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Conference Wins Give the Aztecs More Confidence : College basketball: Now SDSU must continue its winning ways on the road.


SAN DIEGO — Although rumors might suggest otherwise, the San Diego State basketball team will fly to Albuquerque, N.M., today in an airplane, not on emotion alone.

These are heady days for the Aztecs, who last week at home knocked off two of the Western Athletic Conference's preseason favorites, New Mexico and Texas El Paso.

The Aztecs had not beaten those teams on the same home stand since the 1985-86 season. Shoot, SDSU had not defeated UTEP anywhere since that season, having lost 11 in a row to the Miners until Saturday's 58-55 decision.

Now, a week later, a bizarre bit of scheduling pits the Aztecs against the same two teams again. SDSU (8-8, 3-3), off to its best conference start since the 1985-86 team went 4-2 in its first six games, is at New Mexico (12-6, 2-4) Thursday and at UTEP (11-5, 3-3) Saturday.

"I think we're feeling really good," center Marty Dow said. "Those were two great wins. Emotional, too. They give us a lot more confidence to go on the road."

The road. Or rather, The Road. The long and winding, ever-blinding, always-reminding road that SDSU is forced to travel. The Aztecs' WAC road record over the past six seasons is 4-38. But you walk before you run, and the Aztecs, after two big victories, are ready to take on all comers.

"If we could get one or two road breakthroughs here, we'd really be in good shape," SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said. "If we play well, we can get at least one win on the road, and who knows? I think we have a chance to play well."

In all, four of SDSU's next five are on the road. After coming home Feb. 3 to play Wyoming, the Aztecs travel to Brigham Young and Utah.

"Really, our assignment is not very much different from what it's been," Brandenburg said. "We've got to keep improving. Our offensive and defensive schemes need to keep coming along."

Six games into the WAC season, the Aztecs continue to mold into shape. Two of the five starters--freshman guard Chris McKinney and redshirt freshman forward Courtie Miller--are in their first seasons of Division I ball. Two of the first players off the bench--sophomore guard Ray Barefield and freshman forward Joe McNaull--also are rookies. What this has meant is a degree of reticence.

"I think some of the first-year guys are just trying to survive," Brandenburg said. "There is a lot of pressure. As they continue to take shots and knock them down, the more confidence they get."

At times, certain players step up and seem to take charge; at other times, they seem to be too timid. Miller, for example, scored 11 first-half points against UTEP and none in the second half. Against Air Force Jan. 10, McKinney took one shot from the field; against Colorado State two nights later, he took 12.

McKinney said Brandenburg talked to him about the extremes.

"It was inconsistent," McKinney said. "It could have been a better balance, like six (shots) one game and eight or nine the next. That's what he stressed. He has a good point."

Said Brandenburg: "We're still trying to teach our guys the game. One of the most difficult things to do is to make guys feel confident with their shooting and (yet) teach shot discipline. It's a very fine line. That's really tough to do."

The Aztecs have been overly dependent on Dow and senior point guard Arthur Massey. Dow leads the team with an average of 17.4 points a game. Massey is next at 15.3. Nobody else averages more than seven points a game.

"We need somebody to step up and give us continual balanced scoring," Brandenburg said. "Against UTEP, Joe (McNaull) had 10, Courtie had 11 . . . We ended up with four guys in double figures. That's better than it has been. If we get a fifth guy. . . ."

The three other starters--Miller, McKinney and forward Vern Thompson--need to score more consistently, as does McNaull off the bench.

"Courtie is a guy who is going to have to establish a 16-18-foot jump shot," Brandenburg said. "And Joe needs to take a couple. Vern is getting the shots; he's just not knocking them down."

Thompson is shooting 37% from the field. He and Miller, the two forwards, are averaging only 13 points combined.

"We feel (Thompson) is hurrying his shot," Brandenburg said. "He's not quite on balance . . . I have no complaints about his shots. He's certainly capable of making them within his range. He's been so hyper."

Said McKinney: "I think in certain situations, other people on our team need to step up and take charge. . . . Myself, Vern Thompson and Courtie, we're going to have to take it upon ourselves to put more offensive punch into the game."

While the Aztecs have searched for more offensive weapons, they have stressed defense and rebounding. In each of their three WAC victories, the Aztecs have held their opponent under 60 points. In each of their three WAC losses, the opponent has scored 60 points or more. In last week's two victories, the Aztecs also controlled the boards--they outrebounded New Mexico, 34-21, and UTEP, 37-28.

"In Colorado Springs (two weeks ago), Coach Brandenburg told us our defense had been slacking off," Massey said. "He said we needed to turn it up more, like early in the year."

This week, they need to tighten their man-to-man defense even more, they need to continue to rebound with gusto, and they need some offensive surprises. New Mexico, with its notorious Pit, and UTEP are two of the most difficult places to play in the WAC.

Of course, things could be even more intimidating. The Aztecs could be going in 1-5 in the conference instead of 3-3. Instead, they are feeling pretty good.

"I think we have more confidence now than at any time this year," Brandenburg said.

This week, they're going to need it.

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