On Wednesday and Friday this week, the University of New Mexico welcomes San Diego State to their temporary home in Lubbock, Texas. The contests pit the first place team vs. the second-place team in the Mountain West.
“I think it’s just conference titles,” coach Dutcher said at the weekly press conference. “We’ve got the most in the Mountain West, and I think New Mexico is number two in conference titles. It’s two proud programs that are playing against each other that have a lot of history of playing for the title. I don’t care what the records are. New Mexico and San Diego State is a great rivalry, and will continue to be so.”
Between the regular season and the conference tournament, the Mountain West has handed out 38 titles. 20 of those have gone to the teams meeting on Wednesday and Friday – 12 to the Aztecs; eight to the Lobos. While this season has been a continuation of SDSU’s traditional dominance, it has been a year of futility not experienced at New Mexico in 40 years. The Lobos currently have five wins on the season. The last time they failed to win double digits was the 1979 – 1980 season.
Even with the results on the court, this season has been a resounding success for the Lobos. Restrictions on holding athletic practices and competitions in the state – to fight the spread of Covid – has meant the Lobos have spent their entire year away from home. Their schedule reads 3 – 5 in neutral games, 2 – 6 in road games, and 0 – 0 in home games. Paul Weir, his coaching staff, the players, and the university should be commended.
“No one has had a harder year than they have this year,” Dutcher said, “playing away from their university for their entire season. I give credit to Coach Weir for keeping it together, for making the best of a hard situation.”
“That’s something nobody can fathom unless you’re living in it.” Matt Mitchell added. “Just to speak to the many road games, we’ve had – road trips and being gone four or five days. Just being in the hotel and not being able to go anywhere and just being so confined … it takes a toll on you mentally, I would say.”
“It just drains you being in the hotel and not being able to see anything else, not being able to go anywhere. I can only imagine what they’re going through. I feel for them. All the highest praise to them for still fighting through all the adversity that they’ve had and being able to get back on the court.”
Three Keys to an SDSU Sweep of the Series
1. Shaping the Team
The calendar has turned to February, and in a few short weeks, March Madness will be upon us. Which tournament the Aztecs are in and the run they make could be determined by what takes place in the waning regular-season games. With an injury to Matt Mitchell, Aguek Arop (AG) dealing with vertigo, and a couple of hiccups in games against Utah State, the rotation, which had been fairly consistent, has begun to change.
The most notable inclusion has been from Lamont Butler, whose instincts and impact have instantly turned him into a fan favorite. Butler’s rise has not been the only change. Terrell Gomez is now a starter who has brought an aggressiveness and change of pace to the starting unit. Keshad Johnson, likewise, has benefited from the increased minutes seen spelling AG. Finally, Joshua Tomaic has quietly turned in more minutes on the court in each of the last three games than starter Nathan Mensah.
Dutcher and his staff’s stated goal is to get better as the season progresses, so the team is at its best at the end of the year. This season, that aim manifests in a continual tweaking of the rotation and the minutes players are earning. While some coaches must worry about the mental taxation continual adjustments can take on their players’ psyches, the selflessness and maturity of the athletes in SDSU’s program give Dutcher and his staff a unique luxury.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” Dutcher said. “AG was starting, Adam was starting, Lamont started a game, and they’ve all gone to the bench, and then, come in and done great jobs off the bench. I don’t think they get hung up on starting as much as other people do. I’m not opposed to changing the starting lineup and changing it next game if I feel it’s the best thing for our team because I have mature guys who can handle it. Some guys can’t handle not starting. Mentally it’s too much for them, but this group is mature. It is unselfish. They just tell me, ‘Wherever you need me, coach, I’m ready to play.’”
2. Shutting down Makuach Maluach
New Mexico is one of the worst offenses in the country. They rank 319 in offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. They rank 313 in field percentage, making 39.92% of their attempts. They are even worse from three, where they rank 338th, shooting only 25.37% behind the arc. The silver lining to their offensive futility is the spotlight it has brought on a terrific Lobo and a wonderful player in the conference, Makuach Maluach.
Maluach is the only Lobo averaging double figures in scoring. He also leads the team in rebounds and steals. He has scored at least 24 points in three out of his last four games. He is doing it with little help around him. If New Mexico has a shot to pull off the upset, it will because Maluach was potent enough to make it a game.
“Just playing sound defense.” Matt Mitchell responded when asked how to stop Maluach. “Maluach is a very aggressive player. He has shown spurts over the past years with them having players that maybe the coach went to them more. But he was definitely aggressive within their offense, definitely in transition. He will be the danger player to worry about – him being the veteran leader on that team. It is definitely a challenge that we’ll be able to step up to.”
Mitchell became just the third Aztec in program history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, and 100 steals. Maluach is not far behind him. He has amassed 1,194 points, 439 rebounds, 160 assists, and 86 steals to date.
Due to the intensity of the rivalry, Lobo players are usually only appreciated by Aztec fans long after they are gone. Perhaps, this year with the Lobos in last place, SDSU’s supporters can appreciate in real-time – for one last time – a player who has earned his time to shine.
3. Score 65
It is difficult to find too many scripts where the Aztecs come out on either game’s losing side. One that comes to mind, however, is the Aztecs regressing in their offense and allowing the Lobos to hang around and win it in the end. New Mexico almost stole a game from Fresno State in their last series, playing a low scoring style of basketball that was 19 – 19 at the half and finished 64 – 62 even though the game went to overtime.
The magic number for the Aztecs is 65 points. New Mexico opened the season 3-0 and since has only scored 65 or more points four times. They are 2 – 2 in those games. Similarly, SDSU has had halves where the ball stops moving, and the team becomes pedestrian on offense. New Mexico is not bad defensively. They rank 85th nationally in defensive field goal percentage.
Whatever flaws the Lobos have, lack of heart and character is not one of them.
“(New Mexico has) had some tough losses,” Dutcher said. “And to their credit, Paul (Weir)’s credit, their coaching staff’s credit, and the kids’ credit. They continue to compete at a hard level. They have not given in. So often, you see teams that struggle eventually give in, but New Mexico hasn’t given in. They continue to play hard. They continue to play together, and they’re trying to fight their way out of a hard string right now.”