O26 Game of the Week: SDSU at The Pit, Gonzaga-BYU, Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

San Diego State (22-2) at New Mexico (19-5) – 10:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game — this week — is a huge one for New Mexico. If it can avenge an early loss to UNLV tonight in Las Vegas, Craig Neal’s team will return home on Saturday with a chance to pull even with San Diego State atop the Mountain West standings and solidify itself as an NCAA Tournament lock. Up to this point, the only major feather in the Lobos’ cap is a win over Cincinnati back in early December, so beating the Aztecs this weekend would not only shake up the conference race, it would also carry serious resume-boosting implications. Not to mention bragging rights in a match-up that features two of the best fan bases west of the Mississippi.

Kendall Williams and the Lobos  welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

Kendall Williams and the Lobos welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

In fact, considering how closely matched the game is on paper, New Mexico’s 15,000-plus screaming fans might very well become a deciding factor when it’s all said and done. According to KenPom, the Lobos are pegged as the slight favorites with a win probability of 54 percent, a figure that will dip considerably when they head to San Diego in early March. But first they get to host the Aztecs in The Pit, their menacing, subterranean arena in which they boast an all-time winning mark well over 80 percent. Not many visiting teams escape unscathed. For San Diego State fans, the silver lining is this: Steve Fisher units have gone an admirable 6-8 in the daunting stadium since he took over in 1999.

Of course, the outcome will ultimately be decided on the court, and there, each team will have distinct advantages. For New Mexico, the ability to get interior scoring from its imposing frontcourt duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow will be critical. The big men combined to average 36 points and 15 rebounds in the Lobos’ two victories over the Aztecs last year; in the one loss, they mustered just two points and nine boards total. Paint production will be especially important considering that opposing guards Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard are stingy perimeter defenders, capable of minimizing Kendall Williams’ usually-considerable offensive production. San Diego State, meanwhile, hopes to continue playing the excellent team defense that has limited opponents to around 0.94 points per possession this season, good for 17th in the country. They are long, fast, physical and will suffocate teams that are ill-prepared. On the other end, the Aztecs are led by the gifted Thames — who’s likely to win Mountain West Player of the Year — and the team-wide ability to garner second-chance looks by crashing the offensive glass. Forwards Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien must out-bang the sizable New Mexico frontcourt if San Diego State hopes to generate enough offense to survive Albuquerque. The game will be high-stakes and high-energy, so flip to The Deuce and check it out when Saturday night rolls around.

Four More to Watch

  1. Gonzaga (23-4) at BYU (18-10) – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Thursday. Gonzaga needs this one, but BYU needs this one badly. The Cougars are left gasping for NCAA Tournament air after falling to Pacific last Thursday. Now, the majority of bracket projections place them among the first four teams out of the Dance, with very few chances left to improve their stock. Thursday night, at home against the WCC-leading Bulldogs, is one of those chances. The game should feature a hearty amount of scoring — both offenses are among the 40 most efficient in the country — and several intriguing individual match-ups. The ‘Zags ran away from BYU in the second half when these two met in Spokane back in January, led by Kevin Pangos and his six three-pointers.
  2. Mercer (21-6) at Florida Gulf Coast (17-10) – 6:05 PM ET, ESPNU, Friday. The Atlantic Sun’s best heads to Dunk City on Friday night for what could be a conference championship game preview. If Mercer hopes for a chance in the March spotlight, it first needs to dethrone last year’s Cinderella darling. No better way to start than by beating the Eagles in their own gym. The Bears have already notched wins over Ole Miss, Denver and Seton Hall this season, so they are legit, but they’ve also stumbled twice on the road in league play. And there still might be a lot of magic left in Fort Myers. This game should be fun.
  3. VCU (20-6) at UMass (20-5) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Friday. The Rams forced a whopping 48 UMass turnovers in their two meetings last season — 24 in each game — so the Minutemen will surely need to fix that if they have any hope of winning. Both squads push the pace and thrive on momentum, so it will be interesting to see who takes most advantage of the pendulum swings. The Atlantic 10 race is now a race for second place (Saint Louis holds a 2.5 game lead over VCU), and Friday night’s showdown will be important in determining which team eventual grabs that runner-up position. More importantly, it’s a contest fraught with conference and NCAA Tournament seeding implications, so definitely worth watching as we start gearing up for Selection Sunday.
  4. UTEP (19-7) at Southern Miss (21-5) – 6:00 PM ET, CBSSN, Saturday. Okay, okay, so this game lost much of its appeal when Southern Miss got smacked twice on the road last week and UTEP lost at home to Florida Atlantic. Still, this weekend’s affair will significantly impact the Conference USA standings — both are still alive to win the league — and could help indicate which team is a legitimate threat to challenge Louisiana Tech in the conference tournament next month. Both the Miners and the Golden Eagles are certainly talented enough to make a push for the auto-bid, it’s just a matter putting it all together as the season wanes. This Saturday could be an important step in that direction for one of these clubs.

