1. Rested bodies for the Aztecs
San Diego State has not played a game since Tuesday, December 8th, and that was by design.
SDSU’s academic calendar dictates December 10th through December 16th as Fall 2021 finals week. Brian Dutcher’s student-athletes hunker down to study while also resting their bodies for nine days. Some on the team finished their last final on Thursday morning before the team catches a flight to Phoenix in the afternoon.
Aztec players have been playing a challenging non-conference schedule across three time zones but have been sleeping in their own beds since their loss at Michigan on December 4th.
“We let the bodies heal up a little bit,” said Brian Dutcher at practice on Wednesday afternoon. “We gave a couple of days off because right now, with our injury situation, we had guys playing a lot of minutes.”
At Michigan, San Diego State played with a 9-man rotation. A few days later, against Fullerton, with Agoek Arop unavailable, they went with a shorter bench playing only 8. Many of the Aztecs played season-high or career-high minutes against the Titans.
- Trey Pulliam: 37, second to his career-high 38 at Michigan
- Matt Bradley: 35, season-high
- Adam Seiko: 35, career-high
- Nathan Mensah: 31, season-high
- Joshua Tomaic: 30, career-high
Rested legs mean better defense, cleaner looks, and more intensity on the glass. The Aztecs will need to be at their best in all of these areas if they means are to steal a win from the Gaels, who hosted Stanislaus State on Tuesday night. Things are starting to come together for San Diego State. The break and extra preparation for their showdown on Friday should give them an edge in their search for a marquee non-conference victory.
2. Force Lucas Johnson to iso
The all-time series record between San Diego State and Saint Mary’s is 6-6. In the Steve Fisher-era, the teams tipped off eight times, but before last year’s neutral site arrangement, the programs had not matched up since Kawhi Leonard suited up in 2010.
Last year’s 74-49 man-handling of the Gaels gave a boost to the Aztecs in late December following a 72-62 loss to BYU at Viejas Arena. It propelled them into the conference season.
This year the Moraga-based program returns all their starters from their 2020 season. The lineup of four seniors and one junior is a compelling reason they have competed at a high level this early in the season. A notable addition to their coaching staff is Joe Rahon, Torrey Pines alum and brother of former Aztec great James Rahon, who played under Coach Randy Bennett in his collegiate career.
Starting 6-foot-2 guard Logan Johnson, who put St. Mary’s on his back in last year’s contest, putting up a team-leading 15 points, earned preseason All-WCC honors for the first time in his career entering the 2021 season. Johnson led the 2020 team in scoring across the entire season, averaging 13.3 points per game.
Defensively, the Aztecs are not playing a real perimeter shooter. Johnson shoots 18.5% from three this season on only 27 total attempts. As a team, the Gaels are shooting 34.1% from behind the arc. They are not likely to defeat the Aztecs by shooting from deep.
The focus for the Aztec defenders should be not allowing Johnson extra outlet passes to get his teammates involved. The Aztecs could probably live with Johnson scoring 10+ points again because in last year’s matchup Saint Mary’s bigs were not a factor. One key to keeping Johnson limited on Friday is to prevent him from getting out in transition off of turnovers.
Taking on the West Coast Conference contender requires attention to detail in SDSU’s game plan. In defensive rankings according to KenPom, the Gaels are the 9th-best defensive team in the country, and slightly behind them are the Aztecs at 10th. Points will likely be hard to come by in the affair.
“[The Gaels] have some big wins. They’ve been playing well,” said Trey Pulliam at Wednesday’s practice. “I know they want to get that [loss] back, so we definitely will be ready for them.”
3. The Nathan Mensah game
Almost a year ago against this same Saint Mary’s squad, Mensah had a dominant evening.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of [Nathan Mensah],” said Coach Dutcher in his postgame interview on December 22, 2020. “I think he had 18 points, 13 rebounds, six blocked shots, somewhere in that range. Nate made a big difference at the defensive end. He anchored our defense.”
Mensah has only recorded five double-doubles in his career, two of them occurred last year in two important non-conference games against Saint Mary’s and Arizona State..
Last year in Tempe against the Sun Devils, he recorded 17 points, 15 rebounds in 28 minutes, shooting 7-of-12 from the field.
This year he has yet to t record a double-double. On two occasions, Mensah has been either a rebound or a field goal away from achieving one. He has yet to have a truly dominating performance in both categories.
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Saint Mary’s has lengthy players in the post, but it is clear from past performances that Mensah can beat those kinds of athletes down low. If SDSU walks off the court Friday with a win, it will likely be because Mensah had his first truly dominating performance of the season.
“I feel like last year we had like a strong mentality going into our game,” commented Nathan Mensah during a media break at Wednesday practice. “With this team, we have that [mentality] also.”
Good play should get rewarded and Mensah should reap the benefits.
Erwin Mendoza grew up a SoCal kid, but now is raising a family in the Pacific Northwest. Besides covering San Diego State basketball, he loves lamenting the lack of sports championships from San Diego — minor league teams don’t count— while drinking the local stout on nitro.