SAN DIEGO -- The media horde around the SDSU players resembled a Final Four gathering. The student tents outside Viejas Arena looked like a scene right out of Krzyzewskiville. The media and NBA scout requests have forced the game management staff to figure out a way to reconfigure the seating.
Yes, it’s safe to say the San Diego State athletic department has never hosted an event quite like this.
And despite BYU’s rich history in the sport, the Cougars have rarely had this much at stake for a late regular-season conference game.
Heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. ET game between No. 7 BYU (26-2) and No. 4 San Diego State (27-1), the two teams have a combined record of 53-3 (.946). Over the past 15 years, only the 1 versus 2 matchup in 2008 between Memphis (26-0) and Tennessee (24-2) featured a higher combined winning percentage in a game this late in the regular season.
Simply put, the stakes are enormous. Besides bragging rights between two fan bases that have become increasingly hostile toward each other, the winner of this game stays on target for a Mountain West title and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The loser almost certainly misses out on both of those things and might have to face host UNLV in a possible semifinal matchup in the MWC tournament.
“When I came here in 1999-2000, the only way we were hosting a top-10 game was the intramural championship,’’ San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said Friday. “Being 27-1 is rarified air. I’ve never had a team with this good a record. This is going to be great for San Diego State, great for BYU, great for the league and for the NCAA tournament. We’re fighting for a No. 1 seed, and for people to say, ‘Hey, that’s a team that you’ve got to think about to put on that No. 1 line.’’’
The Aztecs’ only loss this season was to BYU at the Marriott Center on Jan. 26, when national player of the year favorite Jimmer Fredette torched the Aztecs for 43 points. BYU has since lost one MWC game -- at New Mexico the next game on Jan. 29 -- so these two come in tied at 12-1 atop the MWC.
“This is big,’’ Fredette said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been a No. 1 seed [at BYU] and that would be great for us. But we’re more concerned now about winning the MWC and being seeded good in the conference. There are a lot of things riding [on the game].’’
The Cougars have beaten SDSU three straight times, and in six of the past seven meetings. The last loss the Aztecs suffered at Viejas Arena was against BYU on Jan. 23 of last season.
“They are the best running team in the country and they run to score,’’ Fisher said. “They make every open shot and they don’t beat themselves. We’re not the only ones who have found it hard to beat them.’’
San Diego State’s focus is on Fredette, of course. The Aztecs will start with 6-foot-8 Billy White on the nation’s leading scorer (27.4 ppg) to see if length bothers him.
“He can shoot from anywhere on the court and has a great change of speed,’’ White said. “It’s hard for someone to guard him. He can shoot it from anywhere on the court.’’
White said Fredette burned him when he crossed him over, got some space and still shot over White in Provo when he had a hand in his face.
“He’s capable of making shots like that,’’ White said. “We’ve got to crowd him more.’’
Fisher said the Aztecs must make it hard for Fredette to get the ball.
“He had too many all-the-way-to-the rim twists and turns to finish against us,’’ Fisher said of the first meeting. “If he gets 43 points, there’s no way we’ll win.’’
Fredette’s shooting percentage has dipped lately -- he’s shooting less than 40 percent over the past three games -- but the overall production hasn’t as he still scored 34 in a win against Colorado State on Wednesday.
“Teams are putting guys on me that don’t play a whole lot to use their fouls and see what they can get away with,’’ Fredette said. “I’ve missed some shots, but it’s all good as long as we’re winning. I don’t think they’ll foul too much, but they won’t give me more space. I’m expecting them to use a lot of fresh bodies on me and try a long, quick athletic guy to slow me down a bit.’’
Fredette said he relishes playing on the road. And he’s not scared of what everyone expects to be a crazed environment, especially from a rabid student section known as The Show.
BYU coach Dave Rose said his star guard knows what to expect by now.
“I do think teams are really committed to running a second and third defender at [Fredette], and at times he is holding onto the ball too long,” Rose said. “But he’s getting teams' best shots. The most important thing is we’re winning and he’ll do whatever he can to help us win.’’
Fisher said avoiding having to play host UNLV in the Mountain West semifinals creates even more incentive for the game. But more than anything, Saturday offers a chance to win the league, impress a national TV audience and move even closer to a possible No. 1 seed in March.
“We’re both destined to have a good seed,’’ Fisher said. “But the winner has a chance to think about the No. 1 seed.’’
It’s a thought even the most optimistic BYU and San Diego State fans wouldn’t have dreamed about in the preseason.
But it’s real. And it’s here.
The much-anticipated rematch is upon us.