Conference play is off and running for the 2023-24 college basketball season.
The San Diego State Aztecs are 14-2 overall and 3-0 in the Mountain West. SDSU is coming off a huge 81-78 win on the road against San Jose State.
Tuesday night’s battle up north came down to the wire as the Spartans had a chance to pull off a major upset. Aztecs’ forward Jay Pal denied Spartans’ forward Trey Anderson at the rim to stop the tying basket with five seconds remaining in the second half.
CRUCIAL BLOCK FROM JAY PAL 🚫@Aztec_MBB avoids the upset 😅
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) January 10, 2024
That block is certainly the highlight of Pal’s season so far, as he has made a huge contribution off the bench for head coach Brian Dutcher. Pal also grabbed the offensive rebound that led to Micah Parrish’s game-winning bucket against UC Irvine.
Pal is averaging 5.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 53.1% from the field. His numbers don’t stand out, but if you have been paying any attention to the games and the rotations from Dutcher this season, you can tell Pal is a huge part of their current success.
This brings up the question … could the Aztecs benefit from Pal starting?
Elijah Saunders has started all 16 games for San Diego State. The forward is averaging 6.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists on the season. He is shooting 42.2% from the floor. Saunders is paired alongside Jaedon LeDee in the frontcourt as another strong rebounder, defender, and spot-up shooter.
Yes, Saunders can shoot from the perimeter, but he has not done a great job at just 28.9% from three-point range.
At the start of the season, Saunders was playing a bit more than Pal, with his minutes in the mid-20s and into the 30s. From November 10 to December 9, Saunders played at least 20 minutes for nine straight games. Since the win against UC Irvine without Jaedon LeDee (DNP – elbow injury), Saunders has not played more than 21 minutes and reached fewer than 20 minutes in three of the past six games.
Pal, on the other hand, is heading in a different direction with minute increases. The transfer from Campbell played just 12 minutes on opening night and didn’t reach 20 minutes in a game until that contest against UC Irvine.
An injury is never a good thing, but it can benefit role players in certain instances. In this case, Pal stepped up with LeDee out against the Anteaters and played a 24 minutes. Pal scored a season-high 15 points with four rebounds and finished 5-7 from the free-throw line.
Pal followed up with another great game against No. 13 Gonzaga and played 26 minutes, his high this year.. The forward only scored four points but was a huge factor on defense. The Aztecs may not have stolen a win at The Kennel without his presence on the defensive end late in that game.
It seems Dutcher prefers Pal in the game late when the score is close rather than Saunders.
Pal is a much better shooter than Saunders from the perimeter, shooting 50% from beyond the arc. The Nebraska product has this unique ability to disguise his presence on the court by finding himself wide open quite often. Even on the defensive end, opposing players don’t factor in his shot-blocking skills, and he has made them pay. He is also rebounding at a high level, with at least six rebounds in his past three games.
The 6-foot-9 forward has five blocks in the past four games, and his latest sparked major discussion on his future role with the Aztecs. If Pal does not block Anderson’s shot at the basket, the Aztecs may have lost that contest in overtime. The Spartans’ 174th NET rating would have labeled it a Quad 3 loss at the moment.
The advanced metrics highly favor Pal over Saunders, as well. According to Sports Reference, Pal’s efficiency rating sits at 16.0 to Saunders’ 13.6. Pal’s box plus-minus is at 3.6 to Saunders 3.4. Furthermore, Pal has a 1.4 offensive plus-minus compared to Saunders’ 0.8. On the other end of the court, Pall has a 5.8% block percentage per game compared to Saunders’ 2.1%.
— San Diego State Men’s Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) January 10, 2024
It may be time to try the former Campbell star at the four instead of Saunders to see if that helps give SDSU a boost to start the first and second halves. Darrion Trammell, Miles Byrd, Miles Heide, and Saunders would still be a very good second unit and paired with Heide could provide Saunders more offensive opportunities in the paint that are not available playing next to LeDee.
It is worth keeping in mind that Pal does not need to start in order for the Aztecs to continue to get better and improve. Coach Dutcher and the staff can find other ways with Pal on the bench that can lead to a lot of success. The staff may prefer Pal coming off the bench because it allows LeDee and the likes of Micah Parrish, Reese Waters, and Lamont Butler plenty of touches early in the game.
The time may even be too late for rotational changes more than halfway into the season.
However, Pal has earned a permanent spot as a crucial role player for this team. It doesn’t hurt to give him a shot in the starting five, as you never know … it could light a fuse that continues to spark until a flame is lit.
Chris is a graduate of the University of San Diego. He is the former Sports Editor for the USDVista newspaper. Chris is also an athlete and is huge fan of San Diego sports. Chris has covered the San Diego Loyal, and contributes regularly about the Padres.