A neutral court clash between former conference rivals San Diego State and Utah on Saturday could carry huge implications in March.
Both teams are on a hot streak as they wind down the calendar year. The No. 20 Aztecs are one of four remaining unbeaten Division I teams. San Diego State already has Quad 1 wins over Iowa, Creighton, and BYU to bolster a Top 5 NCAA NET ranking. The upstart Utes have run off five straight wins, a streak that has included victories over the Cougars and No. 6 Kentucky.
“We know that’s going to be a battle,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said of the Saturday meeting at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
San Diego State pushed its season-opening winning streak to 11 games with a 92-48 victory over San Diego Christian on Wednesday. It was the 13th largest margin of victory in school history for the Aztecs. They shot 52 percent from the field and had 24 assists on 33 baskets.
“We are rolling right now. There’s no reason not to feel good,” senior guard KJ Feagin said.
Similar statements definitely can be made about Utah. The Utes held off a late rally from Kentucky to beat the Wildcats 69-66 on Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
Utah imposed its will on offense and defense early in the game. The Utes led by as many as 17 points in the second half and held Kentucky to just 2-of-17 shooting from the perimeter.
“The first thing I wrote on the board in the locker room was that we needed to bring a level of toughness we hadn’t displayed this season,” coach Larry Krystkowiak told the Deseret News after the game. “Nobody was talking about our physicality. (They were talking about) how we were on the soft side, the young side, all of those things.”
Rylan Jones embodied that toughness. Utah’s starting point guard was a game-time decision against the Wildcats after suffering a rib injury nearly two weeks earlier. Jones re-injured the rib after getting fouled on a drive to the basket late in the second half. He only went out briefly and then came back in to finish the game.
Jones also played through a sprained ankle earlier in the season. The freshman’s toughness has earned him a ton of respect from his teammates as a floor leader.
“Rylan has some poise and some savvy to him,” Krystkowiak said. “These guys know he’s a warrior.”
Toughness will be a key word again on Saturday at the Staples Center. San Diego State brings one of the nation’s better defensive teams to the court. The Aztecs have a penchant for forcing turnovers and bad shots in bunches. They average 6.8 steals per game and allow just 56.6 points per contest.
Only BYU and Iowa have scored 70 or more points on San Diego State this season.
Utah will test the Aztecs’ ability to get stops. The Utes struggle with intermittent scoring droughts at times, but they also have players like Timmy Allen and Both Gach who can light it up. The sophomores are averaging a combined 32.9 points per game. Allen is also Utah’s top rebounder with 7.5 boards per contest.
San Diego State will need strong games from Malachi Flynn and Matt Mitchell to counteract what the Utes can do inside and outside on offense. Flynn and Mitchell are averaging a combined 27.0 points per game to lead the Aztecs.
Utah and San Diego State were rivals in the Western Athletic Conference and then the Mountain West Conference until the Utes left to join the Pac-12 in 2011. The Aztecs have won six of the past seven games between the two teams, but Utah holds a 54-19 lead overall in the series.
–Field Level Media