“Soccer is the beautiful game.” One can forgive Pelé, who popularized the saying in his 1977 autobiography, My Life and The Beautiful Game, for saying such foolishness.
He was not able to see the 2019–2020 San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball team play.
One wonders if the Brazilian star had seen the second half comebacks again BYU and Iowa or the 40-minute dissection of Utah State in Logan. The saying would be, “Basketball is the beautiful game.”
The Sweet Sixteen teams led by Kawhi Leonard and Xavier Thames were as effective as Malachi Flynn’s Aztecs, but if the former played like a boxing match or a street fight, the latter was a ballet, a symphony!
The central question surrounding the 2020-2021 edition is: why was their offense was so efficient last year?
Was last year the culmination of the philosophical shift Coach Dutcher brought to the team when he became head coach? Or was the offense only powerful because the engine — an elite first-round NBA draft pick — driving it took it to levels not seen prior?
Health permitting, we will all know the answer to this question come April. The value of season previews is providing evidence to make an educated guess.
The Case Against:
At his introductory press conference in 2017, Dutcher spoke about the need to “maintain the culture of Aztec basketball.” That culture, of course, is defense. In April, Dutcher said, “Defense has always been a big part of San Diego State basketball. At times, it was a necessity. We didn’t have the scorers…so we had to defend at a high level in order to keep ourselves in games.” If continuity was key on the defensive side, however, offensively, Dutcher has completely re-shaped the squad. His philosophy, “Freedom within Framework,” was designed to correct the major deficiency in the program: offensive efficiency.
Offensive efficiency is a measure of the number of points scored divided by the number of shot attempts. In the final three years of Coach Fisher’s tenure, the Aztecs ranked 213th, 220th, and 212th in the nation, but under Dutcher, that number has jumped to 67th his first year, 166th two years ago, and 5th a year ago. The improvement came from one primary source: three-point shooting. Dutcher’s Aztecs raised the percentage of their total points gained from the three-point shot by eight percentage points when compared to the three years prior. In total, they have averaged nearly eight points more per game as a result.
What is the reason for this improvement is the focus of this investigation. Unfortunately for Aztec fans, the answer no longer plays on the team. Malachi Flynn is the reason for SDSU’s huge improvement offensively. Flynn averaged 5.06 assists per game, good for 59th in the country. You would have to go all the way back to Richie Williams (4.54 a game) in 2007 to find an Aztec in the Top 100 nationally in assists. Flynn’s excellence is seen in the jump Mitchell and Schakel made last season in three-point percentage. Mitchell jumped from 32.8 % to 39.3%; Schakel jumped from 41.5% to 43.6%. Mitchell and Schakel did not improve their shot. Flynn improved their opportunity. On paper, Flynn’s replacement is a graduate transfer, Terrell Gomez, but realistically, no one should expect Gomez to come close to matching the performance of an NBA first-round pick. Gomez, a terrific shooter in his own right, has a career assist to turnover margin under two to one.
Expectations for this season, then, should be a return to the years where the Aztecs were capable of knocking off a ranked team, winning the Mountain West, and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. This is not a top 25 team. While SDSU is one of the best programs in the West, it has not reached the level of replacing First Round talent year in and year out.
The Case in Favor:
The Reigning National Coach of the Year should be trusted. He knows his team better than anyone, and he chose to schedule “the toughest schedule that we’ve played in my 20 years here.” Coaches, like politicians, keep their jobs by managing expectations. “Under promise, over deliver” is the mantra. Recently, UCLA head coach Mike Cronin said he is “crazy enough” to schedule SDSU again in the future after he only schedules the Aztecs this year because no fans will be at Viejas Arena. Coaches rarely overschedule, and Covid-19 gave Dutcher every reason to have a less challenging schedule. Yet, he chose to fill his non-conference schedule with teams picked to finish at the top of their conference. Why?
