3 Keys to an SDSU Aztecs victory over Boise State
1. Come out strong after the unexpected pause
San Diego State has been without a game for almost two weeks due to the COVID cases within the program. Now they play an impacted conference schedule starting with Boise State on Saturday at Viejas Arena.
“Because we’ll play three games in five days, this is not only prep for Boise, ” said Brian Dutcher via a virtual press conference on Wednesday. “It is [preparing] ourselves for the next three [opponents] and looking forward to that challenge [because] everybody’s going through it.”
Dutcher disclosed that the team was health-focused in quarantine, and no virtual preparation had taken place within the ten days. The Aztecs have been one of the last teams in the Mountain West to postpone basketball activities and will likely face adversity in their first game back. Teams across college basketball have a hard time adjusting after the pause.
It is reasonable that the Aztecs pick up where they left off on team defense because of their dominance since the start of the season despite roster turnover. They have been able to plug-and-play pieces against any opponent, but Dutcher worries how the ball moves in the front-court.
“Offensively, it is about trying to get our timing back,” noted Dutcher about the team’s approach to practice this week. “We will work on a lot this next couple of days try to get ourselves where we feel like our timing’s back and…we won’t know that until we step on the floor [against Boise].”
When they suit up in Viejas Arena, they’ll have guards Lamont Butler, Trey Pulliam, and Adam Seiko close to 100 percent. The offense will likely run through Matt Bradley, but it will take the supporting cast to find their rhythm to climb back into the driver’s seat in the Mountain West. If the SDSU wants to start their three-game stretch with a victory, they must focus on generating offense as a whole again.
2. Out-defend Boise State and Marcus Shaver, Jr.
While San Diego State starts its first of three games in five days, Boise State will conclude its third game in five days. Leon Rice’s team already recorded victories over Air Force and Utah State. Going into Saturday, the Broncos will be riding an 11-game winning streak dating back to their 63-58 win over Tulsa on December 3.
The Broncos copied a page from SDSU’s blueprint by emphasizing defense as the best way to improve their team. Their turnaround has moved them in the top 15 in defensive efficiency. They are allowing 59.1 only points per game. This year’s performance, combined with their winning streak, has ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicting Boise State as the third Mountain West team invited to the big dance.
The Idaho-based team is led by senior Marcus Shaver, Jr., who produces much of the offense and excels at creating his own shot by driving to the basket or stopping full speed to pull up for a jump shot. The 6-foot-2 guard has scored in double figures in 14 out of 17 games he has played this season. He leads the team in points, averaging 13.9 points per game, and recorded a season-high performance on January 12 against Nevada with 28 points, 12 coming from beyond the arc.
For Brian Dutcher’s squad, the tape reveals the game plan. The offense runs through Shaver, but he only averages two assists per game, and Air Force was able to contain him to eight points in their match, and Utah State followed that by holding him to three points last night. San Diego State’s interior defense has to disrupt his lanes and force him to give up the ball in the paint. With Butler back and finding his way to intercept passes, Shaver might have too much to contend with, though the Broncos star will certainly look for a bounce-back performance after off nights the past two games.
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3. San Diego State Seniors must lead the offense
The Aztecs have not lost to the Broncos since January 15, 2019, where Devin Watson’s 24 points were not enough to overcome a 88-64 loss.
In last year’s victories, seniors Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, and Terrell Gomez provided much of the offense. The trio accounted for 74 of the 140 total points in two games. In this moment, where they are predicted to struggle, it is going to be on starting seniors Matt Bradley and Nathan Mensah to exemplify leadership.
Before the COVID interruption, Bradley played his best game as an Aztec, scoring 26 points and recording seven rebounds. Despite the inconsistent field-goal percentages, he’s averaging 15.8 points per game and has scored in the double-digits in all but two games this season (against USC and BYU). The pause might have stopped the senior’s momentum as he works to get his shooting percentage close to his career average of 42.4 percent.
Against Colorado State, Mensah went 22 minutes without a point, only contributing on the defensive end with three rebounds, two steals, and one block. The forward from Ghana has been on the cusp of a double-double this season but has not recorded one. Mensah’s defense is a vital component of this team, but for Saturday’s contest, they are going to need buckets.
Overcoming the challenges in front of them starts with their seniors, Bradley and Mensah. It will take their veteran leadership for the team to keep their offensive identity in their first contest in weeks.
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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.