Four thoughts on SDSU’s undressing of San Jose State

(Josh Jimenez/EVT)

Head coach Brian Dutcher speaks to Darrion Trammell earlier in the year (Don De Mars/EVT)

Brian Dutcher – The Prophet

San Diego State opened up a 19-point lead at intermission by holding SJSU to one point over the final 10:32 in the first half.  After intermission, the poor shooting continued with one key difference. The Spartans started rebounding their own misses.

SJSU had eight second-chance points, five of them occurring on a pair of possessions at the beginning of the final 20 minutes. They prevented the Aztecs from completely running away with the contest.

“I told them in the second half, ‘the key to the start of the second half is rebounding,’” Dutcher said postgame with a smile. “We’re going to cause the first miss. Well, the first two minutes, they had three offensive rebounds that led to baskets. I don’t want to say I’m a prophet, but I kind of know what the problem is going to be. I try to give them a warning of what it’s going to be, and then, when it happens it gives me more credibility as a coach.”

Dutcher’s strength as a tactician is understated. The above was not the only time his understanding of the game impacted the outcome. 

SDSU pressed throughout the night. Most games the Aztecs guard the opposimg point guard the length of the court. On Saturday they ran a second defender at the Spartans primary ball-handler more than they typically do. In the first half, this sped SJSU up and led to ten turnovers.

At one point, Spartans head coach Tim Miles walked down his bench to implore his players, “We’ve got seven turnovers. We’ve got to clean that up!” On cue, he turned around to see an errant pass sail into the Viejas Arena stands for miscue number eight.

Not only did the pressure lead to ten points, but the Spartans started their sets late in the possession. Omari Moore came in averaging 19.6 points per game during Mountain West play. He had three at the half and hoisted up a number of ugly attempts because he ran out of time on the shot clock. 

Often, a press only works in spurts because, eventually, the tactic leads to easy baskets when the pressure is broken. SDSU’s last line of defense was sensational Saturday. Multiple times, they met Spartan players are the rim and prevented layups without fouling. That different players showed the same technique is a sign of terrific coaching. Dutcher knew where the inflection point of his strategy would be and prepared his players accordingly.

The signature of the Aztecs’ headman on Saturday’s game could also be seen at the end of the game. Throughout the preseason and early part of the year, much attention was paid to who would start for the Red and Black. Dutcher, when asked about this aspect of the game, emphasized the importance of who closes games more than who would be on the court at tip-off.

How Dutcher decides who will play Trevor Hoffman on a given night is intriguing. The feel he showed Saturday went against the grain, and it closed the door on SJSU’s comeback.

With 15:46 left in the game SDSU jumped to a 27-point lead, its biggest advantage on the night. Over the next ten minutes, the Spartans chipped away. They were within striking distance, down 11 with 5:06 remaining.

For the remainder of the contest, Dutcher sat his two leading scorers and best players on the evening, Matt Bradley and Keshad Johnson. He chose a lineup of Lamont Butler, Adam Seiko, Micah Parrish, Aguek Arop, and Jaedon LeDee. SJSU did not score until the five were substituted out with 58 seconds remaining.

“We weren’t in a very good rhythm with (the starters) out there, so we went back to Jaedon and Micah and Adam and Lamont,” Dutcher explained. “That’s a better defensive group, usually, Nate’s out there. Then, we threw in AG, and AG’s an energy guy. You look at the plays he made. The block shot, the charge, AG’s just energy. We had a group of maybe our best defensive players out there, maybe minus Nate, and defense set the tone for the end of the game. (We) got stops, and then, we got baskets.”

Finally, Dutcher’s skill could be seen in the progress LeDee is making on the defensive end. The decisive moments of the game came in the aforementioned stretches at the end of each half. Cumulatively, over the final 10:32 of the first frame and 5:31 of the second, SDSU outscored SJSU 30-3.

That 16:03 of game time was among the best stretches this season, and for most of it, SDSU’s best defender was not on the court. Mensah sat for the final 8:57 of the first half and the last 5:31 of the second. LeDee anchored the defense during the decisive runs. That would not have been possible earlier in the season.     

The Show on Saturday night reached the energy level of past iterations like the one pictured here. Credit: AZTECS

The Sensational Show

Since the fall semester closed, the presence of SDSU’s often-imitated, never duplicated student section was not at full strength. Saturday night, the Mesa was a Madhouse with The Show leading the way. From the pregame to the greeting they gave the players following the contest, the now famous supporters took center stage.

“Over Winter Break, everyone goes back to their families, but the alumni are always there, the older people are always there supporting us,” Johnson said postgame. “Having the students back provided a young, energetic feeling. We always feel that as we go on the court. We hear them yelling each and every play when we do good.”