Replacing Malachi Flynn is a tall task for SDSU, but it would be for Kansas and Duke. Players are not interchangeable, so State does not need to replace Flynn. They need to replace his production. In that regard, Flynn’s legacy will be felt this year. Coaches can preach unselfish play, but when the best player since Kawhi Leonard plays that way, it better teaches the lesson. Dutcher has already said this year’s team is “too unselfish.” They will replace Flynn collectively. Expect Mitchell to fill the role Flynn played in the half-court either in the pick and roll, isolation or post-ups. Terrell Gomez’ biggest offensive threat is his transition three, so expect the Aztecs to run even more. Jordan Schakel’s offensive “bag” is just beginning to be seen. Collectively, they will replace Flynn production, though no one can replace the player.
The team will dip from their high offensive efficiency of a year ago. Still, in order to be a Top-25 team capable of winning a national championship, they need to have a top-50 offensive efficiency because their defense will be better than ever. SDSU has a roster full of experienced, athletic players who can guard multiple positions. Aguek Arop, Adam Seiko, and Nathan Mensah are each capable of winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Expect the Aztecs to resemble a hybrid of the teams that built the program and the offensive juggernaut we saw a year ago.
Keshad Johnson #0 Forward 6-7 210 lbs. Sophomore
Potential is the word best used to describe Johnson. An athletic marvel, he saw little time as a true freshman out of San Leandro High in Oakland, CA. In 107 minutes, he showed the promise which attracted NBA Scouts to watch him in practice and the deficiencies which prevented him from earning consistent minutes. His drive and finish against New Mexico showed the speed, leaping ability, ball handling, and toughness that has fans drooling. His defense, however, prevented him from seeing the court because he did not pick up the intricacies of playing team defense at this level. On offense, half of his shots were from behind the three-point line, negating the advantages of his physical gifts.
SDSU finished 30-2 last season, and hope they can be close to the same team this year lies in the improvement of their 6’ 7” forward. Johnson is clearly the ‘X’ factor. If he progresses along the line of Aztec greats, Billy White, Winston Shepard, and Malik Pope, SDSU will have a top 50 team capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. If he progresses along the line of Aztec great Randy Holcomb and Kawhi Leonard, the sky is the limit for this team. But, if he progresses along the lines of Zylan Cheatham, he may reach his potential at another university.
Adam Seiko #2 Guard 6-3 210 lbs. Junior
Adam Seiko is the team’s best on-ball defender since Dakarai Allen. He has the size to lock up taller guards and the speed to harass smaller ones. With the graduation of KJ Feagin and Malachi Flynn’s move to the NBA, Seiko will be in competition for minutes. Defense will always be Seiko’s calling card, but it was on offense where he improved the most last season. He hit 42.4% of his three-point attempts but only averaged one attempt a game. The coaching staff would be thrilled with more attempts from their junior guard, even if his shooting percentage dips as a result. Like Allen, until Seiko has confidence in his shot, he will be too much of a liability offensively to have out on the court.
Terrell Gomez #3 Guard 5-8 165 lbs. Senior
In the Aztecs’ fast-paced offense, a quick three – as long as it was a good three – was acceptable. Last season, Malachi Flynn averaged more than six three-point attempts a game. On paper, the most obvious replacement for Flynn’s shooting is graduate transfer Terrell Gomez. Gomez average nearly eight three-point attempts a game. In transition, he is deadly from range. However, life rarely works like the plans drawn up on paper. It remains to be seen if Gomez can play with the ball in his hands or if he needs to play off the ball as he has done throughout his career. How Gomez adjusts to being one of many options is a question worth watching early in the season.
Trey Pulliam #4 Guard 6-3 180 lbs. Senior
Pulliam is a wild card this season. A second year in the program should bring a noticeable leap in play from the senior point guard. Pulliam’s strength as a ball-handler should alleviate stress from Mitchell and Gomez having to generate offense. Pulliam’s three-point shooting needs to improve to maximize his quick first step and terrific passing ability. His usage likely depends more on how others function in the point guard role than anything Pulliam is able to do.
