Mountain West Basketball: Boise State vs. San Diego State–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Broncos, Aztecs meet with first place on the line
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What: Boise State Broncos (18-5, 8-2) @ San Diego State Aztecs (17-5, 8-2)
When: Friday February 3rd – 7:00 MT, 6:00 PT
Where: Viejas Arena; San Diego, CA
How To Watch: FS1
Odds: San Diego State -7 Over/Under 134
First place is on the line Friday night at Viejas Arena in San Diego when Boise State comes to town to do battle with San Diego State. The top half of the incredibly competitive Mountain West Conference has provided thriller after thriller through the first half of the league slate. The contenders also continue to pick each other off, mostly with the home teams getting the W’s, which gives an edge to the Aztecs in this Friday night affair. The result is these two sitting tied at the top at 8-2, a full game ahead of their closest pursuers.
The visiting Broncos are playing some of the most complete basketball in the country, winning 8 of 9, dropping only an overtime classic in Albuquerque two weeks ago. In typical fashion of a Leon Rice coached team, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. Chibuzo Agbo is a former top-level recruit, but aside from the Texas Tech transfer, the roster consists of good talent made better by the development of Rice and his staff. This is also a very experienced group, although that will be equaled on Friday by SDSU.
Before we go any further, it has to be mentioned that two of the Broncos main horses are questionable to play. Both star point guard Marcus Shaver and defensive ace Naje Smith were injured in Tuesday’s win at Air Force. Rice has been tight-lipped with information on their availability, Bill Belichick-style, but Shaver has been playing hurt for much of the season and it would not be a surprise if he sits this one out. For a team that relies heavily on their starters for minutes and production, being down two men in a first-place showdown is quite a blow. There are options though; Jace Whiting will have to handle pg duties in Shaver’s absence, and while he hasn’t taken a high volume, he is shooting a good % from deep (42%), and he also sports a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Handling the San Diego state defensive pressure on the road is an entirely different animal of course. If Smith is unable to go, Rice loses a valuable defender to throw at either Matt Bradley or Lamont Butler.
Someone will have to step up the way Pavle Kuzmanovic did down the stretch against the Falcons. After a great BSU first half, Air Force does what they do to teams – hang around, grind out possessions, and make you work to pull out a victory. A rough shooting second half had the Broncos 15-point lead whittled to 2, when Kuzmanovic buried a three-pointer from the top of the key with 90 seconds to go, giving BSU some much needed breathing room. Two defensive stops later Boise State was leaving Clune Arena with a well-earned win.
The defensive stops have been there consistently all season, as the Broncos metrics at that end of the floor are top 10 in the nation. It’s just difficult to find easy ways to routinely beat this D. They give you west coast Virginia vibes, with their discipline, positioning, and help. To top it off, they finish out possessions with a super high defensive rebounding rate. They will be challenged Friday night by the Aztecs’ athleticism, but expect BSU to take transition away and make San Diego State work for every basket they get in the half court.
The Aztecs are coming off a disappointing loss in Reno on Tuesday, when they allowed the Wolf Pack to shoot 65% in the 2nd half, scoring 47 points. It wasn’t just one facet either, it was 6’6” point forward Kenan Blackshear getting into the paint and finishing, it was 7-footer Will Baker in the post or mid-post scoring in close, or it was Jarod Lucas knocking in shots or drawing fouls. It was an uncharacteristic performance by SDSU, and they will certainly look to dig in a bit more on that end against the Broncos. Of all the top MWC contenders, Brian Dutcher has the deepest squad, with 9 legit rotation players, so he can play the matchup game, ride the hot hand, or sit someone if it’s not their night.
Dutcher has gotten good minutes from many of those secondary contributors lately, such as Keshad Johnson, who had been on a tear prior to a quiet outing the other night. In fact, the bench came close to outscoring the starters against the Wolf Pack; Jaedon Ledee was very active, with 8 and 5, and Adam Seiko buried a couple of 3’s. But for the Aztecs to reach their ceiling and win this minefield of a Mountain West regular season championship, they need their ‘guys’ to get it done. Darrion Trammell and Butler combined to shoot 5-16, including 1-8 from downtown, though they did have 9 of San Diego State’s 13 assists. Until there is consistent scoring to help Bradley, who himself is averaging a few points less than a year ago, there will always be the comparisons to some recent Aztec squads (primarily last year) that were so dominant defensively, but couldn’t claim a title because of their limitations offensively.
Speaking of last year, SDSU may feel as though they owe one to Boise State, who took not two, but three games from the Aztecs in that campaign, including a 53-52 nailbiter in the conference championship game. Much of the San Diego State roster is the same, and while no additional motivation will be needed for this one, it’s an extra incentive to avenge those 2022 defeats. In terms of this year’s race, Friday is far more important to the home team. Not only do they have to make a return trip to Boise in a few weeks, but they must travel to The Pit to face New Mexico, and to Logan to take on the dangerous Aggies. Dropping this one is going to make it awfully hard for the preseason favorite to capture the crown. For Boise State, they are obviously traveling to Viejas expecting to win, but the pressure is off, especially if they are shorthanded, and it’s not the end of their hopes of a championship if they fall short. It’s super tough to predict an outcome without knowing the status of Shaver and Smith. With a short turnaround from Tuesday, and the Broncos next game not until February 11th, it makes sense to rest them and have them back near full strength next time out. Then again, Leon Rice knows what he’s doing, so we’ll play the waiting game. Lastly on that point, the Vegas oddsmakers have thrown a very high spread of 7 out there in this matchup, implying that they don’t expect Shaver to play. This would be much closer to a 2 or 3 point spread with both teams at full strength. We’ll trust those professionals, as they’re usually correct. What does it all mean? It’s never easy against Boise State, and this is a very very good club with two players, Max Rice and Tyson Degenhart, playing at an incredibly high level. But the Aztecs need this one more, they have the home court advantage, and have the healthier team. The Broncos will be in great position to turn the tables in Boise in a few weeks, but Friday night will be an SDSU kind of night.
Prediction: San Diego State 69 Boise State 60