ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla takes a look at one of the biggest games of the season: Tonight's 10 p.m. ET matchup between No. 4 San Diego State (20-0, 5-0) and No. 9 BYU (19-1, 5-0) in Provo, Utah.
What’s at stake?: Sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference and a leg up on the regular-season crown, national prestige, and at least temporarily, a chance to improve NCAA seeding. A season ago, BYU beat San Diego State in both regular-season games as Jimmer Fredette averaged 29.5 points and 5.5 assists. This season, both teams are off to blistering starts with the Aztecs undefeated and the Cougars’ only blemish to UCLA at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim.
Key matchup: BYU's Jimmer Fredette vs. San Diego State’s D. J. Gay
The two seniors have gone against each other for the past few years, and while Fredette has become a well-deserved national player of the year contender, SDSU coach Steve Fisher calls Gay the most important player on his undefeated team.
Fredette, the most prolific scorer in college basketball, has already scored more than 2,000 points for the Cougs and is closing in on Danny Ainge’s 2,467 career points record at BYU. He has already gone for 42 or more points four times over the past two seasons. All four of those performances came on the road or at neutral sites. The senior from Glens Falls, N.Y., is more than a great shooter. He has an uncanny ability to create space for his shot and his combination of tremendous ballhandling and strength gets him into the lane area at will. NBA scouts are finally buying into his game.
Meanwhile, Fisher's respect for Gay is for good reason. The 6-foot senior has never missed a game in four seasons and has averaged more than 34 minutes a game in the past two seasons. In fact, he has not only been the team’s primary ball handler but has been a timely scorer as well. Last week, he dropped in 30 points at The Pit against New Mexico, including three huge 3-pointers to break open a close game.
Leonard was an underrated high school player who has been a revelation for the Aztecs in his first two seasons. The 6-7 sophomore, who has a Ron Artest build and the largest hands in college basketball, is a relentless offensive rebounder. In fact, when combined with seniors Billy White and Malcolm Thomas, he gives Fisher one of the country’s best offensive-rebounding teams.
At Brigham Young, Emery is Robin to Fredette’s Batman. The 6-3 senior is one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball, according to kenpom.com. He is shooting 41 percent behind the 3-point line and better than 60 percent from inside the line. And, fittingly on the night that Fredette scored 47 at Utah two weeks ago, Emery scored 20 points himself and broke Ainge’s all-time steals record at BYU.
Sneaky strengths: BYU’s Noah Hartsock and San Diego State’s Malcolm Thomas
Hartsock has been one of the Cougars’ most physical players since he arrived in Provo. But the 6-8 junior spent the summer increasing his shooting range and it has paid off. He has made 15 of 25 3-point shots this season, so the Aztecs must account for him when he is on the perimeter.
While Thomas has carved out a reputation as a rugged customer at both ends of the court because of his rebounding and shot-blocking, his most underrated attribute might be his passing ability. His 14 percent assist rate is very high for a frontcourt player and he has had some great looks for his teammates this season.
Key statistics: Rebounding rate and 3-point shooting
Defensive rebounding rate is the percentage of a team’s available defensive rebounds that it secures. BYU’s defensive rebounding rate (71.3 percent) is in the top 10 in the country. It is critical in this game that the Cougars rebound on the defensive end at an even higher rate against the Aztecs. In order for the Cougars to effectively fast break, they will need to keep San Diego State off the offensive glass. And keeping the Aztecs from rebounding effectively on the offensive glass will eliminate a major part of their offensive attack.
BYU’s ability to shoot the ball from deep has been well-chronicled this season, as Fredette, Emery and Hartsock can make that shot. But it will be the Aztecs who need to make some 3-point shots if they can’t rebound effectively on the offensive end. Santa Clara transfer James Rahon has made 43 percent of his long balls this season and he might need to be on again for SDSU. In last season’s 82-68 win in Provo, the Cougars sat in a 2-3 zone for the last 35 minutes of the game.