Undefeated and No. 4-ranked San Diego State takes its unblemished record to the state of Colorado on Saturday night for a Mountain West Conference contest with Air Force.
The Aztecs (23-0, 12-0 Mountain West) head to Air Force (9-14, 3-8) after a thrilling 80-68 comeback win Feb. 1 over Utah State.
With Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, who led the 2010-11 San Diego State team that set the previous program record with a 20-0 start, and longtime former Aztecs coach Steve Fisher both in attendance at Viejas Arena — Leonard’s No. 15 was retired at halftime — San Diego State trailed by eight points at the break.
“We put up on the board today a saying we had up on Thanksgiving when we played Creighton in Vegas: ‘Mental toughness, extra effort,’ ” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said in the postgame press conference. “It’s a Coach Fisher saying and I thought it was appropriate.”
Mental toughness, and an outstanding night from Matt Mitchell, extended what already was both the best start and longest winning streak in San Diego State history. Mitchell scored 24 of his 28 points in the second-half rally.
“There’s definitely a significance there, me having a big night on Kawhi’s big night,” said Mitchell, who like Leonard is from Riverside, Calif.
Mitchell’s eruption reflected the offensive balance that has been a hallmark for San Diego State amid its historic start. Malachi Flynn sets the pace for the Aztecs at 16.5 points and 5.1 assists per game.
But with Mitchell averaging 11.9 points, Yanni Wetzell posting 12 points, Jordan Schakel at 9.7 points and KJ Feagin at 8.3 points per game, San Diego State’s options run deep.
Air Force has its own offensive depth in the trio of Lavelle Scottie, Ryan Swan-Ford and A.J. Walker, who are averaging 15.3, 13.2 and 11.6 points per game, respectively. But Air Force’s struggles largely come on the defensive side.
The Falcons rank No. 324 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. Opponents are shooting 37.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc against Air Force, which ranks No. 329 in the nation.
In their current five-game losing streak, the Falcons have given up at least 72 points in each game. Nevada’s 88 in a rout Wednesday resulted in Air Force’s most lopsided margin of defeat on the season, 34 points.
“It’s got to be better effort on glass and defense,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said in his weekly press conference on Monday. “Contesting shots and rebounding. … And it starts on top with our guards, containing the ball and keeping it out. We’re catching ourselves in a lot of help-and-recover situations.”
San Diego State’s 38.2 percent shooting from 3-point range as a team fuels its offense. With Air Force’s troubles on help-and-recover defense, the Aztecs’ shooting could pose significant issues for the Falcons.
“They’ve always been a good defensive team,” Pilipovich said of San Diego State. “But now, you take it to another level where offensively, they’ve got weapons.”
–Field Level Media