Men’s basketball preparing for conference showdown against Boise State

San+Diego+State+men%27s+basketball+senior+forward+Joshua+Tomai%C4%87+passes+the+ball+after+getting+double-teamed+by+two+Brigham+Young+defenders+during+the+Aztecs%27+72-62+loss+to+the+Cougars+on+Dec.+18%2C+2020+at+Viejas+Arena.

Kyle Betz

San Diego State men’s basketball senior forward Joshua Tomaić passes the ball after getting double-teamed by two Brigham Young defenders during the Aztecs’ 72-62 loss to the Cougars on Dec. 18, 2020 at Viejas Arena.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

No. 22/25 San Diego State men’s basketball is getting ready to play in what most would consider its biggest game of the year Thursday against Boise State. 

The Broncos currently lead the Mountain West Conference standings with a 14-3 record in conference play. The Aztecs are right behind in a second-place tie with Colorado State, with both teams holding an 11-3 record in conference play. The Aztecs and Rams are even with Boise State in the loss column. 

In terms of conference standings, the Aztecs’ series with Colorado State ended in a split with each team taking a win. Similarly, the Rams’ series against Boise State also ended 1-1. If the Aztecs sweep Boise State, their spot in the rankings could jump to No. 1.  

Given all this, the Aztecs’ upcoming series against the Broncos is important because one or both teams could claim a piece of the regular-season conference title and secure a spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. With Selection Sunday less than three weeks away, any loss from here on out could cause severe damage to the Aztecs’ tournament résumé.

Senior guard Jordan Schakel said these types of games are what the team wants at the end of the season. It’s a game that challenges the Aztecs and shows them if they’re ready for the postseason tournaments.  

“(Boise State is) extremely good in transition, they’re physical, they rebound the ball at a high level,” Schakel said. “They play really good defense, and you know they’re aggressive and they just came off two really good wins at home. So we know how good they are — tied for first with us — and it’s gonna be exactly what we wanted down the stretch.” 

The Broncos enter the series on a four-game win streak with their most recent wins coming from a sweep against Utah State, who also swept the Aztecs in January. The Aztecs enter the series riding an eight-game streak. 

This series comes down to a battle between two of the best teams in the conference. Both teams are currently averaging over 70 points per game, with the Aztecs scoring 75.0 points per game and the Broncos scoring 77.8 points per game. On the other hand, both teams play strong defense and take care of the ball. The Aztecs allow 59.8 points per game and the Broncos succumb 65.0 points per game. 

Both teams are also full of playmakers that can shoot the ball consistently well. The Aztecs are led by senior leaders guard Jordan Schakel and forward Matt Mitchell. Schakel comes in with 16 double-digit scoring games this season and is currently averaging 14.6 points per game. Matt Mitchell has scored in double digits in all but one of the 18 games he’s started in this season. He is averaging 15.1 points per game. 

As four-year members of the program, Schakel and Mitchell know what it takes to win these high-caliber games. Schakel said he is reminding his team how important it is to remain focused during practice this week. 

“(I) just tell them how important it is to be locked in at practice because that’s where it starts,” Schakel said. “I think there’s an element of youth that comes from experience so once they get these games under their belt, I think they’ll be more comfortable. (I’m) just giving them confidence, making sure that they’re as confident as they can be, as prepared as they can be when the game comes in. These guys haven’t been rattled all year, so I don’t expect that to change.” 

For Mitchell, he said his focus is coming in each day with the same intensity at practice that the team has carried all year long. 

“I can do my job by coming with the same intensity, attitude and effort to practice as I was before,” Mitchell said. “So yes, the intensity is ramped up a little bit and this is a monumental game for us. So at the same time, I can’t come in too high or too low. I’ve got to be the same person I was at the beginning of the season and I will, and this team will be ready for the challenge.” 

On the other side, the Broncos are led by redshirt senior guard Derrick Alston Jr., who averages 17.7 points per game. Alston Jr. was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week following his performances in their sweep against Utah State on Feb. 17 and 19. 

Head coach Brian Dutcher is well aware of Alston Jr.’s strengths as a 3-point shooter and defender. 

“He’s having a banner year,” Dutcher said. “He’s one of the elite players in this league. He shoots the three at a high percentage — 40-plus percent. He’s strong from the field, almost 50%. His passing, his ability when they run a play for him — a ball screen or a hand-off — his ability to find his teammates. So he does everything that good players do: he plays for himself and when you take his shots away he plays for his teammates. He’s had an incredibly good year and he’ll be a real challenge for us to contain Thursday and Saturday.” 

Senior forward Abu Kigab, redshirt junior guard Marcus Shaver Jr. and sophomore guard RayJ Dennis are among some of the additional top scorers on their team. The Aztecs should expect to see all four of these players on the court a significant amount this series. Each of them averages around 28-30 minutes a game. 

After the series against Boise State on Thursday and Saturday, the Aztecs will play one more regular-season make-up game against UNLV before heading out to the Mountain West Conference tournament. 

With the end of the regular season quickly approaching, this series against the Broncos is crucial for the Aztecs to win in order to be in consideration of the Mountain West regular-season championship, or at least to have a piece of it. Given the unprecedented nature of this COVID-19 season and the inevitable cancelations, it could come down to a co-champion situation. 

The conference provided tie-breaking procedures in the event of the regular-season standings end level. 

“The team with the highest adjusted winning percentage will be awarded the regular-season championship,” the document stated. “In the event, two or more teams tie for the top position in the final standings, those teams will be declared co-champions and seeding for the tournament shall be determined using the tie-breaker formula.” 

The Aztecs approach the end of the season as the reigning MWC regular-season champion. Since its founding in 1999, the Aztecs have won 12 Mountain West championships, including both regular-season and tournament championships combined. There is no other men’s basketball program in the conference that has won more.

In addition to the conference title championship, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and seeding is on the line. The Aztecs have one of the best resumes in the conference with their then-top 25 wins over UCLA and Arizona State. But at this point, the team still isn’t considered a “lock-in” with a guaranteed trip to the tournament unless they win the series against the Broncos. 

Despite the implications of this series, Dutcher’s philosophy hasn’t changed when approaching these games. He said he wants his team to approach these games like any other and follow their normal routine. 

“I’m a big believer in routine,” Dutcher said. “We don’t want a different routine for Boise than we’ve had all year. So we do things exactly the same way. There’s a comfort level in a routine, so we stretch the same way, we prep the same way, we watch film the same way — no matter who the opponent is.” 

If the Aztecs are to win out the rest of the season including the conference tournament, the team would finish with a 22-4 overall record and a 13-game winning streak entering March Madness. With this kind of record and a strong finish, the tournament selection committee would likely award the Aztecs with a decent seeding. They could even potentially finish as high as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

Even splitting the series against Boise State or losing a game in the MWC tournament could still give the Aztecs a chance to get in, however, the team’s seeding would then drop significantly lower. 

As of Feb. 24, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects SDSU as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. CBS Sports projects them as a No. 10 seed. Additionally, the Aztecs sit at No. 24 in the NET ranking and No. 22 in the AP Poll. 

As the end of the season nears, so too does the destiny of where the Aztecs lie in the tournament. It all starts this Thursday at Viejas Arena, where tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.

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