The Mountain West Conference has truly become one of the top conferences in the country over the past few years. When you look at programs like UNLV, Utah, BYU, and New Mexico, it is clear that this has become a conference to reckon with. Some of that momentum this season has been stolen by the fact that both BYU and Utah are leaving after this season but the MWC is still expected to be strong. The strongest team of the bunch might just be the Aztecs of San Diego State. Starting out the season just inside the top 25, SDSU has talent, depth, and enough dangerous playmakers to make them a favorite in the conference and a team that is likely to make moves in March. Without a doubt, Gonzaga has their work cut out of them this coming Tuesday when the Aztecs come to town. To learn more about San Diego State, we asked Jeremy Mauss of the fantastic blog 'Mountain West Connection' a few questions about the Aztecs. We hope you enjoy Jeremy's thoughtful insights to what should be a phenomenal game...
The Slipper Still Fits: Kawhi Leonard is clearly one of the elite players on the West Coast. What makes Leonard such a difficult matchup, and what are different ways that he can be slowed down?
Jeremy Mauss: He is a really physical player which makes him tough to defend. Typically most freshman are not able to be intimidating or handle the physicality when they make the jump form high school to division one, but Leonard was able to do so. He basically averaged a double-double as a true freshman in a tough Mountain West leagues, and in his first game on the year against the Big West preseason favorite Long Beach State he scored 21 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and a block shot. One was to slow Leonard down is to be physical back at him and press him when he has the ball, because last year he did turn the ball over when he was being pressed. Leonard favors the short game and the right side of the hoop, so if a team is able to push him around to keep outside of his comfort zone which is midrange jumpers along the baseline and try to force him to go left that is the way to slow him down.
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TSSF: With the No. 25 ranking to start the season, its clear that this is a talented SDSU squad. How good do you think this team can be, and ultimately, what is its ceiling?
JM: They are the favorite to win the Mountain West, but they will have some challengers from New Mexico, BYU and UNLV. I think they have the edge over the rest of the league because the Aztecs are a power team. BYU and UNLV are guard oriented teams and while New Mexico is physical they are a young team. I think the expectations are to win at least one NCAA tournament game, but I do think they have a shot to be a sweet 16 team.
TSSF: SDSU has an array of different guys that can score from the perimeter. Who are a couple guys that Gonzaga fans should keep their eyes on in this game as potential breakout scorers?
JM: D.J. Gay is the Aztecs deep threat and the guy the Aztecs want to take a three point shot when needed. In his opening game game against Long Beach State Gay scored 21 points and was 4-5 from three point range. Last season he shot 39 percent from beyond the arc, so he is a threat for the three ball. Plus, Gay is a Senior and can handle the pressure of this game. The other guard to watch is James Rahon who comes off the bench, but essentially plays starter minutes and can score. Rahon transferred from Santa Clara and sat out last season due to transfer rules. As a freshman at Santa Clara he averaged 14 points per game and shot 40 percent from three point range. I think Rahon will eventually start for the Aztecs, but until then he will be playing starter minutes.
TSSF: In your opinion, what will it take for SDSU to come into the Kennel and leave with a signature non-conference victory?
JM: An early non-conference road game against a top-15 team in the country will be difficult. The Aztecs need their star players such as Kawhi Leonard to step it up and score points. Last year the Aztecs were a well balanced team as four players scored in double figures each with the leader scoring 12.7 points per game. San Diego State knows that Gonzaga is a disciplined team and very good at home, so the Aztecs will need to quiet the crowd by not allowing Gonzaga to score in bunches or allow them to fast break San Diego State. The main way for the Aztecs to come out with a win is if Kawhi Leonard can fill out the stat sheet like he does in most games, but most importantly he will need to carry the team on his back and drastically improve off of his 12 point per game average from last year. Also, he needs to realize to trust his teammates and pass the ball when shots are there, because last year at times he would not give the ball up if he got into the post. Guard play is important and it all starts with DJ Gay who as mentioned above is an above average three point shooter. If he can get on a roll it will be tough for Gonzaga to defend both him and Leonard since those two would provide a nice inside and outside combination.