San Diego State and New Mexico have combined for 10 Mountain West Regular Season and Tournament titles since 2011. To say that they have been the class of the Mountain West would be an understatement.
San Diego State was picked to win the conference in the preseason, but after a slow start in the nonconference, they have turned things around and currently lead the Mountain West with a 10-0 record. New Mexico has bounced back from a down year last season. After starting this season strong at 7-2, the Lobos lost four straight before the start of Mountain West play. They are currently 7-2 in conference after winning their last two games at Boise St. and versus UNLV.
When you play San Diego State you know what to expect. You are going to see a team that is looking to slow the game in the half-court, run out for transition baskets, pound the offensive glass, and play lock down defense.
The Aztecs' defense is once again one of the best in the nation and has allowed the second fewest points per game (59.2). Currently the Aztecs have held their last 16 opponents to under 43% field goal shooting, while outrebounding their opposition in 10 of the last 11 games.
Scoring the ball is both a chore and collective effort by this year's team. Freshman point guard Jeremy Helmsley leads the Aztecs offense, scoring 13.0 points per game. Helmsley has been a pleasant surprise for an Aztecs team that was in search of stability at the point guard position. In Mountain West play no one has been hotter on the Aztecs than shooting guard Trey Kell. He has been averaging 15.6 points during conference play.
Kell is the player that the Aztecs look to in crunch time and he could very well be the player that dictates the amount of success that the Aztecs have against the Lobos.
After those two players the Aztecs have a number of players that could lead the charge on any given day. Senior Winston Shepard has been clutch late in games and the coaching staff's decision to run their offense through him has changed the dynamic of this team. A
nother player to watch will be reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Skylar Spencer. Spencer has finally developed into a good rebounder after not being a force on the glass his first three years at San Diego State. In Mountain West play he is averaging 7.9 rebounds a game.
Expect all eyes in New Mexico to be on redshirt freshman Zylan Cheatham. Cheatham spurned the Lobos for San Diego State as a senior in high school and has established himself as a starter in the Aztecs frontcourt. He is averaging 8.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Finally, keep an eye out for Malik Pope.
Pope, of whom lofty expectations were expected, has had an erratic season. He has shown flashes of what he could be, however he has also had moments where he looks lost on the floor. There is hope on the Mesa that Pope is coming around.
New Mexico, on the other hand, does not have problems scoring the ball. When looking only at conference play, the Lobos are tops in a number of offensive categories. They lead the Mountain West with 80.7 points per game, 75.4% free throw percentage, a +9.8 point scoring margin, and the top field goal and three point percentages; 50.4 and 41% respectively.
Redshirt sophomore Elijah Brown leads the way offensively for the Lobos scoring 20.5 points per game. Brown is mister clutch at the free throw line, shooting 86.7% at the charity stripe, a stat that may be crucial if the game is close at the end of regulation. Tim Williams has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after transferring from Samford. In his first year with the Lobos, Williams is averaging 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Cullen Neal rounds out the double-digit scorers with 14.0 points per game. After leading the team in scoring through the first three games last year, before an injury forced him to miss the rest of his sophomore season, Neal has taken a backseat to Brown and Williams this year. Since Neal has no longer needed to be the leading scorer, it has allowed the rest of his teammates to grow around him, something that you did not see at the beginning of last year.
The Lobos have also gotten improved play from Obij Aget. The big man is averaging 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game this season. He will need to hold his own against the Aztecs big men who dominated him last year.
An area of concern going into the game for New Mexico is turning the ball over. On the season, the Lobos turn the ball over nearly 15 times a game! Against an Aztec team that has trouble in the half court and pressures you defensively the Lobos will need to emphasize ball security.
This game will pit offense versus defense, and in the case of the Aztecs, defense usually wins. New Mexico will need to make sure that they limit turnovers, especially those that could lead to fast break points for the Aztecs. They will also need to rebound the ball, especially on defense as the Aztecs will miss and they will fight for those second chance points.
San Diego State needs to ensure they do not give the Lobos easy looks at the basket. Against Colorado State the Aztecs gave up 10 3-point baskets, that will equate to a loss if the Aztecs let New Mexico do that to them. Also they will need to keep the Lobos off the free throw line, which is something the Aztecs are good at as they play solid defense without fouling.
This should be fight between two hungry teams whose fan bases dislike each other. The Lobos need to prove that they still are a power to be reckoned with in the Mountain West. A win at San Diego State would go a long way in proving that. The Aztecs want to keep rolling over the next team on the schedule and solidify their chances at an at-large berth. Tomorrow the ball tips at 1 pm PST between the Aztecs and Lobos and I have a feeling we will be seeing the first of at least two great matchups of Mountain West title contenders.