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BYU basketball: Winning rebound battle essential against Aztecs

Michael Loyd Jr. (center) (BYU) splits the defense of Zach Bohannon (left) and Michael Lyons of Air Force at the BYU Marriott Center in Provo.  Saturday, February 13, 2010. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
Michael Loyd Jr. (center) (BYU) splits the defense of Zach Bohannon (left) and Michael Lyons of Air Force at the BYU Marriott Center in Provo. Saturday, February 13, 2010. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
Michael Brandy, Deseret News

PROVO — The BYU Cougars know exactly what it will take tonight to get a season sweep of the San Diego State Aztecs and set up a showdown Saturday with league-leading New Mexico.

"This game that is coming up, we have to rebound the ball really, really well. That's not a secret to anybody," BYU center Chris Miles said.

Even though the No. 13 Cougars are the top defensive rebounding team in the Mountain West Conference, the Aztecs are sure to be a handful on the boards considering they do most of their damage in the paint and on second-chance shots.

"Pretty much half of their points come after the initial shot," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "They do a great job of tracking balls down and tipping balls out."

When the Cougars prevailed 71-69 in San Diego last month, they did so despite giving up 17 offensive boards and 40 points in the paint. However, BYU survived by hitting 9 of 21 shots from 3-point range. Still, the Cougars prefer not to depend on a hot-shooting game and hope to do a better job of defending the glass.

"The first thing you have to concentrate on in your defensive game plan is getting them to miss. But in this case, that is not anywhere close to being the end of the possession. You have to get them to miss and then you have to secure the ball," Rose said.

Malcom Thomas, Billy White, Kawhi Leonard and Brian Carlwell make up San Diego State's powerful front line, which outrebounds opposing teams by eight boards per game. The Aztecs, with so much strength inside, have also shot 158 more free throws than any other MWC team.

Add in the penetration of guard D.J. Gay, and the Aztecs become an extremely difficult team to guard.

"They love to get shots in the painted area, because short shots lead to short rebounds, which are all rebounds that they can track down," Rose said.

In the win earlier this season, BYU was aided by a second-half switch to a zone defense that stopped some of Gay's penetration and helped the Cougars do a better job of defensive rebounding.

"Our big guys are good at taking up space, but really our guards have become so much more involved in our rebounding in our zone," Rose said.

The Cougars guards are also key in keeping BYU's big guys out of foul trouble, which has been a common problem in recent games.

"We need to do a better job of keeping guys in front of us, and when we do get beat on the dribble, it needs to be within our system and not in the middle of the floor where our post guys are really vulnerable," Rose said.

The Cougars are averaging around 83 points per game, while the Aztecs give up only 62 per game — so something has to give.

"We have to rebound the basketball extremely well and then try to get them at our pace and try to get the up-tempo game going and get good shots, shoot the ball well, and hopefully that will be the key to this game," said guard Jimmer Fredette, who scored 33 points against the Aztecs last month.

Miles added, "As long as we focus, don't turn the ball over and play unselfish, I think we'll be just fine."

San Diego State has won six of its past seven and that lone loss came in overtime to New Mexico in Albuquerque. The Aztecs (9-4) are alone in third place in the MWC standings and still have an outside chance of catching BYU (10-2) and New Mexico (11-2). Bracketology experts also believe the Aztecs are a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Cougars — in position to win a fourth straight regular-season title and earn a high seed into the NCAA Tournament — have plenty to play for as well.

"This is where you really find out about your group, though, when it gets late in the season and you're in a championship run and all the games become so much more important, each individual game. So hopefully they'll be able to respond in how they have so far this year," Rose said.

GAME NOTES: The Cougars have won 20 straight games at the Marriott Center. … BYU leads the all-time series 45-22, and the Aztecs last won in Provo in 2005. … Freshman center Brandon Davies is still not 100 percent, condition-wise, from the time he missed for an appendectomy of Feb. 3. … Reserve guard Lamont Morgan Jr. has begun extension and resistance conditioning on his injured knee and could be back before the MWC tournament in two weeks.

Cougars on the air

BYU (25-3, 10-2) vs. San Diego St. (20-7, 9-4)

Today, 7 p.m., Marriott Center

TV: CBS-C Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com