Looking ahead to Week 2 for Aztecs men’s basketball

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Fans of the San Diego State men’s basketball team begin the second week on a different note than the first.

Coming off a 30-2 season a year ago, fans were left wondering about replacing key seniors starters. New additions to the roster and the effects of the COVID-19 crisis also caused disruptions on the team. Resounding wins against two clubs picked to win their respective conferences resulted in a return of the customary swagger among supporters of the program. Having beaten the supposed best of the Pac 12 and Big West conferences, the eyes of Aztec Nation now turn to a little Jesuit School on the eastern side of Washington for the top spot in the West.

A possible matchup against No. 1 Gonzaga will have to wait until the NCAA Tournament, though.

This week, the Aztecs were scheduled to battle two schools on opposite ends of the college basketball spectrum, but if there is one rule about scheduling in 2020, it is plans are bound to change.

“Obviously, this was the week we were supposed to play Colorado State – the third and the fifth,” Coach Dutcher opened his press conference with this afternoon. “When that got postponed, we decided to take the opportunity to play games instead of sitting until the Arizona State game. So, we’re going against St. Katherine’s tomorrow. We were supposed to play San Diego Christian. We are finalizing another Division One game maybe on Sunday instead.”

The mystery did not last long. A few hours after the press conference, SDSU released the name of the mystery team: Pepperdine. Tip-off is set for 1:30 pm.

Questions for Week Two:

Would the Aztecs have been better off not scheduling games?

The only part of the two games last week where the Aztecs did not look like an elite basketball team was in the second half of the UC Irvine contest when the game was well in hand. With seven minutes to play, Aztec fans were looking for openings in their schedules to find a time for their free car wash from Soapy Joes. UCI had only 41 points in 33 minutes of game action. Nineteen points in seven minutes seemed impossible, but the Aztecs stopped playing with the intensity there before seen. Instead, a sloppy end to the game saw the Anteaters come within one basket of the magic 60 mark. A turnover by Ruck Hunter with 14 seconds left dirty cars around the county rejoicing.

What will the Aztecs look like when they start the game with a victory in hand? Coach Dutcher and his staff will undoubtedly preach respect for their opponents, but with a matchup with Arizona State looming, will the team develop bad habits? Asked about scheduling the fill-in games this week, Coach Dutcher said, “We didn’t play Arizona State until December 10th, and I didn’t want that long of a stretch without any game minutes. Plus, these guys are tired of practicing anyway. When we do practice, we’ll get better, but they want to play games. So it might give us a chance to continue to (play). The opponent is ourselves. I said that again today. The opponent is the standard we’ve set for how we want to play and how we want to do things. So we’re not as concerned about who we’re playing. We’re concerned about our level of play. So I’m expecting that we come out and play at a very high level and continue to improve as a basketball team.”

The coaching staff tried to answer this question by changing the schedule last minute. Coach Dutcher said, “I just felt we wanted another Division I team … I think that will be better for our team at this time, leading into a very good Arizona State the following week.”

Still, one NAIA school remains.

“St. Katherine’s is an important game,” Dutcher said.  “…we’re going to work on different things and see them under game competition.”

How disciplined will the players be in implementing the different looks?

Will Terrell Gomez find his place on the team?

Matt Mitchell was named Mountain West player of the week on Monday. His averages – 13 points, three rebounds, two steals, and two assists – are not typical numbers for the weekly award; however, Mitchell’s importance to the team could not have been higher. The offense hinged off the play of the senior guard as the rest of the roster found their place around what he was doing. One player, though, who was notably out of sync during the first week was Terrell Gomez.

When asked about the play of his transfer guard, Coach Dutcher said, “I’ve been saying from the start that Terrell has come in here and tried to fit in – almost to a fault where he’s passing up shots that I’d wish he take. As we continue to play and he gets more comfortable, I think you’ll see his shot attempts will go up.”

