The answer to the question, right up front, is defense. San Diego State has a lot of long athletic players who can defend multiple positions, providing the Aztecs with options some teams don't really have in matching up with opponents -- most prominently, the 6-foot-8 Winston Shepard.
And, at times, they're providing opportunities to win games that might otherwise get away.
The Aztecs went 2-0 last week, beating Fresno State and UNLV, to extend their winning streak to 15 games, which is the fourth longest active men's basketball streak in the nation behind Wichita State (19), Arizona (18) and Syracuse (18). Now, Review is not suggesting a top-10 team like San Diego State shouldn't beat the Bulldogs and the Rebels on their home floors -- the Aztecs absolutely should.
But doing it while hitting only 33.6% of their shots in the two games, well, that's hard to do.
They were 18 of 54 against the Bulldogs -- 33.3%
They were 20 of 59 against the Rebels -- 33.9%
Add it together and it doesn't really add up.
Mountain West teams -- any team in any conference, really -- don't have great winning percentages when hitting less than 40% of their shots. Since 2000-'01, Colorado State has a winning percentage of .106 in those games, Air Force is at .149, Boise State in its short time in the league is at .167 and Fresno State in its shorter time in the league is at .231. Texas Christian had a winning percentage of .149 and Utah was at .250 when they were in the conference.
The Aztecs are at the top of the teams that have played in the MW -- the victories against Fresno State and UNLV were the fifth and sixth this season for San Diego State when it has hit less than 40% of its shots (the others coming against Marquette, at San Diego, against McNeese State and at Kansas) and the Aztecs have a winning percentage of .377 over the past 13 seasons plus three weeks of league play.
But they were toward the bottom end of the scale when beating the Bulldogs and Rebels -- the 33.3% and 33.9% the two worst shooting games they have had this season.
Back-to-back Mountain West wins in games when shooting less than 35%? There have been some teams that have come close to pulling that off. But it has happened only one other time in conference games, and one time in the conference tournament.
In 2007-'08, Brigham Young won at Utah when hitting only 20 of 60 shots and followed that up with a victory over San Diego State in which it hit 21 of 61. Together, that's 33.9%.
And in the 2005-'06 Mountain West tournament, San Diego State beat UNLV when making 20 of 54 shots and won the championship by beating Wyoming when hitting 19 of 66. Add it up, 32.5%.
UNLV had played one of its best offensive games of the season at New Mexico -- hitting 50% of its shots, including a season-high 53.8% (7 of 13) on 3-pointers -- and was averaging 74.7 points per game. But the Aztecs took the Rebels apart from the start -- UNLV the hit just 8 of its first 33 shots (24.2%), including 1 of on 3-pointers -- and never let one of them get anything working.
The versatile Shepard played a big part in that.
"He started out guarding Kevin Olekaibe, a 3-point shooter. Then he switched to Bryce Dejean-Jones, a driver and shooter. Then he switched to (forward) Roscoe Smith, and he did a spectacular job on all three," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "The versatility we have and willingness to say, 'We've got to guard' allowed us to win the game."
Olekaibe finished 1 of 3, the make a 3-pointer. DeJean-Jones took 25 shots, making only seven (28%) and finishing with 15 points. Smith was 4 of 8 for 12 points.
And the Rebels hit only 21 of 70 shots (30%) in scoring 52 points, both season lows.
- Boise State 74, at Nevada 65
- at San Diego State 68, Fresno State 60
- at Air Force 77, San Jose State 62
- UNLV 76, at New Mexico 73
- at Utah State 57, Colorado State 50
- at Wyoming 67, San Jose State 56
- at Colorado State 74, Air Force 68
- at San Diego State 63, UNLV 52
- New Mexico 89, at Fresno State 78
- at Boise State 78, Utah State 74
UNLV hit just 2 of 18 3-pointers in that loss at San Diego State, a wretched 11.1%. And that's not even the worst game this season for the Rebels -- they made only 1 of 16 (6.3%) in a win at Fresno State and have three other games in which they have hit less than 20%. In eight of 18 games, UNLV has made less than 30% of its 3-point attempts.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rebels get blanked at some point.
If they do, one of the longest streaks of made 3-pointers in the nation will come to an end. UNLV has made at least one in every game since the shot was added in 1986-'87, a run of 893 games.
Princeton and Vanderbilt are the only other teams that have made a 3-pointer in every one of their games.
Fresno State's streak is just 33 games -- the Bulldogs failed to make a 3-pointer against Wyoming on Jan. 16, 2013, going 0 of 6 in a 49-36 victory against the Cowboys.
- San Diego State forward Josh Davis went 0 of 8 from the floor in the Aztecs' victory over Fresno State, which is the worst shooting game on a home court in Mountain West Conference play so far. Nevada point guard Deonte Burton made a run at it last Tuesday, going 1 of 8 (12.5%) in a loss to Boise State. The worst had been a 1 of 12 (8.3%) by San Jose State guard Devante Wilson in a loss to New Mexico.
- New Mexico center Alex Kirk, before playing UNLV: "UNLV overall, just looking at the raw talent they have on the scouting report, it's pretty scary. They're not really having the recent success coming into conference, but that's a hell of an AAU team." Ouch. It probably doesn't matter that the Rebels played like one the first two weeks of conference play, going 1-2, but then took down the Lobos at The Pit in Albuquerque 76-73, snapping their 15-game home conference winning streak.
- New Mexico gave up 46 points in the first half of that loss to UNLV, the most they have allowed in the first 20 minutes of a game at The Pit since it gave up 48 to Georgia State on Feb. 12, 2000.
- Air Force guard Tre' Coggins put up 27 points in a victory over San Jose State, becoming the first Falcons player since 1994-'95 to put up 20 or more points in four consecutive games. He had 20 in a win at UNLV, 21 in a loss at Fresno State and 29 in a loss to San Diego State going into that game.
- In losing at Utah State, Colorado State got scoring from only four of the eight players who got into the game -- two starters (Gerson Santo and Jon Octeus , 0 points in 18 minutes and 0 in 28) and two reserves (Carlton Hurst and David Cohn, 0 in 13 and 0 in 10) failed to score.
- Colorado State's Daniel Bejarano set a career high for scoring for the third time in six games with 27 against Air Force. Bejarano started his spree with 22 against San Diego State in the MW opener, then had 25 against New Mexico three days later.
Fresno State was on the short end of the free throw totals in losses at San Diego State and against New Mexico when the Aztecs shot 41 free throws to the Bulldogs' 15 and the Lobos took 41 to the Bulldogs' 33.
That is the most free throws by Fresno State opponents in back-to-back games going back through the 2000-'01 season. And it's not even close ...
- 82: at San Diego State (41), vs. New Mexico (41) in 2013-'14
- 68: at Wyoming (33), at Nevada (35) in 2012-'13
- 67: vs. Manhattan (36), vs. Texas-San Antonio (31) in 2011-'12
- 67: Nevada (42), Louisiana Tech (25) in 2011-'12
- 67: at Nevada (47), at Texas-El Paso (20) in 2002-'03
- 66: Pacific (24), at San Francisco (40) in 2004-'05
- 62: at Nevada (27), UC Santa Barbara (35) in 2009-'10
- 62: at Creighton (22), Nevada (40) in 2002-'03
- 61: at Nevada (26), at Louisiana Tech (35) in 2003-'04
- 61: at Texas-El Paso (34), Southern Methodist (27) in 2001-'02
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or @rkuwada on Twitter. His "Mountain West: Week in Review" report runs Wednesdays during the Fresno State football and basketball seasons. Read his daily updates at www.fresnobee.com/bulldogs.