Another poor first half dooms Aztecs’ title chance

Credit: Deanna Gold/ EVT Sports

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Credit: Deanna Gold/ EVT Sports

The 2023-2024 San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball team sure knows how to follow the script. 

Throughout the regular season, they began games flat and trailed often, some even by double digits. Almost every time, they grinded their way back into the game with a shot to win at the end. They won some but lost more, including all six road matchups against the top of the conference. 

Their three games in the Mountain West Tournament this weekend were eerily the same.

On Thursday, they trailed UNLV by ten with 1:20 remaining in the first half but won in overtime.

On Friday, they trailed Utah State by 17 with 7:25 remaining in the first half but won by 16.

On Saturday, down 14 to New Mexico with 4:34 to go in the first half. This time around, the Aztecs could not hold a four-point second-half lead and succumbed to the Lobos by seven. 

The Aztecs played with fire during the tournament, and on Saturday, they got burned.

“Obviously, everyone wants to get off to a great start, but it is what it is,” said SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher. “All we can do is create open shots, and if they go in, we’ll get off to a better start. We go to Jaedon early, and they double him, and he kicks it out. I think we had a couple of wide-open looks off post doubles early, and (if) you make them all of a sudden, you’re off and running. If they don’t go in, we don’t give in, which I like about this team.”

Credit: Deanna Gold/ EVT Sports

The Aztecs will enter the NCAA Tournament with a 24-10 record and a very strong metric resume, including a NET ranking likely in the late teens or early 20s (they entered Saturday’s game at 18). By those standards, they are a very good team. 

But what is there to make of a team that continually begins games poorly and unprepared? Is that a sign of a very good team? Some would argue not. The flip side is that the team that never panics and always makes a run to erase the lead shows their overall value. 

“We’re tough,” said Dutcher. “We got grit about us. We don’t give in. Down 17 yesterday. Down 12 today. We just keep fighting.” 

As they enter the final tournament of the season, they stare at the potential of being a team to fail, hanging a banner after finishing fifth in the regular season and second in the conference tournament.  

“I feel like we can go in there and make some noise, and we’re going into it with a positive mindset and get better from this loss and go in there and try to get some more wins,” said senior guard Lamont Butler postgame.  

After reaching the National Championship game last year, expectations are high. The story of this year’s team will ultimately be written based on what has yet to come. 

“I think we played good basketball here the last three days in Vegas, and that was important leading into the NCAA Tournament, which is the dream of everybody,” said Dutcher. “That’s what you grow up wanting to play in. So, as disappointed as we are over losing today, our best basketball is ahead of us. We’re excited to hear our name called tomorrow, and we will be ready to play. We will learn from tonight and hopefully make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament starting next week.”

When the selection committee released its top 16-bracket on February 17, SDSU ranked 14th overall and a 4 seed in the Midwest region. Since then, the Aztecs lost four of their last eight games heading into the tournament, including their first Quad 2 loss of the season. Any slim chance of a 4-seed blew away with the loss to the Lobos on Saturday night. 

A 5-seed would seem favorable at this point for the Aztecs, but a possibility of a 6-seed looms. They will find out on Sunday, just like the rest of the country, who, where, and when they will play next.  

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Rebounding deficiencies rear its ugly end again

On January 13, the Aztecs suffered their only double-digit loss of the season to the Lobos in Albuquerque. The Lobos outmuscled the Aztecs in every way, outrebounding them by ten, collecting 13 on the offensive glass, and blocking 14 shots. 

Mountain West co-Freshman of the Year, JT Toppin, scored 17 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and blocked five shots in the performance. 

Credit: Deanna Gold/ EVT Sports

In the rematch at Viejas Arena on February 6, the Aztecs held their own on the glass, only losing the battle by one in their victory, but Toppin still added 18 points and 10 rebounds, and the Lobos grabbed 14 on the offensive glass as a team. 

SDSU won the rebounding battle in the quarterfinals and semifinals by 19 and 8, respectively, a good sign heading into the rubber match against the Lobos. 

Saturday’s contest did not start off well in that department. New Mexico grabbed eight of the first nine rebounds of the game, five of which came on the offensive end. It helped the Lobos build a lead that ballooned to 14 before the Aztecs roared back. 

For the middle portion of the game, the Aztecs guards packed the pain and helped them control the glass. 5 ’10 Darrion Trammell led the team with seven rebounds while reserves Miles Byrd (6 rebounds in 13 minutes) and Reese Waters (5 rebounds in 17 minutes) helped the cause tremendously. 

Ultimately, Toppin and the rest of the Lobos used the boards and 18 second chance points (to only 6 by the Aztecs) to come away with the trophy. With the game tied at 59 with 2:31 to go in the game, Toppin (13 pts, 11 rebs) rebounded a miss by Tru Washington and layed it in to give the Lobos the lead for good. 

“It was second chance opportunities down the stretch that won the game, whether it was a missed free-throw, a put-back opportunity,” Dutcher explained. “We caused initial misses, but we didn’t finish it with rebounds, and that’s the difference in the game.”

Depending on who the Aztecs will play in the NCAA Tournament, rebounding deficiencies can end their season much earlier than it did last year. 

When asked what the team needs to improve on heading into the tournament, Butler pointed to rebounding. 

“I feel like just finishing off every possession with a rebound, I feel like that’s going to be important for us going into the tournament,” he noted. 

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