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Nevada owns the Mountain West, but it has one more team to master: San Diego State

Jordan Caroline
Jordan Caroline and the Wolf Pack have dominated everybody in the Mountain West except for San Diego State. (Nevada athletics)

During Nevada’s last two trips to San Diego, Eric Musselman was part coach and part tourist guide.

The first trip, two years ago, Musselman took the team to La Jolla Rec, his old basketball stomping ground, on a multiple-day tour of America’s Finest City. Last year, the team got straight off the bus and headed to Pacific Beach before an outdoor meal and later a trip to Musselman’s mother’s house.

This year, Nevada’s visit to San Diego – a city Musselman considers home; he owns a house in La Jolla – won’t come with any bells and whistles. Although Musselman expects a lot of friends at the team’s practice Tuesday and its game Wednesday night, this will be a totally normal travel game outside.

“We’re treating it as if we’re going to Laramie,” Musselman said with a smile.

Musselman said the change in itinerary – “I’m not doing what we did in the past” – is partially a result of Nevada’s fate the last two times it played at San Diego State (a pair of losses). While Musselman’s mastery of the Mountain West has been swift since becoming Nevada’s head coach four seasons ago, the one remaining bugaboo has been SDSU, the last thorn in the Wolf Pack’s side. Consider:

* Nevada is 2-5 against the Aztecs under Musselman; his second-worst record against a MW team is 5-3

* Viejas Arena is the only MW road location he’s yet to win, although he’s only played there twice (in fact, Nevada has won at least twice at every MW venue except for New Mexico, one win, and SDSU, zero)

* SDSU has eliminated Nevada from two of the three MW Tournaments during Musselman’s tenure

* And the Aztecs are the only team Musselman has played multiple times and has a losing record against

Musselman said there’s no secret why the Aztecs, who beat Nevada twice in a one-week span late last season, has been a tricky team to beat. In short, they’re very good and they give everybody issues.

“They’re really talented, they’re really long, they’re well coached and they play hard against Nevada when we see them,” Musselman said. “We expect nothing different in the two games we have remaining with SDSU. They’re long, athletic and last year they beat Gonzaga, and Gonzaga was (top 10) in the country. They’re perfectly capable of beating anybody on any given night, no question, because they’re a really talented team. They’re as talented as any team we’ve played all year and we know that.”

Nevada (24-1, 11-1) will be a sizable favorite against SDSU (16-9, 8-4), which has struggled by its own lofty standard this year. But the Aztecs have won six of their last seven and are playing better on defense, its calling card over the last decade. SDSU also is 12-2 at home, including a 6-0 mark in the MW. The Aztecs have won 12 straight MW home games and is 79-11 at home in conference games over the last 11 seasons, losing more than one MW game in a year just once during that stretch (it went 6-3 in 2016-17).

“The crowd in San Diego is going to be incredible,” Musselman said.

Adding to the pre-game hype is the fact Musselman believes Nevada is not well liked in San Diego.

“My wife’s not going this game,” Musselman said. “First time ever. My daughter’s not going this game. First time ever. My mom will be there. I think anytime you’re in front of family and friends, (it’s important). But Nevada’s not very well liked in San Diego. We know it. For whatever reason, I don’t know why. It’s a place where the Wolf Pack is not welcomed.”

Asked why he believes San Diego State, or its fans, have a grudge against Nevada, Musselman said: “We know. I know what the crowd’s going to be like. It is what it is. I guess when you’re playing well, crowds get fired up for you and the opposition team gets fired up, so it is what it is.”

SDSU has been effusive in its praise of Nevada leading into the game, with coach Brian Dutcher saying Nevada is a “team capable of making a run to the Final Four,” while adding “I know that we have been circled on their schedule for a long time,” while referencing the late-season wins over the Wolf Pack last season.

After beating Nevada by five at Viejas Arena in last year’s regular-season finale, SDSU blasted the Wolf Pack, 90-73, in the MW Tournament semifinal as the Aztecs went on to win the event and earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Nevada got an at-large and advanced to the Sweet 16 while SDSU lost in the first round to Houston by two.

Given their wins over Nevada, the Aztecs know they’ll get the Wolf Pack’s most fervent punch.

“I’m sure if it was the other way around, as soon as that game ended and the schedule came out for the next year, I would have circled that game first,” senior guard Jeremy Hemsley said during SDSU’s weekly press conference. “I know it’s going to be an intense game. They have really good players, and like Coach Dutch said they’re well-coached. It’s going to be fun. I expect it to just be fast-paced and really intense. It’s a fact that they'll be ready for us, and we know that. We all know that.”

Some of SDSU’s animosity against Nevada could stem from the Wolf Pack ascending to the MW’s throne, a place the Aztecs held before Musselman was hired. SDSU won at least a share of the MW regular-season title five times in a six-year stretch from 2011-16. But Nevada has won the last two titles and is on pace to win a third straight outright championship this season, something that has never happened in the conference’s history.

The Wolf Pack has mastered the rest of the MW, but SDSU has held the upper hand in head-to-head matchups. Musselman, however, doesn’t buy into the fact winning at Viejas Arena (Nevada is 0-5 there since moving to the MW in 2012) is a monkey on the program’s back.

“If we make the NCAA Tournament, it will be three straight NCAA Tournaments,” Musselman said. “I don’t think there’s any monkey on anybody’s back. We’ve proven that we’re a really good program in the Mountain West, and we have been now for three years. We’ve only played there twice. If we lost four straight years, it will be a problem, but we’ll go down there and see what happens.”

Musselman vs. the Mountain West

Air Force, 6-0

San Jose State, 6-0

Colorado State, 7-1

Utah State, 7-1

Wyoming, 5-1

Boise State, 6-2

UNLV, 6-2

Fresno State, 5-3

New Mexico, 5-3

San Diego State, 2-5

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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