10. Lamont Butler
Butler had one of his best games of the conference season against Nevada. To begin the season, Butler seemed to make strong improvements from his promising freshman year. Before his wrist injury, he averaged 10 points per game and shot 47% from three. But after returning, the team went on COVID pause, so Butler missed a significant amount of time. As he attempted to regain his offensive rhythm, he suffered a tragic loss in his family.
Against Nevada, he showed flashes of his old self. He scored 11 points, the most in 15 games, and made two threes, the most in 10 games, and was also aggressive around the rim. Butler has remained one of the team’s best defenders as he has a knack for knocking the ball loose and staying in front of his man. His efforts were rewarded. He made the Mountain West Conference defensive team. But if his offense turns the corner, then this Aztec team becomes a lot more dangerous.
11. Trey Pulliam
Going back to last season, Pulliam has proven that his game ages like fine wine. Dutcher has trusted Pulliam this season through his struggles as he remembers what he provided for SDSU to end the season last year. He has been in double digits three of the last four games, which is the first time he has done that since December. He is also passing the ball effectively. But Pulliam is also not afraid to take a shot in crunch time.
Against Wyoming, he hit a contested layup and a pull-up floater to ice the game. Against Fresno State, he hit a clutch jumper in regulation to give the Aztecs a three-point lead. As teams focus on Bradley at the end of games, Pulliam will have to take a last-minute shot. His track record shows that he is likely to make it.
12. Nathan Mensah wins defensive player of the year and was a MW honorable mention
The preseason defensive player of the year met expectations as Mensah won the award for the first time in his career. Hard to explain the impact that Mensah has on opponents defensively. He imposes himself over other big men, he can guard every position, and he contests everything that enters the paint. He truly earned the award as he is the anchor to the elite Aztec defense.
Mensah was humble in the weekly press conference, “I feel like our coaches always say defense and rebounding win championships,” Mensah said. “To be a part of a team that is highly defensive rated in the nation, it would be beneficial for at least one of our guys to win it. Luckily, it was me.”
Bradley was asked who he thought deserved Mountain West player of the year. “I think the player of the year is Nate Mensah. He guarded Ike and (Orlando Robinson). He’s the reason we won multiple games this year. What Nate has done for our team defensively, it has been really big. I consider him the most valuable player on our team and the most valuable player in the conference.”
13. Nathan Mensah needs to avoid foul trouble
But Mensah will need to keep his skillset on the floor. As of late, he has struggled with foul trouble. In the last two games, he has picked up two fouls early in the first half. In the last five games, he has fouled out twice. His presence is needed, and the Aztecs cannot afford him sitting on the bench in high-leverage games.
Mensah is keeping foul trouble in his mind. But he knows that being a physical defender is what defines him. “I have to stick to my game defensively because if I’m going to be concerned with my foul issue, I’ll shy away from the player my teammates need me to be,” Mensah said.
14. Bench Scoring
It is going to take a collective effort to win the Mountain West tournament. With three games in three days, the Aztecs have the least time to prepare with the late start times, fatigue will be forthcoming. Dutcher has preached that this team’s depth is a reason for their sustained success. Having multiple big men off the bench will help immensely on defense. But SDSU will also need support on the other side of the court. Adam Seiko will be vital as he is shooting 48% from three in his last eight games.Players such as Chad Baker-Mazara will serve an important role to supply playmaking off the bench.
“Chad, I tell him all the time when it comes to having pro-like skills. He fits the intangibles,” Bradley said. “He’s going to make a lot of money one day playing this game. He’s also a great teammate.”
15. Scoring when Bradley is doubled
Against Fresno State on the road, the Bulldogs’ defensive game plan was to let someone other than Bradley beat them. Bradley had his worst game of the season with two points on 1-of-8 shooting. But in that game, the rest of the team stepped up. Excluding Bradley, SDSU shot almost 54% from the field.