Upset Special

NCAA Tournament hopeful Saint Joseph's better be focused tonight in Rhode Island. (SJU Athletic Communications)

NCAA Tournament hopeful Saint Joseph’s better be focused tonight in Rhode Island. (SJU Athletic Communications)

Saint Joseph’s (17-7) at Rhode Island (11-15) – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. What’s that, you say? Saint Joseph’s is red-hot and now in the NCAA Tournament discussion? That’s great! They should easily take care of business at sub-.500 Rhode Island tonight, then, right? Well, not so fast — the Rams are a lot tougher than their record would indicate. Three of their five home losses this season have been by five points or fewer — including one-point defeats to Providence and Saint Louis — and they kept things fairly tight when these teams met in Philadelphia back on January 22. A few personnel losses have taken their toll, sure, but Rhode Island has proven time and again this season that it is gritty enough to compete with just about anyone. Furthermore, Dan Hurley’s group has been very effective at taking away the three-point line, which might spell trouble for the sometimes three-happy Hawks. In the first meeting, Saint Joe’s struggled from deep, shooting a modest 2-of-14 from distance. Another poor shooting night from behind the arc — or from charity stripe, for that matter: at 63.5 percent, it is one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the entire country — and Phil Martelli’s crew could wind up right back on the wrong side of the bubble.

Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups

  • American’s Darius Gardner and Boston University’s Mo Watson, Jr. – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. A pair of under-appreciated point guards battle tonight in a Patriot League match-up that pits the conference’s top two units. “Pee-Wee” Gardner nailed five threes as American surprisingly crushed the Terriers in their first meeting, but it should be a different story this time around in Boston. The ultra-quick Watson has been rolling of late, averaging 12 points and eight assists over his last three games. If he outperforms Gardner, BU will likely exact revenge.
  • Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton and Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow – 8:30 PM ET, Saturday. This game will be an assembly of great individual talent, starting in backcourt with Payton and Harrow. Although R.J. Hunter leads the way in scoring for Georgia State, Harrow gets a lot of touches and actually takes more shots. When he plays well, good things happen. Payton, meanwhile, is just a flat-out stud, averaging roughly 20 points, six boards and six assists a night. He’ll also pick Harrow’s pocket if the Panther guard is not careful; Payton’s 3.9 steal rate is tops in the Sun Belt.
  • UNLV’s Roscoe Smith and Boise State’s Ryan Watkins – 8:05 PM ET, CBSSN, Saturday. These two dudes really crash the boards. Both are in the top-10 nationally in rebounds per game—11.3 for Smith and 10.7 for Watkins—and both have 22 rebound performances to their credit this season. Watkins might actually be the best overall rebounder in all of college hoops, considering he ranks first in offensive rebounding percentage and 26th in defensive rebounding percentage. Let’s hope for a lot of misses so these guys can further inflate their already-gaudy numbers.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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