There were numerous highlights to The Show’s performance. During one timeout, Gregory Mowat, “the hand man,” was shown on the big screen. He obliged with his patented move, and the students erupted with applause. When the scoreboard operator switched to other fans, the student section booed until the camera went back to Mowat, and they cheered once more.

This went on for a few minutes, with boos raining down on anyone other than Mowat. It was not until Show Grandma, Bette Boucher, appeared on the screen that someone other than the hand man received any applause.

Other high points included the “double your score” chant when the game was 46-23, the Show Grandmas leading the arena in the “I Believe” tradition and the pandemonium when Johnson took over at the end of the first half with one highlight play after another. The Show created a one-of-a-kind experience that is the answer to the question, “Why go to the game when I can watch it on TV?”

“There’s nothing like seeing both sides filled,” LeDee added. “You always see the second-half basket, that side’s always filled with alumni and everything. But now that the students are back, when we get going, they give you energy.”

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Keshad Johnson turning into a pro

Officially, the shootarounds for SJSU and SDSU were supposed to occur at 11 am and 1 pm, respectively, but unless the teams got shots up during timeouts, Viejas Arena was unavailable during that time because the women’s squads from the universities played an hour after noon. In place of that opportunity, Johnson was first out of the locker room to work on his craft Saturday evening.

Keshad Johnson has nearly averaged a double-double the past three contests. (Josh Jimenez/EVT)

Postgame, Johnson credited that work and his toil in the offseason for his marvelous game Saturday night. Johnson has started 53 consecutive contests for the Aztecs and had numerous moments during his career with his potential on full display. He has never had a string of games like he’s put together recently.

“Just keep playing hard,” Dutcher said when asked what Johnson needs to do to keep the momentum going. “Run the floor. Playing with a motor and just keep battling and playing the way he’s been playing. He’s at another level right now. (Two) double-doubles and then tonight, he had 16 and eight. Had we left him in, he might have had ten rebounds, but he wasn’t in the last stretch. Keshad’s playing at another level, and we’re better because of it.”

Rumors of Johnson’s NBA potential have been told his entire career. Over the final eight minutes of the first half, his potential was actualized on Steve Fisher Court. He looked like a professional playing against college players.

It started with a rebound that Johnson took coast to coast for a reverse layup. The following possession Johnson soared above the Spartans’ defense for a highlight dunk. The next trip, SJSU tried a zone out of a timeout. Johnson hit a baseline jumper to make them pay for the change-up.

Four sequences later, he converted a fadeaway jumper in the paint. Next, he dunked another alley-oop, this time from Parish, prompting Miles to call a timeout. Finally, he slammed another dunk where he surprised everyone with his ability to get above the rim.

In between these 12 points, he had five rebounds, and a block that was hit so hard, it had to take some of the air out of the ball. Johnson is embodying the positionless basketball SDSU has built its program around. Aztec fans looking for hope that he will continue playing at this level will be relieved to know that Johnson and Dutcher are on the same page.

“It’s all about energy and effort, giving my full effort every game,” Johnson explained before detailing areas where he needs to improve.

Attacking the 7-footer

Over the past few seasons, as a way for teams to counter Jordan Shackel’s three-point shooting, SDSU’s opponents with tall centers have chosen to attack the Aztecs by sagging their big man in the paint and not helping off the pick-and-roll. Even without Schakel, this tactic has proven effective. This season, Arizona and Arkansas used it, and in the first half, SJSU attempted it too.

Matt Bradley had the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll Saturday. (Josh Jimenez/EVT)

SDSU’s offense countered on Saturday night. First, they used Matt Bradley in the pick-and-roll instead of their point guards. Bradley has grown by leaps and bounds as a decision maker the last two years.

During his first three seasons at Cal, he had 149 assists. Each year, as he increased his scoring role, he set up his teammates less. He had 63 assists as a freshman, 49 as a sophomore, and only 37 as a junior. Last season, he had a career-high 85. This year he already has 48. Before this season, he had never had more than six in any contest. In 2022-2023, he has topped that twice.

Dutcher trusts Bradley to make the right decision with the ball in his hands. On Saturday, Bradley rewarded that confidence by consistently making the right reads and creating a culture of sharing. Against the tactic in the past, SDSU could not get easy buckets by passing to the big man in the pick-and-roll, but agains the Spartans they did.

While SDSU’s assist numbers were not high, it was not for a lack of ball movement. They shared the ball well, forcing the Spartans out of their game plan.

“They bothered us in the second half,” Dutcher said. “They hedged some ball screens where they almost doubled on the ball screen. We’re pretty good against that. We haven’t seen that a lot, so it took us a while to adjust, move the ball, and get it inside when they did that, so we had to make a few adjustments.”

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