Aztecs, Viejas crowd too big for UNLV’s 5-star freshman

UNLV's Dedan Thomas was hounded all afternoon. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Jaedon LeDee scores two of his 21 points against UNLV. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Dedan Thomas, UNLV’s sensational freshman point guard and the 22nd overall player in the Class of 2024 should be a high school senior. He reclassified and became a Rebel this season, following in his dad’s footsteps a year earlier than expected.

Prior to Saturday, Thomas had competed in 12 games with UNLV. Five of the contests failed to keep track of the attendance, likely because the crowds were too sparse. On average, 4,064 spectators have witnessed Thomas’ career in the other seven contests. UNLV’s home opener was the largest audience he’s played in front of. The official attendance for that game was 5,573.

Only four months removed from his 18th birthday, the five-star guard stepped into Viejas Arena and played in front of the biggest and most hostile crowd of his collegiate career. For most of the afternoon, Thomas’ youth was apparent. Given his pedigree, Saturday will likely be one of the few times the stage will be a little too big for him.

It’s an incredible environment,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame. “It just builds on itself. We start rolling downhill, the crowd gets in the game, the other team is wondering what’s going on, and the arena gets loud. The other team can’t communicate with their coaching staff unless they take a timeout because it’s so loud and they can’t hear.”

A 71.4% shooter from the foul line coming in, Thomas missed all four of his attempts against the Aztecs. 41.4% of his 3-point shots found the bottom of the net away from Viejas Arena. Just one of his six attempts found their mark Saturday.

In the first half, when SDSU built a ten-point lead, the freshman phenom had three points on 1-5 shooting. His first of a game-high five assists came about 10 minutes into the game. By the time he found his footing, the Aztecs had built a commanding lead they would not surrender.

Lamont Butler blocks Dedan Thomas’ shot. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Throughout the night, Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell hounded the young point guard. They proved yet again that the experience that comes with age and years of playing trumps potential, even when it’s wrapped in five-star packaging.

Thomas also struggled when Jaedon LeDee or Jay Pal switched on to him. A star finds a way to capitalize on mismatches, but a young player in his first true road environment defers to others.

To his credit, as the game wore on, Thomas adjusted to his surroundings. He made a few outstanding plays, scoring through contact and flashing the shot-making ability that made him such a coveted prospect. If his competitive spirit is as developed as his basketball skill, when SDSU visits UNLV on March 5th, Thomas will be at his best.

“(Thomas)’ a dynamic player, and I was worried about him,” Dutcher said. “… he’s like all point guards. He walks the line of when to play for himself and when to get his teammates involved. That’s a hard thing even for a coach to tell a player. … this kid has that ability to score on his own, but yet make his team better.”

Aztec nation impacted the outcome of Saturday’s contest. They created an atmosphere that rattled a fantastic player. In doing so, they made life easier for the home team.

Confidence and Turnovers

For a small stretch of Saturday’s game, the Rebels made LeDee look uncomfortable on the offensive end. A few possessions of discomfort are significant enough to bring up because it was the first time all year that LeDee has had trouble with a defensive tactic. Future opponents are going to copy what UNLV did and hope to slow him down.

Dutcher explained postgame that the Rebels sent an extra defender after SDSU’s star began dribbling. Often, the second defender would come from the baseline, which hides him from LeDee’s view. It also makes finding his open teammate more challenging because that player is on the opposite side of the court from where LeDee posts up.

In contention for National Player of the Year, Jaedon LeDee has been spectacular. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“They’re starting to send two defenders at him every time,” Dutcher explained. “That can be frustrating. That you’re going to have to be a great playmaker now, Jaedon because nobody really scores against two defenders. They don’t do it in the NBA with the greatest players in the world.”

“Jaedon’s got to find a way to get his teammates open 3-point shots when they double him that way they’ll be afraid to double because they don’t want to give up threes when they can give up tough twos. Jaedon’s going to walk that line all year as our best player as to how to play when he’s facing multiple defenders.”

There are numerous ways to attack what UNLV did. If recognized quickly, LeDee can make a move to the middle of the floor, away from the second defender. The unguarded Aztec can cut to the basket and become a more viable option than a cross-court pass. Another of LeDee’s teammates can cut down the middle of the court. LeDee is more than capable of figuring out how to counter it.

“They were doubling, and I had some turnovers I’m not too proud of,” LeDee said. “Just get back to the drawing board and keep getting better. Like coach Dutcher said, I think they’ll continue to do that throughout the year, so it’s something I have to get used to.”

