San Diego St. Aztecs (25-3, 14-2 MWC) vs. UNLV Rebels (19-10, 10-6 MWC)
When: Wednesday, March 5, 11:05 p.m. ET, 8:05 p.m. PT
Where: Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nevada
TV: CBS Sports Network
Last meeting: SDSU beat UNLV 63-52 earlier this January in Viejas Arena after losing three in a row to its Mountain West rival. Those looking for a shootout left disappointed as neither team shot well at all. SDSU shot about 34% and UNLV shot 30%. The Aztecs pulled out the win by reaching SDSU Coach Steve Fisher's two goals for every game: outrebounding the opponent and making more free throws than the opponent attempts. SDSU outrebounded the ninth best rebounding team in the nation by 10 and made 10 more free throws than the Rebels attempted.
Good news for Rebels fans? UNLV just throttled Air Force 93-67 in Colorado Springs--not an easy thing to do. Bad news? Conference-leading rebounder Roscoe Smith will sit tonight with a concussion he got with about seven minutes left in the Air Force game. Coach Dave Rice and the Rebels will miss Smith's 11 rebounds per game in tonight's vicious battle on the boards. Carlos Lopez-Sosa probably would have started anyway because it's UNLV's Senior Night, but now he'll definitely start and get significant playing time. Freshman Christian Wood will also play big-time minutes in Smith's absence. These two will complement Khem Birch in the paint.
SDSU fans are confused, folks: the Aztecs are scoring--a lot. Last week the Aztecs stomped San Jose State 90-64 and beat red-hot Fresno State 82-67 in front of the biggest Bulldog crowd in years (14,801 fans). With its 42-point second half against the Bulldogs, SDSU now has scored 40+ points in three consecutive halves. The Aztecs also shot 60% in Fresno, the highest mark since they shot 61.4% against Saint Katherine's College in December. Fisher utilized his team's greatest strength, its depth, and played ten Aztecs; no one played more than 31 minutes. No doubt Fisher will turn to his deep bench in Las Vegas.
UNLV's key to victory: UNLV's rebounding advantage vanishes with Smith's absence. The solution? Get Josh Davis and Skylar Spencer into foul trouble early to reduce the rebounding edge that now belongs to SDSU. While Spencer has improved his game as of late, he still struggles with defensive discipline. Drive straight towards him time after time and you're bound to draw some fouls. Davis will be a little harder to get into foul trouble; he's never fouled out this year and committed four fouls just three times, compared to Spencer who has fouled out once and committed four fouls five times. Nonetheless, if Bryce Dejean-Jones and Kevin Olekaibe drive the lane early and often and force Davis and Spencer to sit, UNLV can reduce SDSU's rebounding edge and help Birch own the boards. UNLV can then try to win the game with hard-nosed defense in front of a massive crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center.
SDSU's key to victory: Point guards Aqeel Quinn and D'Erryl Williams must contribute in a big way from the perimeter. In SDSU's four games before it faced San Jose State, the span of Xavier Thames' shooting slump, Quinn and Williams combined for just four assists and 12 points. Without another point guard contributing effectively, Thames forced shots and rarely played off the ball. That all changed against Fresno: Quinn scored 17 points on 85% shooting and Williams played 12 solid minutes, the longest he's played in conference. Playing against multiple point guard threats, the Bulldogs couldn't focus all its perimeter defense on Thames. Consequently, Thames played with space and turned that space into 22 points, six rebounds and two assists. In fact, Thames said in today's SDSU press conference that Quinn's performance helped him to relax and not force shots. In order to beat the Rebels in Las Vegas, Quinn and Williams need to play like they did in Fresno.
Prediction: Although the biggest 2013-2014 MWC rivalry is SDSU-UNM, the Aztecs and Rebels traditionally have had an insanely heated rivalry in the conference. In this chapter of the rivalry, Thames will win his last-ever MWC road game: SDSU 65 UNLV 55.