NCAA Tournament Preview No.5 SDSU vs No.12 Charleston

SDSU's players pose for the camera on Selection Sunday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Keshad Johnson (left), Jaedon LeDee, and Micah Parrish brave the rain on the way to the bus as they head to Orlando. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Path to the NCAA Tournament

Founded six years before the American Revolution, the College of Charleston is the 13th oldest university in the United States. Six of its founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence or were framers of the Constitution. Its basketball heritage dates back 114 years.

2022-2023 has been a magical year for Charleston. Following a 14-1 start, it returned to the AP ranking in January for the first time in 20 years. For most of that month, they remained among the top 25, climbing as high as No.18 before plummeting out altogether following consecutive losses to Hofstra (85-81) and Drexel (70-69).

Since those defeats, the Cougars have reeled off ten straight victories, including their 63-58 defeat of UNC Wilmington in the final of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. They received ten votes in the final AP poll of the year.

Brian Dutcher and Steve Fisher on Selection Sunday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“Obviously, they played Colorado State without (Isaiah) Stevens,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said on Tuesday. “I wish we would have done that. (Against) North Carolina, they played great. They scored like 50 points in the first half. North Carolina really had a hard time guarding them. They just ended up out-scoring them, so I paid attention to that. I watched Virginia Tech. I’ve watched their games multiple times. We have a good game plan. I think we’re well prepared, and now we’ll see which team can execute at its highest.”

San Diego State entered the season ranked No. 19 in the country. It finished the year one spot higher at 18, which was one spot below its season high of 17. SDSU played in the fifth toughest conference in America and was clearly the class of the Mountain West. It won the regular season title by two games and also brought home the conference tournament title.

The NCAA Tournament Committee balanced its respect for the MW by giving it three at-large bids, but it also sent the conference’s best team across the country to play at an unfamiliar time in what could essentially be a road environment on Thursday. Charleston, SC, is roughly the same distance from Orlando as San Diego is from Las Vegas.

“I think the way our schedule was this year, it had us really balanced this year as far as conditions like these,” Matt Bradley said moments after the Aztecs learned they would be headed to Orlando. “… (We played in) Hawaii earlier in the year, just playing in the mountains at high elevation. We never really had a fair going as far as where all the games were played, so I think this is just another thing to tack on. We’re ready for it. It is going to be a challenge playing with a three-hour time difference. We’ve got to get adjusted to it as soon as possible.”

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Previous Meeting

The two schools have met once before. On November 28, 2013, the Aztecs tamed the Cougars in the quarterfinals of the inaugural Wooden Legacy. After flying across the country for the game, Charleston got off to a slow start and trailed 17-1 after the first seven minutes of play. The teams basically played even the rest of the way. Winston Shepard led four players in double figures with 15 as the Aztecs cruised to a comfortable 72-52 victory.

Skyler Spencer blocks a shot against Charleston in 2013. (Associated Press)

“That is probably the longest and (most) athletic team we have played all year,” College of Charleston guard Joe Chealey said at the time. “They came out and punched us in the mouth (and) it was kind of hard after digging yourself a hole like that.”

SDSU is hoping for similar remarks from the Cougars on Thursday.

Scouting Report

Charleston mirrors the Aztecs in many ways. They were their league’s best team, but this was not reflected in the all-conference awards. Aside from Pat Robinson III earning Sixth Man of the Year, the Cougars missed out on all of the major awards.

Jaedon LeDee addresses the media. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Like SDSU, they have nine players that average more than 15 minutes per contest. Their rotation is actually deeper than the Aztecs. Expect to see ten players compete on Thursday. Charleston is also a mature team. Three of its top four in minutes played, and four of its top six are graduates.

Where they differ is Charleston is more guard driven. They start and play four guards most of the time. Of the ten players who play consistently, the bottom four in terms of minutes are its tallest players.

47.9% of the Cougars’ shot attempts come from three, compared to 35.6% for the Aztecs. They make 10.1 three-pointers a game, while SDSU pours in 7.2 shots from deep on average. The Cougars play with a quick pace. They had more overall field goal and free throw attempts than the Aztecs.

“They play fast,” Adam Seiko said on Tuesday. “As you know, they’re not the tallest team. They crash the boards heavy. They’re the third-best offensive-rebounding team in the country. We’ve got to box out if they send all their guys. They play hard; they’re well-coached. We have a few game plans on how to stop them, slow them down, but at the same time, it’s going to be a hard game.”

Player to Watch: Dalton Bolon

Seiko’s first season with the Aztecs was the 2017-2018 season. A year prior, Bolon began his college career at West Liberty, a Division II school. He transferred to Charleston a season ago but only played in three games before suffering a season-ending injury. The NCAA granted him a hardship waiver to return this year. In his seventh collegiate year, Bolton has led the Cougars. He was a first-team CAA selection after scoring 12.3 points a game.

Matt Bradley on his way to the bus to start the trip to Orlando. (Don De Mars/EVT)

It is not just his point total that the Aztecs must be wary of. He is a gamer and does what is necessary to win. For Thursday’s affair, the Cougars will be counting on him to control the defensive glass. If SDSU can utilize its size advantage, it might force Charleston to play bigger, which would limit its potency on offense. The Cougars are able to play small because of Bolton and Jaylon Scott’s competitiveness. If the Aztecs can match their intensity and skill, they will advance to the round of 32.

Key to the Game: Sharing the ball

SDSU’s offense is at its best when multiple players are scoring and setting up their teammates to do the same. In their last two NCAA Tournament games, both opening-round losses, the Aztecs’ offense was stagnant.

In 2021, Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell were the only Aztecs who shot more than seven times. In total, they took 35 of the team’s 67 shots. 2022 was more of the same. Trey Pulliam and Matt Bradley combined to launch 33 of SDSU’s 64 attempts, and no one else had more than eight. Whatever the virtues of having success depend on its best players, SDSU will not be playing to its potential if it adopts the tactic.

SDSU’s players react after seeing their names called on Selection Sunday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

How many times this season has Dutcher spoken about the depth of the team and finding the hot hand to carry the offensive load? If only Bradley and a few others are dominating the shot attempts, they will not discover who is shooting well on Thursday. They will also not be able to exploit what should be one of their best advantages.

SDSU is bigger and more athletic than Charleston, but that strength is only accentuated with movement. If the ball becomes stuck on offense, the Aztecs will defeat themselves.

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