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First loss shouldn't make San Diego State an afterthought

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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San Diego State finally lost.

Go ahead, drop the fourth-ranked Aztecs in your poll. Rip them. Say they just weren't ready for primetime on Wednesday night, fading late in a 71-58 loss at No. 9 BYU with much of the nation — or at least the percentage that actually gets the CBS College Sports network — watching.

SDSU was all the rage during its rise up the rankings, stemming from a resounding, season-opening win at pre-crumble Gonzaga. Once they topped out and there was nowhere to go but down, though, it seemed like everyone was just waiting for that win streak to snap.

The Aztecs are now 20-1, but just because they've been replaced by the Cougars and rockstar Jimmer Fredette as America's darlings for the moment, it doesn't mean that their run of abnormal national relevance is done.

Expect to hear from SDSU again.

While BYU has quite possibly the nation's finest player, SDSU has a better collection of talent from top to bottom, and is still the more well-rounded team on a neutral floor.

But like any group, Steve Fisher's club has its flaws.

BYU exposed some of them.

The biggest was forcing out the ugly side of SDSU's streaky tendencies from long range.

The Aztecs were going to have to hit the outside shot consistently if they were going to neutralize and win in a hostile environment at the Marriott Center. That was what helped them triumph in The Pit against New Mexico two Saturdays back, when they were 13-of-25 as a team and senior guard D.J. Gay was 7-of-11 on his own.

Against the Cougars, they struggled to collapse a 2-3 zone and were only 5-of-20 from long range, with Gay going 0-for-5 and sophomore 3-point specialist James Rahon only getting two clean deep looks in 19 minutes off of the bench. A small percentage of those 20 attempts actually came in rhythm, and many were settled upon from at least three or four feet beyond the arc.

It was far from SDSU's only poor outside shooting performance of the season, but the big men made up for it on many of those on previous occasions.

The achilles heel in that group on Wednesday was normally steady senior forward Malcolm Thomas, who had 10 points, but was 4-of-11 from the floor and missed several bunnies inside.

Also, a lack of depth wound up hurting the Aztecs in a game that was no only played in elevation, but at a pace that they weren't normally accustomed to.

SDSU tried several times in the first half to slow it down by extending possessions and walking the ball up after quick BYU scores. It was a futile attempt, though. Four of SDSU's five starters played at least 36 minutes, which is beyond tough to do if you're not accustomed to playing ball in the thin air.

Honestly, though, the positives out-weighed the negatives on the night.

SDSU out-rebounded BYU 35-31. Despite heaving in the locker room before the game and needing to be hooked up to an IV while battling the flu, star sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard was an animal, finishing with 22 points and 15 boards — 9 of them were offensive. And even though Fredette scored a ho-hum 43 points, the Aztecs actually defended him pretty well for the better part of the night. He's just that good.

Don't forget that, lost in all of the Jimmer-Mania, it was a close game for 35 minutes. SDSU simply ran out of steam. After a timeout with 5:35 left and the Aztecs trailing by only four at 56-52, Fisher's squad was 2-of-12 from the floor.

They'll get healthy pretty quick.

On Saturday, they host Mountain West punching bag Wyoming, then after an interesting mid-week game at Colorado State next Wednesday, they have home dates with two more struggling league foes in TCU and Utah before a trip to UNLV on Feb. 12. They'll host the second round with BYU on Feb. 26 at Viejas Arena, and could catch them again in the league tourney in Las Vegas.

The Aztecs have an above-average back-court, one of the five best front-courts in the nation and a possible lottery pick in June's NBA draft. It can also be argued that they might be better built for a nice NCAA tournament run than BYU, who relies on one player — albeit the hottest scorer in college hoops — for such a large chunk of its production (Fredette accounted for 60.6 percent of the Cougars' offense on Wednesday).

They'll be back in the limelight. And it'll probably be pretty soon.

Ryan Greene covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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