On Saturday morning at 11 am Pacific, the San Diego State University Aztecs will battle the BYU Cougars in what will be the biggest college basketball game in Aztec program history. It may even be the biggest game played by what some are beginning to consider the best team in Aztec history, in any sport. While the potential is there for this team to continue to make history, such talk is premature unless they can beat BYU on their way to making a run in the NCAA tournament starting next month.
The Aztecs will look to avenge their only loss from this season at BYU on January 26 in what was billed as the biggest regular season game in the history of both teams and the Mountain West Conference since both were ranked in the AP top ten (SDSU #4 and BYU #9) at the time. The moment BYU won that game 71-58, which broke the Aztec winning streak of 20 games and the Cougar fans stormed the court to celebrate, the February 26 date has been circled on the calendar of every Aztec fan to get revenge.
Even with the rash of top 5 team losses over the past week, SDSU stayed at #6 and BYU #7 in the AP poll despite not losing their games. The RPI computer ranking system has BYU #2 and SDSU #3 in the country behind only Kansas while the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll moved SDSU to #4 from #6 with 3 1st place votes while BYU moved to #7 from #8. Why these two schools don’t have the respect of the media voters is another story for another day, but there is nothing more that each school would like to do is rub it in the face of the East Coast bias present in college basketball. For Aztec fans, there is no team better to take the next step against in the national spotlight than their old nemesis, BYU, who would probably settle for a 52-52 tie in this game if it was possible.
Considering that BYU handed SDSU their only home loss of the season last year 71-69, one of only two home losses the season before that 69-59, and that this will be the last year of the Cougars visiting the Aztecs as a member of the Mountain West Conference, the State crowd that generally doesn’t need any additional motivation against the team they love to hate, will bring out their most venomous attacks. It will be a raucous affair even with the early tip off time.
In the waning seconds of SDSU’s last home win vs. New Mexico, the Show led the students in a chant of “We want Jimmer.” Last season, when Jimmer Fredette and the Cougars came into Viejas Arena, apparently even he got a laugh out of the sign that read: “Jimmer, which wife gave you mono?” However, some signs and costumes are not a laughing matter for BYU fans or with some of the national sports media. The missionary outfits complete with white shirts, name tags, and bicycle helmets to poke fun at the practice of converting followers to the LDS church draw the biggest backlash including Seth Davis of CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated, who commented last season that SDSU students were “totally classless” for the outfits. While the chants of “You’re still Mormon” as the clock wound down in last season’s loss were not widely heard throughout the arena, they are not condoned by the Aztec community at large. Don Oberhelman, the interim athletic director at the time, submitted an official written apology on behalf of SDSU and the athletic department. The outfits will be at this game en masse, so hopefully it won’t overshadow the game itself.
The game is a hot ticket and according to Stub Hub, tickets on the secondary market range from $148 per ticket for general admission to $1,400 for row 12 at center court. Craig’s List is much the same with many tickets available for a game that has been sold out for months. Rumors on the Aztec message board are that even students, who wait in line overnight to get their tickets and then line up hours before game time to get the best seats, are selling their tickets online. It is difficult to believe that true Aztec fans would sell their tickets and miss this game of a lifetime, but the fact that their sale could put the tickets in the hands of BYU fans and taking some steam out of the home court advantage is unfathomable. Those Aztec fans should be the ones offering a written apology to the Aztec nation.
With all of the fanfare and hatred taken into account, the real action promises to be on the court, however, as a national television audience on CBS will be exposed to the competitive rivalry that the Aztecs have built up with the Cougars the past several years. The top two basketball teams in the West get a chance to prove to the fans on the East Coast and more importantly the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that both schools should be considered for top seeds. The winner of this contest gets the leg up on a potential #1 seed in the West region, which could also be decided if there is another match-up between these two in the MWC tournament championship game in Las Vegas on March 12.
This BYU team is special and even the most die-hard Aztec fan should admit it. Jimmer-mania has captured the nation’s attention as he leads the NCAA Division 1 in scoring with 27.2 points per game, and he is being considered as a Player of the Year candidate, which is an incredible accomplishment. One only needs to look at his display in the last game against the Aztecs to become a believer in his abilities. He got help from others on the team, but he was a one man show with shots from all over the court and degrees of difficulty en route to 43 points including 5 – 8 from 3 point territory. The rest of the Cougars are more than formidable with Jackson Emery (12.7 ppg. and 3 assists to turnover ratio) and Brandon Davies (11.3 ppg. and 5.9 rpg.) providing the punch, but this team will go as far as Jimmer takes them.
The Aztecs are a completely different story. While Kawhi Leonard is the biggest name and is a “double double” machine (15.2 ppg. and 10.7 rpg.), they have had several different players step up throughout different times this season and offer a more balanced attack. Further, it is a tough defense and a willingness to play for each other that have been the hallmarks of Coach Steve Fisher’s athletic and deep team this season. Malcolm Thomas (11.6 ppg., 8.2 rpg., and 2.3 bpg.) has rebounded from a shooting slump through the middle of the conference season with 20 and 22 points in the past two games, which was good for his fourth MWC Player of the Week Award, and he continues to be a shot blocking presence inside. Iron man point guard, D.J. Gay (11.1 ppg. and 3 assists to turnover ratio) averages almost 35 minutes per game with just 1 turnover per game and continues his streak of playing in every game since he arrived on campus.
The key for the Aztecs is that they have continued to improve throughout the season and have worked to plug holes like shooting from 3 pt. range and at the free throw line, but there are still bouts of inconsistency that seem to plague them at times, especially in those key areas. They are just as soon to go on a passionate and perfect scoring run as they are to go into a troubling period of not making shots from the field. Some of it is due to other teams mixing up their defenses or by turning the game into a foul fest. To date, they have been able to overcome their faults while working to improve on them, and it has only cost the Aztecs one loss, which was obviously the big one at BYU. Hopefully for the Aztecs, they have improved enough.
This Saturday, with the nation watching, they have a chance to make up for that one, last year’s only home loss, and the countless years of pain against BYU in all sports. If there is a team that can do it and a time for it to happen, then it is this year’s Aztec team and the time is now. The Aztec Nation can’t wait, so it will be a long week until tip off and then the lid is going to blow.