Keeping the streak alive

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Luke Nevill and the U men’s basketball team are feeling pretty confident right now. After squeaking out wins over Mountain West Conference foes Air Force and Wyoming, the Utes have had a week to correct their mistakes and make themselves better.

They will need all of the preparation and rest they can get as they travel to Southern California to take on San Diego State Saturday.

Nevill and the Utes couldn’t be more respectful to the reigning conference champions, and yet there is a self-assured air surrounding the team in practice this week.

“San Diego State is a great team,” Nevill said on Wednesday. “But we feel like if we can beat a ranked powerhouse like Air Force, we can beat anybody else in our conference.”

The reigning MWC Player of the Week is a huge reason the Utes are on a roll as of late, averaging 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game.

Nevill and the Utes have taken advantage of their mid-season break this week, working on everything from fundamentals to game-time situations.

“You don’t get too many chances in the middle of the year to work on the basics,” U coach Ray Giacoletti said. “Normally you’re just planning for the next game.”

Specifically, the Utes have been placing the majority of practice on their perimeter and ball screen defense, which has proven to be an Achilles’ heel for the team this year.

That defensive work will also come in handy tomorrow when they take on the preseason MWC favorites.

The Aztecs started the year off with five consecutive wins, two of which came over California and UC-Santa Barbara. Since then, though, it has been nothing but tough luck for coach Steve Fisher and the Aztecs.

Non-conference losses to Arizona and Washington State sent the Utes’ season into a downward spiral just in time for conference season–where they’ve now lost to BYU, Air Force, Wyoming and UNLV.

Despite the losses, San Diego State boasts one of the more potent guard/forward tandems in all of college basketball, with Brandon Heath handling the ball from the top and Mohamed Abukar banging around the low-post.

Preseason MWC Player of the Year Brandon Heath leads the Aztecs from his guard position, averaging 19.2 points, four rebounds and three assists per game. The 6-foot-4 senior has carved through opposing defenses this year, using his quickness and deadeye shooting to keep them on their heels.

“Heath is a do-it-all kind of guy,” Giacoletti said. “He can shoot it from anywhere, get to the hoop with penetration and he can pass the ball extremely well.”

Meanwhile, Abukar poses one of the bigger problems in the conference in the low post. The 6-foot-10 forward is a unique combination of size and speed and has opposing defenses dumbfounded.

“Abukar just knows what works,” Giacoletti said. “If you stick a big guy on him, he’ll slip screens and get to the basket with ease. If you put a small guy on his, he’ll just outmuscle them.”

Whichever way the Utes decide to defend the anomaly, they will likely have problems.

“Heath and Abukar are both great players, but we feel like we match up really well,” Nevill said. “We just have to play hard and try to keep this momentum going.”

Kim Peterson

Luke Neville attempts a shot in the U’s win over Wyoming on Jan. 20 in the Huntsman Center. The Utes play San Diego State on Saturday in San Diego.