1. Make free throws
Spectators and analysts are keen on San Diego State’s offensive struggles.
Aside from their underwhelming field-goal percentage, the Aztecs have had challenges from the charity stripe this season. Their team average of 65.7% per game places them at 307th in the entire NCAA and tenth in the Mountain West. Matt Bradley, shooting 78.7% on free throws, is the only SDSU starter listed in the Mountain West top 15 leaders in free throw percentage. Isaiah Stevens of Colorado State leads the league at 86.2%.
In games that were decided by six points or less, Aztec free throws mattered most.
“We [were] 10-for-19 in a close game, so we have to make free throws,” noted Coach Brian Dutcher in his post-game presser against their 66-60 loss to BYU. “We have to get to the foul line and make them if we’re going to win close games.”
Dutcher saw quick improvement after emphasizing foul shots in practice and witnessed a two-game average of 24.5 points from the foul line in their wins over Arizona State and UT Arlington.
“We got to the foul line, and we made them,” said Dutcher on November 20th in their 68-62 win over UT Arlington Broncos. “At the end of the day, that was the difference in the game.”
Since the game against the Broncos, SDSU has not created enough opportunities at the line. They have averaged 7.7 free throws on 11.7 attempts in the three games following the UTA contest. Against UC San Diego, SDSU got to the foul line seven times and left with only three points. Those seven trips were a season-low, and they were tied for the second-fewest attempts in the Dutcher era.
Securing a victory against the Rebels means they need to manufacture points from the charity stripe. Matt Bradley has continued to lead the team in points, but the entire roster must find their form at the line.
2. Outwork UNLV’s first-time head coach and NBA-bound four-year player
During the offseason, Kevin Kruger– UNLV alum and son of former Rebel head coach Lon Kruger– took over the Rebels program from TJ Otzelberger. The younger Kruger was also an assistant at Oklahoma from 2016-2019, where he helped develop future NBA all-star Trae Young.
The rookie head coach presented his new team with a difficult non-conference schedule. UNLV played Michigan, Wichita State, and UCLA in the first month. Due mainly to the influx of transfers into the program, the Rebels did not record a signature victory. They enter league play at 8-5, with a 6-1 home record at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Kruger loaded his roster with nine new players from the transfer portal and persuaded senior Bryce Hamilton to withdraw from the transfer portal and the NBA draft process. After ending last season with an average of 17.6 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, and a 43.0% field-goal percentage, Hamilton was named to this year’s Preseason All-Mountain West Team.
The senior from Pasadena leads UNLV in scoring and has his eye on sabotaging San Diego State, again. During his sophomore campaign, Hamilton notched a double-double, scoring 29 points and 10 rebounds, in a win that ended the Aztecs’ run at a perfect season in 2020.
Hamilton is a pure scorer who likes to penetrate and drive to the hoop. This year he has improved at making contact and getting to the free-throw line. Through 13 games, he’s 35-of-46 on free throws, compared to 29-of-39 during the first 13 games of the 2020-2021 season.
Dutcher’s team needs to remember his name going into the Thomas & Mack Center, where San Diego State enjoys a record of 11-1 in its last 12 games against the Rebels. Nathan Mensah will have to disrupt Hamilton’s routes to the basket and deny any second-chance point opportunities for UNLV.
3. Avoid losing any more players
All team sports in America are facing a resilient opponent in COVID. The Aztecs canceled their buy-game against San Diego Christian College because of COVID issues in the El Cajon-based program. Within the Mountain West conference, Colorado State and San Jose State paused their programs to keep their players healthy.
Medical absences from Lamont Butler and Tahriou Diabate affected the team’s performance over the past month. Butler was riding a breakout performance before injuring his shoulder, leaving the Aztecs with only one primary ball-handler against Michigan. Diabate missed four games in the last month due to undisclosed medical reasons forcing Dutcher to shorten his bench. Diabate returned to action against UCSD but played only five minutes. SDSU is a few games closer to getting their team at full strength and cannot afford any further injury or illness sidelining its players.
The Aztecs have lengthy road trips ahead at elevation to play the Cowboys, Rams, and the Aggies. Given the landscape of the sport, they cannot afford to lose bodies for this important stretch of games.