Mountain West Basketball: Air Force vs. San Diego State–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Falcons, Aztecs meet in conference opener
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What: Air Force Falcons (9-4, 0-0) @ San Diego State Aztecs (9-3, 0-0)
When: Wednesday, December 28th – 8:00 PT
Where: Viejas Arena; San Diego, CA
How To Watch: FS1
Stream: FuboTV — get a free trial
Odds: San Diego State – 17 Over/Under 129
There’s very little time to enjoy the holidays in the college basketball universe. Just three days past Christmas the Mountain West is opening conference play, with another play date to come on New Year’s Eve. Tonight, the preseason favorite Aztecs of San Diego State will play host to Air Force. It’s quite the shock on two fronts; one, most MWC teams schedule a bit lighter just ahead of the conference slate, and as such the competition really ramps up in a hurry, so you better be ready (this will be the case for Air Force tonight). Two, between final exams and days off around the holidays, for a couple of weeks the games are few and far between, and it sometimes takes a full half to shake off the rust (this one applies to SDSU in the opener).
There are multiple standout games to begin the conference slate Wednesday night, though on paper this does not seem to be one. San Diego State has been the best program in the Mountain West for well over a decade, while Air Force routinely resides near the basement. Falcons boss Joe Scott and his charges will pay that no attention however, as they had a successful non-conference campaign, and will look to stay hot, as they have won eight of their last nine.
Scott is in his second tenure in charge of AF, and actually took this program to the NCAA tournament in 2004, one of only two bids for them in the last 60 years. So he knows how to build a program, and more importantly how to do it at the Air Force Academy. Their early season schedule leaves a lot to be desired, and is virtually the polar opposite of the Aztecs, who have played multiple challenging games. But with an extremely young squad, it was important for the Falcons to gain some confidence, and also figure out roles.
Two freshmen from the state of Texas have been revelations for Scott. Rytis Petraitis has won MWC Freshman Of The Week three times already. The 6th man is a jack-of-all-trades, scoring 8.5 points, hauling in 5.5 boards, and dishing out 2 assists per night. More importantly, he is a glue guy, diving on the floor, and doing the dirty work that helps teams win. Then there is Corbin Green, a tremendous athlete who has become the second leading scorer (10.8), and filled in as an undersized big man when returning starting center Lucas Moerman was lost for the season after only four games.
Jake Heidbreder is the go-to-guy and averages almost 16 a game for the Falcons, who run a Princeton-style methodical offense based on timing and precision. His shooting numbers are incredible, over 50% from the floor, 41% from the 3-point line, and 88% from the foul line. Without conventional post play, the Falcons do rely heavily on the three ball, and hit a fairly high % of their attempts, especially their high volume shooters. On the other side of the floor, Scott uses a combination of the seldom used match-up zone (of John Chaney/Temple fame) and a switching man-to-man. It’s traditionally difficult to prepare for because it’s uncommon. That’s one of the reasons AF grades out well in its defensive efficiency marks.
For San Diego State it’s been an up and down start to the season. Wins over BYU, Stanford and Ohio State had the Aztecs rolling before a loss to red-hot Arizona in the Maui semis. The third-place game was deflating as SDSU blew a late lead, falling to Arkansas, punctuated by post-game shenanigans led by former Nevada and current Hogs coach Eric Musselman. The third loss was a neutral site game against Saint Mary’s, a top-shelf opponent for sure, but one already defeated by two conference mates of the Aztecs – New Mexico and Colorado State. The long break here (only one game in the last two and a half weeks) may have been just what the doctor ordered.
In this instance, the doctor is sixth-year boss Brian Dutcher, who has one of the most talented rosters on the west coast. The Aztecs are nine deep, have incredible length and athleticism, possess quickness, strength, and of course basketball skill. The talent ranges from defensive stalwart Nathan Mensah, the ultimate rim protector and paint presence, to Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell. The 5’10” point guard should draw more Allen Iverson comparisons as he is all over the floor and does it in a hurry, he is up and down the court like he is shot out of a cannon. Preseason conference player of the year Matt Bradley has struggled to find his outside shot and has seemed frustrated a time or two. If and when he regains his late-season 2022 form, look out.
In addition to Trammell, the Aztecs added Jaedon LeDee (TCU) and Micah Parrish (Oakland), and the three of them combine to average 30 points a game. The outside shooting has been below average for SDSU, with only Adam Seiko and Parrish hitting at a productive clip. The defense and rebounding will always be at a consistently high level under Dutcher, and he hopes the offense will catch up sooner rather than later. Opponents are shooting much lower versus the Aztecs than their season averages, and that’s even more magnified when looking at defending the three-point line, which will definitely come into play tonight.
Joe Scott has done a tremendous job with his young Falcons, and they are likely to surprise a couple of more talented league foes this season, but this is probably not the night for one of those to occur. While the layoff may lead to some rust for SDSU in one sense, on the other hand it gave Dutcher a lot of prep time for a system on both ends of the floor that is rare, and really not seen anywhere else in the MWC. That is a massive edge for San Diego State. It’s hard enough to score on the Aztecs defense, but AF is not likely to grab many offensive boards at all, and they certainly will not get out in transition much. Also, while the Falcons haven’t turned the ball over anywhere close to the high rate they did a year ago, they have not seen anything resembling the pressure they will see tonight. As per KenPom, Air Force’s non-con schedule ranks 362 out of 363. It’s going to be tough sledding offensively tonight for the Falcons. SDSU may have trouble working out some of their offensive kinks against a stingy AF defense, but they’ll be able to supplement their half-court offense with a combination of points off turnovers and second chance points. The Falcons won’t stop playing hard, but this one should be decided before we get to the late stages.
Prediction: San Diego State 70 Air Force 55