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BYU Closes Out Finals Week With Road Test At No. 18 San Diego State

Dec 17, 2020, 3:20 PM
BYU Basketball - San Diego State...
BYU guard Connor Harding attempts a shot against San Diego State. (Nate Edwards/Deseret News)
(Nate Edwards/Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – The tough non-conference schedule BYU basketball put together doesn’t end up after a week of finals. BYU closes out the week with what might be the toughest test yet, a trip to undefeated and No. 18 ranked San Diego State (5-0) at Viejas Arena (Friday, 3 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

Usually, college basketball teams schedule an automatic win to cap off a week of finals. BYU coach Mark Pope didn’t take that approach as he wanted the most challenging schedule he could get for his team.

“These non-conference games are so important for you to get to know yourself,” said Pope on his weekly coaches show (Tuesday, KSL NewsRadio 9 p.m.). “I think we’re getting to know ourselves better and better and that’s how you become a good team.”

The Cougars (6-2) have faced a difficult stretch of games to this point, but San Diego State might be the most challenging opponent to date.

Last year, San Diego State and BYU staged a classic game at the Marriott Center, with the Aztecs closing the game on an 8-1 run to win 76-71. The Aztecs were one of the nation’s best teams a season ago, going on to finish with a 30-2 record before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing guard Malachi Flynn to the NBA and KJ Feagin to graduation, the Aztecs haven’t skipped a beat. Brian Dutcher’s squad already has a pair of wins over Pac-12 favorites this season in UCLA and Arizona State, along with a victory over WCC foe Pepperdine.

“They’re so dominant on the glass, they’re probably one of the top-ranked defensive teams in the entire country,” Pope said. “They’re a gap team, very much modeled after like a Virginia defensively; a pack-line defense. They just take your ball, and they take every rebound, and they make it really hard to find any way by pass or dribble or bounce to get inside the lane. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

In last year’s game, San Diego State outrebounded BYU, 38-27 on the glass. This year, BYU’s strength is rebounding the basketball. WCC Freshman of the Week Caleb Lohner is fresh off his career-high 10 rebound performance against Utah off the bench. Lohner has been elite on the glass for the Cougars, averaging a team-high 6.8 boards per game.

In the spirit of finals week, this will be a great test for center Matt Haarms. Pope has challenged the 7-foot-3 big man to be more dominant and physical in the post in previous games. The Aztecs with Nathan Mensah, who put up a double-double in a road win at nationally-ranked Arizona State, will try to make life difficult for the star Purdue transfer.

BYU will look to have big performances again from Connor Harding, Richard Harward, and Spencer Johnson. All three were instrumental in the Cougars victory over Utah on Saturday.

This is the 75th meeting all-time between the former conference rivals. It’s also the first of a new two-game series that was scheduled this past May. San Diego State has won the last four meetings, which dates back to the 2011 Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship Game. All four wins for the Aztecs have come in different cities (Las Vegas, Maui, San Diego, Provo).

Friday’s game will be the sixth consecutive game for BYU against a Top 100 Ken Pomeroy ranked team. Closing out a gauntlet of a stretch, but it’s one that poses a big opportunity for BYU to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume.

“Huge opportunity for us to go see where we are nine games into the season, to see where we are and what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown,” Pope said. “It’s an opportunity to go play against one of the top teams in the country.”

What you need to know about No. 18 San Diego State

San Diego State is currently No. 18 in the AP Top 25 and No. 20 in the Coaches poll. BYU has never defeated a Brian Dutcher coached Aztecs team. Dutcher is 2-0 all-time against BYU, with the most recent victory coming last season.

Senior guard Jordan Schakel leads the Aztecs in scoring with 15.2 points per game. Last season against BYU, Schakel led all scorers in the game with 19 points. He knocked down clutch five three-pointers in that game to give SDSU their first win in the Marriott Center in 14 years.

The other Aztec scoring in double figures this year is Matt Mitchell, who, like Schakel, was a key contributor in last year’s game.

San Diego State continues to play a high level on the defensive end. The Aztecs are No. 15 nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 57 points per game. They are in the top 30 in steals per game and turnover margin—two areas where fellow Mountain West team Boise State had success and gave BYU struggles.

The Aztecs are outscoring their opponents by 18.6 points per game this season.

What’s at stake for BYU/San Diego State

BYU is looking to end a four-game losing streak to the Aztecs. A win on Montezuma Mesa would be the Cougars first victory on the road against a Top 25 team since defeating No. 1 Gonzaga in 2017.

For San Diego State, there is only one team on their remaining schedule that is ranked higher than BYU. That’s Saint Mary’s, who they will face next Tuesday. There’s never a large margin for error for teams outside the power conferences. If the Aztecs want to have a high seed come March, they need this one.

Projected Starting Lineups

BYU (6-2)

G – Alex Barcello, Sr.; 6-2, 180

G – Brandon Averette, Sr.; 5-11, 185

F – Connor Harding, Fr.; 6-8, 185

F – Matt Haarms, Sr.; 7-3, 250

C – Kolby Lee, Jr.; 6-9, 240

No. 18/20 San Diego State (5-0)

G – Trey Pulliam, Sr.; 6-3, 180

G – Jordan Schakel, Sr.; 6-6, 200

F – Matt Mitchell, Sr.; 6-6, 235

F – Aguek Arop, Jr.; 6-6, 220

F – Nathan Mensah, Jr.; 6-10, 230

How to watch BYU vs. SDSU

Date: December 18th, 2020

Tip: 3 p.m (MT)

TV: CBS Sports Network

Which Channel: DirecTV (1221), Dish (158), Verizon FiOS (594), Comcast Xfinity (753 in Utah)

Announcers: John Sadak (play-by-play), Steve Lappas (analyst)

How to listen to BYU vs. SDSU

Radio: KSL NewsRadio (102.7 FM, 1160 AM)

Pregame: 2 p.m. (MT)

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper and the KSL Sports app.

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BYU Closes Out Finals Week With Road Test At No. 18 San Diego State