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No. 4 Aztecs believe they still have much to prove as Lobos visit


San Diego Aztec Malachi Flynn, center, is defended by UNM Lobos Vante Hendrix, left, and Makuach Maluach, right, during their Jan. 29 game in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit . (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

When the 2019-20 Mountain West hoops schedule was released last summer, there was reason for optimism that a mid-February showdown in San Diego’s Viejas Arena between the two most decorated programs in the league’s 21-season history might actually have championship implications.

But nobody – no, not even The Show, the rejuvenated best student section in college basketball – could have ever predicted Tuesday night’s game would quite literally have a league championship on the line when the New Mexico Lobos (17-6, 6-6 MWC) visit No. 4 San Diego State (24-0, 13-0 MWC) with a Mountain Time zone tip set for 9 p.m. on ESPN2.

The Lobos are merely trying to regain some semblance of normalcy down the home stretch of a drama-filled season that has seen as many as four starters out of the lineup for multiple games, including two weeks ago when it lost in the Pit by 28 points to SDSU. The Aztecs are stringing together a historic campaign that has them so far ahead of the Mountain West pack that a win Tuesday night or a Colorado State home loss would clinch at least a share of the program’s seventh league title.

That, and not the broader conversation about the legitimacy of this team’s standing on a national level, is the focus of third-year head coach Brian Dutcher, who himself is smack dab in the middle of National Coach of the Year conversations.

“I’m trying to keep them focused on winning a Mountain West championship,” Dutcher said. “I’m not talking about the NCAA Tournament or seeding or any of that. We want to hang a banner. We have an opportunity to do that against a New Mexico team that’s going to be inspired.”

Saturday, the NCAA Selection Committee released a preview NCAA Tournament bracket, announcing just what the top 16 overall seeds (top four seed lines in each region) would look like if the NCAA Tournament was selected now. The Aztecs, the nation’s No. 1 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings and last remaining undefeated team, was chosen as the No. 4 overall seed. While that would earn the Aztecs a No. 1 seed, which would be the highest in MWC history, they would be shipped out to the East Region, where a potential second weekend pod of games would be played in New York’s Madison Square Garden – hardly the type of travel from San Diego that seems like a reward for such a historic season.

“It’s a huge chip on our shoulder,” said senior SDSU guard K.J. Feagin. “As you see, a lot of people still don’t believe that we’re as good as advertised, so every game is another game to prove that we are as good as advertised and that we deserve to be the No. 4 spot or even higher.”

Regardless of what the Aztecs are truly focused on for Tuesday – a league title, the Lobos, national respect – it may not matter. Whatever motivation they’ve drawn from so far this season has seemed to do the trick, which is why another conversational, barroom-debate type of question now follows the team around: Is this the best team in Mountain West history?

Of course there is still a month left in the season to know for sure, and then there is of course the debate about what sort of postseason run after the Mountain West Tournament a team needs to make for true historical greatness in the discussion. But for now, it’s clear these Aztecs are on pace to have compiled enough bullet point achievements to be at the forefront of any debate:

• Current No. 1 NET ranking. The NCAA Selection Committee formerly used the RPI, a now defunct metric in the men’s game that formerly had two league teams – 2011 SDSU and 2013 UNM – finish No. 3 nationally;

• No. 4 Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll ranking (BYU in 2011 has the highest national ranking of No. 3 in MWC history);

• 24-0, 13-0 in league games (both Mountain West records);

• No. 4 ranking (highest KenPom end-of-season ranking in MWC history was No. 8 for the 2011 SDSU team that reached the Sweet 16 with Kawhi Leonard).

As for the Lobos, they’ve actually been down this road before. In fact, just one year ago, a top-10 ranked, undefeated Mountain West team (Nevada) that was getting plenty of national buzz, albeit in January and not in mid-February, came to the Pit and lost by 27 points.

And with Saturday’s return of starters JaQuan Lyle and Vance Jackson, the Aztecs know they’ll be getting a different test than in their 28-point win in Albuquerque on Jan. 29.

“It’s not the same New Mexico team we played two weeks ago,” Dutcher said. “They have Vance Jackson back. They have (JaQuan) Lyle back. They’re at full strength. They’re very dangerous offensively.”

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