San Diego State is in position to win the Mountain West title after losing four starters from the best team in school history, but its next contest could be more difficult than it appears.
The No. 21 Aztecs play their final two games on the road, starting with Wednesday night's first-ever trip to face last-place Boise State.
Not much was expected from San Diego State (22-6, 8-4), which lost its top four scorers including first-round pick Kawhi Leonard from a team that went 34-3 a season ago. The new-look Aztecs, however, are in a three-way tie for first with No. 17 UNLV and New Mexico.
"I don't know that we ever really said, 'OK here is the goal. We are going to win the conference,'" coach Steve Fisher said. "But we wanted to make sure that everyone in that locker room knew that we had players good enough to win."
Boise State (13-14, 3-9) has had a rough introduction to the Mountain West after moving from the Western Athletic Conference. The Broncos are tied for last with Air Force.
This matchup, though, could be a close one based on San Diego State's 58-56 home win over Boise State on Feb. 1. The Broncos led by as many as 12 points and forward Thomas Bropleh's wide-open 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
"We could have lost to Boise State if they would have made that last shot," Aztecs guard Jamaal Franklin said.
The Broncos fell despite allowing the Aztecs to match a season low with 31.3 percent shooting.
"Of course, we replayed it and we replayed it," coach Leon Rice said. "It's a tough one to handle but hey, that's basketball. Sometimes you make those."
Franklin matched a season low in MWC play with three baskets in that victory for 16 points. He's averaging 19.6 in the five games since, with 31 points and 16 rebounds in Saturday's 74-66 home win over Colorado State.
"I got into foul trouble very early (in the last meeting) because they were taking charges," Franklin said. "We have to make sure that we stay under control, beat them on the boards and defend the 3. They are a great shooting team and like to spread the floor out, just like we do."
Rice, who started three freshmen among his four-guard lineup in a 64-54 loss at Wyoming on Saturday, lauded the "winning culture" at San Diego State under Fisher. The Aztecs made 25 of 29 free throws in the first meeting compared to 7 of 16 for the Broncos.
"They know how to win games," Rice said. "Like against us a perfect example of that is that they made 14 in a row at the free-throw line in that crunch time of the game. That's what winning teams do."
The Broncos are 11-4 at home, where they expect an intense atmosphere in their finale at Taco Bell Arena.
"We understand that they're going to come in playing for a lot," Rice said. "So we've got to be playing for a lot. And it's our last home game, it's senior night. So there's going to be a lot of energy and emotion on both sides."
- San Diego State
- Boise State