Anyplace on the Road Can Be Hard for Aztecs

Times Staff Writer

Among the arenas in the Western Athletic Conference, the Air Force Academy Cadet Field House is not one that gives visiting teams chills.

No one has found it necessary to conjure up one of those catchy and ominous nicknames such as "The Pit" at New Mexico or "The Dome of Doom" at Wyoming. The field house has not been that unforgiving to visiting teams.

Even San Diego State, the loser of 16 road games in a row over three seasons, can trace its last road success to a 69-63 victory over the Cadets in 1985-86.

But that matters little to SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg. Talk to him about the field house, and it begins to sound as if the Aztecs will play at 6:35 (PST) tonight in one of college basketball's all-time pits.

"It's a tough place to play," said Brandenburg, whose experience comes from his years at Wyoming. "They usually don't have a good crowd. But it's a small arena, and those cadets are right down on top of you. They make a lot of noise, and that can be a real distraction."

Even when they don't have much to cheer about.

Air Force is at the bottom of the conference at 0-4 (6-8 overall). The Cadets have lost their four conference games by an average of 19.8 points and are coming off a 70-50 loss to Utah Saturday at home.

Their difficulties have been compounded by the loss of Eric Kjome--last season's second-leading rebounder, who is out for the season because of disciplinary reasons--and by an ankle injury that has slowed Raymond Dudley, their second-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game.

Dudley, a 6-foot sophomore guard, missed three games, including the first two WAC games, before he returned Thursday in an 81-61 loss at Wyoming. He had been replaced by Sean Giles, a freshman from University of San Diego High School who is averaging 6.9 points.

But Brandenburg is not comforted by the Cadets' problems, probably because he has a few of his own.

Juan Espinoza, an occasional starter at forward, is out for at least three weeks because of a stress fracture in his back. Espinoza had been the Aztecs' best shooter and one of their better defensive forwards. That leaves Caldin Rogers as the only reserve forward available.

The loss of Espinoza comes at a time when Brandenburg is looking to establish the Aztecs (7-8, 1-3) as a better team on the road with games at Air Force tonight and Colorado State Friday. SDSU has lost its three road games (not counting tournaments) this season--to Arizona State, Utah and Brigham Young, by an average of 25.7 points.

"We need a road breakthrough," Brandenburg said. "That is very important to me and the team. We need to show we can win on the road."

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