The long-awaited start to San Diego State’s 2022-2023 season tipped off tonight in an exhibition game against San Diego Christian. The roster is one of the deepest ever, and the expectations are high.
With a loaded forward position, there were question marks about the starting lineup, but Lamont Butler, Darrion Trammell, Matt Bradley, Keshad Johnson, and Nathan Mensah led the way.
Exhibition games prepare the team to go through their normal pre-game routines. Coach Brian Dutcher needs his team adjusted to the environment on November 7th against Cal State Fullerton. But the coaches are still paying close attention to roster construction and minute allocation.
There’s a phrase, having too many horses in the stable.
Ten players received over 10 minutes which does not include Aguek Arop, who will load manage when the opportunity is available. Four players were in double figures, with three players scoring 13 points. The wealth was shared as the only scholarship player not to score was Mensah. They had 24 assists on 38 made field goals. The ball movement impressed Dutcher the most tonight.
With a team so deep, these exhibition games are important to figure out which players will receive the majority of minutes. The obvious suspects to weed out would be the freshman Miles Byrd and Elijah Saunders. But the two of them excelled on the court. Saunders fought on the glass and looked like a solid big man. He showed off a jumper and post moves finishing with 11 points. Byrd played with extreme confidence for a freshman. His size makes him a mismatch to any opposing guard. He finished with eight points.
“I love my rotation,” Dutcher said after the game. “I’m not sure how all their parents will feel about it at the end of the year, but I love it right now.”
Before the game tipped off, the San Diego Christian head coach echoed to his players to focus on the first four minutes. Credit to the NAIA school, they held a 4-2 lead at the first TV timeout. They forced SDSU to go 1-for-7 from the field and commit three turnovers.
The Aztecs started slow in a closed-door scrimmage to UCLA as well. “We have to get to a better start offensively; we got good shots, we just weren’t making them,” Dutcher said after the game.
But the early struggles tonight can be attributed to the Aztec excitement for their first game in front of fans. Dutcher said the players were excited as they dunked everything in pre-game warm-ups and played faster than normal. But they quickly starting firing on all cylinders; aside from a cherry-picking dunk from the Hawks, they did not score for the next five minutes, and SDSU went on a 15-2 run.
Offensively, the first half was sloppy for SDSU, with nine turnovers. They missed open looks but still shot 44% from the field. The second half was executed at a higher level with only five turnovers and the creation of an insurmountable SDSU lead, winning 102-52. With a minute to play, non-scholarship player Cam Lawin put the cherry on top with a three-pointer to put the Aztecs over the century mark.
The Hawks starting lineup featured three players under 6 feet. They had only two players over 6’6. They paid the price against the bigger Aztec team on the glass. SDSU won the rebound advantage 43-26, and they grabbed ten offensive rebounds.
The Aztecs used their size and athletic advantage in ball pressure.
In warm-ups to prepare for the Hawks, Butler hounded Trammell as he dribbled it up the court. The player who won Mountain West defensive team honors last season is a tremendous influence on Trammell defensively. The Hawks head coach yelled at his team, “you can’t dribble against this team, pass it!” The backcourt pair combined for three steals a piece. Even with nearly a 40-point lead and six minutes to play, Trammell committed a foul for being too aggressive in his press defense.
The younger Hawks team started two freshmen; they were introduced to college basketball the hard way. SDSU’s press defense caused havoc. In the first half, they committed 15 turnovers. It did not get easier, they finished with 26.
In SDSU’s closed-door scrimmage to UCLA, they had 27 fast break points.
One thing was clear tonight; the Aztecs are looking to run in transition this season. Last year, there were moments of stagnant basketball with frequent isolation. As tonight demonstrated, it is difficult to score triple digits without getting down the floor quickly. Tonight, they had 30 fast-break points.
A lot of fans tonight awaited the appearance of Jaedon LeDee. This was his first game minutes in two seasons after redshirting. He did not disappoint. He soared for rebounds with two hands and bullied players in the post. But he showed the ability to play smaller as he showed off his jump shot with two three-pointers from the top of the key and an ability to stay in front of quicker players on the perimeter. He finished with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Johnson carried the load in the starting lineup, but he thinks he will be a dangerous duo with LeDee.
“Knowing that I can play alongside Jaedon, it takes a big load off my back,” Johnson said. “I know I can trust who’s ever coming in next, and I know I can go my hardest as soon as I come out the game, he’s going to take that to the next level.”
“To go against him every day, he sharpens my iron. Once we had a game playing with each other, his energy is out the roof, so I can’t do anything but feed off that.
Next Monday, the Aztecs will tip off for their first game of the season against Cal State Fullerton. SDSU won last season by double digits, but the Titans made the NCAA tournament and return many pieces.
The newcomers will be introduced to a new type of preparation, a real opponent for the win/loss column. “Starting tomorrow, it’s all about Fullerton,” Dutcher said.
The Aztecs play their biggest non-conference games in the month of November; they will need to play their best basketball early and have their best lineups prepared.