SAN DIEGO — The games aren’t often pretty, and averaging 67.4 points, it’s amazing San Diego State wins enough games to break even.
But the Aztecs ran away with the regular-season Mountain West basketball championship because they could play defense like no other team in the conference.
And almost like no other team in the nation.
The Aztecs allow a 60.2-point average, fourth lowest nationally, and it’s that defense UNLV will have to beat when the teams meet at 7 p.m. today at Viejas Arena.
“They’re very physical,” UNLV interim coach Todd Simon said. “They have a lot of length. Those two areas are kind of their MO. And then they’re a tremendous rebounding team. They’re older guys who have been through the system. They get you deep in clock, and then you got only one shot at it because they rebound so well.”
UNLV (17-13, 8-9 Mountain West) saw for itself Jan. 30 in Las Vegas how tough San Diego State’s defense is to navigate. The Aztecs (22-8, 15-2) held UNLV to 36.7 percent shooting and outrebounded the Rebels 44-27 in handing them a 67-52 loss.
They have outrebounded conference opponents by an average of 7.4.
Nationally, the Aztecs’ defense ranks first in field-goal percentage (37.3), fifth in 2-point field-goal percentage (41.0), 14th in blocked shots (5.4 average) and 18th in 3-point field-goal percentage (30.7).
This isn’t anything new at San Diego State, which last season set a school record by allowing a 53.9-point average. The Aztecs haven’t allowed their season defensive scoring average to reach 70 points in 11 years.
“We have been good defensively for a variety of reasons,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We make it a priority. We make it a priority in practice where everybody is accountable and everybody is responsible. We hold them to those standards. We have a defensive coordinator, Justin Hutson, who takes great pride in being the architect and in charge, but each coach is also very involved in both offense and defense.
“Our players are aware if they want to do what all players want to do, be on the floor and play, they have to guard. They have to have a commitment to keep a guy in front of them. All the things everybody preaches, we feel as though we hold them accountable and make them responsible. We use those words a lot — accountability, responsibility. It has worked for us. We have good players who want to be successful and know that if you guard you have a great chance.”
The Aztecs will honor three players at Senior Night, including Findlay Prep product Winston Shepard.
Their experienced players have made a huge difference in the many close games the Aztecs have played. They have gone 8-2 in conference games decided by single digits.
“It’s a huge deal,” Simon said. “Especially in college basketball, you’re seeing a lot of senior-led teams winning their conferences across the nation. You want to get old and stay old in college basketball is where the trend is going. That’s been San Diego State’s routine. They’ve done a nice job with player retention and keeping that system going.”
Replicating what the Aztecs have accomplished, however, is not easy.
UNLV, in particular, has been as transient as the city where it is located.
“They’re obviously very good at it, and Coach Fisher’s a phenomenal coach,” Simon said. “It took him some time to build that, and it takes patience. If somebody was to take that blueprint, you’d have to take those early years with the later years as well. I think that’s a credit to San Diego State and what Coach Fisher’s built.”
Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.
UNLV at San Diego State
WHEN: 7 p.m. today
WHERE: Viejas Arena, San Diego
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
LINE: San Diego State -8
UNLV (17-13, 8-9 MW)
Coach: Todd Simon (8-6, first season)
Player Pos. Hgt. Pts.
Patrick McCaw G 6-7 13.7
Jerome Seagears G 6-1 9.9
Ike Nwamu G 6-5 10.6
Jordan Cornish G 6-6 5.8
S. Zimmerman Jr. F 7-0 10.7
SAN DIEGO STATE (22-8, 15-2 MW)
Coach: Steve Fisher (361-193, 17th season)
Player Pos. Hgt. Pts
Trey Kell G 6-4 12.4
Skylar Spencer F 6-10 4.2
Winston Shepard F 6-10 10.7
Zylan Cheatham F 6-9 8.2
Malik Pope F 6-10 6.2
UNLV’s three keys to beating San Diego State, according to Rebels interim coach Todd Simon:
1. Rebound. (Losing Derrick Jones Jr. makes this more difficult for UNLV, but Stephen Zimmerman Jr. remains a force in the middle.)
2. Take care of the ball. (With the Aztecs’ ability to drain the clock, that puts extra emphasis on each possession.)
3. Make perimeter shots. (With San Diego State expected to dominate inside, UNLV’s best hope is to get hot from the outside.)
UNLV will be anywhere from the fifth to seventh seed at next week’s Mountain West tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels will finish fifth with a victory at San Diego State and a New Mexico loss against UNR. UNLV will be seventh if it loses to the Aztecs, Colorado State beats Air Force and Utah State loses to Fresno State. The Rebels will be sixth under every other scenario. If they finish fifth, that will give the Rebels a first-round bye and put them in the 2:30 p.m. game Thursday against the No. 4 seed, either UNR or New Mexico. Being the sixth seed means UNLV would play at 4 p.m. Wednesday against No. 11 San Jose State. Dropping to seventh places the Rebels in Wednesday’s 1:30 p.m. game against No. 10 Air Force. … San Diego State clinched the regular-season Mountain West championship and the tournament’s No. 1 seed. The Aztecs have an outside shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament should they falter Saturday or next week. They are No. 44 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. … San Diego State had won 164 consecutive games when leading with five minutes left before blowing a nine-point lead with about a minute left in a 66-63 home loss to Boise State last Saturday. … UNLV has lost seven in a row to the Aztecs and 13 of 16.
— Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-JournalCheck our GameDay page for full coverage of the UNLV-San Diego State game.