An invisible challenge facing the Aztecs

Credit: SDSU

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SDSU Athletics

The beauty of March Madness is the win or go-home format that allows frequent upsets.

If SDSU and Syracuse played a seven-game series like in the NBA, it would not be very competitive with the Aztecs winning in five or six games. The effectiveness of the Syracuse 2-3 zone would diminish as its novelty wore off. The Orange have been successful in the NCAA Tournament – even as a lower seed – primarily because their defense forces teams to play differently than they are accustomed to.

How do you plan for the unpredictability of a winner take all game? That is the question every coach tries to answer as they manage the often tumultuous emotional fluctuations of the young people in their charge. In the regular season, routines are the most common solution because they give athletes structures they can adjust to. It is much easier to be mentally prepared for a predictable schedule than the unknown.

Routine, though, is not a luxury SDSU has had leading up to tomorrow’s game against Syracuse. The Aztecs traveled to Las Vegas last week for the Mountain West Conference Tournament, won three games in three days, celebrated their championship, and then, flew directly to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament.

“We just try to keep them busy,” Coach Dutcher said when asked how the team has adjusted to the change in routine, “Everybody’s doing that. You read stories where some teams are bringing in a ping pong table and doing different things to try and give them other things to do. We’re keeping them regimented.”

“We’ve been hard at study hall. Even though that seems like ‘Wow, what a thing to have to do on the road,’ our kids enjoy academics. They like study hall. They get work done. They are student-athletes. It’s not all fun and games, but I like the fact we can spend an hour and a half a day on our academics.”

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“We took a walk outside yesterday. We went and messed around on a baseball field. We’re watching more film sessions than we normally would. … everybody is going through the same thing. It’s not like we’re the only team going through it. Everybody in this event is in the hotel all day and trying to find ways to keep their teams engaged and mentally sharp.”

The fight to keep these young men locked into the task at hand is easier than most years in one regard. Usually, the number of media events the team has to participate in is more demanding. Panels with the head coach and five players have been scrapped in favor of Zoom calls. Still, radio and tv interviews before and after practice can take a toll.

SDSU star Matt Mitchell, who is up to nine post-season honors in the last week, in particular, has been available for numerous interviews. How will this step outside the normal routine affect him and the Aztecs? We will find out tomorrow. Beyond X’s and O’s, the team best able to handle the strains of life in the NCAA Tournament Bubble will be in the best position to win.

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