The San Diego State Aztecs defeated Saint Katherine 65-44 in their one and only exhibition game on Wednesday night at Viejas Arena.
Here are five observations from the game.
First game at Viejas Arena with fans in 20 months
“Viejas is magical,” said head coach Brian Dutcher in an interview with XTRA 1360 before the game on Wednesday. Aztec players and coaches have expressed eagerness to be back playing in Viejas with fans throughout the preseason. Several Aztec players who were new to the program last year had yet to experience such an atmosphere due to the COVID-19 restrictions on attendance last year.
Coach Dutcher noted postgame that it was a “good crowd for an exhibition game.” Matt Bradley, one of those newcomers to the program, discussed the atmosphere postgame. “When the game started, you know, just looking into the arena and seeing how many people showed up. It was just an amazing atmosphere. This is my first time playing in front of fans in so long. But just playing here for the first time was really special and amazing.”
The Show and the rest of Aztec Nation will look to remind everyone that it is one of the best college basketball atmospheres in the country.
The starting lineup
Coming into the season, three of the five starting members were all but certain in point guard Trey Pulliam, center Nathan Mensah, and guard/forward Matt Bradley. The final two spots were up for grabs. While the Aztecs traditionally play positionless basketball, it made sense that the two spots would be filled with a wing player alongside Pulliam and Bradley and a bigger forward next to Mensah.
The options up front were likely Keshad Johnson, Joshua Tomaic, and Aguek Arop. While Tomaic played backup center last year, he has transitioned to a power forward role this season. Arop began the season last year as the starter at the position and likely would again this year if not for his continued medical issues, which may keep him from playing this season. Coach Dutcher chose Johnson, who is primed to make a leap from a limited backup role to a starter in his junior season.
The two options on the wing were Lamont Butler and Adam Seiko. While Butler brings more ball-handling and playmaking, Seiko brings spacing due to his improved three-point shooting and experience as a fifth-year senior. Coach Dutcher chose Butler to start, which means the only two point guards on the team would start. In the early parts of this game and likely to be the case throughout the season, Dutcher subbed Butler out first and made sure to stagger Pulliam and Butler, so one of them was on the court at all times.
Matt Bradley is as good as advertised.
Bradley, who was voted Preseason Newcomer of the Year in the Mountain West media poll, showed why on Wednesday. Bradley finished with 15 points on 6/11 shooting, two rebounds, two assists, and zero turnovers.
During one stretch in the first half, Bradley scored eight consecutive points, six of which were on elbow jumpers out of the high post. Moments later, Bradley ran pick and roll and dished an assist to a rolling Mensah for a wide-open dunk. In the second half, Bradley ran a fast break, where he dribbled all the way down from midcourt and finished with a finger roll. He also knocked down a three-pointer. Scoring at all three levels were on full display despite only playing 18 minutes.
It certainly would not be surprising to see Bradley not only win Newcomer of the Year but contend for Player of the Year as well.
The offense did not shoot well.
While the game statistics technically did not count, and the Aztecs played 16 guys with no player getting more than 20 minutes of playing time, the shooting percentages were alarming.
The Aztecs shot 40% (25-62) from the field, 19% (5-26) from 3pt land, and 53% (10-19) from the free-throw line. The 3pt percentage would have been even worse (started 2-20) if not for three consecutive makes late in the game, one by Che Evans and two by Seiko.
One of the concerns heading into the season for the Aztecs was replacing three players (Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, and Terrell Gomez) that were prolific outside shooters for the team last season. Time will tell whether this performance will be an outlier or the norm.
The final score
The Aztecs defeated Saint Katherine last season by 42. In 2013, the Aztecs won the matchup by 83. Two days before this year’s game, Saint Katherine played at Arizona State (who the Aztecs host on November 18) and lost by 67.
Given those margins, should a 65-44 victory be cause for concern? Coach Dutcher does not seem to think so. “I don’t think there was a starter that had over 20 minutes. So we played a lot of guys, and we looked like it at times. You get to mix and match groups out there, guys played out of position, and you’re as good as you practice, and sometimes we don’t practice with those lineups, and it showed in the game today.”
After taking a 20 point lead at halftime and extending the lead to 34 with 13:27 remaining in the game, the Aztecs looked to be on their way to a 40+ point victory. Things went downhill after that. “I thought we were sloppy (in the second half) and didn’t execute at a very high level,” said coach Dutcher.
The Aztecs officially begin their season at Viejas Arena on November 9 against UC Riverside. The game tips off at 7pm.