It all comes down to this. New Mexico (24-5, 15-2) and San Diego State (26-3, 15-2) go toe-to-toe for the MW regular season title and number one seed in the upcoming MW tournament Saturday night at 8:00. Possibly even more important, it could improve or depress either teams' seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Lastly, this game could determine the MW Player of the Year. SDSU's Xavier Thames and UNM's Cameron Bairstow are the front-runners for the coveted award and many believe that the outcome of this game will establish the winner.
This is what Lobo Kendall Williams was hoping for all along. After the Lobos defeated Air Force to improve to 15-2 in the MW Williams said he wanted SDSU to beat UNLV so Saturday's game would be for the outright title, adding "we're going to go to San Diego and win there." Well that's what happened and that bell cannot be un-rung. Saturday night's winner will take home the regular season crown along with bragging rights (until the MW tourney that is).
The Lobos will be entering a hornets' nest for sure. When the Aztecs visited the Pit the crowd's raucous ebullience helped lift the Lobos past the then-ranked #6 Aztecs in a 14-point victory. New Mexico will now find itself at the mercy of "The Show," SDSU's lively student section. What's more, it's senior night for the Aztecs. Thames and Josh Davis will play their last game in Viejas Arena and they will be looking to exit on a high note.
New Mexico has won 12 of its past 13 games, with the only loss coming 71-70 to Boise State on the road. San Diego State has won three in a row after losing to New Mexico.
After scoring only 44 points against the Lobos, San Diego State has scored 90, 82 and 73 points in its past three games, two of which were on the road. What's helped SDSU is a more balanced attack. Against SJSU three Aztecs scored 12 points and another had 11. Against Fresno State Thames posted an impressive 22 points, but was helped by 17 points from Aqeel Quinn and another 13 from Winston Shepard. And in a come-from-behind victory over UNLV four players scored double digits, including an efficient 14 points from Matt Shrigley (5-6 overall, 4-5 from three point range).
The Aztecs have learned that they can't rely solely on Thames, and that will be especially true against New Mexico. If Quinn or Shrigley gets hot the Aztecs can draw attention away from Thames and the frontcourt to open up more scoring options. However, it being senior night and playing in front of his home crowd, Thames probably won't struggle as much to score and will likely give the Lobos a fit. On defense Skylar Spencer (6-10, 235lbs) and Davis (6-8, 215 lbs) are going to have to limit Bairstow's (6-9, 250 lbs) touches. In Albuquerque Bairstow befuddled SDSU defenders, hitting jumpers and finding easy layups and the occasional dunk.
Whereas the Aztec's offense is improving, the Lobo's defense is doing the same. Over the past six games the Lobos have only allowed an average of 56.6 points per game from opponents. That's 10.2 fewer points than their season average.
In that same span, the Lobos have scored an average of 72.5 points, 3.2 less than their average but still not bad. New Mexico is going to need a good combination of defense and offense if they hope to down the Aztecs in Viejas. I suspect that two players will contribute most of the offense and another two to clamp down on defense.
Bairstow and Williams will most likely handle a bulk of the scoring duty. Bairstow put up 26 points and nine rebounds in the teams' last meeting. He will need something similar Saturday night. Williams was relatively quiet last game, but I expect him to be more aggressive this time around.
Alex Kirk and Hugh Greenwood will be vital on defense. Kirk is a big presence and alters many of the shots that he does not block. He also needs to block out so as to prevent second chance points from SDSU, something they excel at. Greenwood will most likely be assigned to guard Thames, a tall order, but one that he handled well in Albuquerque limiting Thames to just seven points on 3-15 shooting.
The Lobos will have to stop the Aztec's transition and stay out of foul trouble. The Aztecs have been very successful at getting to the line. Williams and Greenwood will also need to guard the ball against a very formidable SDSU defense that will probably show a full-court press earlier than most teams.
The Lobos have also benefited from spirited play from Cullen Neal, Cleveland Thomas,and Deshawn Delaney. In the win over Air Force Delaney and Neal both scored eight points and Thomas had 10. Delaney also added nine rebounds and two steals. It's these types of contributions that can make the Lobos so dangerous when a game gets close.
Whatever the result, this game is going to be one for the books. The champion will cut down the nets while the loser sulks back to their locker room to start planning for the MW tournament. And let's not forget that this is a true rivalry. Both teams think that they are the entitled champion of the Mountain West. There was a small fracas after the game in Albuquerque as the teams shook hands. Suffice it to say that some members of these teams do not care for each other, especially not Saturday night. There's just too much on the line.