New Mexico can slip. San Jose State can surge. The race for that coveted top-five seed at the Mountain West Conference tournament and the first-round bye that goes with it still is wide open. But on Wednesday, Fresno State and San Diego State are the primary players, right in the middle of the standings and going at it at Viejas Arena.
The Aztecs are 8-6 in conference play, alone in fifth place. The Bulldogs are 8-7, a half-game back in sixth.
Fresno State can flip that with a win and nab an important tiebreaker by splitting the season series with the Aztecs. But to do so, the Bulldogs must reverse their fortunes on the road, where they are 4-9 overall and 1-6 in MW play.
When you’re able to get older and get some experience, you’re able to do that and control that a lot more, say, ‘Hey, this is what we want on this possession and lets execute right now.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
That does not figure to be easy against a San Diego State team that has won five of its past six games and is back to playing its crushing defense. But the Bulldogs might have a chip to play with considering how they have worked their halfcourt offense the past two games, particularly in what figures to be a wrenching matchup against the Aztecs.
“It definitely gives you some confidence to be able to do that, and there are times throughout courses of games where you have to do that,” coach Rodney Terry said.
The Bulldogs (16-11, 8-7) are going to push it in transition at every opportunity, because that is where they are at their best.
But in a possession game, they are better than they were just a few weeks ago at executing and attacking on their terms. And a possession game wouldn’t be unheard of here. Five of the past six games in the series have been decided by six points or fewer, with one in overtime: Fresno State has won by five, one and two; the Aztecs have won by three, six in overtime and 11.
“We’ve always done that, but we’re just getting to a point right now where we’re able to play through some guys, and when you’re able to get older and get some experience, you’re able to do that and control that a lot more, say, ‘Hey, this is what we want on this possession and let’s execute right now,’ ” Terry said.
After playing at San Diego State, the Bulldogs have games at Boise State on Feb. 28 and against UNLV on March 4 at Save Mart Center. The Aztecs, also in contention for a top-five seed to the Mountain West Tournament, have games remaining at Colorado State, against Air Force and at New Mexico.
“I thought our guys (in Saturday’s victory over New Mexico) did a good job executing out of timeouts. Our guys put it right where we want to put it. Whether we scored it or not, we still got it. They still executed what we were trying to get done. You have to be pleased with that as a staff.”
The Bulldogs’ proficiency there a year ago is a big reason they went on a nine-game winning streak at the end of the year and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 – they won six games to end the regular season and three in winning the conference tournament.
Four of those wins came by five points or fewer – two by just one point.
“Each possession, you have to value the ball,” senior forward Paul Watson said. “That’s something we haven’t done as well as we did last year, but it’s definitely something we’re working on. You have to get a shot up every possession. You can’t afford to turn it over. You have to get a good look and give yourself a chance.
“We definitely try to run things and follow the game plan and try to get a good look.”
Each possession, you have to value the ball. That’s something we haven’t done as well as we did last year, but it’s definitely something we’re working on.
Fresno State forward Paul Watson
San Diego State has not made that easy lately, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.8 percent, including 31.4 percent on 3-pointers. The Aztecs have allowed 65.5 points per game in a six-game run including a 70-56 victory over Nevada, the top scoring team in the conference at 78.8 points per game.
But the Bulldogs feel they are better running their set offense, dictating how they attack a defense and who they play through, be it Deshon Taylor, Jaron Hopkins or Jahmel Taylor. They also have senior forward Cullen Russo back – he missed the first game against the Aztecs when suspended for a violation of team rules.
“If we need to slow it down and execute some stuff, then we’ll slow it down,” Terry said. “This time of year, a lot of times you get down to doing that where it’s, ‘Hey, we have to get a good one here right now. This is a meaningful possession for us in the game.’
“We did that a lot down the stretch last year. There were times in stretches in the game where we would call a set every time down, because we want to get what we want.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Wednesday: 8 p.m. at Viejas Arena (12,414)
- Records: Bulldogs 16-11, 8-7 Mountain West; Aztecs 16-10, 8-6
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940)
- Notable: The Aztecs have won three in a row and five of six and are coming off a 77-64 victory over UNLV on Sunday at Viejas. Malik Pope led San Diego State with 17 points and nine rebounds against the Rebels, and Jeremy Hemsley and Matt Shrigley added 16 each. Trey Kell scored only six points, but he had 22, all in the second half, when San Diego State beat the Bulldogs 70-67 at Save Mart Center on Feb. 4. Kell was 0 for 2 in the first half and 7 for 11 in the second.
MOUNTAIN WEST AT A GLANCE
San Diego State
San Jose State
Colorado State 68, New Mexico 56
UNLV at Air Force, 6 p.m.
Boise State at Nevada, 7 p.m.
Utah State at San Jose State, 7 p.m.
Fresno State at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
San Jose State at Boise State, 1 p.m.
Nevada at UNLV, 3 p.m.
New Mexico at Wyoming, 3 p.m.
San Diego State at Colorado State, 5 p.m.
Air Force at Utah State, 6 p.m.