Aztecs seek revenge against Rebels in quarterfinals

SDSU's quest to hang another banner starts Thursday against UNLV. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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The Aztecs open the conference tournament with a rematch against UNLV.

SDSU beat the Rebels in Viejas on January 6, 72-61. They recently played in the Thomas and Mack Center on March 5 and lost 62-58. Due to a change this year in how the NET gets calculated, this game will count as a road game for SDSU. KenPom currently has the Aztecs as a four-point favorite. 

The Aztecs are locked into the March Madness tournament regardless of the outcome, although they may fall to a six or seven seed if they lose.

It would also end the Aztecs ‘ year streak of playing in the tournament championship game. The last time SDSU failed to make it to the semifinals was in 2007. Miles Heide was a toddler. Should the Aztecs win, they will likely face Utah State in the semifinals. The other possibilities are Wyoming or Fresno State. The Cowboys and Bulldogs meet in the 8/9 matchup in the play-in games.  

Here are three things to watch for during the game:

Lamont Butler dunks a ball against UNLV at Viejas Arena. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Who wins the physicality battle?

In the first game, the Aztecs dominated inside. The Aztecs shot 53% inside the arc, took 30 free throws, and won the rebounding battle by ten. In the second contest, UNLV matched and even outmuscled the Aztecs. The Rebels won the rebounding battle and finished the game with 10 blocks. 

“On their senior night, they got a 14-point lead and were physically dominating the game,” Dutcher said after the loss to UNLV. “We withstood it and fought our way back in. … I like(d) our grit. I like(d) our determination, but I’m disappointed we didn’t come away with a win.”

For SDSU to win the rubber match, they will need to ramp up the physicality on both ends of the floor. That means controlling the glass, playing pressure defense to force turnovers, and drawing contact in the lane. 

Who gets hot?

Aztec players not named Jaedon LeDee have struggled to score consistently in conference play. It is hard to win basketball games without more diverse offensive options. Other players have shown flashes but can not seem to string games together. Can someone get hot this game and help out LeDee?

“It doesn’t have to be the same guy every game,” Dutcher said following the Boise State game. “I Darrion can shoot them, Lamont can shoot them, he had a couple right now. Parrish, Waters, Byrd, they’re all capable shooters. Saunders is the one making them right now. So, someone’s got to step up and make an open shot. They don’t have to make hard shots, but when they get open shots, a step-in shot, those are the ones we shoot best.”

As coach mentioned, Elijah Saunders has done well in that regard over the last two games, connecting on 54% of his shots from deep. Opponents are daring the Aztecs to shoot the ball. If they start hitting those shots, the offense as a whole will open up. 

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“My guy was playing off me and more towards Jaedon,” Saunders said after hitting a career-high four threes against UNLV in March. “He’s usually a double ,off my man. That probably had a little bit to do with it. I feel like most of my shots were open. They were probably trying to double Jaedon.”

Opponents will continue to double Jaedon LeDee until he graduates, so it is imperative for players to hit the open shots they get because of that.

Who wins the turnover battle?

Somewhat counterintuitively, the Aztecs lost their game when they won the turnover battle and won the game where they lost the turnover battle. Despite this, it will be imperative for both teams to win the turnover battle. Forcing a turnover takes away a scoring opportunity from the opponent and potentially gives a chance at fastbreak points. Given the Aztecs’ struggles in the half-court, they should look to score quickly. Forcing turnovers will help with that. Protecting the ball will prevent UNLV from getting those easy chances. 

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