The Nevada men's basketball team beat San Diego State, 75-66, on Tuesday night at Lawlor Events Center to improve to 17-6 overall and 7-3 in Mountain West play. Here are three takeaways from Nevada's win over the Aztecs.
After Nevada's thrilling win over San Diego State, Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford said it was a "team win." Certainly everybody who hits the court during a game plays some part. But let's be honest: this was a four-man show. After Nevada's big three didn't show up for its game at SDSU, that same trio (plus one) won the rematch. Jarod Lucas, Will Baker and Kenan Blackshear scored 30 points (its second fewest this season) on 11-of-35 shooting in the first game against SDSU. In game two, those three tallied 63 points on 22-of-38 shooting in its best performance of the season. Lucas did most of the work in the first half before Baker and Blackshear joined him with strong second halves. After Nevada shot 37 percent in the first half, it shot 65.2 percent from the field in the second.
"They couldn't miss," SDSU big man Aguek Arop said. "We couldn't get any stops. That's as simple as it was. Baker hit a fallaway. Lucas hitting shots with people all over him. That's what it came down to. We missed a couple of shots. We had good looks. They converted. We didn't. Tip your hat to them."
Said SDSU coach Brian Dutcher: "They obviously didn't need a bench today, although their bench played some minutes. They got one point off their bench and everything else from their starting five. I thought Baker was sensational. We made a mistake or two, but he was making some hard shots over the defense. He looked great. Blackshear had his game downhill. And then Lucas was good."
While the big three stole the show, it was a fourth contributor, Tré Coleman, who also played a big role in the win. The junior wing is known for his defense, and he did an excellent job there, hounding SDSU star Matt Bradley throughout the game (Bradley scored 16 points on 6-of-14 shots in 27 minutes but had seven points in the first four minutes before being limited). Coleman also had his best offensive game of the season, hitting 3-of-6 threes for 11 points in addition to his three rebounds, three blocks and two assists. All 11 of Coleman's points came in the second half. All but one of Nevada's points came from Lucas, Baker, Blackshear and Coleman.
"Tré Coleman hit some huge threes for us and he guarded extremely well," Alford said.
Before the game, I wrote a victory over San Diego State would "be one of the five biggest regular-season wins in program history." Was it hyperbole? I don't think so. This was the biggest game of the season for Nevada considering a loss would have all but eliminated the Wolf Pack from Mountain West title contention and a win could be the difference between the team making the NCAA Tournament or playing in the NIT. That's how big it was, and Nevada stepped to the stage, playing its best game of the season by my estimation. Against a good defense (although one that's not to SDSU's usual elite level), the Wolf Pack averaged 119.1 points per 100 possessions, its fourth-best figure of the season. After shooting too many early threes at SDSU earlier in the month, Nevada followed the formula to beat SDSU, which I outlined in my "Three Keys and Prediction." That formula is to beat the Aztecs' inside where they've struggled to defend. Nevada did just that by making 20-of-33 shots inside the arc (60.6 percent). Despite four players doing almost all of the scoring, it was an elite offensive performance.
Defensively, Nevada made things tough on SDSU. The Wolf Pack's shot quality throughout the game was far superior to that of SDSU, which had the shot clock running down on it several times throughout the game. Nevada largely kept the Aztecs out of the paint and did an excellent job on the defensive backboard, allowing just five offensive rebounds on 31 opportunities. While Bradley got 16 points on 14 shots, SDSU's other starting guards — Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell — were held to 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting while sharpshooter Adam Seiko had six points with Nevada doing an excellent job of keeping him from getting open looks. Those three average 27.8 points per game but had just 19 versus Nevada.
"It was a win that we kind of looked at as a must win," Lucas said. "Not only to help our NCAA hopes, but also help our hopes of winning the Mountain West championship. It's going to keep us in the race. Instead of being (three) games back, we're only one game back. We still have obviously a long way to go, but it puts us in a good spot."
After the win, Nevada moved from the second team outside the NCAA Tournament to the last team in the field on ESPN's latest Bracketology. Earlier this month, I tweeted the following:
"Realistically, if Nevada (unbeaten at Lawlor) wins the rest of its home games — New Mexico, SDSU, Air Force, Fresno State, SJSU, UNLV — one more road game and one MW Tournament game, it should make the Big Dance. That'd put Nevada, at minimum, at 23-10 overall and 12-6 in the MW."
The Wolf Pack has done a lot of the heavy lifting there by beating New Mexico and SDSU in the last two weeks. The home games against Air Force, Fresno State, SJSU and UNLV are not gimmies, but those are games where Nevada will be favored by five-plus points in each and should win. If it does that, it comes down to getting a road win, which has been elusive of late for Nevada. The Wolf Pack should be able to beat Fresno State and/or Wyoming on the road with challenges at New Mexico and at Utah State being more difficult. There's certainly no magic number for Nevada to hit to get into the NCAA Tournament as things change on a daily basis based on how other teams fare and how many conference tournament upsets there are. But 24 wins should definitely get it done. Twenty-three wins would be a little more tenuous. Getting to either of those figures got a lot easier after Nevada's wins over New Mexico and SDSU the last nine days.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.