Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
PROVO — The epicenter of the college basketball world will sit squarely at the Marriott Center Wednesday night.
That's when No. 4 San Diego State visits No. 9 BYU in an epic showdown that pits the highest-ranking matchup ever between Mountain West Conference opponents. The winner seizes sole possession of first place in the league standings.
It's a game with serious national implications.
In the latest CBSSportsline.com RPI rankings, the Cougars are No. 1, with the Aztecs checking in at No. 3. The outcome will impact the top 10 rankings as well as NCAA Tournament seedings in March.
Along with a sellout crowd of 23,000 at the Marriott Center, the nation will be paying close attention. Several national sports writers, and about two dozen NBA scouts, will be on hand.
"Everybody wants to come and watch this game. It's a big deal. It's two top 10 teams playing against each other. In the Mountain West Conference, that's something that doesn't happen all that often," said Cougar guard and national player of the year candidate Jimmer Fredette. "We know everybody's going to be watching and following it. If we can win it, it will help us with everything — we'd be No. 1 in the conference at that point, we might move up in the rankings, the (NCAA) selection committee will see a great win on our schedule. It's definitely the most important game we've played so far."
"The game on Wednesday is going to draw huge national attention, not just within the league, and not just out West," said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. "I think everybody will be talking about that game. … We are looking forward to maybe the most exciting game in the country Wednesday at BYU. We're playing a team that's playing as well as anybody in the country and we know it. They have, in my opinion, the player of the year in Fredette. This will be a tremendous challenge for us. We're excited about it."
The buildup surrounding this game couldn't be much bigger.
"It's a matchup of undefeated (San Diego State) against unguardable (BYU's Jimmer Fredette)," wrote The Sporting News. "Make sure you properly prepare for this one: Catch a nap Wednesday afternoon."
And there was this from Eamonn Brennan of ESPN.com: "The Mountain West isn't known for being the greatest basketball conference of all-time, but in 2011, it has two must-see teams. And on Jan. 26, 2011, those teams meet in a game that will not only help decide the conference title, but will help us learn just how much faith we should have in either of these teams come tournament time. If you care about your bracket, watch. Heck, if you care about college basketball, you should watch anyway. It'll be a good one."
Yet the Cougars' approach this week is to stay focused and to prepare well. They don't want to let the hype consume them.
"We have to keep in perspective what we want to accomplish this year, and that's to win a conference championship," said guard Jackson Emery. "In order to win that, you have to beat these guys. More importantly, you have to defend your home floor. That's the biggest thing, you can't let No. 4 and No. 9 in the country going at it get into your mind too much. You have to understand that it's a conference game and you have to win it. … It is important for the long-run as far as seeding and the NCAA Tournament. But for right now we can't look at it that way. We have to look at it as another game on our schedule."
Coach Dave Rose is relying on his senior guards, Emery and Fredette, to set the tone.
"Managing everything around the game this week, we have to depend on our experienced guys," he said. "Jimmer and Jackson have been through quite a few big games in their careers. The game itself will be very similar to every game we play. This game we'll have a lot of fans and there will be great energy in this building. But this team has been in a lot of those situations this year. It's one game, it's a really important game, but no matter the outcome, we have another game Saturday."
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