‘A different animal’: BYU faces much bigger challenge against No. 19 San Diego State
The Aztecs are the defending Mountain West Conference champions and the favorites to win the league.
In its season-opener, BYU struggled offensively and had to rally late in the game to hold off lowly Idaho State 60-56 last Monday night.
The Cougars’ level of competition takes a huge jump in Game 2, as they renew a rivalry.
BYU visits No. 19 San Diego State Friday (8:30 p.m., MST, Mountain West Network) at Viejas Arena.
“We’ll see a different animal on Friday,” said coach Mark Pope. “This San Diego State team is really, really good. They’re really explosive and they really guard.”
The Aztecs, who return seven seniors from last season, are the defending Mountain West Conference champions and the favorites to win the league again under coach Brian Dutcher.
SDSU boasts the reigning Mountain West player of the year Matt Bradley, and reigning defensive player of the year Nathan Mensah.
And the Aztecs added Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell, a point guard who averaged 18.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists last season.
Cougars on the air
BYU (1-0) at No. 19 San Diego State (1-0)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. MST
TV: Mountain West Network
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
SDSU beat Cal State Fullerton 80-57 in their season-opener. The Aztecs shot 53.8% from the floor, marking their 91st consecutive victory at home when shooting over 50%. Four SDSU players scored in double figures.
In a perfect world, this showdown would come later in the season for this relatively inexperienced BYU team.
“I wish it was game 10 with this young group,” Pope said.
But Pope is looking at this game as a chance for the Cougars to experience something — including a hostile environment — that will help them throughout the rest of the season.
“This group doesn’t know what the highest level of basketball looks and feels like for the most part. We have a couple of guys that do. But for the most part that doesn’t, we get to find out in Game 2,” Pope said. “I like it because you get to use it as a measuring stick. We have every expectation of going down there and coming out with a win.
“We expect to win every game. But win or lose, we come out of this with, ‘Yep, that’s what it looks like and feels like.’ That’s where we’ve got to go … It’s a gift to get it early. These really competitive early games are good for you in terms of growing.”
BYU freshman guard Dallin Hall, who scored four points and dished out four assists and had two steals against Idaho State, embraces this challenge.
“It gives us a big learning opportunity to see where we’re at. It gives ourselves an opportunity to prove ourselves early. For me, I’ve always wanted to play against the best,” he said. “I’m super excited for next year to go to the Big 12. But we’ve got to take care of business this year first. You love every opportunity to play against the best. It shows where you’re at and it helps get you ready for the rest of the season.”
BYU and SDSU have met in each of the last three seasons. The Aztecs defeated the Cougars in Provo in 2019; BYU beat SDSU the following season in San Diego without fans in the seats due to the pandemic; and last year in Provo, the Cougars edged the Aztecs.
Hall is expecting “a dogfight, for sure. We’re going into their place. They’re definitely going to try to punch us in the face early,” he said. “So we’ve got to come and bring it and make sure they don’t out-tough us. It’s going to be a toughness battle, for sure.”
The Cougars are expecting a loud and enthusiastic crowd Friday.
“I love great college venues. This Viejas Arena is a great college arena. Their fan base is ornery and creative and and disruptive and crazy,” Pope said. “It’s what you live for as a college basketball player, to be able to walk into a gym like that and play. It’s super exciting for us.”
No doubt, SDSU will be one of BYU’s toughest opponents this season.
“This is a veteran, veteran team. And they’re big and they’re physical. That’s really imposing,” Pope said. “This Trammell is a problem. He’s super creative offensively. He’s a big assists guy and a big steals guy … Mensah is the best shot-block and rim-protector in the country … Bradley has been an elite-level scorer for a long time … They have a terrific team … This Mensah, is he ever going to leave? My gosh, how many times do I have to coach against this cat? He’s really special. Dutch does an incredible job. It’s going to be fun. Let’s go.”
The series between the Cougars and Aztecs dates back to the late 1970s, when they were members of the Western Athletic Conference and then the Mountain West Conference.
In 2011, BYU and SDSU met twice as top-10 teams in epic battles. The Cougars were led by national player of the year Jimmer Fredette and the Aztecs were led by NBA star Kawhi Leonard.
On Friday, no matter the outcome, Pope is hoping his team can learn a lot about itself and learn about playing against a ranked opponent — and a rival.
“This San Diego State team is one of the top teams in the country. And not only one of the top teams in the country but we get to go play in that gym, which is a very special place,” Pope said. “It’s been an incredible rivalry for both teams since long before I was here. It’s continued to be a really special game for us since I’ve been here. We’re going to have our hands full … We understand the challenge that we face. Not a lot of people go there and win ever.”