No. 8 San Diego St. Aztecs (28-3, 16-2 MWC) vs. UNLV Rebels (20-12, 10-8 MWC)
When: Friday, March 14, 9 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. PT
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nev.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: SDSU broadcast is on The Mighty 1090 AM. UNLV broadcast is on ESPN Las Vegas 1100 AM.
Last meeting: The Aztecs and Rebels battled back and forth for 37 minutes earlier this March in Las Vegas. During those 37 minutes, the two teams exchanged the lead 15 times and tied 10 times. However, SDSU closed the final three minutes and six seconds of the game with a 10-2 run and beat UNLV 73-64. Khem Birch stepped up big-time in Roscoe Smith's absence, but his 16 points and 10 rebounds weren't enough against Xavier Thames and the Aztecs.
The Rebels missed seven free throws in the last three minutes of their MWC Tournament quarterfinal game against Wyoming, but withstood the Cowboy comeback and won 71-67. Smith returned from his concussion with an impressive performance, netting 18 points and grabbing 13 boards. Birch played well, too, scoring eight points and grabbing nine rebounds. Birch struggled all game with an injured left hip flexor, though. He will play through the pain tonight against SDSU.
SDSU absolutely demolished Utah State in the quarterfinals 73-39. The Aztecs held the Aggies, who live and die by the 3-pointer, to just 10% 3-point shooting and under 30% overall shooting. Thames dished out seven of the team's season-high 19 assists and the team shot 52.5% from the field. Josh Davis bounced back from a four-game slump with eight points, 13 rebounds and six steals. Coach Fisher played all 11 players who traveled to Las Vegas, and all 11 scored.
UNLV's key to victory: If Roscoe Smith thoroughly out-rebounds and outplays Davis and Skylar Spencer in the paint, the Rebels can knock off the No. 1 tournament seed. Birch isn't 100%, so Smith will need to take more responsibility owning the paint against the Aztec bigs. The SDSU bigs haven't seen Smith in action since mid-January, and facing the league-leading rebounder in person is quite different from watching him on tape. With his 7'1" wingspan, Smith outmatches Davis and Spencer on the boards. For UNLV to win, Smith will need to have a 15-rebound kind of night, which he's already done five times this year.
SDSU's key to victory: Thames. Is it any surprise that in arguably SDSU's most efficient game of the year yesterday against USU, Thames scored 15 points, had seven assists and grabbed three rebounds? Generally, SDSU plays well if Thames plays well (with a few exceptions during Thames' four-game shooting skid). UNLV may have the edge in the paint, but Thames outmatches Bryce Dejean-Jones and Kevin Olekaibe at the guard position. In fact, in the two SDSU-UNLV games this year, Thames has scored 37 and Dejean-Jones and Olekaibe have combined for only 36. If Thames continues this trend, the Aztecs will advance to the MWC Tournament championship game.
Prediction: SDSU wins 71-62.