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Nevada at San Diego State: Three keys and a prediction

Jordan Caroline
Jordan Caroline and the Wolf Pack take on San Diego State tonight. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada basketball team plays at San Diego State on Wednesday in San Diego. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game with three keys to victory and his prediction.

No. 6 Nevada (24-1, 11-1 MW) at San Diego State (16-9, 8-4)

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Viejas Arena (12,414 capacity)

TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/94.5 FM

Online: None

Betting line: Nevada favored by 7.5 points; total of 145

Three keys for Nevada to win

1. Be the aggressor: This is not usually an issue for Nevada, although it was the last time these teams met, a lopsided SDSU win in which the Aztecs led by as many as 34 points and out-classed the Wolf Pack in the Mountain West Tournament. SDSU had a 34-17 edge in free throws attempted and punched Nevada in the mouth early and often. The Wolf Pack is venturing into unfriendly territory, which doubles as a tough place to win. SDSU has won 12 straight MW home games and is 79-11 in home conference games over the last 11 seasons. The crowd will be amped, and Nevada must be, too. That shouldn’t be an issue given SDSU beat the Wolf Pack twice in one week at the end of last season. The Aztecs play an aggressive defense, and while it was well-below average defensively early in the season, SDSU’s defense has been more stifling of late (yet still short of the program’s regular level over the last decade). Nevada must take control of this game from the start.

2. Get physical with McDaniels: SDSU has one of the West Coast’s best players in Jalen McDaniels, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward who is averaging 17.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He’s shooting 49.6 percent from the field, including 33.3 percent from three. McDaniels is a talented and versatile player who will almost certainly be picked in this year’s NBA draft. But he’s still slight (listed at 195 pounds). You can get physical with him and have some success. Nevada has done a tremendous job over the years of shutting down the opposition’s best offensive player. We saw that in the Wolf Pack’s last game, a lopsided win at Wyoming in which Cowboys star Justin James scored 16 points but did so on 4-of-16 shooting. McDaniels has raised his game in league play, averaging 19.8 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting. I imagine Tre’Shawn Thurman (6-8/225), one of the MW’s best defenders, will get the assignment against McDaniels. It will be one of his toughest tests yet.

3. Win the bench battle: The Aztecs aren’t very deep, and that’s especially true if Jordan Schakel (various ailments) doesn’t suit up. Schakel has missed three straight games and six of the team’s last seven contests. If he doesn’t play, that leaves SDSU’s bench paper thin. The team’s top bench scorer outside of Schakel is Aguek Arop, who averages 3.2 points per game. The Aztecs rely heavily on their top-six players, and that includes Schakel. Even if he’s active, SDSU is thin (and you’d guess Schakel might be a touch rusty given his limited playing time of late if he does play). Nevada’s bench has been hit and miss, but Jazz Johnson (11.3 ppg, 44.6 3-point percent) has been consistent and Jordan Brown and Corey Henson have had some big games (both, however, are averaging 3.5 points or fewer a night). With both teams basically being six deep, whichever squad gets the bigger boost from its bench will have a leg up.

Prediction

Nevada 78, San Diego State 68: Neither team should lack for motivation. SDSU has a chance to prove it can compete with on of the nation's best teams. And Nevada must still be stinging from two losses to the Aztecs late last season, and those wins came after SDSU coach Brian Dutcher proclaimed his team was “the best team in the league” despite Nevada winning back-to-back regular-season titles. SDSU backed up that talk. You could say there’s a little bad blood here, which should make the game one of the most fun of the season. In addition to the keys above, pace will be a big deal. SDSU plays slow and Nevada has been pushing the tempo of late, which has dovetailed with its improved offensive play. Nevada needs to get the game into the high 70s. The Wolf Pack hasn’t won at Viejas Arena since the 1998-99 season opener, a 76-72 OT victory over an Aztecs squad that ended up going 4-22. Steve Fisher was hired the next season and turned SDSU into a national program. Nevada is the new king of the MW, but it has struggled against the Aztecs, going 2-10 against them, including a 2-5 mark in the Eric Musselman era, since moving to the MW. I’ll take Nevada to exert its dominance and grab its first win in San Diego since joining the conference in 2012. Season record: 24-1

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