SAN DIEGO — Wyoming has fallen well short of what was expected of it in the Mountain West so far this season, but the Cowboys aren’t the only ones.
Losers of five of its last six games and seven of nine following its 68-56 setback at UNLV on Saturday, Wyoming will continue its two-game road swing tonight at San Diego State — a team many thought in the preseason would be the primary challenger to No. 10 Nevada’s quest for a third straight MW regular-season championship if there was going to be one at all. The Aztecs were picked in the media’s preseason poll to finish second in the league and even received a first-place vote.
But SDSU has looked like anything but the team many thought could make a run at giving the conference a second bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aztecs (8-6, 0-1 MW) are still tied with New Mexico for the fourth-best overall record in the MW, but that speaks to how poorly the league performed in the non-conference. Everybody other than Nevada, Fresno State and Utah State has at least six losses with nearly half the league owning a losing record.
Despite three starters averaging double figures, including NBA hopeful Jalen McDaniels and his 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, SDSU has dropped nearly half its games after opening its MW slate with an 88-64 dud against Boise State on Saturday — a week after suffering a 21-point home loss to Ivy League member Brown. There was also a 30-point loss to Iowa State, a 12-point setback at home to San Diego and a loss at Cal, which owns the Pac-12’s worst overall record, in the non-conference.
So it’ll be a sputtering SDSU team and a Wyoming team that sits at the bottom at the MW standings renewing a series at Viejas Arena that’s been hotly contested heading into the 83rd all-time meeting. Each team has won 41 times, though the Aztecs have won 10 in a row against Wyoming (4-11, 0-2) in San Diego dating back to 2007.
“Obviously frustration does come in because we’re competitors and we hate to lose, but being negative just makes everything worse,” said Wyoming’s Justin James, whose 20.9 points per game are tops in the MW. “The locker room has been doing a good job trying to stay positive and trying to focus on what we need to improve on.”
Wyoming, which was picked to finished seventh in the MW in the preseason, continues to play with a seven-man rotation that’s been depleted by injuries and defections all season. Freshman big Hunter Thompson, who had his first double-figure game since before Christmas against UNLV, is the only other regular averaging double figures, though true freshman Trace Young is averaging 14 points over his first three games after having his redshirt pulled.
But holding on to the ball has been the Cowboys’ most glaring issue of late. After committing 15 turnovers against Boise State, Wyoming coughed it up 18 times leading to 23 points for UNLV and is averaging nearly that many over its last five games — possessions a team that’s shooting a MW-worst 41.4 percent from the field can’t afford to throw away.
“We’ve just got to continue to emphasize it, especially with us trying to slow the pace down,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “We want that number around 10 or lower. And I tell the guys I don’t mind aggressive turnovers. Passive turnovers are different, or live turnovers. I thought that was another thing that allowed (UNLV) to get out in transition and play, which they’re very good at. That hurt us.”
SDSU is the MW’s top 3-point shooting team (38.1 percent) but is still just shooting 45 percent from the field, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. The Aztecs have been one of the league’s better teams at rebounding their misses, pulling down 10.4 offensive rebounds a game, but have been equally as poor cleaning up the boards on the other end.
SDSU, which doesn’t have anybody other than McDaniels averaging more than five boards, is tied for last in the MW at 24.9 defensive rebounds per game. Wyoming is dead last in rebounding margin (minus-4.9) but held its own against a UNLV team that’s second in that category, finishing just minus-1 on the glass.
“We have a small window of error, and we have to make sure we cut down in a sense of the turnovers and rebounding,” Edwards said. “What I liked (Saturday) was a team that rebounds the way they rebound it, to lose the battle only by one, that, to me, is progress.”
Something’s got to give Tuesday.