1. The bench backs up Matt Bradley
San Diego State ran Utah State out of Viejas Arena on Tuesday evening off another strong effort from Matt Bradley.
“As the season goes on, he is become more and more comfortable making plays for himself and others,” said Coach Brian Dutcher in Tuesday night’s post-game presser.
Dutcher is not kidding about Bradley’s comfort zone. Despite an arduous conference schedule, his performance in league play has been impressive, averaging 22.8 points per game, shooting 44.6 percent from the floor and 47.6 percent from the perimeter. In his career as a Cal starter in Pac-12 play, Bradley averaged 14.6 points per game with a 39.2 field-goal percentage and 34.5 percent of his three-pointers.
With the shots going in, the bench behind Matt Bradley has shifted gears to catch up to the senior. Reserves have contributed at least 19 points a game against the last three opponents in Utah State, Air Force, and San Jose State. Chad Baker-Mazara, Adam Seiko, and Joshua Tomaic are giving Bradley and the Aztec starters enough respite through this final stretch of the season.
“All these games left, we are going to have to play the bench,” said Dutcher in a Thursday press conference. “A lot of teams are going to shorten rotations this time of year, but we can not because of the number of games in a short time.”
With a resurgent bench and Matt Bradley on fire, they are well equipped to edge out Fresno State, which is riding a three-game losing streak against quality opponents. In the skid, they struggled to defend and allowed David Roddy (21 points), Bryce Hamilton (17 points), and Hunter Maldonado (21 points) to dominate.
After beating Utah State, Bradley has scored at least 20 points in four of the last five games and will be looking to repeat. Fresno State will be hounding him on the floor, but open looks and high-percentage shots from the bench will be needed.
2. Halt Orlando Robinson
Coach Dutcher knows how tough it will be facing Fresno State (16-9, 6-6 MW). Former Aztec assistant coach Justin Hutson is 28-9 all-time as a Division I head or assistant coach when facing one of his former teams (CSU Bakersfield, Cal Poly, San Diego State & UNLV). The Aztecs hold the edge in the Hutson era going 4-2 and have kept the Bulldogs team under 57 points in their last four meetings.
The team from the San Joaquin Valley is the Mountain West’s second-best defense keeping opponents’ scoring at 58 points per game but only records an average of 65.8 points per game, 0.2 average points better than San Diego State. When asked about the Saturday matchup, Brian Dutcher replied, “[these are] two really good defensive teams trying to manufacture enough offense to win a game.”
Fresno State starts four juniors and one sophomore, all of who played at least two seasons under Hutson. Their biggest threat is 7-foot Orlando Robinson, who is sixth in the league in scoring and fifth in rebounds, outperforming both Matt Bradley and Nathan Mensah in those categories. Through conference play, Robinson averages 18.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game, but against UNLV on Tuesday night, the Rebels kept Robinson to seven points on 14 field goal attempts.
Robinson has earned national recognition as a finalist in the Mid-Season Watch List for the 2021-22 Lute Olson National Player of the Year. The Las Vegas native is a 2021-22 preseason All-Mountain West selection and earned second-team all-conference last season. Dutcher noted that his versatility, despite his size, will command their full attention because “he can back you down [in the post], drive you… and he shoots the three.”
The Aztecs have to match Robinson’s efforts and deny him easy opportunities. In four career games against SDSU, the 7-footer averaged 15.5 points per game with a 57.9 field-goal percentage. Nathan Mensah has to stay out of early foul trouble so that he could keep with the fellow big. The agility of the San Diego State guards Lamont Butler, and Trey Pulliam will have to step up and steal opportunities down low.
3. Out-rebound their opponents
San Diego State won its 32nd straight game when they out-rebounded Utah State. In the two-game series last year, SDSU had a total of 45 rebounds to Fresno State’s 35.
Fresno State holds opponents to 41 percent shooting from the floor, so San Diego State must give their shooters the best pathway to score and also deny their opponents any second-chance points. Dutcher’s squad is second in the Mountain West in offensive rebounds, hauling an average of 9.8 per game. Nathan Mensah leads the team in offensive rebounds at 2.3 per game, and behind him, Aguek Arop pulls in 1.8 offensive rebounds per game.
The senior, who has been dealing with a lingering injury, has been recognized as the consummate teammate. His efforts might not always show up in stat sheets, but his five rebounds (two offensive, three defensive) against Utah State did.
“He really saved us,” said Matt Bradley of Arop’s performance. “He flipped the switch. He wasn’t gonna allow [the Aggies] to just keep pumping us on the glass.”
Arop’s 1.8 offensive rebounds might not be worth much on paper, but it could be gold in a low-scoring game. The team needs to secure missed shots when they drop because San Diego State does not want to give Robinson to get hot on Saturday. It is how partially how they were able to contain Justin Bean and the Utah State Aggies. In a contest between two stout defenses, rebounding has to be the final key to beat Fresno State.