SAN DIEGO (AP) The San Diego State Aztecs were good enough the last four years to earn at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament after failing to win the Mountain West Conference tourney and the accompanying automatic bid.
That might not be the case this year, so the Aztecs know they can't blow it in this tournament if they want to extend their school-record run to seven straight NCAA tourney appearances.
''Our main goal is to win the conference tournament so we can know for sure that we are in there,'' said sophomore guard Trey Kell, the only Aztecs player to make the all-conference first team despite SDSU clinching the regular-season crown with three games to play.
The top-seeded Aztecs (23-8) open play Thursday in Las Vegas against No. 9 seed Utah State (16-14), which beat Wyoming on Wednesday.
They haven't won the tournament since 2011, when they went on to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. They've reached the championship game of the MWC three times since then, losing all three times.
Are the Aztecs NCAA-worthy even if they don't win the conference tournament?
''If I were on the committee, we'd be in now. I'm not on the committee,'' said Steve Fisher, who was named MWC Coach of the Year. ''We'll see what happens and we are hopeful we will have no discussion or worry about it when we finish. If we do we will wait and see what they feel is the appropriate field. I don't take a lot of time to look at everybody else's resume. I've looked at ours and it's pretty impressive.''
The Aztecs have won five of six games going into the tourney. The loss was at home against Boise State on Feb. 27, when they blew a nine-point lead with 1:40 to go before falling 66-63.
SDSU, which has played great defense most of the season, ended the regular season by routing New Mexico 83-56 and UNLV 92-56.
''We will go in prepared,'' Fisher said. ''We are playing good basketball right now. We've been playing well for a long time. We are scoring the ball now and some of it is confidence. When you see the ball go in you feel comfortable that the next one is going in. A lot of it is practice. Our practices have been like games.''
It wasn't always like that. The Aztecs had three mystifying losses early in the season, to Little Rock and Grand Canyon at Viejas Arena, and to San Diego at Petco Park.
After a 70-57 home loss to then-No. 2 Kansas on Dec. 22, the Aztecs won their first 11 MWC games before losing at Fresno State on Feb. 10. They won their eight other road conference games.
Senior forward Skylar Spencer, the league's defensive player of the year, dispels any notion that the MWC was down this season.
''This is a tough league regardless of what anyone else thinks,'' he said. ''We have to go play at hard places with altitude and we are capable to lose to any of the teams that we've played. We just handled our business. Regardless of if people thought it was a weak conference, we did what we were supposed to do. This conference is full of a bunch of great players and a bunch of great teams. We just handled our business.''
Point guard Jeremy Hemsley, the MWC Freshman of the Year, has been batting a bruised right foot. He played only 16 and 15 minutes in the last two games.
''He felt better Sunday than he had anytime the day following a game since he hurt it initially, so we are encouraged by that. How will he be in back-to-back-to-back games? That is a good question. We are going to be cautious with him in practice leading up to Thursday's game ... in hopes that he will continue to get better to be able to play three games in Las Vegas. How many minutes will he play? That I don't know yet.''
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