San Diego State overcomes the elements, tightens grip on first place in Mountain West

During an 18-2 start to the season with more than a few eye-opening wins along the way, San Diego State established itself as one of the nation's most consistent teams.

On Tuesday night, it firmly established itself as one of the nation's toughest.

Ultimately, a 20-hour trip to Laramie, Wyo., that stretched over two days and included pit stops in Cedar City, Utah, and Grand Junction, Colo., turned out to be tougher than the Aztecs' 52-42 victory over upset-minded Wyoming.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers set the game as a dead-even 'Pick 'em' on Monday night, but due to the assumptions that the travel woes would derail the 13th-ranked team in the land both mentally and physically, the Aztecs actually tipped off against the Cowboys as 2.5-point underdogs.

"I didn't feel like it did," senior forward Tim Shelton said when asked if the extended trip affected his team. "If we weren't a team with such strong character, it would have. It was something we talked about while spending the night in Utah."

So, how did this all come about? The travel woes were well-documented over the last two days by the San Diego Union-Tribune's Mark Zeigler as they unfolded. The highlights …

• 10 players, four coaches and five staffers boarded a 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D twin-engine turboprop plane, which was far from spacious. This was what the team's best option was after the 30-seat plane the team was originally supposed to take — owned and operated by a different aviation company — was taken out of service due to an issue with the wing. The 19-seater was all the team could find after opting not to fly commercial to a road conference game for only the second time in coach Steve Fisher's 13 years at the helm. The trip from San Diego to Laramie when flying commercial involves a long flight to Denver, followed by a 2.5-hour bus ride. The charter option was decided upon so that the Aztecs could leave Laramie after the game instead of having to wait until Wednesday morning. In theory, it was a good idea, since they fly back into the region for Saturday's game at Colorado State.

• The problem with the 19-seater was that on a full fuel tank, it could not make the 868-mile trek to Laramie without having to stop to refuel.

• Approaching a vicious snowstorm, instead of stopping in St. George, Utah, as originally planned, the refueling was done in Cedar City, Utah. The problem there? The snow kept them grounded for the night. In a Cedar City hotel was where the team ended up killing the time by going through Wyoming game film.

• Tuesday morning included the final refueling stop in Grand Junction — where it was also snowing — before traversing the final 200 miles through the air to Laramie — where it was, you guessed it, snowing.

And after the Aztecs got done running their Mountain West record to 4-0 and tightening their solo grip on first place in the league standings, they each grabbed a pizza outside of the locker room and got back on board the tiny plane.

"It comes with the conference," Shelton said of the league's current sprawling setup, which makes for some tricky travel in the winter months. "It's part of what makes it such a challenging conference, and a lot of people don't understand that."

The game itself, which figured to be a potential trap spot for San Diego State even without the travel hiccups, turned out to be fairly ho-hum.

Wyoming, who has gotten to 16-4 this season mostly behind its stellar defense under first-year coach Larry Shyatt, struggled to score as SDSU beat the Cowboys at their own game.

Even though the Aztecs turned the ball over 19 times, they forced 16 on the other side while holding Wyoming to 30.6 percent shooting. SDSU was a bit more selective and efficient on the offensive end, hitting 51.2 percent of its shots. Veteran guards Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin, who have emerged from role players on last year's 34-win squad to unquestioned leaders a year later, led the way with 12 points apiece.

In the bigger picture, the Aztecs increased their odds of taking a Mountain West Conference regular season crown, keeping UNLV and Colorado State a game behind them in the loss column. It would be an astounding achievement after losing four starters — two of whom are on NBA rosters — off of a team that won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

After escaping Laramie, games at Colorado State (Saturday) and 12th-ranked UNLV (Feb. 11) appear to be the team's toughest remaining road trips. A home game against New Mexico (Feb. 15) will also be no easy task. But right now, it's pretty tough to pin-point exactly where the losses will come. They've now won three of their four league games outright after entering as underdogs, and have done so in a gritty fashion that was made a signature of Fisher's program over the past couple of season.

And in the long-term, for as much criticism as San Diego State has taken for moving its basketball program to the Big West Conference starting in the 2013-14 season, at least these peripheral headaches will be easier to avoid when traveling to conference games doesn't involve heading east of California.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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