All signs are pointing towardsSan Diego State taking this year’s men’s basketball Mountain West regular season title.
The Aztecs, who were picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason media poll, are 21-1 and sit atop the MW standings at 10-0. They rank No. 5 in the Associated Press Poll thanks to a suffocating defense that allows just a robust 56.5 points per game, which is third-best in the nation.
The only loss that SDSU has suffered this season was to then-No. 6 Arizona, a 69-60 decision. The Aztecs, who have won 20-straight games since that loss, have beaten some top competition in Kansas and Creighton. Both of those wins were on the road.
The Aztecs probably have the Coach of the Year in Steve Fisher, who has done a masterful job this season in leading SDSU to its seventh-straight 20-win season.
SDSU may also have the MW Player of the Year in guard Xavier Thames. After struggling with injuries the past two seasons, Thames has blossomed into an elite defender and the Aztecs’ most consistent scorer.
Without Thames commanding the offense, it is hard to picture where the Aztecs would be right now.
When the Aztecs offense starts to sputter, Thames usually gets it back on track. He is third in the MW in points per game (18.1) and is second in steals per game (1.7). According to kenpom.com, Thames is the second most efficient offensive player in the country with a rating of 123.0.
Thames might be the most clutch player in the country. Time and time again he has come through when his team has needed a bucket.
This past week at Boise State, Thames led a furious 14-point comeback victory at the Taco Bell Arena and had the assist on the game-winning 3-pointer from Dwayne Polee.
With all of that information, how could you go against the Aztecs?
Well, there happens to be one other team in the MW that is right on the heels of the red-hot Aztecs — the New Mexico Lobos.
UNM sits at 18-4 and is 9-1 in conference play, which is good enough for second place in the conference. The Lobos have won six straight games since losing to UNLV 76-73 on Jan. 15 at The Pit.
UNM and SDSU will not play each other until Feb. 22 in Albuquerque with the rematch taking place in San Diego on March 8.
Yes, the Lobos are not a defensive juggernaut like the Aztecs, since they have given up 69.4 points per game, which is tied for 150th in the country.
But UNM does have a more formidable offense with weapons at every position. Leading scorer Cam Bairstow is a force on the block averaging 20.2 points per game. Bairstow has made the leap from being an average player to one of the best forwards in the nation.
Let us not forget about center Alex Kirk, last year’s MW Player of the Year Kendall Williams and guards Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal.
UNM’s offense may not be elite, but it is better than SDSU’s. However, the Aztecs do have the advantage on the defensive side.
It is tough to go against SDSU but UNM is still the reigning and defending MW regular season champ.
Until the Aztecs knock them off, I just cannot bring myself to pick against the Lobos.