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Air Force vs. San Diego State 2014: Falcons face stiff Aztec defense

The Air Force Falcons open Mountain West Conference play on the road when they travel to San Diego to take on the highly regarded and 25th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Time/TV - 3:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on ESPN 3

Record - Air Force 7-4, San Diego State 10-3

Series History - San Diego State leads 50-22

Last Meeting - San Diego State 64 Air Force 56 on Feb. 15, 2014

Defense wins championships. That is a statement you can hear in thousands of gyms across America from basketball coaches trying to get the best defensive effort possible from their teams. For the San Diego State Aztecs, defense is a way of life, it is the backbone of the program and it is the reason that the Aztecs are highly regarded nationally and the favorites to win the Mountain West Conference in the 2014-2015 season. The Aztecs under coach Steve Fisher don't just give lip service to this way of thinking; it is the lifeblood of the program, and the Air Force Falcons will get the first crack at trying to solve the defense of the Aztecs Wednesday afternoon when they face the 25th-ranked San Diego State team on the road.

Probable starting lineups

San Diego State

Air Force Falcons

Winston Shepard - 6'8 Jr.



Kamryn Williams - 6'7 Sr.



J.J. O'Brien - 6'7 Sr.



Marek Olesinski - 6'9 Sr.



Skylar Spencer - 6'10 Jr.



Max Yon - 6'4 Sr.



Trey Kell - 6'4 Fr.



Trevor Lyons - 6'3 Fr.



Aqeel Quinn - 6'3 Sr.



Matt Mooney - 6'3 Fr.



Both teams enter this game with some glaring omissions in their line-ups. For the Falcons, senior forward Justin Hammonds is questionable for this week as he has not played since leaving early in the Nebraska-Omaha game with an undisclosed injury. The Falcons are also just starting to see senior forward DeLovell Earls round into shape. He played three minutes against Jacksonville State in the Falcons' last game and the coaching staff is hoping to get him more involved as the conference season progresses. San Diego State's injury is the highly publicized issues with Dwayne Polee II, who collapsed in the UC Riverside game and has not been cleared to play. Polee averages 8.4 points a game for the Aztecs.

The key for the Falcons will be to find their shooting touch early against the Aztecs. Shooting, especially from the 3-point line, has been the number-one strength of Air Force. Leading scorer Yon and his 46-percent shooting from deep has helped the Falcons as a team average 39.6 percent from 3-point land in non-conference action. The ability of the Falcons to hit from deep, especially guys like Olesinski and sophomore reserve Zach Kocur (shooting 55.6 percent from long range), will be vital in trying to make this a competitive game. The Aztecs do a solid job defending the 3-pointer, allowing their opponents to shoot only 28 percent from deep. If Air Force can hit from deep, it opens up backdoor cuts and driving opportunities for the Falcons, who lack a premier post-up offensive player. The Falcons need to spread the floor and take advantage of their shooting ability.

The biggest advantages for San Diego State are rebounding and their ability to turnover opponents. The Aztecs average 8.9 steals per game, which allows them to score off their defense as they tend to struggle in the half-court game. Air Force has a tendency to turn the ball over too much, committing 13.2 turnovers per game. If the Falcons turn the ball over at a high rate, they will not be able to exploit the fact that the Aztecs only shoot 28 percent from deep as a team and 40.7 percent from the floor as a whole. San Diego State wins games by turning you over when you have the ball and holding you to one possession on offense. The Aztecs average 36.6 rebounds a game and are a plus-two in rebounding differential. This is a dangerous area for the Falcons, who only average 33.2 rebounds a game. In Air Force's two biggest match-ups of the year versus Colorado and Texas Tech, the Falcons were a combined minus-22 in rebounding margin. The Falcons don't handle size in the front court particularly well and San Diego State has the huge advantage here, both in the starting lineup and when Angelo Chol and Malik Pope come off the bench.

The return of sharpshooter Matt Shrigley for San Diego State could be the biggest factor in this game. Shrigley was hurt much of the early part of the season and is just now rounding into shape. In his last game against San Diego Christian, Shrigley provided the Aztecs with the 3-point shooting they have been missing, going 3-7 from deep. His ability to extend the floor and open up the middle for the much larger Aztec team could put the Falcons' defense in a dire situation where they will have to pick their poison on what to stop. He has the type of shooting ability that could really be a huge factor for San Diego State as they enter conference play.

It's a tall task for the Falcons in San Diego Wednesday, but the Falcons have been able to play the Aztecs tough and keep the games competitive. In their last three match-ups, the Aztecs have had to hold on for wins of seven, seven and eight points. Head coach Dave Pilipovich has also been good in opening the conference season, going 2-0 in his previous two conference openers over Nevada and Utah State. The Falcons have had nine days to prepare for the Aztecs, and when their shooting is on, they become a much tougher team to defeat. Another common phrase among basketball coaches is having a shooter's chance, and that is what the Falcons will be hanging their hopes on in this game.