San Diego State vs. New Mexico game preview: Clash of Mountain West giants

Kent Horner

The No. 6 SDSU Aztecs travel to face the UNM Lobos in The Pit.

No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs (23-2, 12-1 MWC) at New Mexico Lobos (20-5, 11-2 MWC)

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT

Where: The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: SDSU broadcast is on The Mighty AM 1090 and 105.7 FM The Walrus. UNM broadcast is on Lobo Radio Network and 770 KKOB AM.

Last meeting: Now-Chicago Bull Tony Snell put on a shooting clinic the last time these teams met in the 2013 MWC Tournament semi-finals. Snell hit nothing but net almost every time he pulled up for three en route to his 17-point performance. UNM big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow dominated DeShawn Stephens and Skylar Spencer in the paint and combined for 31 points. SDSU played a clean game, turning the ball over only four times. However, it shot 31.3% and lost 60-50. New Mexico then beat Anthony Bennett's UNLV squad in the finals.

The Aztecs have proven that they can win when Xavier Thames doesn't fill up the stat sheet. In SDSU's last two wins, Thames shot 4-19 for 17 points. Other players, such as Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee II and Matt Shrigley stepped up offensively and took some pressure off Thames. In fact, Shrigley led all scorers with 15 points earlier this week against Utah State, a game in which Thames scored four points. SDSU's defense--surprise, surprise--continues to dominate, holding Utah State to 45 points and 34% shooting on Tuesday. Steve Fisher's talented squad will need top-notch performances on both ends of the court to snag a win in The Pit.

UNM has convincingly won two in a row since its disheartening loss against Boise State. The Lobos absolutely thumped Nevada last Saturday. They never trailed, shot over 50% and beat the Wolf Pack 90-72. Bairstow and Kirk combined for 53 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. Four days later, UNM completely thwarted UNLV defensively. The Rebels, who average over 70 points per game, scored 56 points on 31.7% shooting against the Lobos defense. The Lobos are definitely ready to host to Aztecs tonight.

SDSU's key to victory: Remember Kansas and its 16,300 screaming fans? SDSU needs replicate its performance from that night in Lawrence, Kan.  Now, the Aztecs shot 37.7%, committed 21 fouls, turned the ball over 15 times and got blocked 13 times in that game--so how did they win? They held the Jayhawks to 29.8% shooting. But more importantly, they out-rebounded a physical Kansas team by 12--nine defensive, three offensive. SDSU scored 14 second-chance points from its 19 offensive rebounds. Beating Bairstow and Kirk on the boards will be the hardest task SDSU faces this year. If SDSU succeeds, though, it will suck the energy out of a rowdy crowd and fly home to San Diego 13-1 in conference play.

UNM's key to victory: Kendall Williams. Bairstow and Kirk receive a lot of attention--and they deserve it. As a result, Williams, the reigning MWC Player of the Year, sometimes flies under the radar. And he definitely shouldn't. He averages over 17 points and almost five assists per game. He's had six conference games with 15+ points and 5+ assists. He also matches up very well against the Aztecs, specifically Thames. He's a relatively big guard (6'4") like Thames and an experienced senior like Thames. Coach Fisher and company no doubt prepared SDSU for all of the Lobos, but most likely focused on Bairstow and Kirk--can you blame them? If UNM beats the No. 6 team in the nation, Williams will have another 15+ point, 5+ assist game.

Prediction: UNM has beaten six of the last 10 ranked teams to visit The Pit. The Aztecs actually traveled to Albuquerque as the No. 6 team before in 2011: the Aztecs won 87-77. Not this time. The Lobos will win a terrific college basketball game, 74-71.

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