College basketball’s only unbeaten team, No. 4-ranked San Diego State, begins its final three-game stretch of the regular season on Saturday at home against UNLV at Viejas Arena.
The Aztecs (26-0, 15-0 Mountain West Conference) clinched an outright regular-season conference title last week, but did not let up in its 72-55 blowout win at Boise State on Sunday.
“This is a hard environment to play in,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said in his postgame news conference. “We’ve lost our last three (at Boise State).”
A win a few years in the making at Boise State wasn’t the most noteworthy result from Sunday. The rout continued the longest winning streak in program history, and moved San Diego State three wins shy of a perfect regular season.
If the Aztecs can complete the season sweep of UNLV (14-14, 9-6), they have a home date against Colorado State and trip to Nevada remaining to complete the perfect run. Should San Diego State navigate that stretch, as well as next month’s Mountain West Conference Tournament, it would become the third program in the last six years to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.
The last two — Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015 — were the first since UNLV in 1991.
This year’s UNLV team comes into Saturday’s matchup with the prospect of finishing as high as second in the Mountain West. The Runnin’ Rebels enter the weekend tied for fifth place with Colorado State, both with three games to play. They are a game-and-a-half behind the current second-place team, Utah State.
Finishing in the top five of the conference means getting a bye into the quarterfinals in the Mountain West Tournament. Finishing sixth or worse means playing in the first round.
UNLV has won two straight and three of its last four after dropping four straight from Jan. 22 through Feb. 5. The Runnin’ Rebels outlasted New Mexico 78-73 on the road Feb. 15, then blasted Colorado State at home Tuesday, 80-56.
Coach T.J. Otzelberger called it UNLV’s “most complete game of the year” in his postgame news conference.
“(It was) a terrific defensive effort against a really good offensive team,” he said. “They were focused, they were intentional. Did a great job on that end of the floor, which led to us getting out in transition in that first half.”
UNLV needs another strong defensive showing against a balanced and efficient San Diego State offense. The Aztecs feature four double-figure point-per-game scorers, led by Malachi Flynn’s 16.7. Matt Mitchell has come on strong of late, including an 11-point, seven-rebound, five-steal and three-assist performance at Boise State.
“He just plays the right way, shares the ball, when he’s open he shoots it, and he plays for his teammates,” Dutcher said of Mitchell.
Flynn led San Diego State in a narrow defeat of UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 26, scoring 21 points. In a performance indicative of the Aztecs’ depth, Trey Pulliam scored 18 points off the bench, more than 14 better than his season average.
San Diego State’s more regular contributors, including Jordan Schakel and KJ Feagin, contribute to the nation’s ninth-best 3-point shooting percentage at 38.6.
Defending the 3-pointer has been a concern for UNLV, meanwhile. Opponents are hitting 34 percent against the Runnin’ Rebels on the season.
–Field Level Media