A big game looms ahead for the Aztecs as they’ll face Wyoming on Monday night.
With bracketologists putting SDSU firmly on the bubble, this is a very important resume-building game. The matchup with Wyoming is also an opportunity to create a three-way tie in the loss column for second place in the Mountain West.
This will be the first matchup for the Aztecs against the Cowboys this season. The last time SDSU faced them was last season as a one seed in the Mountain West tournament playing the eight seed Cowboys. The game went to the wire and gave the Aztecs quite the scare. This is nearly the same Wyoming team from that matchup.
Wyoming relies on two tremendous scorers headlined by a force inside, Graham Ike. They have a great offense and a sufficient defense. There are not many flaws on the team, but below are the three keys for SDSU beating Wyoming and capturing an essential resume-building win.
- Control Wyoming’s offense particularly Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado
Cowboys are known for traveling solo, but this Wyoming Cowboy team is led by two herdsmen, Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado.
Ike has been dominant this season. He is putting up Mountain West Player of the Year numbers. He’s averaging almost 21 points and 10 rebounds a game. He’s scored at least 23 points in five of the last six games. He’s a force inside. Nathan Mensah and the other bigs will have their hands full with him. Ike’s physicality draws him a lot of fouls. He averages over seven free throws a game, and he shoots 71% from the charity stripe. Mensah will have to be careful to stay out of foul trouble, as his defensive presence will be needed. Ike does struggle with turnovers; he averages 3.3 a game. Aztec guards may be able to take advantage of his lack of ball security.
Due to Ike’s size and Wyoming consistently feeding him, he will get his share on the scoreboard. But stopping Maldonado will be critical. Maldonado is a known name in Aztec fans households as he’s in his fifth year with Wyoming. He’s certainly having one of his best seasons. He’s an all-around player. He averages 19 points, five rebounds, and six assists. He’s unique for a point guard as he is 6’7 and likes to back down in the post. Trey Pulliam and Lamont Butler must play strong defense and not allow him easy shots in the paint. Maldonado doesn’t shoot the three-ball well as he only shoots 26% from beyond the arc. Maldonado has only been under double-digits three times this season, and Wyoming has lost all three. He also struggles with turnovers as he averages 3.5 per game.
Coach Brian Dutcher in the weekly press conference, said, “Ike and Maldonado have had great seasons. They both can back you down in the low post, and if you double, (Wyoming) surrounds them with great shooters.”
Coach Jeff Lindor of Wyoming has done a tremendous job of creating offense around Ike and Maldonado. The pieces around the stars are the reason for them ranking 31st in offensive efficiency. Drake Jefferies and Xavier Dusell are snipers from the outside, and they aren’t afraid to pull the trigger. Jeffries shoots almost seven threes a game and shoots 42.6% from beyond the arc. Dusell shoots almost six a game, shooting 35.6%.
This matchup will be one of the tougher challenges defensively for an Aztec team that still ranks number one in Kenpom defensive efficiency.
- Need Bench productivity
Before the Fresno State game, Dutcher knew what was ahead for the Aztecs, with six games in 15 days. With lack of recovery time, Dutcher emphasized the bench during this stretch.
“With all these games, we’re gonna have to play the bench. As much as we want a rhythm offensively it’s going to have to come like it has the last two victories with great production off our bench,” Dutcher said two weeks ago.
The bench has been stellar in the last five games. SDSU is averaging almost 25 points per game off the bench.
The bench will have particular importance in a game played in Laramie, Wyoming. The Aztecs have played in Provo at 4,551 feet elevation, Logan at 4,534 feet, Colorado Springs at 6,035 feet, and Boise at 2,730 feet. The Aztecs are winless in these games. Now they’ll play at the highest elevation all season at 7,165 feet elevation.
Dutcher has preached that the team is trusting the science and taking beet juice to negate the effects of altitude. But a collective scoring effort may be the better cure to give starters needed breaks and to take pressure off one or two scorers.
Playing in Laramie has always been a difficult travel for the Aztecs. The Aztecs chartered in today, on Sunday, something they don’t normally do both ways. They also flew in a day early as Dutcher said in the press conference that he trusts the science that playing a game 24-36 hours after arriving in altitude is the optimal time to negate the effects of the elevation.
Wyoming has taken advantage of their home-court advantage as they have won 14 straight home games going back to last year.
- Take advantage of depth, play physical and force fouls.
So far this season, playing important road games in the Mountain West have not resulted in favorable officiating calls for the Aztecs.
But SDSU could really benefit from a tighter officiated game or to draw fouls on the Cowboys.
Wyoming is not very deep. They have three players who average over 30 minutes a game. Maldonado has played every minute in 10 different games this season. Only six players average significant minutes.
Wyoming ranks 341st in the nation in bench minutes.
Getting Cowboys into foul trouble and forcing them to use their limited bench would be a big advantage for the Aztecs.
Ike struggles with foul trouble. He averages over three fouls a game. The Cowboys only use one other big man which is Hunter Thompson, who hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in the last five games.
If the Aztecs turn the game into a physical battle and increased fouls are called on both sides, the advantage goes to SDSU. The Aztec bench is much deeper and can afford to get into foul trouble.
On the flip side, Wyoming excels in drawing fouls. Graham Ike is number one in the nation at drawing fouls, and Hunter Maldonado ranks 22nd. With most possessions ending in a shot from this duo, the Aztecs may be able to use this to their advantage and slide in for a charge. Both players prefer to play inside, so drawing offensive fouls will be huge.