Aztecs celebrated in ancient style Monday night

The Madhouse on the Mesa lived up to its name on Monday. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

Brian Dutcher watches as the Final Four Banner is unveiled. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

Tepeilwitl was a festival during the ancient Aztec year. Translated as the Feast of the Mountains, it ended on October 31st in our calendar. On Monday night, the Aztecs of San Diego State paid homage to that festival in spectacular fashion.

In front of 12,414 raucous supporters, the program unveiled its conference-leading 15th and 16th championship banners. They now hang in the Viejas Arena rafters because SDSU feasts on Mountain West competition.

“I’m going to look at it every day and then go to work,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame. “Step onto Steve Fisher Court, look up at a Final Four banner; a lot of good stuff has happened here. So, it’s fun. This is a fun place. And, then, the crowd tonight – come on – the energy in the building was incredible. We feed off that. This is a fun place to play and a fun place to come watch a game. It was exciting.”

Tepeilwitl gave way each year to Quecholli. The Spanish described Quecholli as a celebration of hunting. Like their namesakes, SDSU moved on from appreciating its trip to the mountaintop in April’s Final Four into a celebration of the hunt.

Their prey the Titans of Cal State Fullerton.

Jaedon LeDee is a professional playing college basketball

The best college players each season are not necessarily those chosen highest in the NBA draft. A handful of athletes compete at a professional level while still suiting up for a university. In the Fisher/Dutcher era, Malachi Flynn and Xavier Thames were the only Aztecs to play at that elevated rank. Jamaal Franklin and Kawhi Leonard came close, but they did not quite reach those heights on the Mesa.

Early in the 2023-2024 season, Jaedon LeDee looks to be the next in line.

“San Diego State is a really great basketball team,” said Cal State Fullerton head coach Dedrique Taylor. “I thought there were times where we had a chance to exert our dominance, but we didn’t always respond the right way. I love playing San Diego State because they give you a direction in terms of what you need to address with your ball club.”

Fullerton could not exert its dominance because LeDee flexed his. Fullerton committed 22 fouls; LeDee drew 13 of them. The Titans matched 6-foot-6 225 senior John Mikey Square against LeDee. Square only played 10:31 because he couldn’t compete with LeDee’s physicality. After SDSU had blown the game open, Square, apparently in frustration, abandoned any hope of playing team defense and awkwardly spent an entire defensive possession just shoving SDSU’s star athlete.

LeDee only committed one foul and never looked rushed or fazed. The only knock on his game was the five missed free throws, which cost him a chance to score 30. The most amazing aspect of his double-double performance was how easy and unspectacular it looked. He competed like a professional against amateurs.

One game does not make a season, and Friday against BYU will be a much sterner test. But, if LeDee consistently plays at the level he did Monday, the Aztecs can beat any team in the country.

Micah Parrish accepts the baton

Just over four minutes after intermission, Micah Parrish made the play of the game. SDSU had pushed a two-point half-time advantage to seven. After a LeDee block erased a Fullerton possession, the Aztecs missed a pair of shots.

Micah Parrish celebrates on Monday against Fullerton. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

As most of his teammates ran back to the other side of the court, Parrish hovered near the foul line and intercepted a lazy pass with a dive. From the ground, he found Elijah Saunders, who lingered on the Fullerton side of Steve Fisher Court, streaking for an emphatic dunk to push the lead to 49-40.

The next trip down, Parrish responded to a Titan bucket with a three that gave the Aztecs its first double-digit lead since the 13:50 mark of the first half. More than just a few great plays, the series could serve as an acceptance of the baton from last year’s team.

What made Aguek Arop, Adam Seiko, and Nathan Mensah great defensively was the extreme effort they gave on the defensive end. In many ways, Fullerton played more like them than SDSU in the first half. The Titans clawed back into the contest, withstanding the momentum following the opening celebration, on the strength of offensive rebounding and holding the Aztecs to 32% shooting in the first half after they fell behind 14-0.

The game turned when SDSU matched Fullerton’s intensity. Parrish ignited that.

“That’s what makes us San Diego State, we’re going to play hard,” LeDee replied when asked about Parrish’s play. “I mean, we have San Diego State across our chest. It means
a lot to us and all the people that have been here and been playing. That’s what we are going to do every game. We will play hard. We will give it all that we got.”

Later in the press conference, a reporter asked about how Reese Waters played and his progress acclimating to the team. They both talked about how great he will be once he masters the nuance of playing Aztec defense. Their response bore an uncanny resemblance to how Arop, Seiko, and Mensah described Parrish and LeDee at the beginning of last season.

Clearly, the baton has been passed.

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Lamont Bulter, floor general

A new year, a new look for Lamont Butler. Many predicted “the shot” would catapult Butler into a score-first point guard. On Monday, the opposite appears to be the case; the Aztecs should be better for it.

Demarshay Johnson attempting a free throw. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

With so many able scorers on the team, someone has to sacrifice hunting his shot to make the group better. There is no one more suited for the role than SDSU’s point guard, whose extraordinary emotional intelligence off the court should translate well to knowing how to lead his teammates.

“He made some great kick-out passes,” Dutcher said. “A lot of those (step-in) 3’s were from his penetration and kick out. … He had seven assists, which is what you want out of your point guard. Seven assists is a really good number for him. Seven assists, two turnovers, that’s a good game.”

Butler’s play on Monday also should help his draft stock. SDSU has been successful playing positionless basketball, but in the NBA, only the best players truly are permitted to play out of position. The professional game may not conform to past roles that easily divide guards, forwards, and centers, but there are still player-types scouts covet.

Among them is a point guard who initiates the offense for others while playing exceptional defense. Butler performed these tasks suberbly against Fullerton. In 28:28 of playing time, he dished an excellent seven assists against only two turnovers. The number would have been higher if his teammates had made a few more of the open jumpers Butler created.

Butler also excelled defensively. Fullerton’s senior guards DJ Brewton and Max Jones combined for 33 of the Titan’s 61 shot attempts. They had the same number of made baskets as they had turnovers, eight. Butler played a huge part in shutting them down.

CSU Fullerton, the perfect first opponent

Among the other top 25 contests on Monday, No. 9 Tennessee defeated in-state rival Tennessee State (Kenpom rank 323) 80-42, No. 13 Miami beat the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Kenpom 330) 101-60, and No. 23 Saint Mary’s took down Division II Cal State University, Stanislaus, 107-28. The Gaels’ 79-point win over SDSU’s sister school set the Saint Mary’s program record for margin of victory.

Compared to these foes, Fullerton (Kenpom 183) presented the Aztecs with a much bigger challenge. Even without senior guard Tory San Antonio, the Titans started a pair of seniors and three juniors. That experience served as a baptism into the college game for SDSU’s inexperienced underclassmen.

“Yes,” LeDee replied when asked if his younger teammates benefited from playing such a veteran team. “Every minute you play in a live game, you get better. That’s what do here. We are going to get better every game, every minute. I’m glad they got to see that no one is really going to lay down; you’ve got to put them down. That’s just a good learning point for them.”

Miles Heide, in particular, should be better for his time against Fullerton. Multiple times, Heide had trouble with the Titans’ physical play. He lost rebounds, got bumped out of position, and had trouble defending the rim. Heide competed with good effort but could not finish plays. Expect the young center to grow from the experience.

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