Gomez’s numbers were not poor by any means, but it was the manner in which he played that raised the question. In the past two years, Gomez averaged 14 shots a game. He has 12 total as an Aztec. The shots he made were in isolation. He made terrific plays, but it was rarely in the flow of the offense. To be clear, Gomez shot effectively —  44% from behind the line — but he had three turnovers in 20 minutes against UCLA and looked to still be finding his role on the team. Two games will hopefully have the Aztecs polished for their trip to Tempe against the Sun Devils.

Fellow senior Matt Mitchell experienced something similar last season and said he has offered this advice to Gomez.

“Talking to Terrell in certain situations, where the ball would usually be in your hands, but knowing that there are other guys on the court that can get it done…It’s knowing that your other teammates can get it done, having the trust that your teammates can get it done,” Mitchell said.

Does anyone play their way into more playing time?

“We’re deep” was Coach Dutcher’s theme of the first two games, but even then, there were signs Dutcher will return to his limited bench as time goes on. Aztec freshman, Lamont Butler, was the freshman who played the most last week, but gaining minutes early in the season is a long way from being part of the rotation. As good and as confident as Butler was against UCI – five points, an assist, and a steal in 16 minutes – he barely got a chance against UCLA. Subbing in as the tenth Aztec player to play in the game, Butler was quickly removed after two minutes following a defensive miscue that clearly bothered his head coach. Butler earned high praise from his head coach.

“Obviously, Lamont Butler has gotten the majority of the minutes,” Dutcher said. “He’s been very good. He guards at a high level. He’s a very good point guard that can find his teammates. And then, he knocked down an open three and a layup against Irvine, so he’s growing his game.”

Fellow freshman, Keith Dinwiddie Jr, played only four minutes against UCI but made two threes in that time.

“Keith Dinwiddie,” Coach Dutcher commented, “got three or four minutes and got two threes right away, so he is a scorer-deluxe.  I mean, I could put him out there for twenty minutes, and he might have 14 points, but Keith has to keep growing his game on the defensive end. He has to learn how to play with his teammates, and that will happen. Keith is going to be an all-conference player down the road, in my opinion.

Che Evans, the final freshman of this promising trio, subbed into the game before Dinwiddie Jr, but an error earned him a quick seat next to assistant coach Dave Velazquez before being put back into the game. Looking ahead at the schedule, it is difficult to see when all three will get live game action to audition.

“Che Evans was a little banged up early in the year,” Dutcher said. “I talked about how he had a hip problem. He’s still getting his timing back, learning how to play with others. Che works hard every day in practice, continues to grow his game.”

Veteran players, likewise, have a lot to prove as they compete for minutes. Adam Seiko and Keshad Johnson did not average more than 15 minutes a game. Nathan Mensah and Terrell Gomez averaged less than 20 minutes. Dutcher leaned on his senior leaders – Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, Tre Pulliam – against UCLA. They played 32, 31 and 28 minutes respectively. As the season progresses, will this trend continue as it has every season?

It seems like a yearly question. Until he answers it differently, we should assume seven or eight players will be in the rotation consistently, with another player getting some minutes. Last season, Adam Seiko was eighth on the team in minutes and the last player to average double digits. He averaged 12.4 minutes a game, 5.1 minutes less than Tre Pulliam. The 2018-2019 team had nine players average double digits, with the final three spots earning 14.6, 12.3, and 12.2, respectively. In his first year as head coach, Dutcher played the most players – 10 averaged double digits in minutes and more than 22 games played – but six players averaged more than 21 minutes a game.

Schedule This Week:

Wednesday: 6 pm SDSU vs. St. Katherine

The University of St. Katherine’s is an Orthodox Christian School with an enrollment of 257 and was founded in 2010. The Firebirds opened the season with an 81-70 win over San Diego Christian College. Following that win, St Katherine’s was on the losing end of two lopsided games, 95-47 against Southern Utah and 92-55 against UC Santa Barbara.

Sunday: 1:30 pm SDSU vs. Pepperdine

The Pepperdine Waves make their second trip to San Diego this season. They were part of the San Diego State MTE but did not play SDSU. They are 1-1 on the year. They defeated UC Irvine 86-72 and fell to UCLA 107-98 in triple overtime. They are led by senior guard Colbey Ross. Ross played 89 minutes in two games last week and scored 33 against UCLA.

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