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Game Preview: Illinois State Redbirds vs. San Diego State Aztecs

Illinois State could be a sleeper at large selection for the NCAA Tournament. To get there though, they have to knock off March stalwarts like the Aztecs.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois State Redbirds at San Diego State Aztecs

When: Nov. 13, 10 p.m. Eastern
Where: Steve Fisher Court at Viejas Arena
Watch: ESPN3
Last Time They Met: San Diego State 97, Illinois State 88, Dec. 29, 1973.
Series: Illinois State leads 2-1
Players to Watch (Illinois State): DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Deontae Hawkins, Paris Lee
Players to Watch (San Diego State): Winston Shepard, Trey Kell, Skylar Spencer

Game Preview:

Illinois State looks to start the year off with a win that they can hang their hat on come March. The Redbirds are coming off a season where they scored maybe the biggest win of the season in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Tournament against Wichita State. They almost followed that up with an upset of Northern Iowa in the finals, but they were outscored 47-24 in the second half, sending them to the NIT.

The season ultimately ended in a one-point loss to Old Dominion in the second round of the NIT, but the spunk that Illinois State showed over the course of the final two weeks really set the tone coming into this year.

Unfortunately for Illinois State, Reggie Lynch transferred to Minnesota, which eliminates a major influence in the middle of the floor. You can't easily replace a 6-10 center who swatted away 15.2 percent of the shots he saw, the best block artist in the country. Size was the major advantage that the Redbirds brought to bear against their opponents last season, and their ability to rotate multiple big men inside made them tough to handle.

But the cupboard is not bare for Illinois State, especially when you have DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Paris Lee still on the floor. Akoon-Purcell was the easy choice for newcomer of the year in the Valley and he should be the major threat for the Redbirds this year. He will be challenged against the size of the Aztecs, and he will need to concentrate on scoring away from the basket in order to be successful.

Lee will see his role expand this season from a passing specialist and a defensive monster, and into more of a scoring threat for the Redbirds. In the exhibition against Southern Indiana, he scored 14 points, in addition to his expected six steals and three assists.

The Redbirds have a lot to prove in this opener against a San Diego State team that is favored to win the Mountain West, and return to the NCAA Tournament for the 7th straight season. The Aztecs have made the Round of 32 for the last three years.

Background and History:

All of the action between these two schools occurred more than 40 years ago, and most of that was when the two schools had recently made the the transition into Division 1. The most interesting matchup occurred back when the two programs were in Division 2.

San Diego State and Illinois State met in Evansville in the quarterfinals of the 1967 Division 2 Tournament. The game went three overtimes before Illinois State prevailed 77-76. The Redbirds went on to lose in the semifinals against Missouri State and then again in the 3rd place game to Kentucky Wesleyan.

A look at San Diego State

The thing about San Diego State's success is that it hasn't been due to the efforts of a single player, but rather a full team effort. Just look at the stats from last season, and it is hard to find a guy who was among the national leaders in any category. The best you can point to is Skyler Spencer, who swatted away 91 shots last season in 36 games.

But that team mentality put together by Steve Fisher seems to be working. The Aztecs have become fixtures in the NCAA Tournament, just one of eight teams to make the NCAA Tournament in the last six seasons.

The strength of the team is really on the inside where they are a size nightmare for almost every team that they will play. Beyond the 6-10 Skyler, they return 6-8 Winston Shepard, and 6-10 Malik Pope, who added 24 blocks to the mix. The team should have the inside sealed off against the Redbirds for the majority of the contest.

Expect Shepard to see the majority of the possessions for the Aztecs as they look to adjust to building a supporting cast from the remaining players from last season. Both the second- and third-leading scorers from last year graduated, leaving the team with just Shepard who averaged in double-digits.

Matchup to watch

Given the size advantage inside for San Diego State, the most interesting matchup may be outside with how Paris Lee matches up against Trey Kell at the point. Lee is a steal artist, and Kell can be forced into mistakes. Plus, with Lee playing a bigger part in the offense this season, he should be a headache for Kell on the other end of the floor. The sophomore committed just 33 fouls last season, but may find himself in rare foul trouble trying to stop the agile Lee.

Who wins

Illinois State may be ready to compete for a Missouri Valley title, and could have a shot at the NCAA Tournament as an at large bid, but the loss of so much interior power seems to almost certainly spell doom for the Redbirds on opening night. There is just too much interior depth for San Diego State, and the defense of the Aztecs is always formidable. There just doesn't seem to be enough offensive strength outside for Illinois State -- a team that doesn't rely very much on the 3-pointer -- to score away from the basket in this one. Chalk up another opening night victory for the Aztecs.

San Diego State 64, Illinois State 52