1. Elite Defense Needs to Travel
San Diego State closes out its third contest in five days playing in one of the toughest places to play in the Mountain West – Logan, Utah. After a bounce-back win against UNLV at home, they have to bring their defense on the road.
“So as much as I’m happy with the victory as a coach, you are always coaching,” said Brian Dutcher in his post-game conference against the Rebels. “We’re going have to get better in a hurry to go into Logan and play a good Utah State team on Wednesday.”
Since the start of the 2021 season, SDSU is 2-4 at altitude with wins against Air Force and losses to BYU and Utah State. The Aztecs carry a 4-3 record when playing at the home of Aggies, so an edge in the all-time, head-to-head matchup in Logan is on the table Wednesday.
“They’re having beet juice, and there [have] been studies on how that opens up blood vessels. I’m not a scientist, but if they believe in it, I believe in it,” remarked Brian Dutcher on how to adjust to playing in Utah. “We won’t do anything hard on the floor [at practice today]. We’ll have a little lunch and watch a little bit of film, [and travel to] Logan.”
This is the team’s second trip to the Beehive State, their first being a 66-60 loss to BYU in November. The Aztec road defense has improved since playing the Cougars. They only allow an average of 60 points per game at neutral sites and 64.3 in actual away games.
The Logan-based team averages 75 points per game, second in the conference to Colorado State’s 78.6 points per game. In last year’s three matchups, Dutcher’s team kept Utah State to an average of 59.1 points per game, three points higher than this year’s 56.3 points allowed.
Historically, San Diego State has kept opponents to under an average of 70 points per game since 2005.
The defense was in full effect on Monday night, keeping the Running Rebels to 55 points, even testing out a full-court press up 20-plus points. Despite history and statistics aiding the sea-level team, the sudden change in elevation on tired legs is going to ask a lot from one of the nation’s premier defenses. Their daunted defense has to stay sharp for the California team to win in Logan.
2. Guard Justin Bean and a hungry Utah State offense
Over the course of three seasons, the Aztecs have squared off against the Aggies nine times. They played a home and home during the regular season in 2019, a two-game series in Logan last year, and found themselves on opposing sides of the Mountain West Conference Tournament title game each of the last three seasons. Despite the familiarity, the Aztecs own a 4-5 record in those contests.
After former head coach Craig Smith took the job down the freeway at the University of Utah, the administration at USU hired University of Maryland, Baltimore County head coach Ryan Odom, the squad famously known as the only 16-seed to upset a 1-seed. Entering conference play, Odom and the Aggies have lost four of the last five matches, with their lone victory coming in overtime against New Mexico. Two of those losses against Wyoming and Boise State have come down to one possession.
After defeating the Aggies 62-59, Broncos head coach Leon Rice offered praise despite their bad luck, “[Utah State] has been so competitive, but they’ve just lost a lot of heartbreakers. They’re a really good basketball team.”
Since losing last Thursday, Odom’s team has had five days to prepare for San Diego State, going over footage and adjusting their schemes before Wednesday’s tip-off.
Forward Justin Bean has been carrying the team without senior Brock Miller and junior Rylan Jones, who have been out due to injuries. Bean is averaging 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 57.7% from the field. The senior recorded his 12th double-double of the year and the 38th of his career with 14 points and 12 rebounds against Boise State. His production in 2022 is drawing the attention of NBA scouts.
Already a matchup nightmare in the past due to his length and shot selection, the Aztecs are in for a surprise as he has added an improved perimeter shot, going 22-of-44 from the three-point line. Last year he was 10-of-42 through the whole season. He has confidence in his deep shot, averaging 2.34 three-point attempts per game.
Aztec defenders kept Bean to four points in both Logan contests. Some of that was a byproduct of the Aggies offense running through Neemias Queta and Sam Merrill.
With Bean taking over an injured roster, the focus should be on the 6-foot-7 forward. Without a 7-footer in their lineup, Nathan Mensah does not have to stay down low and can pop outside to give help. Expect off-ball movement by Odom’s team to allow Bean clean looks and advantageous mismatches. On main assignments, it’s going to be up to Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop to force bad shots, force turnovers, and keep Bean off the offensive glass.
3. Score the ball in transition
Matt Bradley shot lights out, scoring 26 points on 10-of-11 field goals against the Rebels, but altitude might be his kryptonite.
Throughout his collegiate career at elevation, including this season, he is 0-3 with losses to Utah, Colorado, and BYU. In those three meetings, he averaged 12.6 points per game on 41.6 percent from the field, which is under his career average of 15.3 points per game and 43.6 field goal percentage.
The offense is running through Matt Bradley, but others will have to step up consistently to come away with a win against the Aggies.
“We are not near what we need to be offensively,” said Brian Dutcher, unironically during his post-game media interviews. “We all know that. We have to be more efficient.”
The most efficient offense is a transition dunk. Against the Rebels on Monday, SDSU put on a show!
LAMONT BUTLER WITH THE WINDMILL pic.twitter.com/hY7u5bJwrR
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) January 25, 2022
Underneath the windmill dunks lies a key statistic — SDSU scored 23 points on fast breaks. Monday’s tactic might have made up for shooting 28.1 percent from the field against Boise State, but they need to prove it is more than a temporary respite for their offensive woes. Against the Aggies in Logan last year, they had scored six total fast break points in two games.
The Aztecs must seize every opportunity for transition points. They lead the conference in steals and need to score easy baskets off them. SDSU is second-to-last in the MW in scoring average. They put up 64.7 points per game, so every possession counts. In addition to scoring in transition, making uncontested shots would ease the scoring burden carried by Matt Bradley.