NCAA Tournament Preview No.5 SDSU vs No.13 Furman

Jaedon LeDee celebrates against Charleston. (Derrick Tuskan/SDSU)

Arop challenges a layup (Derrick Tuskan/ SDSU)

Path to the Round of 32

San Diego State will get its second game against a team from South Carolina on Saturday. Furman University is located in the northwest corner of the state, about 220 miles from the Aztecs’ first opponent, the College of Charleston. Furman started in 1826, is the oldest private university in the Palmetto State.

The Paladins pulled off the first significant upset of the NCAA Tournament, defeating Virginia 68-67. With 12 seconds left, Furman was down two. Instead of fouling immediately, they trapped Virginia guard Kihei Clark between the baseline and the sideline. Clark heaved the ball beyond half-court into the waiting hands of Furman forward Garrett Hien. Hien passed it ahead to JP Pegues, who received the ball and, in one motion, launched a three from NBA range. It hit nothing but the bottom of the net and sent Furham to the Round of 32 against the Aztecs.

Opening tip of the round of 64. (Derrick Tuskan/ SDSU)

“We had them trapped,” Durham head coach Bob Richey said postgame. “I was calling for a foul, but the good Lord knew they couldn’t hear me, and they threw it to us. JP, he didn’t make the all-conference team somehow, but he’s on the all-winning team because he knows how to win.”

San Diego State reached the round of 32 with a hard-fought victory over Charleston. The adage there is no ugly win fits the Aztecs’ win over the Cougars. SDSU dominated inside, scoring 12 more points than CC in the paint. They nearly gave that advantage away on turnovers, surrendering eight more points than they scored on miscues.

Floundering offensively for most of the game, SDSU advanced because they were great when it mattered. Over the final 150 seconds of game time, SDSU had seven possessions and scored on six of them. The most memorable was a three Micah Parrish hit as the shot clock ran out.

“Matt made timely shots,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame. “Micah made a timely 3, and we’re very happy to be moving forward in this event. And we’ll hopefully play better moving forward. I think, as much as you say it’s just another game of basketball, don’t be nervous, be the best version of you, there are nerves that go into this tournament. I thought we were nervous at the start but settled in and played a very solid basketball game.”

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Previous Meeting

Kyle Spain in the Great Alaskan Shootout. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

Saturday’s matchup with Furman will be the first meeting between the clubs. The Paladins are members of the Southern Conference. SDSU has two all-time meetings with teams from the Southern. On December 29, 1983, they defeated East Tennesse State 80-58 at the Sports Arena in the opening game of the Cabrillo Classic.

Nearly 25 years later, the Aztecs met their second Southern opponent, Western Carolina. In the opening round of the Great Alaskan Shootout, SDSU defeated the Catamounts 59-58. Kyle Spain paced the Red and Black with 22 points, including hitting a pair of game-winning free throws with 11 seconds left. The victory was Steve Fisher’s 150th win as SDSU’s head coach.

Scouting Report

Both teams enter Saturday’s contest with an advantage most teams still alive in the tournament do not possess. SDSU and Virginia are similar teams. Furman will have experience playing against a taller, defensive-oriented team, while the Aztecs will be able to watch film and see how the Paladins are likely to attack them.

Nathan Mensah attacks the rim. (Derrick Tuskan/ SDSU)

Thursday was a unique day for Furman. It was only the third time all season they won a game without reaching 70 points. The Paladins’ first lead came with 5:02 left in the contest. Virginia guarded to forces long contested shots, and Furman obliged. Only 22 of their 68 points came in the paint. It will be interesting to see how the Aztecs defend Furman. SDSU forced Charleston off the three-point line. A similar approach could be in the works on Saturday morning.

“We’re a non-Power 5 school,” Dutcher said. “So are they. We know respect is sometimes hard to come by. We’ll respect the heck out of them. We’ll watch tape and get ready to play like we’re playing the number one team in the country. We prepare hard. We respect everybody we play, and we will do the same for Furman when we see them on the court.”

Player to Watch: Jalen Slawson

Slawson was the consensus Southern Conference Player of the Year this season. The fifth-year senior is averaging 15.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. In 2021-2022, he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Slawson’s presence is the Paladin’s best hope of matching SDSU’s prowess inside.

Jalen Slawson celebrates the three against Virginia. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Furman starts three guards and a 6’9 215 pound Garrett Hein alongside Slawson. They are able to play small because Slawson’s skill allows them to do so. As they did against Charleston, Keshad Johnson, and Aguek Arop will likely get the most opportunity to stop the opposition’s best player. The duo played terrific against Dalton Bolon on Thursday. They will have a different task on Saturday and might need help from their teammates.

Key to the Game: Go Inside

Virginia dominated the game for the first thirty minutes by attacking inside. Only two of its 26 shots in the opening half came from deep. During the second half, they threw up ten shots from three, only hitting two. Over the final 9:02, they attempted six threes, matching their total for the entire game to that point.

Lamont Butler plays above the rim. (Derrick Tuskan/SDSU)

Given the way SDSU shot from the outside against Charleston, expect Furman to try and make SDSU settle for jumpers. Throughout the season, the Aztecs have been at their best offensively when they have gotten production from Jaedon LeDee and Arop in the post. Feeding those players inside will force Slawson to work on both sides of the court, and it will keep the Aztecs focused on where they have a decided advantage.

Anchoring Slawson on his man will also open up lanes for the rest of the team to drive to the rim. Slawson led the Paladins with 53 blocks on the season. Hein was second with 15. No one else had more than nine. Over the past two games – both win-or-go-home affairs – SDSU has shown great patience in getting the ball into the paint. If they do that again on Saturday, they should dance into the Sweet Sixteen for a matchup against Alabama or Maryland.

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