Lamont Butler #5 Guard 6-0 200 lbs. Freshman
Reggie Miller is an alum of the same high school as Lamont Butler. Miller graduated from Riverside Poly High School and for thirty-eight years held the school record for points scored in a career until Butler broke it this past season. Butler’s scoring prowess is somewhat surprising because he has the reputation as a pass-first guard. With the veterans in the backcourt, Butler might be a candidate to redshirt. On the other hand, if he is able to defend at this level, he is a sure ball handler who could push Pulliam and Seiko for minutes.
Keith Dinwiddie Jr. #10 Guard 6-0 185 lbs. Freshman
The 2020 John Wooden Award LA – City CIF Player of the Year was Keith Dinwiddie. He is the electric guard whose scoring ability is his calling card. Like his teammates in the 2020 recruiting class, a redshirt is not out of the possibility. For Dinwiddie to break into the rotation, he will need to bring an element of playmaking both scoring the ball and distributing it to others. Working in his favor is that Dinwiddie is a skilled scorer who can fill the stat sheet from all three levels.
Matt Mitchell #11 Forward 6-6 235 lbs. Senior
Marcus Slaughter, Kawhi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin, and Jalen McDaniels left San Diego State early to begin playing basketball professionally. Clearly terrific decisions for their careers, their early exits left fans wondering what could have been had they stayed. Daydreams of adding Franklin to the 2014, Xavier Thames led, Sweet 16 squad, in particular, has been a favorite “what if” topic. Matt Mitchell could have joined that list of Aztec greats who left the Mesa early without fully manifesting his potential on the collegiate court. Unlike teammate Malachi Flynn, Mitchell chose to sit under Brian Dutcher’s tutelage one more season. Mitchell, a preseason first-team all-conference selection, is the unquestioned leader and most important player on the team. Mitchell’s athleticism has begun to catch up to his skill (Just Ask Lobos Guard, Keith McGee). This year fans should expect and enjoy the best, most complete version of Mitchell.
Che Evans #12 Forward 6-5 210 lbs. Freshman
Last year, Mikey Williams, a high school freshman sensation from local San Ysidro High, took the country by storm. Aztec freshman, Che Evans, was Mikey Williams…before Mikey Williams. Before taking his first shots as a high school freshman, Evans was playing before packed crowds in Harlem’s fabled Rucker Park, ESPN was writing featured articles about him, and he was routinely mentioned as the #1 high school player in the class of 2020. Surgery to repair a shin fracture took him off that high pedestal, and he arrives at SDSU this fall with a chip on his shoulder. If a player from this year’s recruiting class will jump into the rotation this season, expect it to be Evans.
Cade Alger #14 Forward 6-9 190 lbs. Freshman
A walk-on forward from Ripon, CA, Alger redshirted last season at Seattle University and will be eligible immediately for the Aztecs. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing quarterback on the football team and outside hitter on the volleyball team in addition to basketball. While not expected to contribute this season, his size and athleticism are an intriguing combination.
Jordan Schakel #20 Guard 6-6 200 lbs. Senior
Early in his career, Jordan Schakel was a hustle player who got called for an inordinate amount of cheap fouls. As a junior, those calls stopped going against him, and he put together an exceptional season. Schakel has even popped up in a 2021 NBA Mock Draft. For Schakel to make that sort of jump, there are key improvements he will need to make. He needs to participate more in handling the ball, he needs to be more than a catch and shoot offensive threat, and he simply needs to shoot more while keeping the same percentage. There is every reason to believe Jordan Schakel will continue his upward ascent. He works too hard and is too smart to think otherwise.
Jared Barnett #21 Guard 6-1 145 lbs. Sophomore
Joined the Aztecs as a preferred walk-on from Westchester High, the same high school as Aztec Legends Brandon “Bottoms” Heath and Tony Bland. Interestingly, he did not redshirt last year, which suggests he might be closer to earning playing time than his walk-on status suggests. The Aztecs are guard-heavy, so it would be a real surprise for this to occur, but SDSU coaches have a long history of playing dependable walk-ons, and Barnett fits this description.