Turnovers were the only negative from a dominant opening week of Mountain West Conference play. Given LeDee’s usage, his four against the Rebel isn’t a terrible number. Jay Pal’s first two MW games, however, tell a different story. SDSU gave the ball away 29 times last week; Pal committed eight of those. No other Aztec had more than four combined against Fresno State and UNLV.

The flip side of Pal’s mistakes is the unique, winning qualities he brings to the court. His instincts and style take pressure off LeDee while filling in gaps everywhere on the floor. Despite playing 19 fewer minutes, Pal tied LeDee for the most offensive and total rebounds.

The transfer forward is also starting to get to the line at a high rate. He only shot 4-6 from the line in his first nine games. Over SDSU’s past six contests, he’s made 21-27 free throws, including 7-8 against the Rebels. There’s a risk/reward to Pal’s game. His aggressiveness is a major reason why SDSU has improved over the past month. If he can limit some of his errors while continuing to compete at a high level, the Aztecs can reach another level.

“You try not to frustrate them,” Dutcher explained on his approach to encouraging improvement. “I want them to be aggressive, but they’ve got to make better decisions. You can’t just yell at them for every turnover, then all of a sudden, they just become robots out there. I don’t want that.”

“I want them to be aggressive. I want them to play the right way and believe in themselves more than anything. I don’t want to take away their confidence. But I’m trying to teach them at the same time that they can be better. That you can play free, play hard, but play mistake-free if you just concentrate a little harder. We’re trying to get there. That’s part of the journey. That’s the beauty of it.”

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The Madhouse on The Mesa

The intelligence of the Viejas crowd is always fun to witness. Unlike many spectators, the fans at Viejas are glued to the action. Any missed travel calls by the refs and the fans groan in unison. This is expected from Aztec Nation and hardly worth mentioning despite how rare it is elsewhere.

The festivities prior to Saturday’s game against UNLV made for great environment. (Don De Mars/EVT)te

Saturday, the crowd took it up a notch. A few series after Jaedon LeDee picked up a foul for pushing off on a dribble near midcourt, a UNLV player did roughly the same thing without a whistle. The crowd erupted at almost the same time as Dutcher on the sideline. It is a savvy detail that thousands of supporters picked up on together in real-time.

Some other examples of this quality: When UNLV’s Jalen Hill limped toward the locker room after suffering an injury, the section surrounding and above the visitors’ tunnel applauded him as he left the court. As the Rebels closed to within seven points in the second half, the arena roared in encouragement with the Aztecs in possession of the ball.

Chants of “De-Fense” filled the arena at critical times. When Chet Carney stood up and yelled “1-2-3,” all of Viejas responded, “Aztecs.” The appreciation the fans showed for great play, with thunderous applause as the game went to timeout, was special.

Aztec nation’s energy brought on a nationally televised game and sold the brand of Aztec basketball in a manner money and advertisements can’t buy.

“Our crowd is everything to us,” Dutcher explained. “Viejas Arena is the kind of environment anybody in the country would want to play in front of, and we get to play in front of it every game.”

Quick Takes

– Postgame, Dutcher said he was less sure about Miles Byrd’s availability than Reese Waters. Ironically, Byrd showed fewer signs of an injury during the game than Waters.

Aqeel Quinn returned to The Mesa. (Don De Mars/EVT)

– Byrd’s ability to get his hands on the ball is impressive. During preseason practices, he led the team in blocked shots. He’s continued to be a presence at the rim. Byrd also pokes away the ball as the opposition dribbles and wreaks havoc with how he uses his length to bother ball handlers.

– Lamont Butler’s defense continues to impress. His best sequence was blocking Dedan Thomas’ shot at the rim and forcing a shot clock violation. It is pictured above.

– Darrion Trammell’s, health has , returned and with it some of the shot-making ability that makes him special. His shots are also very timely. His traditional three-point play with 4:54 left in the contest effectively sealed the win.

– Aqeel Quinn received a warm welcome from the fans when shown on the big screen. In a day and age of NIL and frequent transfers, fewer legacy players like Quinn will be on rosters across college basketball. It can only help SDSU keep current players by featuring former ones like they did on Saturday. The bond AQ and most former Aztecs have with their fans is very valuable.

– How important was the 20-5 run over the first nine minutes of the game? UNLV outscored SDSU 55-52 the rest of the way.

– Before the game, the university hosted “The Courtyard.” It was an interactive event with food, drinks, and games. It brought the energy usually pent up inside into the open. Improving fan experience is on the top of SDSU’s “To-Do List.” It was a good start.

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