|The Aztecs have a good one on Wednesday night, as they host UNLV in a big Mountain West battle. (US Presswire)|
When UNLV plays at the Viejas Arena on Wednesday night, no one will have more connections, more insight than Justin Hutson. You see, Hutson recruited seven starters collectively for both teams. He was an assistant under Steve Fisher and helped build the San Diego State program virtually from scratch -- before leaving to join Dave Rice a year ago in Las Vegas.
"It's tough, but it was more difficult last season," Hutson said before Wednesday night's matchup, which will be televised on CBS Sports Network at 10 p.m. ET. "I know almost all of these guys."
Hutson is the one who recruited the group that took the nation by storm a couple years ago. There was San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and D.J. Gay. On the current group, he recruited potential All-America Jamaal Franklin, underrated guard Chase Tapley, Washington State transfer Xavier Thames and Deshawn Stephens. Franklin is averaging 17.8 points and 10.3 boards, Tapley is second on the team in scoring at 15.1 points and Thames is putting up 10.5 points while shooting 43.4 percent from deep.
Since he has been at UNLV, Hutson has helped the Runnin' Rebels land talented freshman Anthony Bennett along with transfers Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC). Bennett has been arguably the best freshman in the country -- and has quickly made his way into the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in next June's NBA Draft.
San Diego State enters the game 14-2 overall, 2-0 in Mountain West play and ranked 15th in the nation while UNLV is still trying to figure out a way to mesh this talented group together. The Runnin' Rebels are 14-3 and 1-1 in league play but added Birch in mid-December and were also without star forward Mike Moser for a stretch after he dislocated his elbow.
"We have a lot of guys without much experience," Hutson said. "The guys on the other side have plenty of experience."
Tapley, James Rahon and Stephens are all seniors, Franklin is a junior and Thames transferred from Washington State and is in his fifth year in college. Hutson said the key to pulling off the road victory, in one of the most hostile environments in the country, is slowing the Aztecs down in transition.
"You have to score baskets because they're so good off rebounds," Hutson said. "They have multiple guys that can push it. They play quick, share the ball and are extremely effective in the open court. We need to get back in transition and limit their threes in the halfcourt."
UNLV could use this one. Everyone understands Rice has as much overall talent as just about anyone in the nation, but the Runnin' Rebels are still trying to establish roles, rotations and figure out how effective they can be with a frontline of Moser, Bennett and Birch. UNLV lost its league opener a week ago at New Mexico and needed overtime to get past Air Force this past weekend.
San Diego State's two losses have come to a pair of top-10 teams -- both on neutral courts. The Aztecs dropped the season opener to Syracuse on an aircraft carrier -- and lost a one-point game to Arizona out in Hawaii on Dec. 25.
"This is an important game for both teams," Hutson said.