Following wins against St. Katherine and Pepperdine, SDSU is off to a 4-0 start.
This article examines what we have learned following those wins about an Aztecs team resembling more the tough, defensive-minded units that built the program than the offensive, free-flowing juggernaut of a year ago. Next, we turn our attention to this week’s game and offer three more questions State will need to answer to remain undefeated.
Questions from Week 2
Would the Aztecs have been better off not scheduling games?
This question originally was posed when the Aztecs had two NAIA games on the docket. In some ways then, the coaching staff was also afraid of the effect two games against lesser competition would have, so they added Pepperdine on Sunday. Clearly, the Aztecs should be better prepared to face Arizona State on Thursday because of this week’s games.
Following Wednesday’s game, Coach Dutcher was very complimentary towards his opponents, mentioning that St. Katherine prepared his team for Pepperdine.
“I told the team this game would be good for us, and it was,” Coach Dutcher said after the game against the Firebirds. “(Saint Katherine) moves at a good pace. They slip ball screens, if we switch the balls screens, they roll the post in and were able to find them (the post players), and (overall) they are just well-coached, and they play the right way. They got us on a few back cuts. They got us in a few moments when we were asleep, lost our man, and turned it into a basketball. Those are all teachable moments.”
The result was a terrific defensive effort against the Waves on Sunday. The similarities in the offenses between the two opponents this week was that they both used ball screens and slips to the basket to create easy buckets. Pepperdine’s effectiveness in this offense is due to teams having to overplay screens because of Colbey Ross’s scoring ability. Coming into the game, Pepperdine was averaging about 69 field goal attempts a game. On Sunday, they only had 54 because SDSU did not allow the easy ball screen looks the Waves had been getting prior. Preventing these quick buckets forced shot attempts deeper into the possession and led to the overall drop in shots. SDSU clearly learned the lessons from the St. Katherine’s game.
“We were playing our ball screen defense a different way (against St. Katherine) the second half, and that was more valuable (than playing zone) leading into the Pepperdine game,” Dutcher said.
Will Terrell Gomez find his place on the team?
Terrell Gomez has not found his place on the team yet. However, it is fair to say it is not a matter of if he becomes acclimated. It a question of when. On Sunday, Gomez was tied for second on the team with a plus/minus of plus-six. He was fifth on the team in minutes, yet he only scored two points. It is encouraging to see Gomez help the team win when his shots are not falling. This has been Gomez’s plan all along.
“I am now playing both ends of the floor,” Gomez said following the St. Katherine’s game. “I have made some adjustments where if we had played St Katherine’s last year [where he was a member of a different team], I would have scored 30 points. I am getting better, and I am learning the game. I can and am willing to adjust to win. As long as I am able to get on the floor, and when (my play) is going to lead to wins, and I can still be productive enough to where I am noticeable, I am happy.”
If Gomez is happy helping his team win, then he should be happy with his performances last week. His all-around game is showing more. In a spot start Wednesday, he had three rebounds, two assists, and no turnovers. On Sunday, he had three rebounds, three assists, and once again no turnovers. He had four turnovers his first two games.
“It’s a balancing act,” Dutcher said of Gomez’s transition into the SDSU program. “We want Terrell to come in and score the ball. To win, you have to sacrifice, so maybe he’s sacrificing part of his offensive game in order to win. He’s finding that balance, and I’m extremely pleased.”
Gomez, of course, is also responsible for the highlight of the year. He threw the lob to Keshad Johnson that broke the game open against UCI.
Gomez is taking about half the number of field goal attempts this year than last. At CSUN, he averaged more than 14. So far this season, he has averaged under seven. Coach Dutcher is not concerned.
“As we continue to play and he (Gomez) grows more comfortable, you’ll see his shot attempts go up,” Dutcher added.
Until then, the Aztecs should be pleased with the play of their senior guard.
Does anyone play their way into more playing time?
Of all the questions posed last week, this was the one most demonstrably answered: no! The star of the St. Katherine’s game was Keith Dinwiddie – scoring 12 points in 16 minutes of game action – but he got zero minutes against Pepperdine. More surprisingly, Keshad Johnson and Lamont Bulter only played seven first-half minutes between them on Sunday.
The rotation against the Waves looked more like what we have typically seen under Dutcher. Senior stars Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schackel each had 31 minutes on the court. Five others – Aguek Arop, Nathan Mensah, Trey Pulliam, Adam Seiko, and Terrel Gomez – played between 20 – 28 minutes. As the eighth player to receive significant playing time, Joshua Tomaic added 14 impactful minutes. More than any other game, Sunday was the kind of challenge which shows the true comfort level coaches have with certain players.
With Pepperdine forward Edward Kessler, hot from the outside, All-American candidate Colbey Ross, playing all 40 minutes, and the Aztecs’ offense scuffling, Dutcher choose to win the game with his defense. Matt Mitchell matched up with Kessler in the second half. Pulliam and Seiko hounded Ross all game. Kessler hit his first five three-point attempts but missed his last four after Mitchell switched onto him. Ross had his worst game of the season and one of the worst of his career. On the season, he is averaging 20.5 points a game. This despite scoring a season-low 10 points on 3-10 shooting against the Aztecs. His seven turnovers were also a season-high.
