8 reasons SDSU’s season was a success

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Credit: Rashad Griffin/EVT

The 2001 NBA Finals was among the most lopsided championship series in league history.

Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers took on Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers. LA won the series four games to one.

Despite falling meekly to the Hollywood juggernaut, the enduring moment of those finals belongs to Iverson and the 76ers. With the Sixers up 101-99 with under a minute left in game one, Iverson took the ball isolated in the corner in front of the Lakers bench. With a quick first step towards the baseline and a slick step back, Iverson drilled a jumper over Tyronn Lue to seal the victory. Lue fell to the ground and Iverson emphatically stepped over him on his way back to the other end of the court.

Philadelphia’s euphoria was short-lived. Over the next four games, the Lakers dominated as expected.  Had the 76ers win come in the NCAA Tournament, where every game is a winner-take-all affair, imagine how history would have been different. Iverson would be mentioned as one of the five greatest players of all time, the Lakers dynasty would never have occurred.

In a seven-game series, the best team wins, but in a one-game format, even an underdog like Philadelphia stands a chance of coming out on top. As SDSU basketball moves on from another unceremonious first-round NCAA tournament loss, it is worth remembering this fact when evaluating the success of the team in 2021-2022.

1. Winning without Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel

Mitchell and Schakel arrived on campus the same year Brian Dutcher took over as head coach. Over their four-year careers, they were part of the program’s coaching transition. One of the impressive aspects of the Dutcher era has been the Aztecs’ ability to play different styles of basketball based on their personnel.

Before 2021-2022, it could have been argued Dutcher’s success in his player-first system worked because of the winning brand of basketball Mitchell and Schakel played. Now that Dutcher has proven to be just as successful without that dynamic duo, confidence in his “freedom within framework” approach should grow, making last season an unquestioned success.

2. Kept the fan base loyal

One of the unfortunate aspects of American society is the lack of conversation among people with varying political persuasions. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in people’s response to the various Covid protocols the government put in place. Objectively, Viejas Arena had some of the strictest entry rules of any place in the country. Whatever one feels about the mandates, their existence put pressure on the fan base and threatened to pull it apart.

Conservative-leaning Aztec supporters could have complained about the rules’ draconian nature, while liberals could have revolted over their loose enforcement. In either instance, loyalty to the team could have waned, but the passion of Aztec Nation remained steady despite the obstacles to fan hood, which makes 2021-2022 a success. 

Credit: Rashad Griffin/EVT

3. The emergence of Keshad Johnson

If the Aztecs are to reach their Final Four aspirations, last year might be looked at as a turning point because it was the year Keshad Johnson emerged. Johnson’s potential was actualized last season with the athletic player starting every game. Averaging 23.8 minutes a game also revealed Johnson’s path to the NBA.

 He can be a contributor as a frontcourt player; he can become a star if he can play on the wing. Johnson’s growth into a small forward is daunting. He needs to develop better ball-handling, shooting, and lateral quickness. If he can pull off the improvement, he will emerge as one of the top mismatches in the country. Regardless, 2021-2022 was a success because potential is no longer Johnson’s greatest asset to the team.

4. Another tournament title run

Fans desiring a deep NCAA tournament run might not find solace in the Aztecs winning a pair of games in the Mountain West tournament, but they should. Dutcher has now led his team to the finals of the conference tournament each year he has been head coach. The first two games of the MW postseason are the closest approximation to the first weekend of March Madness with the important caveat that the teams in conference play are more familiar with each other.

As the coaching staff searches for ways to be more successful in the NCAA Tournament, a starting point in their investigation could be the preparation for the quarterfinals of the MW tourney. The 2021 contest brought a nail-biting 69-66 victory over Wyoming. The 30-2 Aztecs in 2020 trailed at the half against a 12-20 Air Force team and did not lead after intermission until Jordan Shackel hit a three with 12 minutes left in the contest. Malachi Flynn and company pulled away from the Falcons 73-60. SDSU won a hard-fought victory over UNLV 63-55 in 2019. In 2018, they defeated Fresno State 64-52.

