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San Diego State vs. Cal State Northridge 2014 game preview: SDSU poised for good start to season

San Diego State tips off its regular season campaign Friday at Viejas Arena at 7 p.m. vs Cal State Northridge, a team that narrowly missed out on last year's NCAA Tournament.

San Diego State's Skylar Spencer
San Diego State's Skylar Spencer
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night will be the first time we get to see the real San Diego State men's basketball team. The Aztecs took down Point Loma Nazarene 74-45 last Friday in an exhibition, but because that game didn't matter much apart from entertainment purposes, the spotlight will be shining bright when they welcome the Cal State Northridge Matadors to Viejas Arena.

In the past, this matchup been one-sided. SDSU leads the all-time series against CSUN 18-6 with the last meeting in 2008 ending in a 72-56 win for the Aztecs.

A LOOK AT CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE

CSUN can score. The Matadors return their top two scorers from last year and are hungry to start the 2014 campaign on the front foot after their heartbreaking two-point loss in last year's Big West Tournament final against Cal Poly.

Stephen Maxwell and Stephan Hicks each averaged more than 17 points per game last year. They're both off to a confident start after Maxwell put up 27 points and Hicks dropped 21 in the Matadors' 79-76 exhibition win over Cal State Dominguez Hills last Saturday.

Both Maxwell and Hicks shot better than 50 percent from the floor last year and Maxwell led CSUN with 8.8 rebounds per game. As a team, the Matadors shot 45.7 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the free-throw line, compared to SDSU's respective 43.5 field goal percentage and 66.3 free-throw percentage.

The other side to CSUN is the defense, which gave up 77.5 points per game, including 80 or more points 12 times. Sloppy ball-handling also plagued the Matadors with 12.7 turnovers per game compared to the Aztecs' 9.9 per game.

CSUN also wasn't able to do much on the road last year, going 2-14.

One last note about CSUN is the head coach, Reggie Theus. Yes, THAT Reggie Theus. The one who played 13 years in the NBA, scored over 19,000 points and dished out over 6,000 assists. Only a few NBA players have done that. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and John Stockton are three of those players.

Theus's coaching background is extensive: head coach of the Sacramento Kings, assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head coach at New Mexico State and assistant coach at Louisville under Rick Pitino. Rivals.com named Theus one of the top 25 recruiters in the nation while he was at Louisville.

Last year was his first year on the job and he almost got the Matadors into the big dance. So it's not a matter of "will CSUN improve this year," it's a matter of "how much will they improve?"

(see also, MWConnection Q&A with Daily Sundial)

WHAT SHOULD THE AZTECS BE WORRIED ABOUT?

The Aztecs' biggest concern is straying away from their stifling defense, their rebounding, and feeling like they have to beat CSUN at its own game. The Matadors scored 76.8 points per game last year and are more than capable of putting up 70 points at any time.

CSUN's defensive weakness should make the Aztecs salivate, but they'll still need to play their defense against a CSUN team that scored 80 points or more 17 times in 35 games last year.

They should also be worried about 3-point shooting. In case you missed it, SDSU shot an abysmal 0-8 from 3-point land against Point Loma. To make matters worse, Matt Shrigley will miss the next four weeks with a fractured elbow.

Shrigley made 40 3-pointers last year, so someone will need to step up. Highly touted freshman Malik Pope is still out as he's slowly being nudged back from his leg injury.

Apart from the 3-pointers, the Aztecs need to show they're capable of shooting jump shots. Sure, they shot 50 percent against Point Loma (58 percent if you leave out the 3-pointers), but more than half of SDSU's buckets were either dunks or put-backs against a short lineup.

Also, the Aztecs simply can't afford to have 13 turnovers per game like they did against Point Loma. Especially when the tougher opponents start showing up, like Utah, Washington and Cincinnati.

FEAR THE SPEAR

Despite the doomsaying that I've written in the last two subheads, the Aztecs are in a great position to win this game. Their lineup is much taller and deeper than CSUN's (see next subhead about CSUN's depth issue).

The nearly 2-1 rebounding advantage and the nearly 3-1 points in the paint advantage against Point Loma gave testament to the Aztecs' depth as well.

The team as a whole stepped up. Winston Shepard should have another good game. He had 16 pts and 10 rebounds against that small Point Loma lineup. CSUN has just as small of a lineup, given that 6'10" center Kevin Johnson won't play (again, see next subhead).

Freshman Trey Kell also justified his selection at point guard, scoring 10 points with two assists. Fellow freshman Kevin Zabo should see a lot of playing time along with Angelo Chol, both of whom showed glimpses of the potential that attracted the eyes of SDSU.

MATADORS SUSPENDED

Cal State Northridge's athletic department released a statement last Thursday reading that several basketball players are sitting out amid potential violations of team rules and policies. The statement also read the players will be out until an investigation is complete.

According to Kevin Strauss, CSUN's assistant sports information director, the players won't be traveling to the Mesa for Friday's game.

Strauss couldn't confirm when the investigation would be completed, but he said that the university hopes to have the investigation wrapped up within 60 days.

CSUN has not released the names of the involved players due to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Seven players, including five freshmen and one transfer, didn't play in CSUN's exhibition. It's unknown if all seven are implicated or if there are some injuries.

PREDICTION

Head coach Steve Fisher said the Aztecs won their exhibition by 29 points because they wore down Point Loma with their size, strength and depth.

SDSU should do the same against a depleted CSUN squad.

There are too many players on the Aztecs' roster and not enough bodies on the Matadors' bench to cope with SDSU.

CSUN is a step up from Point Loma, but once again the Matadors are ill-equipped to handle the Aztecs' barrage. SDSU will win comfortably and every player will see playing time.

SDSU 86 CSUN 59