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San Diego State vs. New Mexico game preview: Aztecs open league play

This is a big Mountain West game to start everyone off for the new year.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts 2016 was a terrible year. Both the San Diego State Aztecs and New Mexico Lobos could probably agree with that sentiment. The Aztecs missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years in 2016. New Mexico was bounced in the first round of the Mountain West tournament and missed the postseason for a second year in a row.

This year both teams are looking to bounce back after a bad start to the season. San Diego State finished the out of conference schedule 8-4, including three straight losses to Loyola Chicago, Grand Canyon, and Arizona State. The Lobos finished nonconference at 7-5, getting blown out by Virginia Tech and Arizona, while also losing to in-state rival New Mexico State. Add to that the drama between Elijah Brown and head coach Craig Neal and 2017 should be better for New Mexico.

San Diego State had the early bye week and will play its first Mountain West game at home against the Lobos. The Aztecs are coming into the game with some momentum after winning the Diamond Head Classic and defeating all three opponents by double figures.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs the week off has not helped them get healthier. It was expected that the bye would allow Malik Pope to get better, however he is expected to be a game-time decision. Matt Shrigley and Nolan Narain unexpectedly joined Pope on the injured list during this week and it is unknown if either will play today.

The Lobos got off to a good start in conference play with a 78-73 home victory over Fresno State. Brown, who is expected to start against San Diego State, came off the bench to lead the team with 19 points. Tim Williams (18), Obij Aget (12), and Duane Kuiper (10) also scored in double figures for the Lobos.

Like most San Diego State games this matchup will be the classic offense versus defense battle. The Aztecs have continued having trouble getting the ball in the hoop. Unlike other years, this year the Aztecs get their scoring from a variety of places. The backcourt duo of Jeremy Hemsley (16.2) and Trey Kell (13.9) lead the team in scoring average, as the Aztecs are still a guard-centric team.

However, this season the emergence of Zylan Cheatham (11.8) down low has given San Diego State an inside presence that they have not had in a long time.

At 6-9 Cheatham is a mismatch on the floor. His athleticism and strength allow him to take advantage of opposing big men. He has the ability to blow past defenders and get to the hoop for layups, but can also use his strength to post up and bully his way to the hoop. This offseason he developed a jump shot, which has forced opponents to play him tight, leaving them exposed to Cheatham’s speed. It will be interesting to see how New Mexico counteracts Cheatham.

New Mexico is led by the scoring tandem of Tim Williams (18.1) and Brown (16.3). The two create an inside-out threat that makes them extremely dangerous. Williams will have a good opportunity to dominate against the Aztecs thin big men. Will the Aztecs roll the dice and place Valentine Izundu or Cheatham on Williams? Will they risk putting Cheatham in foul trouble? Containing Williams will be priority 1A for San Diego State.

If Williams is priority 1A then Brown is priority 1B. Brown has dominated Mountain West competition, except when it comes to San Diego State. The main reason for his trouble has been Dakarai Allen. Allen and the rest of the Aztec defense have held Brown to his lowest shooting percentage of any Mountain West team. Brown will look to buck this trend in San Diego against the team that has caused him so much trouble. New Mexico will need Brown to have a big day if they want a chance to win this game.

Beside those two the Lobos will need someone else to step up. Williams and Brown are the only two players averaging double figures in scoring, with nobody else averaging at least seven points per contest. Without help from the supporting cast the Lobos will not be able to enter hostile territory and get the win.

When these two teams meet it is always a great game and this one should not be any different. Even though the teams are not what they once were, the rivalry is still strong. The Mesa will definitely be rocking in time for tip-off for these two Mountain West heavyweights.

This game tips at 2 p.m. PT/5 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.