Aztecs Welcome Big-Time Barometer in Road Clash With BYU
No. 9 BYU (19-1) on the road is a spinach match. Like Popeye, No. 4 SDSU (20-0) will be stronger for it.
"This game will show how mentally strong we are," said point guard D.J. Gay.
"It'll help us in the (NCAA) tournament," said forward Kawhi Leonard.
Center Malcolm Thomas: "There are great players on both sides of the court, and I think that's going to make it like a tournament game."
Fisher quipped that he'd rather his Aztecs tangle with a blah team instead of a "legitimate Final Four contender in BYU."
BYU's ranking is its highest since 1987-1988, the Cougars are 29-1 at home over the last three seasons, and Fisher is 1-10 at the Marriott Center, which he described Wednesday as an "impossible place" to play.
Fisher has Lou Holtz moments. Nonetheless, when his Aztecs see Utah's snow-capped mountains, they should smile at the chance to defend a team averaging 85 points a game.
The sound of 22,000 BYU fans should be as pleasing as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Even if it'd be easier to buy cigarettes and beer in Provo than guard Cougars guard Jimmer Fredette, who's the NCAA's scoring leader at 26.7 points per game, the Aztecs should be grateful for the chance.
Drubbing the likes of TCU, Air Force and the University of San Diego isn't going to prepare SDSU for March, and March is what defines teams that are ranked fourth in late January.
Economics professors at both BYU and SDSU mentioned supply and demand fewer times this week than Fisher and his players cited the need to play "40 minutes of basketball" on Wednesday, implying that 20 good minutes is all it took to beat several of their 20 victims.
"We can't have one half where we just make a run," said Leonard, a 6-foot-7 NBA prospect who may be athletic enough to trade off on the rapid-firing Fredette. "We're going to have to have two good halves to beat BYU."
Anyone who knows a basketball from a grapefruit knows the Big East and Big Ten teams face better competition within their leagues than the Aztecs and BYU get within the top-heavy Mountain West. Emerging from a strong Big Ten, Fisher won an NCAA title with Michigan in 1989 and returned to the championship game in 1992. Naturally, he says the schedule will prepare SDSU for the NCAAs, where the school is 0-6, including a loss last year to No. 6 seed Tennessee. Non-conference wins at Gonzaga (then No. 11) and at home over Saint Mary's and Wichita State were nice stocking stuffers. And the MWC, largely because of SDSU and BYU, does rank fourth among the conferences -- ahead of the SEC, ACC and the Pac-10 -- as measured by CollegeRPI.com, which replicates the NCAA's formula for RPI.
"We with pride say we're (from the) Mountain West Conference," Fisher said.
Because they are basketball players and ESPN adores the Big East, Aztecs players couldn't help but watch recent games involving Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Villanova and other Big East bruisers in the Top 25. Color the Aztecs impressed but not in awe.
"For them to play day-in, day-out against ranked opponents and such a high level of basketball is big," Gay said, "but the Mountain West tourney isn't very far behind. We have a strong league, very good teams in our league."
Brigham Young, beaten only by UCLA, is playing better than the BYU team that defeated the Aztecs twice last year, and better than BYU teams that beat SDSU in Provo when Gay and fellow senior Billy White were starters in 2008 and 2009.
SDSU answers with the nation's longest active winning streak and will be the fresher team, having gone a week between games because of the MWC-scheduled bye.
For these Aztecs, who have yet to face a Top 10 team, it'll be their biggest introduction yet to the country.
"I think this game is either going to be an 'I told you so,' or 'Wow, they really are that good,' " Gay said. "That's what this game is gonna come down to."
Should the Aztecs get past BYU, they'd have a good chance of being unbeaten entering a Feb. 12 road contest against UNLV, which lost in San Diego two weeks ago by six points. If several Aztecs are surprised at how much media attention the SDSU-BYU tilt is drawing -- and Gay said he was -- they'd need Arctic-level UV protection sunglasses if they were unbeaten entering the BYU rematch on Feb. 26.
By then the Aztecs would be 28-0 and presumably Dick Vitale, the East Coast hoops carny, would talk like he knows who their players are. Equally preposterous would be chatter that SDSU would be better off losing once or twice before March.
"I'm not going to say, 'Boy, we have to have a loss before we get into the tournament,' " Fisher said. "I want to be undefeated when we go into 'Selection Sunday.' It won't happen. Probably won't happen. But I'd like to have that happen."