San Diego State survives at Boise, looks like Final Four contender

Kent Horner

With a dramatic 67-65 win on Wednesday, the Aztecs moved to 20-1 on the season.

Everything was set up for San Diego State to lose on Wednesday -- it was playing a road game on national TV against a good Boise State squad desperate for a signature win. The Broncos came out cooking, scoring 42 points in the first half and building the lead out to 14 points early in the second.

At that point, the Aztecs buckled down on the defensive end, locking down Boise State and giving up only 23 points in the second half. With Xavier Thames carrying them on offense, San Diego State pulled out just enough to win, as Dwane Polee II hit a three with five seconds left to give his team the victory.

Because they play on the West Coast and the MWC is rarely on ESPN, the Aztecs haven't gotten enough publicity this season. However, they have as much athletic talent as any team in the country, they play defense as good as anyone and they have one of the best closers in the game in Thames.

They have a bunch of victories in non-conference play, including Marquette, Creighton, Washington and Kansas. Bill Self's teams don't lose in Lawrence very often; San Diego State left Allen Fieldhouse with a 61-57 win, as good a win as any team in the country is going to have on their resume.

Their only loss was an early season loss to Arizona, a 69-60 defeat in which the Aztecs handled themselves very well. In my mind, that's as good a litmus test as any. If a team has the horses to run with Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Nick Johnson for 40 minutes, they are dangerous.

For San Diego State, everything starts with their half-court defense. They are one of the longest and most athletic teams in the country, with a front-line that goes 6'10, 235 pounds; 6'8, 215 pounds; 6'7, 220 pounds; and 6'8, 205 pounds. When the opponent gets the ball into the paint, there isn't much room for them to operate.

The Aztecs' best offense is their defense, as they excel at generating turnovers and getting out in the open-court. In the half-court, their offense can stagnate since they don't have much perimeter shooting. They do have Thames, though, who averages 18 points a game while shooting 43 percent from deep.

Boise State was able to build a lead by exploiting their biggest weakness, turning San Diego State and getting easy points in transition. However, as the game went on, Steve Fisher's team started taking care of the ball, allowing their half-court defense to set and choking off the Broncos offense.

San Diego State has been living dangerously on the road, so it doesn't seem likely they make it through MWC play undefeated, particularly with road dates at UNLV and New Mexico ahead of them. Nevertheless, they have more than proven their mettle as one of the best teams in the country.

If they take care of business at home, they should finish the season with a strong case for a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed, putting themselves in a great position to make a run at a Final Four. That's the only thing left for Steve Fisher to accomplish one of the great turn-arounds in college basketball history.

In many ways, the Aztecs are already one of the elite programs on the West Coast. They play before a packed house in San Diego, have sent multiple players (Jamaal Franklin, Kawhi Leonard) to the NBA and, most importantly of all, are starting to win recruiting battles against high-major schools.

To get Winston Shepard, a four-star recruit out of Findlay Prep, Steve Fisher had to beat out Oregon, Oklahoma State, St. John's and UNLV. Shepard is the kind of player that would never have been in the Mountain West a decade ago, a future NBA player who could start for almost any team in the country.

At this point, San Diego State is not a mid-major and they are not a Cinderella story. They are a team full of elite athletes who play hard-nosed defense and can run with every team in the Top 10. They may not be on TV in February, but they should be on CBS plenty in March.

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