Mountain West Conference Tournament Primer

SDSU's seniors on Senior Night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Lamont Butler attempts a shot against Boise State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The San Diego State Aztecs finished the regular season 11-7, good enough for the No.5 seed in the conference tournament. The first game is on Thursday at 2:30 Pacific Time against UNLV. 

Below are five overall trends to watch for as the tournament unfolds. 

Elite defense

It is no surprise that the Aztec program is built on elite defense. Since January 1, the Aztecs have had the ninth-ranked defense in the country. The defense keeps the Aztecs in games even when the offense struggles. Such as when the Aztecs gave up only eleven points the entire second half to an elite Colorado State offense. Or when they came back from 17 down to tie the game on the road against UNLV. In conference play, the average margin of defeat for SDSU is only six points. Discounting the blowout against New Mexico in the Pit, the margin comes down to just four points. 

The Aztecs will bring their defense to the tournament, and it will keep them in every game. They will need more than elite defense to win it all, but the foundation is there to at least give them a chance.


One of the main questions on Aztec fans minds is, how will the team perform on a neutral court? The Aztecs have not won a game against a team in the top 200 of the NET away from Viejas since December 29, 2023, but have won every game at Viejas save the final game of the season, most of them by double digits. 

While there are a variety of factors that led to this discrepancy, one main reason has been officiating. 

In conference play, the Aztecs have drawn five more fouls than they’ve committed at home, whereas on the road, they commit roughly two and a half more fouls than they draw. That is the largest swing in the conference. 

Which version of the refs will the Aztecs get? The home court, refs, the road refs, or somewhere in the middle? If SDSU wins against UNLV, the rest of the games will be on a neutral court. If it is in the middle, that bodes well for SDSU and their ability to make a deep run, given their record and score differential in home and neutral games.

Jay Pal blocks a shot at the rim. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Slow Starts

Seemingly, every year, the Aztecs enter the conference tournament with a slow start. In 2021, they beat a very average Wyoming team by only three points. In 2022, they only managed to score 53 points, albeit against a good Fresno St. defense. Last season the Aztecs squeaked by a very average Colorado State team, winning 64-61. The trend seems to be starting out slow but being able to win due to having more talent than the opponent.

The trend has been seen in the regular season as well. At home against Colorado State, the Aztecs gave up a 17-1 run within the first five minutes. They managed to come back and win the game, but the start was concerning. On the road against UNLV, the Aztecs only connected on two of their first 25 shots. It was impressive that they were able to come back and tie the game in the final minute, but ultimately, the hill was too steep to climb after a start like that.

The slow starts aren’t only limited to the beginning of games either. Boise State took advantage of lackadaisical Aztec play to start the second half in Viejas.

At times it seems like this team expects things to work out without having to try much, while their opponents and trying as hard as they can. If the Aztecs want to make a run in the conference tournament, they will need to find a way to bring the intensity for a full 40 minutes rather than only flipping the switch after they are down by double digits.

Struggling offense

Since January 1, the Aztec offense has been the 86th most efficient offense in the country, according to It is a step back from last season when they finished 61st in the nation. It is a slightly larger step back from earlier in the season when they had the 55th-best offense in November and December. The officiating above may be contributing to that, but it is not the only factor.

Jaedon LeDee has been a monster inside all season, but he has no offensive partner to share the load with. He has no Robin to his Batman. The best compliment to a dominant inside scorer such as LeDee is good perimeter shooting. Since the start of the new year, the Aztecs have shot only 30.4% from behind the arc, good for 320th in the nation out of 362 teams. The lack of perimeter threats makes it very easy for opponents to pack the paint and make life difficult for LeDee without having to worry about getting burned from outside.

To his credit, Elijah Saunders has started to figure it out and has been hitting threes over the last few games. For the Aztecs to reach their potential, they will need more than Saunders. Players like Micah Parrish and Reese Waters need to start hitting their shots.

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Without the outside threat it makes the Aztecs vulnerable to a few specific strategies. The first is a hedging defense. In screen and roll situations, the screener’s defender will step out to cut off the driving angle for the guard. This prevents easy entries to the paint, and opponents do not worry about a quick pass leading to an open three. In fact, they are playing the odds and encouraging it.

There’s more than that, though. The turning point against Boise State at home, the only home loss all season, was when they started playing a 1-3-1 zone. It made it hard to get the ball in the paint, and the Aztecs could not hit the shots needed to break the zone. The Broncos were able to do that because they wanted to encourage perimeter shots and keep the ball away from Jaedon LeDee, and it worked.

The Aztecs will either need to start hitting the open shots they get or improve their ability to get the ball inside and score. Without one or the other, the offense will continue to struggle.

Elijah Saunders shoots from deep. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Timely Plays

Multiple times this season, Coach Dutcher has brought up timely plays. In their losses, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough timely plays to pull out a win, and the other team did. 

It was the opposite last season. Whether it was Matt Bradley dribbling through a triple team to help seal the win over Alabama, or Darrion Trammell hitting a free throw to get the lead over Creighton, or Lamont Butler hitting the buzzer beater over FAU, they were able to make those plays last season. This season, not so much. 

The one player it seems SDSU has been able to count on has been Darrion Trammell. When the team gets down, he has been the one to pick them up. Whether it’s with stellar defense, elite passing, or timely shot-making, he’s been the player to rally around. Trammell’s 5.8 assists per game over the last five games have come at a great time. He’s hit his stride as a facilitator as well as a defender. 

One of the determining factors for the postseason will be if the team can flip the trend. Games will likely continue to be close. Can they find a way to make the winning play? If not, it will likely lead to an early exit. 

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