Final Four Preview: SDSU Aztecs against FAU Owls
It’s what every collegiate athlete dreams of. Playing college basketball in April. March Madness is for crazy upsets, Cinderella stories, and the best four teams advancing to the final weekend of the tournament.
“We know we can win this thing, and we know we got to focus on one game at a time,” Lamont Butler said in Tuesday’s press conference.
The Aztecs will spend all week preparing for the FAU Owls. They will play in NRG Stadium, home to the Houston Texans, with over 72,000 fans in attendance. An unforgettable moment for everyone involved.
“It’s going to be a dogfight; it’s going to be a competitive game,” Darrion Trammell said.
How they got here:
Both teams needed upset victories in order to make it to Houston, Texas. For their first NCAA tournament win ever, No. 9 FAU barely escaped No.8 Memphis 66-65. FAU made the game-winning field goal with 2.5 seconds remaining. Next, they faced No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson, who gave the nation one of the biggest upsets ever against Purdue. The Owls overmatched the lower seed winning 78-70.
The next wins for the Owl were very impressive. They defeated No. 4 Tennessee, the number one ranked defense according to Kenpom, 62-55. Then in the Elite Eight, they traded baskets with No. 3 Kansas State until finally grabbing a lead and holding off the Wildcats 79-76.
They have won in a variety of ways on their path to the Final Four. Through rebounding, late-game execution, and stingy defense, they have proven they deserve to be in the national spotlight.
San Diego State, on the other hand, has made it to Houston through their bread and butter, elite defense. Charleston scored 23 points below their season average, Furman scored 28 points below average, Alabama 18 points, and Creighton had their worst second half of the year en route to scoring 20 below their season average.
Offensively, the Aztecs have relied on their stellar guard play between Trammell and Butler, but every player has made an impact during the team’s Final Four run.
Who is FAU?
FAU is looked at as an anomaly. They are the first nine seeds to make the final four since 2013. Only six teams seeded lower than the Owls have ever made the national semifinal. But they are not a typical nine seed.
They are 35-3, the most wins in program history. Kenpom ranked them 23rd coming into the NCAA tournament and 17th now. The other nine seeds are currently ranked 21st, 31st, and 35th.
The Owls come from a mid-major conference, Conference USA. This is the second time in NCAA history that two non-Power five teams have faced off against each other in the Final Four (2011, Butler vs. VCU).
CUSA was ranked as the tenth most competitive conference according to Kenpom, with the majority of the league being average to below average. But North Texas and UAB were in the top 44 of Kenpom. FAU went 4-1 against them.
They are an inexperienced team with only one senior on the roster. But no Tournament grows a team up more than this one.
Against Charleston and Furman, it was clear that the Aztec defense overmatched the Cougars and Paladins. Neither team could compete with the more physical and athletic SDSU defense. Creighton had not faced a top 65 defense in the month and a half before facing the Aztecs and likely felt the effects of a step-up in competition.
The Owls have experience facing elite defense. Kansas State has the 28th best, and Tennessee is the best. They have faced six top-40 defenses. They are undefeated in those games.
Through their balance and depth, they have advanced in the tournament. FAU has an efficient offense, 24th best in the nation according to Kenpom. Like the Aztecs, they rely on their bench, going nine deep. They have different players step up on a game-by-game basis. The Aztecs will not be able to wear the Owls down like they have done against previous opponents.
Against Kansas State, four players were in double figures. Against Tennessee, Michael Forrest checked in and changed the game with eight consecutive points in the second half. Against Memphis, Giancarlo Rosado came off the bench to provide 15 points.
37.1% of their offensive points come from beyond the arc. That is the 25th-highest percentage in the nation. They convert threes at a 36.5% rate, good for 44th in the country. Nicholas Boyd and Bryan Greenlee will be heavily scouted as they are the marksmen of the team. SDSU’s first three matchups in the NCAA tournament were against opponents who lived by the three-ball. If they continue to defend beyond the arc, they are in a good position to win.
Johnell Davis is the leading scorer of the team. He averages 13.9 points for the season and 17.25 during the NCAA tournament. Twice he dished out five assists during the Owls’ run. He is a volume shooter that has a knack for finding the free-throw line, which he converts at an 85% rate.
Key to the game: The Aztec big men
The Aztecs must take advantage of their size. The Owls have four starters 6-foot-4 or shorter, and Vladislav Goldin anchors the paint at 7-foot-1. Their bench is all under 6-foot-5 except for Rosado, who is 6-foot-8.
Considering they are the 328th tallest team in the nation, they rebound the ball well. They have outrebounded their opponents in every game in the NCAA tournament. Against Kansas State, they miraculously won after committing 22 turnovers. This was due to winning the rebound battle 44-22 against a Big-12 foe, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds.
Denying extra possessions will be critical at this stage. The Aztecs only won the rebound battle against Charleston and Furman and gave up 29 offensive rebound opportunities to Alabama and Creighton.
Given their height disadvantage, the Owls guard the paint phenomenally. They allow opponents to shoot 44.8% from 2-point field goals, 11th best in the nation. Lately, the Aztecs have made it a priority to win the battle of the paint. The game will likely be decided inside. Aguek Arop, Jaedon LeDee, Keshad Johnson, and Nathan Mensah should all have opportunities to score over smaller defenders. Look for the Owls to collapse the paint and for the SDSU attackers to make the right decision when passing out to the perimeter.
The lack of height at the forward position may be music to Matt Bradley’s ears. Since last season he has had his struggles against taller defenders. He has been better this season. But Brandon Miller and Arthur Kaluma gave him trouble during the last two games. With more air space and the ability to see over a defender, it may be exactly what he needs for his offensive game to break out.
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.