The suddenly-broken San Diego State Aztecs, along with Sweet 16 finalist West Virginia, headline the nine-team field at the recently-purchased Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational on Thanksgiving and Black Friday at Orleans Arena.
The Aztecs, by way of their uncharacteristic defeat at the hands of a weak-RPI opponent in Arkansas-Little Rock, come in looking like a shaken lot, but it would seem early to express extreme concern for one of Steve Fisher’s squads.
However, in what a shockingly ugly Aztecs’ loss would look like, 49-44, at Viejas Arena on Saturday night in the off-site opener of the tournament, SDSU lost for the first time at home in 85 games against teams that finished the season with an RPI of 100 or worse.
That came on the heels of a dull second-half performance last Wednesday in a 71-61 win over an NAIA school located in the city’s suburbs. San Diego State comes in with just a 2-2 record, including a road loss at top-35 Utah early last week.
SDSU faces Cal in the nightcap on Thursday (9 p.m.) in a closely-rated game between a pair of top-50 opponents. Expect the Bears to be the surprise favorite now, laying around -2 with a total near 135.
San Diego State’s star is still Winston Shepard, who has been slowed this week by an ankle injury, missing the game against NAIA San Diego Christian. Jeremy Hemsley is already a frosh of note in the Mountain West, as the Damien High grad from Rancho Cucamonga is averaging 13 points a game, including 20 in his college debut against Illinois State in the season opener. Other Aztecs’ notables Dakari Allen, Malik Pope and Skylar Spencer are off to conspicuously slow starts.
California, off to a 3-0 start after beating East Carolina in the opening-round of this event along with other home wins against Rice and UC Santa Barbara, is led by senior Tyrone Wallace along with promising freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, a 6-11 big man.
The game will be broadcast by FS1 and the entire tournament will be broadcast by Fox Sports, which purchased the event earlier this year. Fox Sports also bought another Orleans Arena tournament, the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, held Dec. 22-23. San Diego State faced East Carolina on Monday, while Cal matched up with Sam Houston State as prelims to the event, so check the results of those games, as the teams get set to come to Las Vegas. Cal, 64-60.
West Virginia (-6, 160) vs. Richmond (Thur., 2 p.m.): The top-30 rated Mountaineers opened this event with a 103-62 pasting of Stetson to improve to 3-0, then were to face Bethune Cookman in the second round on Monday. 6-9 junior Devin Williams is joined by last year’s newcomer guard Jevon Carter.
The Spiders lost their season-opener to James Madison, but have won three straight, including their second tourney game at home against Cookman. They also knocked off Wake Forest, 91-82, in Winston-Salem last Wednesday after playing their opening game in this event, a 108-85 win over Stetson. Richmond has a strong front line, which includes 6-8 senior Terry Allen and 6-9 junior TJ Cline. WVU, 85-79.
Ark.-Little Rock (-1, 131) vs. East Carolina (Thur., 11 a.m.): The upset of the Aztecs did improve UALR to 3-0, following wins over Div. III Centenary and NAIA Central Baptist. The Trojans’ top player is senior guard Josh Hagins. The matchup with the Pirates is closely-rated, as the Pirates lost to the Bears, 70-62, following wins over Charlotte and Grambling State. Hard-working 6-7 forward Caleb White has hardly left the floor this season for East Carolina, while 6-3 sophomore BJ Tyson is the team’s primary shooter. ECU, 66-65.
Bethyune Cookman (+1, 153) vs. Stetson (Thur., 6 p.m.): The evening session opens with the Wildcats possibly a slight favorite over the Hatters, as BCU’s durable junior guard Jordan Potts and senior forward Mario Moody are the players to watch. Stetson is 0-3, including the two LV Invitational losses so far sandwiching a 1-point loss at The Citadel. BCU, 77-75.
Friday’s schedule is highlighted by the 7:30 nightcap when the SDSU-Cal winner faces the WVU-Richmond winner, while the game at 5 p.m. pits the losers of those Thursday matchups. East Carolina plays the 2 p.m. game against the winner of the previous days’ matchup between BCU and Stetson, while the late morning game at 11:30 a.m., will be Sam Houston State versus the loser of the BCU-Stetson game.
Ramon Scott is a Southern California-based sportswriter, covering the preps to the pros for over 25 years. Email: [email protected].