In a season that has seen the Mountain West as a whole not perform as well as in recent years, No. 6 San Diego State emerged as the best team in the conference. With a resume that includes a win at Kansas, the Aztecs looked to be the class of the conference entering their game at New Mexico on Saturday night. The Lobos were the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, and their improved play on the defensive end of the floor is one reason why Craig Neal’s team was just a game back in the standings.
That defensive effort was on full display at The Pit, with New Mexico limiting San Diego State to 32.3% shooting from the field as they won 58-44. Xavier Thames is San Diego State’s best offensive player and New Mexico made life difficult for the senior guard, limiting him to just seven points on 3-for-15 shooting. And when Thames struggles, San Diego State is going to have problems offensively.
Two areas in which San Diego State has been able to hurt opponents throughout conference play are on the offensive boards and in their ability to get to the foul line. Steve Fisher’s team normally does a good job of attacking the paint, with Thames, J.J. O’Brien and Winston Shepard III all being capable dribble penetrators. New Mexico took that away, and it didn’t help matters that Mountain West’s top team in regards to free throw rate attempted just three free throws (missing all three) on the night.
San Diego State did manage to rebound 37% of its missed shots, but they converted those extra opportunities into just 14 second-chance points. For a team that isn’t particularly adept at knocking down perimeter shots those areas are critical, and the Lobos did an excellent job of preventing the Aztecs from taking advantage. The perimeter defenders moved well laterally, and center Alex Kirk did a very good job of blocking (five blocked shots) and changing shots around the basket.
New Mexico limited San Diego State to 0.75 points per possession, with the effort surpassing their performance in a home win over San Jose State (0.78) as the Lobos’ best in conference play. And with all due respect to the Spartans, clamping down on San Diego State is a far more impressive feat.
Offensively New Mexico shot 50% from the field, and once again senior forward Cameron Bairstow led the way. The Australian scored 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, and in a game that featured two other Mountain West Player of the Year hopefuls (Thames and UNM’s Kendall Williams) Bairstow may have vaulted himself to the top of the list.
Who will win Player of the Year? Which team will win the Mountain West regular season title? That remains to be seen, and it’s likely that the rematch at Viejas Arena on March 8 will determine both answers. In the first meeting this season between the Aztecs and Lobos, it was Craig Neal’s team that made the emphatic statement.