No. 21 New Mexico Lobos (24-5, 15-2 MWC) at No. 10 San Diego St. Aztecs (26-3, 15-2 MWC)
When: Saturday, March 8, 2014, 10:05 p.m. ET, 7:05 p.m. PT
Where: Viejas Arena, San Diego, Calif.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: SDSU broadcast is on The Mighty 1090 AM and 105.7 FM The Walrus. New Mexico broadcast is on the Lobo Radio Network 770 KKOB-AM.
Last meeting: The Aztecs started with a quick 2-point lead on a Skylar Spencer second-chance tip-in. From that point on, though, Cameron Bairstow and the Lobos dominated at The Pit and never let go of the lead. This 58-44 beatdown was quick--but not painless. The referees only called only 21 fouls and the game lasted around 90 minutes. Believe it or not, SDSU outplayed UNM in several key categories: turnovers, steals and second-chance points. However, the Lobos gained the ultimate edge because they had 11 more assists than a stagnant and impatient Aztec offense. It's no coincidence that SDSU implemented a fresh, motion offense after this game.
In their three games since beating SDSU, the Lobos have allowed an average of 56 points per game and scored an average of 73 points per game. Bairstow has netted 20+ points twice; in the one game he didn't score 20, he got a double-double. Another Lobo star that flies under the radar, Kendall Williams, also had a double-double in Reno. My point is this: UNM was hot against the Aztecs, and they've remained hot. This Lobos squad has a chance to march into a blacked-out (as in the crowd wearing black), deafening Viejas Arena and win the MWC regular season crown over a team that's overshadowed them almost all year.
On the other side, the Aztecs have averaged about 81 points scored and 65 points allowed in their three games since losing to UNM. The now pass-happy Aztec offense seems to be clicking: normally SDSU ranks 329th nationally with its 10.2 assists per game, but the squad has averaged 13 in this three game winning streak. And good news for Aztec fans: Xavier Thames appears to be back, netting 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists in the last two games. The Aztecs have it just the way they want it: a winner-take-all game in front of their passionate home crowd.
UNM's key to victory: Keep feeding it to Bairstow. SDSU had no answer for him in game one. Skylar Spencer is an adept shot-blocker, but he can't handle Bairstow in the paint. Josh Davis is a freakishly athletic rebounder, but his 6'8", 215 pound frame can't square off toe-to-toe with Bairstow's 6'9", 250 pound frame. And both Spencer and Davis had trouble venturing outside the paint to defend Bairstow's mid-range jumper. SDSU Coach Fisher and his staff will no doubt coach the heck out of their bigs and analyze game tape until it's dark out. But until Spencer and Davis prove that they can matchup with Bairstow, the Lobos should feed the beast. If Bairstow can't be stopped, then the game opens up for the rest of his teammates and the Lobos steal one in San Diego.
SDSU's key to victory: Runs and J.J. O'Brien's defense. A 9-0 run. A couple 5-0 runs. If the Aztecs can force turnovers with their length and score two or three transition baskets in a row, this Senior Night crowd at Viejas will prove to be an advantage for SDSU. O'Brien is also a big factor tonight. As SDSU's best overall defender, O'Brien ranges all over the court during a game to neutralize the opponent's top scorer; sometimes he's guarding in the post, sometimes he's out contesting a three--he's a wild card. SDSU will most likely double Bairstow in the paint tonight, and O'Brien will be involved in a lot of the double-teams. But he'll also need to break to guard Williams or Hugh Greenwood on the perimeter when Bairstow dumps it out of the paint. If O'Brien plays his A-game defensively and this SDSU offense can orchestrate a few scoring runs, SDSU will be the MWC regular season champion.
Prediction: I said earlier this year that the home team would win each game. The Aztecs have that edge tonight and Xavier Thames will leave his last game at Viejas a winner. SDSU 69 UNM 66.