No. 25-ranked San Diego State will take on Fresno State this week in the MWC.
It will be eight days between games for the Aztecs when they play Fresno State on the road Thursday. A lot has happened in that span. Jordan Schakel was named Mountain West Player of the Week for his efforts against San Jose State. He averaged 23.5 points for the series. It is the second time this year SDSU’s senior guard has won the award.
There has also been a lot of movement in the National Polls. SDSU is the 25th ranked team in the Associated Press Poll – four points above Oklahoma State. They received the 26th most points in the Coaches Poll, seven and nine votes behind Oregon and seven loss Kansas respectively.
Fresno State enters the contest on the opposite of end of the national conversation. They rank 196 by Kenpom and 206 in the NET, which makes this a Quad Three game for the Aztec’s resume. The Bulldogs are sixth in the conference, one game ahead of UNLV and two games back of Nevada. They have only nine wins on the season, but seven have come at home.
Despite their disparity in success this season, the two programs have a lot in common. Fresno State’s Head Coach Justin Hutson comes from the Fisher/Dutcher coaching tree, and he has brought the style of play he learned on the Mesa north to the Valley.
“Yeah, I think that.” Jordan Schakel responded when asked if he thought there were similarities between the two programs. “I think the emphasis on defense. The players that they recruit – long and athletic. Guys that play really hard and play defense. When you’re long and athletic, and you get guys to play hard, it’s extremely hard to score on teams like that. That’s what we’ve tried to do, and that’s what they do as well.”
Three Keys to Success
1. Health of the players
In 2014, SMU was ranked in the final regular-season poll and did not make the NCAA Tournament following an early exit from their conference tournament. A decade earlier, Utah State suffered the same fate after an upset loss in their conference tournaments. Those are the last two teams ranked in final regular-season polls that did not make the NCAA Tournament.
While there are still games to be played and weeks before the final poll is released, SDSU sits in a good position to receive an at-large bid from the Selection Committee. Being healthy, then, leading into the postseason is imperative for the Aztecs. In recent games, Matt Mitchell, Adam Seiko, and Aguek Arop have all missed time. SDSU needs all of these players fully participating so they can find their game rhythm before the conference and NCAA tournaments.
“Adam Seiko continues to take care of that calf strain.” Coach Dutcher said in regards to the team’s health. “Aguek (Arop) is still dealing with his vertigo. Those are daily things. Matt (Mitchell), I think, will get back into better game timing coming off that ankle sprain.”
“He played that second game against San Jose State with basically not doing anything live for five days, so I think his game timing was a little off. That will improve these next three days leading into Fresno. Hopefully, we’ll be all hands on deck; that Adam will be available, and that AG will be feeling well.”
2. Containing Orlando Robinson
Offensively, Fresno State has been … well, offensive. They rank 242 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their 67.6 points per game are 263rd in the nation. The main culprit for their offensive woes has been the lack of experience in the program. Of their ten primary rotation players, only two are seniors. One is a junior, another is a freshman, and a staggering six are sophomores. Leading the group of skilled sophomores is the main bright spot for the Bulldogs: center Orlando Robinson.
On the season, Robinson is averaging nearly a double-double with 14.8 points and 9.4 rebounds a game. He leads the Bulldogs in nearly every statistical category. He is first in minutes played, field goals made and attempted, three-point percentage, free throws made and attempted, scoring, offensive and defensive rebounding, and blocks.
“He’s a first-team all-conference type player.” Dutcher said about Robinson, “If you don’t help on him at some level, he’s going to score. We have to decide where the help’s going to come from and do a good job of trying to keep him from catching the ball in his sweet spot. Whether it’s deep on the block or at the elbow, try to make those catches harder.”
“But Orlando is a very talented offensive player. He had a big game at their place (last year). At our place last year, he got in some first-half foul trouble and then played well in the second half. We’re going to have to pay extra attention to Orlando and make sure we do a good job on him.”
3. Reaching 70 points
At the weekly press conference, Coach Dutcher partly attributed freshman Lamont Bulter’s recent rise in play to the experience he has gained over the season. According to Dutcher, Butler is basically a sophomore now based on his minutes played this season. By this same logic, Fresno State is a dangerous opponent because a group that has played together for years as underclassmen is now basically a squad of upperclassmen ready to make a significant leap forward.
Holding back the Bulldogs’ learning curve has been a season that has been greatly impacted by Covid 19. After a three-week pause early in the season, however, Fresno State has settled in and won four of five, albeit against the bottom of the Mountain West.
Whether the core group of current sophomores ends up playing like experienced juniors this year or they make the expected improvement next season, so far this year, the Bulldogs have played better on the defensive end of the floor. This fact is not surprising considering the reputation Justin Hutson has as a defensive mastermind.
FSU is 91st in the nation, giving up only 67.1 points a game. SDSU is 7th nationally, surrendering only 60.3 points a game. Expect a game in the ’60s. The team that is able to break into the ’70s should come out victorious.
“We knew when Justin (Hutson) was here, he was a great defensive coach,” Dutcher said. “You’re looking at two programs that play really hard at the defensive end. Points are hard to come by. Both our games last year were fairly low scoring and a struggle to put points on the board.”
“I would anticipate you’ll see a lot of the same in this series. Points will be at a premium. If we could get in the ’70s, it’ll probably be enough to win.”