Historically, SDSU does not play its best basketball in the opening game of tournaments under coach Dutcher. In 2022, that trend continued with SDSU barely winning 53-46 over Fresno State.  Unlike the NCAA version, in the MW postseason, SDSU has been the higher seed in every game and still could not play its best. Examining the lead-up to this first match in terms of travel, practice, team meetings, etc. would be a good place to investigate how to turn the poor NCAA play around. While there is no secret to success, 2022 could be a very important year if the staff can find a few small adjustments that get their players ready to play game one of a postseason tournament.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

5. High-level high school recruits

The class of 2020 was supposed to be one of the best groups of freshmen to come to the Mesa. When they signed, it was easy to envision the trio of Lamont Butler, Keith Dinwiddie, and Che Evans dominating the MW their junior and senior seasons. Fans dreamed of Butler, the slashing point guard, finding Dinwiddie and Evans on the perimeter for open jump shots. Unfortunately, only Butler will be on the roster in 2022-2023. Dinwiddie and Evans, like so many young players in college athletics, transferred.

Despite losing two-thirds of their 2020 freshmen, Butler’s rise to fame and the growth of his game was enough to keep SDSU’s reputation as a great place for top high school intact. Miles Byrd, the 53rd ranked player in the nation according to 247 sports, and Elijah Saunders, who seems underrated as a top 150 recruit, both chose to continue their careers under Dutcher’s tutelage. That the program was able to recruit top-end talent from the high school ranks makes 2022 a huge success.   

6. High-level transfers

As transfers become available every day, the Aztecs continued to prove in 2022 that SDSU is one of the top destinations for transfers in the country. Before the season, EVT took in an SDSU practice. Jaedon LeDee was the best player on the court that day. With all of the reports and explicit remarks by his teammates since then, it is clear LeDee held onto this distinction all season long. Matt Bradley’s game improved by leaps and bounds. 

It remains to be seen how many new players Dutcher and his staff bring in for next year, but they have the luxury of rolling out film of Flynn, Yanni Wetzell, Bradley, and others to any player they are pursuing. 2022 was an unquestioned success because the reputation as a great place for top transfers grew.

Last year also brought another development that should help the program going forward, the success of Chad Baker-Mazara. He drew closer to his goal of reaching the NBA because of his work as an Aztec. With the new transfer rules, attracting younger players with multiple years is as important as bringing in the older guys SDSU has had success with in the past.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

7. Defense rose a whole new level

Nathan Mensah has not announced whether he will come back for another year. How Dutcher adjusts to life without arguably the best defender to ever set foot on campus is a problem SDSU’s head coach hopes to worry about that in 2023-2024. One potential indicator of what they will do when they are forced to play without Mensah is to see how they played when Mensah was not in the game this past season. Essentially, they played the same style with or without their Ghanaian center.

SDSU, a school known for its defense, took its defensive prowess to new levels last year. Their ability to switch ball screens at every position could potentially become the trademark of their team moving forward. They discovered the technique in 2021 because of Mensah’s versatility, but it was in 2022 that they played great team defense around the ploy. Last year was a success because the staff found a system few teams dare to replicate on the college level. If they can keep that momentum going, it could become their hallmark.


 8. Bradley and Seiko rolling it back

SDSU has a long history of bringing in transfers for one year as complementary pieces to their returning core players. Josh Davis, KJ Faegin, and Yanni Wetzell are good examples. Matt Bradley was supposed to break that trend. He was brought in to be the marquee player on the team. The danger with this approach is if the team fails to make a deep run, it leaves the following season after the one-year player leaves on a potentially worse footing.

Fortunately for the program, Bradley decided to return for an additional year meaning all of the considerable growing pains in 2022 will have a chance to pay off next season. Kawhi Leonard’s Sweet 16 run came after a first-round exit the previous year. Will history repeat itself in 2023? Aiding any potential run is Adam Seiko’s return. Seiko, as a sixth-year player, will be better than most of the elite, top 50, freshmen guards coming into college basketball.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.
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AztecCraig
AztecCraig
6 months ago

Great write up – we are all in pain over the NCAA loss but the future is looking brighter than ever. Nate ….one more year?

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