Which team would show up? The aggressive, confident, and defending San Diego State Aztecs? Or their evil twin? The tentative, listless, and offensively challenged version.
Fueled by two key home wins last week, the Aztecs rolled into The Pit to face a faltering and rebuilding New Mexico Lobos team that had lost four out of its last five. But Mountain West road wins have been elusive for the Aztecs in 2015, and this occasion in the rowdy Pit would be a true litmus test for their improved mid season form.
What was apparent immediately was that one part of the Aztecs-Lobos script remained the same. Both team's high intensity and contest-every-shot defense made the score only 3-2 after the first five minutes of play.
The Aztecs coming into New Mexico were the third hardest team to score on in the NCAA, giving up only 53.7 points a game. But now there is a discernible difference in the Aztecs offense to compliment the defense, and it started at the 15-minute mark. Six-foot-10 frosh Malik Pope's perimeter shooting and transfer Angelo Chol's down-low play and timeout-inducing dunk sparked an Aztecs 10-0 run for a 17-7 score midway through the first half. This off the bench tandem poses big mismatches for opponents especially when a lanky six-foot-10 player is on the perimeter raining 3s.
Winston Shepard has also gradually found his confidence from last season with poise, cockiness and a shooter's touch. Make no mistake, these Aztecs will go as far as he and JJ O'Brien carry them. Shepard slashed, attacked and shot (one make bounced four times on the rim before falling) his way through the entire Lobos team in the first half. Aided by a resurgent shot blocker in Skylar Spencer and the developing Angelo Chol, Shepard set the emotional tone that resulted in a 31-18 halftime lead. Throw in a quiet eight points from guard Aqueel Quinn, and simply put, New Mexico was out-manned, out-hustled and over matched. The Lobos never recovered.
What is fun to watch about these Aztecs is when this team utilizes nine players with each bringing something special to the mix.
Try defending Shepard, Quinn and O'Brien in the post and then rush out to stop Pope at the top of the key swishing a 3-pointer? Watching these Aztecs consistently suffocate teams defensively is something fans take for granted. Seeing them do it at The Pit (granted, the Lobos are in a down year made worse with the loss of Cullen Neal to a season ending injury) is not. Prior to this game, the Aztecs had won precisely nine times ever at New Mexico.
As the second half played out and Spencer continued his monster game rejecting shots and rebounding, it was Quinn who kept the offense rolling. While no one can fill the shoes of Xavier Thames, Quinn is doing his best to balance out this team when they really need him. He's a solid guard who pulls defenders out of the paint, opening up passing lanes for the Aztecs bigs. The mid-season practice rest he got last week has done a world of good and has pulled him out of a short scoring slump.
The final score of 63-46 indicates it was never really close, and it wasn't. A complete performance that never really let The Pit crowd in the game. The Aztecs that showed up were the ones fans love: making almost 50 percent of their shots, swarming on defense, blocking shots and hustling for every loose ball.
The player most happy to see this version? O'Brien. He carried them for long stretches this season, but is really most comfortable sharing the ball and making everyone else look good.
Coaches preach that peaking at the right time is the magic formula. Can these Aztecs continue conjuring this mix of style and substance? A spell of basketball that propelled them into the Sweet 16 last season? Let's hope so, because this version of the Aztecs we saw tonight is one we can't take our eyes off of in February, let alone what may lie ahead for them in March.