They came, they saw, but they did not conquer.
San Diego State arrived in Las Vegas to use the Mountain West Conference tournament as a capstone to a wildly successful season, a No. 1-seeded springboard into the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, it departed the Thomas & Mack Center sullen and petulant — and probably with a 2 seed in the NCAAs — after Utah State’s fantastic senior guard Sam Merrill nailed a 25-foot shot to secure the Aggies’ 59-56 victory in the championship game last Saturday.
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A growing faction of detractors on the other side of the Mississippi had been increasingly critical of the Aztecs, even if many had not seen them enough to know their starting lineup.
Now, however, there is enough evidence to question SDSU’s status as one of the nation’s elite programs and its durability on the game’s grandest stage.
In Las Vegas, the Aztecs were fortunate to not have to deal with an improving UNLV squad that did not have the services of Elijah Mitrou-Long, the outstanding grad transfer from Texas whose late-season knee injury kept him out of Mountain West tourney.
A broken thumb had sidelined him for two months during the season, but he returned Jan. 26 to nearly help his team beat SDSU inside the Mack. At Viejas Arena in San Diego on Feb. 22, Mitrou-Long — off the bench — tallied a team-best 19 points to pull off the feat, a 66-63 victory that handed the Aztecs their first loss in 27 games.
Without him last week, the Rebels nearly beat Boise State. Instead, the Broncos advanced to play SDSU and had the Aztecs down by 16 points in the first half. SDSU rallied to tie it by halftime and took control.
That had improved its record in games in Las Vegas, since the 2013-14 season, to 24-6. More Aztecs faithful sprinted from San Diego to watch the title match, and the Mack was filled with red-and-black shirts that dominated the crowd of 10,292.
Those fans had become so comfortable in Sin City they had taken to calling it Las Viejas. They also relished barking the “I Believe” chant, hatched by Naval Academy Prep School student Jay Rodriguez in 1998 but adopted by U.S. soccer fans and, in 2009, by Utah State supporters.
That predates when SDSU began “borrowing” it for the Kawhi Leonard era. With Aztec Arrogance at high tide, then Sam Merrill punctured it.
SDSU senior guard K.J. Feagin was draped all over Merrill for his big shot. Merrill and a teammate or two even believed he was fouled by Feagin as the ball tickled the twine. Feagin said, “I was right there.”
Worse, the Aztecs handled the loss in sour fashion. Feagin mumbled into a mic, and junior guard Malachi Flynn — supposedly a team leader — sat stone-faced with pursed lips, looking as if his car had just been keyed.
A squad spinning its wheels. The Mountain West tourney was bumped up a week, so its fans didn’t get hotel-gouged during a busy week of conferences in Las Vegas, but that will be detrimental to a team searching for its offense.
Some view a 2 seed in the West as superior to being a 1 in the East, which probably entails meeting Duke, or another area power, in Madison Square Garden. But SDSU can’t afford to look past Sacramento to Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Aztecs’ defense demands Under action, but its offense will get it booted from the NCAAs, sooner than later.
As conference tourney play heats up and the sprint to Selection Sunday is underway, here are this week’s selections. Projected lines are provided by veteran Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White.
DePaul vs. Xavier -6: The Blue Demons started 12-1, then went 3-15. The wheels are still coming off, as their 0.791 offensive efficiency over their past three games is tied for the worst in the nation.
The Musketeers won the first two by 8 and 11 points, respectively; this one is a Big East tourney affair. XAVIER
West Virginia vs. Oklahoma, Total 134: These two have played an Under and a Push in recent weeks and meet in the Big 12 tournament. Eight of the Mountaineers’ past 11 have gone Under, while 12 of the past 19 Sooners’ tilts have ended Under. UNDER
Marquette vs. Seton Hall, Total 153: The Hall’s defensive efficiency over its past three is 1.196 points per possession, fifth-worst in the country. The Golden Eagles’ defensive efficiency is among the bottom 10 percent over that stretch. Expect fireworks in the Big East tourney. OVER
Last week: 2-3