In the home game against the Bulldogs, Fresno State went back to their strategy with even more emphasis in the second overtime. Bradley always had two to three guys on him. The result was the Aztecs made one field goal in the five-minute period. It was enough because SDSU relied on their defense. Against Nevada, the Wolfpack imposed a similar strategy in the closing minute, and SDSU could not find any looks at the rim. Someone will have to step up, especially late in games when defenses turn to this strategy. Pulliam has shown he has the confidence to take the shot, but the team may need other contributors.
To end the regular season, the Aztecs gave up 78 points to Nevada. Unfortunately for them, this result dropped their Kenpom defensive efficiency rating to a disappointing second best in the nation. Sarcasm aside, the defensive unit for the Aztecs has been elite all year. In March, when the possessions matter the most, teams rely on their strength. The Aztecs have already proved this month that they will rely on their defense. Against Fresno State, in both the first overtime and the second overtime, the defense had to make a stand. Against Nevada, the Wolfpack had three chances to take the lead and win the game. With the pressure at its highest, the Aztec defense made the final stop on every possession.
Earlier in the year against Nevada at home, the Aztecs led by only two. Bradley brought the entire team together at center court. When asked what he told the team, he said, “We just need to win this game. We’re the best defensive team in the country, and we were on the defensive side, so we should feel comfortable.”
Mensah and Bradley were both asked the hypothetical question, with the game on the line, would you rather be on offense or defense?
“One thing that is not in question is how we defend,” Bradley said. “We know we can get the stop.”
“I’ll always put my money on defense,” Mensah said.
17. Free throw shooting
This may be the most important thought as SDSU enters March. The Aztecs currently rank eighth in the conference and 242nd nationally in free throw percentage at 69.7%. Crunch time free throws have been an issue for SDSU. Infamously against Boise State, Bradley missed two free throws when leading by a point which gave the Broncos the chance to win. Against Fresno State, Pulliam did the exact same thing in the second overtime. Finding who to trust late in games will be vital. As of now, it seems only Bradley and Baker-Mazara are dependable. Bradley shoots 79.7% from the line, and Baker-Mazara, in his 40 attempts, shoots 90% from the charity stripe.
18. Playing in Thomas & Mack Center
‘The Show’ and Aztec fans on Twitter have coined the arena as “Viejas East.” This is due to the success that SDSU has had in this building. They have won five championships in the Thomas & Mack Center (the sixth was played in the Pepsi Center in 2006). In the Dutcher era, he holds a 13-3 record when playing in the arena. After no fans were in attendance last season due to COVID, it is likely that Aztec fans will flock to Viejas East to give SDSU an added home-court advantage.
“We get great fan support,” Dutcher said. “If any team in the conference travels, we travel better than any of them. Our fans will be there.”
19. Dutcher’s history in MW tournament
Since taking over for Steve Fisher, Dutcher has had superb success. He has a record of 117-38 (.754). But his greatest achievement might be his continued success in the Mountain West tournament. In his four seasons, the Aztecs have made the Mountain West final every year. They have won the championship twice. The ability to win consistently with less than 24 hours to prepare for the next opponent is a sign of elite coaching. With most of SDSU’s games this season being quick turnarounds, it is a testament to the dedicated coaching staff for their sustained success. “I’ve got a great coaching staff, and I’ve got great talent,” Dutcher said. “That goes a long way to winning this title, and we’re deep, so hopefully, we can catch magic again and win this thing.” If Dutcher is able to bring home a title, he will move within one of matching Steve Fisher’s school record four MW Tournament titles.
20. NCAA tournament
With SDSU’s performance to end the season, they are most certainly in the NCAA tournament. They finished the year winning nine of their last ten games. They do not have any losses outside of quadrant 1. They have the highest NET and Kenpom rating in the Mountain West. After sitting on the bubble for weeks, most bracketologists place SDSU in the seeds 8-10. At this point, SDSU can only improve its standing. The chance of a 6 or 7 seed is a possibility if they run the table in the Mountain West tournament.