Ball security and transition defense will be important to prevent those easy points. The Aztecs showed they can accomplish that with their performance against Gonzaga. 

As a general principle, the Lobos use the pick-and-roll to get to and finish at the rim. UNM pick-and-rolls more than almost every other team in the nation. The Aztecs should look to pack the paint and force more outside shots. 

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What makes the Lobos so dangerous is their interior passing. Guards like Donovan Dent and Jaelen House will draw extra defenders and dish to  interior players such as JT Toppin or Nelly Junior Joseph. The bigs have great chemistry as well and are good at passing to each other. 

One way they accomplish this is by using the short roll. The rolling big man rolls but stops about halfway between the top of the key and the rim. It forces the defensive big man in a drop coverage to make a choice. 

Does he step up and contest a shot but leave the rim unguarded, or does he stay back to protect the rim but allow the open shot or drive? The best short rollers excel at drawing the defense and passing out of their position, as Joseph does in the clip below.

One option to attempt to disrupt New Mexico is to deny their guards the ball. In the clip below, Colorado State does that by switching the screen in the Chicago action and denying the handoff. Colorado State accomplishes their goal, but Joseph is able to attack the paint himself and finish at the rim, proving New Mexico is more than just their guards.

Defenses can’t stop everything. If the Aztecs can prevent guys like House and Dent from going off and force someone like Joseph to beat them, they’ll have done their job. 

How to Attack New Mexico

New Mexico executes an over-and-hedge defense in their pick-and-roll coverage. The defensive guard will go over the screen, while the defensive big man will step up to prevent an easy turn into the paint. It can be great for disrupting the flow of the offense as it’s hard to pass to a roll man with two players in front of the ball handler. 

In the clip below, Colorado State shows how the tactic is vulnerable to a popping big man. Stevens comes off the screen in this variation of a Chicago action, and his man is wide open and drains the three.

That is a read that can easily be incorporated into SDSU’s offense since they run the same action. Elijah Saunders, Jay Pal, and Jaedon LeDee have all shown an ability to hit those shots in a small sample. It shouldn’t be their first option, but it is a viable one that can burn New Mexico’s defense.

Another option is the Cross-Ram action Colorado State used. This play is already in the Aztecs playbook, so they can use it without having to change anything. 

Over the course of the season, New Mexico has been content to let Joseph guard people alone in the post. They occasionally bring double teams, but not as a default. That will change against LeDee, though. 

New Mexico has practice with multiple types of double teams in the post. The one that will most likely be used against SDSU is a baseline double. The defender closest to the baseline will approach from behind the post player to execute the double team and will wait for the offensive post player to dribble the ball before moving. The expected result is that the extra defender is not seen until it is too late. UNLV gave LeDee some problems with that coverage, so expect New Mexico to copy it. 

Plays to watch for


This is a slightly different setup but functionally the same play as one that the Aztecs run. It has multiple threats. The first is the big cutting across the lane. The second is the shooter cutting to the top of the key. It works because if the defense sends help on the first option, it usually leaves the second option wide open.

Players to watch

Jaelen House, #10, 14.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists

House has been a problem for SDSU before, and there is no reason to think that will not continue. Despite missing a few games with injury, House is still one of the best guards in the Mountain West. 

He’s been a sniper offensively, connecting on 41% of his shots from deep. Defense is where his true impact comes to light, though. House’s ability to pester ball handlers is second to none in the conference, as shown by his league-leading steal percentage of 5.4%. 

House is also the emotional leader of the team, and UNM tends to go how he goes. When he is feeling himself, the whole team has a swagger about them. If he is struggling, the rest of the team feels it and struggles too.

Donovan Dent, #2, 15.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists

Dent has been the breakout player of the year so far. He is among the league leader in points as well as assists. The Lobos were missing a true floor general last season, but they have found one in Dent. He excels at making the right decision and is great at improving the play of the those around him. It will largely fall to Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell to limit his impact.

Jamal Mashburn, #5, 16.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists

Mashburn was an early favorite for MW Preseason Player of the Year after leading the league in scoring a year ago. Relative to those expectations, he has been a major disappointment this year. He still scores a lot but does so with terrible efficiency, often taking bad shots rather than moving the ball for a better one. 

Every player metric available ranks him average at best. That being said, he cannot be overlooked. Mashburn can get hot in a hurry and has the ability to shoot his team into or out of a game.The Aztecs should focus on making it the latter.


It is cliche, but this game will likely go to the team with the most toughness, both physically and mentally. After winning at Gonzaga, Coach Dutcher said in his opening statement.

“I thought we played tough. There’s always X’s and O’s things… we found a way to continue to concentrate, still get stops, and make enough plays to get a win here today. And it’s a hard place to win.”

Playing in The Pit this year may be even harder than playing at Gonzaga. There will be more opposing fans, it’s higher in elevation, and New Mexico is desperate for a win after dropping two of three to start conference play.

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