(CBS Local/CBSLA)- With a 29-1 record on the season and the Mountain West Conference regular season championship in tow, it is safe to assume that Brian Dutcher’s San Diego State team will be dancing in just a few weeks, regardless of the outcome of tonight’s semifinal game in the conference tournament.
While a spot in the Big Dance is all but guaranteed, there is still plenty of debate surrounding the Aztecs. Normally, their record alone, combined with non-conference wins over Creighton, Iowa, and BYU would be enough to garner a likely one-seed. There is still some doubt about that, largely because the Mountain West has been down as a whole this year, leaving questions as to how good the team really is. That makes for a team with something more to prove come the final stages of the MWC tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“It’s always rare to pull off double-duty and win the regular season title and the tournament title. For San Diego State, they’re right on that cusp of being a one-seed or a two-seed for the NCAA Tournament. If they’re to lose the Mountain West semis or championship game, they might drop down to that two-line,” said CBS Sports announcer Andrew Catalon, who will be on the call for Saturday’s championship game. “If they win, they’ll stay on the one-line based on what they have proven this season. I do think there’s a lot to play for for San Diego State, and winning a championship is always nice.”
In order to get to the final, the Aztecs will have to beat Leon Rice’s Boise State Broncos in tonight’s semifinals matchup, set for a 9 p.m. EST tip on CBS Sports Network. In the regular season, SDSU had no issues dispatching the Broncos by an average of 17.5 points. But the Broncos are desperate, as winning the conference tournament is their only path to the NCAA Tournament. For Catalon, the matchup comes down to Boise State’s confidence and ability to get off to a hot start.
“I think a lot of it for Boise State is confidence. They look to me to be a team that is fearless. They’re not going to be intimidated by San Diego State, despite the Aztecs great season,” said Catalon. “I think that if they get performances like they did in the quarterfinals from R.J. Williams, Derek Alston and Justinian Jessop, they certainly have a chance to go toe-to-toe with San Diego State.”
Giving up hot starts has been a bit of a bugaboo for the Aztecs in recent weeks, as they have trailed their opponents at halftime in each of their last four games, including their only loss of the season against UNLV.
“Their first-half defense has been disappointing for their standards. Teams are shooting better than 50% in the first half,” said Catalon. “We saw it from Air Force in the quarterfinal round. It’s something they’re aware of and they know they need to improve.”
Whether or not they can get the first-half defense fixed will go a long way in determining not only the MWC tourney, but how far they can go in the NCAA Tournament after that.
On the other side of the bracket, the conference’s two-seed, Utah State, squares off with Cinderella story Wyoming in the second semifinal. As Catalon points out, the Cowboys have been the darlings of Vegas so far, but there is one big question remaining? Will Lady Luck finally run out, leaving the Cowboys, like many leaving Vegas, busted?
“The question now is, what do they have left in the tank? This will be their third game in three days,” said Catalon. “Fatigue could be a huge factor tonight for Wyoming.”
Making the Cowboys story even more intriguing is the way they have won. Freshman Kwane Marble II, who entered the tournament averaging just eight points per game, has caught fire from three, going 3-5 and 4-7 for 24 and 20 points respectively in wins over Colorado State and Nevada. Marble II gets the chance to continue his offensive explosion tonight with tip set for 11:30 p.m. EST on CBS Sports Network.
The winners of each game will advance to the tournament final, set for Saturday afternoon on CBS at 5:30 p.m. EST. For a San Diego State team that has been doubted all year, earning their spot in the final and then closing out the season double title will go a long way to solidifying them as a No. 1 seed. Still, the doubt may remain. But Catalon says that’s just more fuel for the Aztecs’ fire.
“They believe that a lot of people around the country count them out. They don’t get to see them that often, because the games on the West Coast are on late at night. The league is not as strong as some of the others around the country,” said Catalon. “There are a lot of people that doubt them. To their credit, they use that as fuel, they use that as motivation.”