LARAMIE — When the Wyoming men’s basketball team beat San Diego State to begin its conference schedule, it beat a team that was coming off a big nonconference win against Gonzaga and that was projected to be one of the top teams in the Mountain West.
Now, seven weeks later, the Cowboys face the Aztecs again, Wednesday night at Viejas Arena (9 p.m. Mountain Time, CBS Sports Network). This time, though, San Diego State is a team trying to dig itself out from the bottom of the conference standings. At 5-7 in Mountain West play, the Aztecs currently sit in eighth place.
“San Diego is always a good team, but it just shows you how good our conference is,” Wyoming junior Justin James said. “It just shows you how anybody can be beat on any night. For the teams who don’t come out and compete for the whole 40 minutes, that shows.”
The Aztecs are in their first season under head coach Brian Dutcher, who succeeded Steve Fisher after his 18-year tenure in San Diego. The Aztecs won three straight games after losing in Laramie, but those are their only consecutive wins in conference play thus far.
“A lot of people look at them and say, ‘Well, they’re 5-7 this year,’ but this is still a really good basketball team,” Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards said. “And what I think was unique about the situation was I kind of look at both of us and say the same thing. We had a bunch of tight games and we end up coming out on the better end of it, and they’ve had a bunch of tight games where they’ve come out on the back end of it. The roles could easily be flipped.”
The losing streak that followed San Diego State’s three-game winning streak consisted of a trio of losses that came by four or fewer points. One of those losses, to Fresno State, made for the Aztec’s only conference home loss in five such games this season.
“It’s a great arena,” James said of Viejas, home of the fan section dubbed “The Show.” “The fans are really loyal. Pretty much every time I’ve been there, it’s been a really loud gym. But the good thing about it is, just like UNLV, it’s at sea level. So you don’t have to worry about getting winded too much, and that’s what I look forward to. But it’s definitely a great place to play.”
The good news for Wyoming is that the Aztecs could be without senior Trey Kell, a preseason all-conference selection. Kell has missed three games with an ankle injury, though Wyoming isn’t preparing any differently.
“I think when you’re talking about a kid of his stature and talent and obviously being a veteran within this program, you prepare as if he is going to play,” Edwards said. “And if he doesn’t, then he doesn’t. When we’re talking about scouting report he’s fully in the scouting report. Whether he tries to play if his ankle is good enough or not, we’re approaching it as if.”
One advantage San Diego State will have this time, though — besides not having to play in Laramie — is a healthy Jeremy Hemsley. The junior guard, who averages 8.4 points per game, did not play in the team’s first meeting because of illness.
“He’s a good player for them,” Wyoming senior Hayden Dalton said. “He’s just another fast guard. I think he might be one of the fastest guards on their team with the ball, attacking the rim. He’s just another threat for them offensively, a guy you definitely have to take into account on the defensive account on the defensive scout and worry about at all times. So he’s a big threat for them offensively.”
Dalton should know. In the Cowboys’ December win against the Aztecs, he scored a career-high 36 points, the most by a player at the Arena-Auditorium this century.
“I think my teammates were really just finding me in really good spots, when I remember right,” he said. “They were giving it to me in the post a lot and then moving really well for me. And then also finding me for open 3s. We were just moving the ball, and I happened to be open a lot. I mean, once a couple went down, I was feeling it, so I kept being pretty aggressive in that game.”
Considering Wyoming shot just 36.5 percent as a team in a loss Saturday at UNLV, the Pokes would take a similar performance Wednesday.