NCAA BK

Dutcher: No. 6 SDSU faces big challenge vs Lobos

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SAN DIEGO (AP)

For whatever reason, the Mountain West Conference schedule makers decided to have the top two teams, San Diego State and New Mexico, play each other twice in the final two weeks of the regular season.

It should provide for an exciting finish for the programs that have accounted for the last four conference tournament titles and at least a share of the last four regular-season titles.

The No. 6 Aztecs (23-2, 12-1) are at New Mexico (20-5, 11-2) on Saturday night, where they are 5-3 in their last eight visits to The Pit.

The Lobos visit Viejas Arena for the regular-season finale on March 8.

''When you play them early in the season, both teams are trying to find their way a little bit,'' Brian Dutcher, the top assistant to coach Steve Fisher, said Thursday. ''By playing them twice late in the season, both teams pretty much know what they are. They know what their strengths are, they know what their weaknesses are that they still have to get better at. It's going to be two teams that are pretty confident, pretty happy with where they are right now, and ready to be tested.

''These are two teams that are going to be in the NCAA tournament, in my opinion,'' said Dutcher, the associate head coach-head coach in waiting. ''So this is going to be a real challenge for us playing at their place, then for them to come back and play at Viejas in a couple of weeks.''

The Lobos eliminated the Aztecs from the conference tournament each of the last two seasons, including winning the championship game two seasons ago. New Mexico has won two straight league tournaments while the Aztecs won the preceding two tournament titles. Additionally, New Mexico won the regular-season titles in 2009-10 and last year, while San Diego State shared titles with BYU in 2010-11 and with the Lobos the following season.

Dutcher said facing New Mexico's big men, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, will be the SDSU's biggest challenge since it won at Kansas on Jan. 5.

Bairstow is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and averages 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds. Kirk is 7-foot, 250 and averages 14.6 points and 8.5 rebounds.

''New Mexico's big men are elite players,'' Dutcher said. ''A lot of time someone will have a 7-footer or a 6-9 guy but they're thin as a railing. These guys are grown men. They're enormous human beings. So when they carve out space in the paint they're hard to move. So we've either got to find a way to move them off their sweet spots or else get around in front of them to keep them from catching the ball. They present a challenge we haven't seen probably size-wise since we played at Kansas.''

SDSU sophomore forward Skylar Spencer remembers sitting on the bench talking with Dutcher after being eliminated in the conference tournament semifinals last year.

''I told coach Dutch that I'm going to look forward to playing them again and the same thing is not going to happen,'' Spencer said Saturday night after the Aztecs beat Utah State. ''It's a big game. I've got it circled on my list.''

Dutcher remembers that conversation.

''I said, `Skylar, obviously this is a standard you need to meet if we're going to be as good as we need to be.' And it was just a freshman talking about, 'I need to get stronger, I need to get more experienced.' I thought it was great that Skylar said, `I know I have to get better in order for us to be as good as we can be.' So I think he is excited to go in there and have a second shot and prove to himself and prove to us that he is growing as a player.''

SDSU reached its fourth straight NCAA tournament last year, beating Oklahoma before losing to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. New Mexico was upset by Harvard in its opening game.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

Tagged: San Diego State, New Mexico

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