No easy formula to upset smothering San Diego State


The saying goes that there is always a well-known solution to every problem — neat, plausible and wrong.

UNLV’s basketball team needs to discover a fourth today: discipline.

The Rebels go for a sweep of the toughest two-game road stretch any Mountain West team will encounter this season, but to follow a win at New Mexico on Wednesday with one at San Diego State will mean overcoming as stingy a defense as the nation knows.

The Aztecs have won 14 straight, are ranked 10th and have lost only to No. 1 Arizona, all truths that have been created out of a defensive presence that leads the country in field-goal percentage defense (35.7) and is third in average points allowed (55.7).

“San Diego State, as long as I can remember and going back to my days as an assistant at Brigham Young, has always been good defensively,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “They’re experienced, they have a system and they have tough-minded players.

“When we played them when I was at BYU, we always had to change our game plan because of how well they guarded. It has been the same since I have been the head coach at UNLV. Coach (Steve) Fisher gets his guys to buy into rebounding and playing defense as well as anyone. Always has. Steve Fisher is one of the most underrated coaches of all time.”

So, scoring could be a problem for UNLV.

Which brings us to those possible solutions.

Neat: This is a tough one. Nothing is neat trying to score against the Aztecs. Justin Hutson is a huge reason.

“Sometimes, people will walk into our practice and ask, ‘Who’s the head coach?’” Fisher said. “Different guys run different parts of practice. I don’t think that’s an indictment of me. I think that’s the strength of the staff that we’ve got.”

There is no question who runs the defense.

Hutson left Rice’s staff after last season and returned to San Diego State’s bench, where he again is Fisher’s lead defensive assistant. Hutson’s first order of business was to reintroduce the Aztecs to all types of presses that helped San Diego State go 34-3 and reach the Sweet 16 in 2010-11.

Shadow press. Zone press. Man press. Trap aggressively. Fake traps. Opponents often become confused what press is actually being run and either turn the ball over or are left with less time to run offense.

Plausible: Air Force shot 51.9 percent against the Aztecs. Boise State scored 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the final seven minutes against San Diego State. The Aztecs have proven to tire late.

Translation: UNLV needs to attack in the half court. To drive the ball every time such an opportunity exists. To try to bait the Aztecs into foul trouble.

It’s a difficult task because San Diego State switches every screen and doesn’t allow for many of the angles often open to dribble penetration, but you can’t expect to sit outside and shoot jumpers all afternoon against a bunch of long, wide, athletic bodies and beat such a team in its sold-out and ear-splitting arena.

Attack. Drive. Drive some more.

Wrong: You can’t become impatient. You can’t hunt shots and rush half-court sets. San Diego State is better than most at upsetting an opponent’s rhythm and taking it out of any flow it might create.

Consider: The Aztecs have won five games this season when their opponent shot a higher percentage, an almost unheard of statistic in the college game.

It means they’re doing other things, like shooting 441 free throws compared with 281 for their opponents; like having committed just 19 turnovers in their past three games; like playing arguably the best defense in the history of the Mountain West.

Teams that get frustrated from not scoring against them only dig a deeper hole.

“People have always given (Fisher) the reputation of being a fabulous recruiter, which he is,” Rice said. “But you don’t win as many road games as they have, and you don’t win (107) straight now when leading with five minutes left in games, which is unbelievable, and not be a terrific coach. San Diego State is very mentally tough. They have a terrific home-court advantage. I know they will be ready, and so will we. It should be a great game.”

Which brings us to the solution that just might give UNLV an enormous win and an oh-so-impressive sweep of this trip: discipline.

The Rebels need to exhibit it for 40 minutes, through missed shots and turnovers and scoring droughts. They will all come today.

But the Aztecs aren’t to be confused with an above-average offensive team. They find scoring a labored task.

Their defense will cause major problems for UNLV, but there is a winning solution for the Rebels.

Just. Keep. Playing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.