Joshua Tomaić #23 Forward 6-9 230 lbs. Senior
Yanni Wetzel’s arrival as a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt was met with shrugs. Wetzel’s average 5.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 18.5 minutes per game his final season with the Commodores. Wetzel, of course, came out of nowhere to be a key contributor and a fan favorite. This season, Joshua Tomaic arrives as a graduate transfer from Maryland with even worse numbers, 1.1 points, 0.5 rebounds, and only 4.4 minutes a game, but due to Wetzel’s success, expectations are high. Tomaic and Nathan Mensah are the only players in the expected rotation taller than 6 – 8. A Spaniard who played high school on the Canary Islands, Tomaic boasts a tantalizing combination of athleticism, shooting range, and size. The Aztecs are counting on him to replace San Diego’s favorite Aussie.
Tyler Broughton #24 Guard 6-4 190 lbs. Freshman
The life of a freshman walk-on is not glamorous. Chasing the dream of moving from a scout team player to a contributor on a Top-25 team takes perseverance, patience, and courage. Count on twin brothers Tyler and Triston Broughton to show those characteristics, having seen them modeled literally by their mother. In 2011, Tracy Broughton was crowned Ms America. A hit and run in 1996 left her in a wheelchair for eleven years. She competed and won the pageant using a cane to compete. She is an inspiration to people with disabilities. Tyler and Triston’s success at SDSU is still to be determined; however, with the example of their mother, you can bet they will never give up chasing their dreams.
Nathan Mensah #31 Forward 6-10 230 lbs. Junior
Every minute Nathan Mensah plays is cause for celebration. Before being diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, Mensah played and started the first 13 games of the season. His 12 point, 12 rebounds, four block game against San Jose State allowed Malachi Flynn to play the hero. Coming out of high school, he was seen as a project who could develop with hard work and coaching. True to the prognostication, each season has seen an improvement from the 6-10 forward from Accra, Ghana. His most impressive game may have been against Utah at the Staples Center, where he outplayed the Utes highly decorated centers. Mensah is a difference-maker on defense; he led the team with 22 blocks a year ago despite playing in 19 fewer games. For the Aztecs to be successful in 2020, a full productive year from Mensah is a must. Averaging close to a double double would be the next jump for Mensah, but seeing him play again in any capacity is already a win.
Derek Morhar #32 Guard 6-5 165 lbs. Freshman
Posterizing and staring down a foolish defender who tried to stop your reverse, the fast-break dunk is attaining an athletic height 99% of the population never reach. Yet, it is the minimum level required to be a walk-on at a major college program. Derek Morhar arrives at SDSU from Calabasas High in Ventura County. His height, athleticism, and work ethic has earned him key card access to the JAM Center. Only time will tell if it will take him further.
Aguek Arop #33 Forward 6-6 220 lbs. Junior
Arop is a throwback, a legacy player. In basketball vernacular, he is “a dog.” With toughness, athleticism, and a seven-foot wingspan, he is able to guard every position on the court. He is the type of player coaches love because he makes winning plays which do not always show up in the box score. Injuries have cut parts of his previous two seasons short, but despite the injuries and more seasoned players at his position, Arop continues to make it on the court because he brings a skill set no one else possesses. Arop will become a fan favorite this season if he is able to stay healthy. His style of play is reminiscent of the teams early in the Fisher era who backed down from no one, dominated the offensive glass, and relentlessly played defense.
Triston Broughton #42 Guard 6-4 190 lbs. Freshman
When it comes to basketball, Triston and Tyler Broughton have family pedigree working in their favor. Their father, former NBA player Chris Mills, was a McDonald’s All-American in 1998, is a member of the University of Arizona Hall of Fame, and averaged 11.2 points per game in a ten year NBA career. Triston, an athletic guard in his own right, made the team following an Open Tryout.
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