Five keys for an SDSU Aztecs conference championship

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

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Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports
  1. Stay healthy

Brian Dutcher consistently states, “the best ability is availability.” This certainly rings true this season.

The Aztecs have already had numerous players miss multiple games due to various ailments. Lamont Butler has missed more than a month. Aguek Arop, Adam Seiko, and Tahirou Diabate have all missed games. Although he hasn’t missed any games, Nathan Mensah has been noticeably dealing with back issues. Couple that with the ongoing pandemic that is already affecting multiple Mountain West Conference teams, and the obvious first key is having everyone available as the Aztecs try to win the conference. 

The pandemic has already caused the game between Colorado State and New Mexico to be postponed on Tuesday. Meanwhile, San Jose State is dealing with covid issues of their own, and their first two conference games against Utah State and UNLV have already been postponed as well. These games will hopefully be rescheduled to be played later in the season. The Mountain West recently updated its covid policies, and if postponed games cannot be made up, then they will be declared a no-contest. If a team has the minimum number of players available, which the conference deemed as seven, they can play. If that team chooses not to, then the game will be recorded as a forfeit resulting in a loss for the team choosing not to participate. This loss does not count in the team’s official record, though, per NCAA rules. It only affects the conference standings. If the canceled games are unable to be rescheduled, creating unbalanced final records, the MW will create appropriate tie-break rules at that time.  

Thankfully, the Aztecs’ last game was December 22nd, allowing players to get some rest and time to prepare for the first conference game against UNLV this Saturday. Butler just received medical clearance on Wednesday and was able to participate in practice, according to the San Diego Union Tribune’s Mark Zeigler. “I’m hopeful (Butler) plays Saturday,” Dutcher said earlier this week. That is welcoming news for the Aztecs as they hope to have their stud sophomore back in the lineup just in time for conference play. 

  1. Win your home games

Obviously easier said than done, but given how competitive the Mountain West is going to be this year, the Aztecs must win their home games. With the best home-court advantage in the conference and arguably the west coast, they need to capitalize on games at Viejas Arena.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

The travel and road schedule in the Mountain West can be very treacherous, with many venues being at high altitude. Thankfully, this season, SDSU will avoid traveling to Clune Arena, where Air Force plays their home games, a place where the Aztecs have historically struggled with an all-time record of 11-11 when playing there. But, even with that break, it is tough to win road games in this conference, so the Aztecs need to take care of business at every opportunity at home. 

The Aztecs have only lost one home conference game in each of the last two seasons, winning the conference championship both times. They will need to keep up that success to give themselves the best chance at a three-peat. In 2020-2021, the top five teams in the MW were a combined 54-8 on their home courts. Failing to defend the Madhouse on the Mesa could have serious consequences for the Aztecs.

  1. Bench production

With the struggles that the Aztecs have had on offense this season, bench players will need to provide consistent production. Early in this season, Dutcher has gone as many as 11-deep, with ten players averaging double digits in minutes this season. This is due to the depth of talent this team has, but also the lack of consistent production from the guys coming off the bench. No one has stepped up enough to warrant an increase in minutes. 

It is highly unlikely that Dutcher will be running an eleven-man rotation deep into conference play, although he did play ten guys a ton last season. Keshad Johnson, Arop, Butler, Joshua Tomaic, and Adam Seiko all played minutes in meaningful games down the stretch. With Butler due back, some of the bench players are facing a dramatic drop in their time on the floor.  

All of the guys off the bench have had their moments, but with Butler due back, some of the bench players are facing a dramatic drop in their time on the floor. Keith Dinwiddie scored 12 points against Long Beach State, but it is his only time in double figures. Arop has provided great energy and a much-needed spark when he stepped onto the floor. He poured in nine points and six rebounds against USC. Diabate had a great first half scoring eight points in the game against Georgetown.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Chad Baker-Mazzara has been great in spurts scoring six points in four different contests. But, in order for this team to be as good as it wants to be, it is going to need these bench guys to step up night in and night out. Whichever players prove capable of doing so will see their minutes increase as March Madness approaches. 

  1. Don’t take any game lightly

Already this season, the Aztecs have played down to the level of some of their opponents. They barely held on to defeat UT Arlington, the 265th team in the current NET rankings. SDSU cannot afford to do this in conference play.

Conference games are tough to win. Utah State already lost their first game on the road at Air Force, who was picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason, proving the difficulty of winning conference games. The Aggies have potentially ruined their chance at an at-large NCAA tournament bid. 

SDSU is the flagship program in the Mountain West. When they go on the road in conference play, they will generally see the other team’s biggest crowd of the year. Everywhere they go, they carry a bullseye on their backs. 

For example, on February 11, 2014, the fifth-ranked Aztecs went into Laramie, Wyoming, and shot an abysmal 37.9% from the field in a loss to a Wyoming team that finished 18-15 on the year. Fortunately, it did not cost them a chance to win the conference. 

A year earlier, again in Laramie, the 15th-ranked Aztecs scored nine points in the first half in a 13-point loss to a Wyoming team that finished 4-12 in conference play. 

Most recently, in 2020, the fourth-ranked Aztecs were 26-0 and at home against a UNLV team that finished the year 17-15. The Aztecs came out flat and lost by three, ending their undefeated season. 

SDSU will always get the other team’s best punch in conference play. The Aztecs need to come ready to play every night. They need to avoid the usual slow starts and sluggish performances, or they will be susceptible to losing against conference teams they should beat. 

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  1. Matt Bradley

Bradley came to SDSU having already scored 1,000 points at Cal as a two-time All-Pac-12 performer. The expectations for him were extraordinarily high as he was picked as the preseason Mountain West Newcomer of the Year. Bradley has not been bad by any means, but he has not lived up to those expectations. 

Bradley’s scoring and shooting percentages are down across the board. After averaging 18 points per game on 45.5% from the field, 36.4% from three, and 82.1% from the free-throw line last year at Cal, Bradley is putting up 14.7 points per game, shooting 42.2% from the field, 27.5% from three and 78.7% from the line this season. Hopefully, his lackluster start to the season is him adjusting to a new system and team.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

It is not uncommon to see players’ averages dip in conference play. Bradley’s averages in conference play the last two seasons, however, have been right around his averages for the year. His career-high in points actually came in a conference win last season against an NCAA tournament team in Colorado. Historically, his play has not dipped come conference time. 

Aztecs fans can look back and remember guys like Malachi Flynn, Xavier Thames, and recently, Matt Mitchell, who, in crunch time in big conference games, would step up and make plays to win those games. 

Most notably, it was Flynn who really increased his level of play in conference games. After averaging 15.9 points in the non-conference, Flynn averaged 18.9 points per game in conference while increasing his shooting percentage from the field. SDSU would benefit greatly if Bradley could take after Flynn and step up his play in conference games. 

This Aztec team needs Bradley to be the leader. He is the one guy on the team who can score from all three levels at a consistent clip, even if he has only shown it in flashes this year. Conference play usually produces close games. The difference between raising another banner and looking up at another team in the standings will likely come down to Bradley closing games down the stretch.

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