Following the win against Pepperdine, Coach Dutcher credited his team defense as much as Pulliam and Seiko for slowing Ross. Clearly, Dutcher and the staff were more comfortable with their upperclassmen running their defensive schemes than their underclassmen.
“When we are not making shots when nothing is going right offensively, our defense will keep us in the game until we hit some kind of offensive rhythm,” Dutcher said. “That is what happened tonight, we could not do anything offensively, but our defense kept us in the game.”
Quick Takes from last week.
- Joshua Tomaic had his best games as an Aztec Sunday. He played only 14 minutes but led the team with a plus/minus of plus-12. Tomaic’s energy on the court was particularly noticeable. In a game where the Aztecs were not competitive on the scoreboard or with effort, it was Tomaic fighting for offensive rebounds, diving on the ground for loose balls, and savvy moves in the post that ignited his teammates. Following his coming out party, Tomaic said, “I will try to always bring the energy element to the game if I can and, energy is contagious. So once one guy has it, it’s pretty easy for the rest of the guys to catch on. I just try to do my best, and I’m just glad that we came up with the team win.”
- After the under-four minute timeout on Sunday, Dutcher employed a unit who had not been on the court together all game: Arop, Schakel, Pulliam, Gomez, and Mitchell. An offensive rebound that led to a basket for the Waves brought a quick sub for Gomez with Seiko. A possession later, Tomaic subbed in for Arop. Similar lineups with one or no bigs in the game were employed down the stretch against UCLA. It will be interesting to see if these smaller units are how Dutcher chooses to close out games.
- Speaking of substitution patterns, at the 15:06 against St Katherine and the Aztecs down by one, all five starters were subbed out. Against Pepperdine, the Aztecs’ coaches did it again. Down 8-0, all five starters were replaced. The expected, lopsided score could have been the reason for the swap against the Firebird, but against the Waves, it was clearly because of how the starters played. Interestingly, it was his assistants, not Dutcher himself, who made the call for the mass substitution against the Waves. For years, Dutcher has spoken about his staff having more responsibilities than lieutenants in other programs. Apparently, those include substituting the entire starting unit when they are underperforming.
- There were times on Sunday when the SDSU’s Sixth Man was noticeably absent. When the Aztecs made their second-half run to close the gap before taking the lead, the Mad House on the Mesa would have been rocking. However, if the crowd had been present, would State have even trailed as much they did? How often has the intelligent Aztec faithful, packed into Viejas Arena, risen to their feet to encourage their team when they are scuttling? Rousing applause from 12,414 enthusiastic fans when the team is hanging its head was an inspiration sorely missed but thankfully overcome.
Questions for Week 3
Week three of the basketball season finds the Aztecs in a familiar position – ranked in the AP Top 25. To stay in the rankings, they will need a good showing on the road at No. 23 Arizona State. Thursday’s game against the Sun Devils will feature the only two ranked teams playing anywhere in the country. The eyes of the basketball world will be fixed on Tempe, Arizona.
Can SDSU slow down ASU’s high scoring offense?
One test of a team’s performance is how their opponents play against other teams. By this metric, SDSU stands out. UCLA is averaging 87 points a game when they don’t play the Aztecs. UC Irvine is averaging 104 points in their other games. Each scored 58 against SDSU. Pepperdine’s 60 points were the most points the Aztecs have given up this season. Pepperdine came into Sunday’s game averaging 96 points a game. While it is still very early in the season, and the statistics will likely even out as the year progresses, for the Aztecs to walk away with a win Thursday, they will need to continue this trend. Arizona State is averaging 84.5 points a game.
Can the Aztecs create fast breaks or offensive rebounds?
Offensive rebounds and transition defense are connected. If a team sends multiple players to crash the glass, they have fewer players to get back on defense. Teams that are less proficient offensively often risk controlling the transition game with fewer defenders in order to gain extra chances on offense.
In their opening game, Arizona State had more offensive rebounds than Rhode Island. It came at a cost. Rhode Island had 21 fast breakpoints. The Sun Devils had more offensive rebounds on opening night, 16, than they have had in three games since, 15. To stop teams from running and getting easy baskets, Bobby Hurley had to send more players back on defense, which limited their chances on the offensive glass.
Conversely, SDSU has collected more offensive rebounds than their opponents. Against Division One teams, SDSU has averaged five more offensive rebounds than their opposition. Will this discrepancy continue? On the other hand, Arizona State clearly started the year wanting to attack the offensive class. Will they try it again Thursday? If they do, can the Aztecs take advantage and run?
Will the Aztecs’ defense cause another star to lose its luster?
The hype surrounding UCLA’s Chris Smith, UCI’s Collin Welp, and Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross were real, but their play against the Aztecs was not. Arizona State’s hype man is guard Remy Martin. Martin flirted with going to the NBA this past year but choose to return. Already named to the preseason AP All-American Team, containing Martin will be one of the keys to containing the Sun Devils. Martin is averaging 37 minutes a game against ASU’s Division I opponents, so expect to see a lot of him Thursday.
The Sun Devils are 3-1 on the season. They boast wins over Rhode Island, Houston Baptist, and Cal. Their only on the season was to Villanova – who is currently ranked ninth in the country. ASU is led by Remy Martin and two possible NBA first-round picks, Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley. Junior Forward Taeshon Cherry is from El Cajon. He has started the last two games.