No ordinary game

The only matchup this week between two top-ten teams can't be found in the Big East, ACC or Big 10. Instead, it will take place in the Mountain West Conference. On Wednesday the No. 9 BYU Cougars will host the No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs and try and hand them their first loss of the season in what is being considered the biggest MWC game ever.

It's a game that calls to mind big showdowns in the Marriott Center from the past few years such as the New Mexico game last year (BYU was ranked as high as 11th, UNM was ranked as high as 10th) or the Wake Forest game two years ago when the Demon Deacons were ranked 12th and BYU had the nation's longest home winning streak.

The Cougars are just hoping that the outcome of this game isn't the same as those two.

The Wake Forest game of course had no conference implications, while last year's New Mexico game in Provo – which itself was hailed as the biggest MWC game ever at the time – ultimately decided the conference title. With this game coming in the first half of conference play, there's still a lot of basketball left. Nevertheless, it has big implications, as BYU and SDSU are clearly the top two teams in the conference.

"They're very capable of beating us and beating any team in the country, so we just have to elevate our game every single time we play them, and I take it as a challenge ‘cause they are such great players," said Jimmer Fredette about the Aztecs. "So I go out there and just do the best I can, be aggressive, play my game, and I was fortunate to have two good games [against SDSU last year], and hopefully we'll have another good one Wednesday."

Fredette scored 33 points at SDSU last year and then 26 in the rematch in Provo.

Though he's saved his best performances for games away from the Marriott Center, having averaged 40.5 points in his last four road games when his team has needed him the most, it would be in Fredette's best interest to unleash his potent scoring ability against the Aztecs Wednesday night.

After all, this just isn't any team BYU is facing. SDSU is 20-0, and the same starting group of Aztecs also won 25 games together last year. BYU has won five of the past six games between the two teams, but this is clearly the best Aztec team yet.

"For the most part it's a group right now that is really playing with a purpose, they play together, and they just figure out ways to win games," said Coach Rose.

Though there are a few additions to the Aztec roster – namely James Rahon, whom Rose said has really helped them from the perimeter – this year's team is very similar to last year's. But while the players are mostly the same, they've only gotten better.

"I think they play together better this year," said Rose. "I think they're better defensively, I think their shot selection's a lot better, I believe that they just are playing to win – not that they weren't playing to win last year, but their focus is really good."

Among SDSU's biggest weapons is sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who averages a double-double each game.

"He's a handful, and not only ‘cause he's a great rebounder, but he's a great scorer," Rose said about Leonard. "He kind of picks his spots. He's really improved his perimeter game and he's a guy that they really rely on in big possessions to make the play, but he doesn't have to have the ball in his hands to make that play."

Though the Aztecs are known for their talented frontline, senior point guard D.J. Gay has been the team's star as of late. He's been doing his best Jimmer Fredette/Jackson Emery impression lately, shooting 13-of-22 from outside in his last two games.

Though Gay is third on the team in three-point percentage (41.5 percent), he easily takes more outside shots than any other Aztec. So far this season he has 118 three-point attempts, while Rahon is second on the team with 70.

"We have to try and limit his outside shots, ‘cause they have such good big guys that if he's making shots too, it's really, really tough to guard," said Fredette.

"D.J.'s making big plays for them, and he's turned into a real leader from the perimeter, which is something I think every coach wants," said Rose. "You want a guy who's got the ball in his hands all the time to kind of be a guy who can make plays – make plays for himself, make plays for his teammates."

BYU has had a lot of success in recent years against SDSU when utilizing zone defense, but if the Aztecs can knock down outside shots, the Cougars may not be able to play as much zone. The Aztecs shoot 34.8 percent from outside as a team, while BYU shoots 37.5 percent.

Rebound, rebound, rebound

Though rebounding is one of the strengths of this Aztec team, BYU actually averages more rebounds per game (40.2 to SDSU's 35.9). This of course could be attributed to the faster pace that BYU plays at, which creates more possessions during games and thus provides more opportunities to rebound.

Nevertheless, in eight meeting between the two teams during the past three seasons, BYU outrebounded SDSU four times and tied the Aztecs two other times. Only twice did the Aztecs outrebound BYU.

Fredette said that rebounding – along with tempo – will be the keys to a Cougar victory.

"We try to get it up-paced as much as we possibly can, and if we can get transition baskets, get into a comfort level where we're getting stops, getting rebounds and pushing it, I think that that will be a big key. We have to make shots, we've got to make plays. We know they're a great team. They defend really well, [they're] well-coached, so we just have to make shots and play our game."

Ultimately, the tempo will be determined by rebounding. Rose noted that if the Aztecs crash the boards but don't secure rebounds, it will allow BYU to create fast-break opportunities and force SDSU to send fewer players to the boards.


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