Tip-off on Wednesday night, Viejas Arena.
San Diego State was matched up with UCLA and their potential NCAA All-American, Chris Smith. The 6-foot-9 inch guard is long and athletic with incredible shooting ability, which is an NBA general managers’ dream. Smith is a matchup nightmare on any court in America. That is. Outside of San Diego, because across from him on that night, hounding his every dribble, chasing him around screens, and attacking him in ways few collegiate players can was junior forward Aguek Arop.
The misery Arop caused Smith was succinctly summed up when Smith buried his face in a towel after fouling out in the second half. Smith, though, was hardly the only Bruin Arop tormented on Wednesday. Misery loves company.
The San Diego State men’s basketball team began its centennial season on Wednesday night.
During the century of basketball, few players have been more versatile defenders than Arop. After Smith left the game with early foul trouble, Arop altered between guarding 5-foot-11 inch point guard Tyger Campbell and chasing sharpshooter Jamie Jaquez Jr. Baskets were sparse for either in the half-court. Campbell was not quick enough, and Jacquez was not crafty enough to get separation Arop.
The only consistent offense presence, UCLA could muster in the half-court was Cody Riley drawing fouls on SDSU’s forwards Nathan Mensah and Joshua Tomaic. With 7:15 left, coach Dutcher gave Arop a new assignment. All game long, Arop was playing on the outside, but his final five minutes on the court was spent in the post stopping the biggest player on the Bruins’ roster.
Two nights later, Arop was again matched up with the best player on the opposing team. 6-foot-9 Collin Welp. The Preseason Big West Player of Year has a completely different game than UCLA’s Chris Smith. Welp, a capable shooter in his own right, prefers to use his savvy post moves in isolation to create his own shot or get his teammates involved. On Friday, Arop could be seen fronting Welp in the post, denying entry passes, beating Welp to his spots, contesting every shot, and ferociously boxing him out on every play. As was the case against UCLA, Arop’s versatility was on full display against the Anteaters. He spent time guarding Irvine centers – 6-foot-11, 270 pound, Brad Greene, and 7-foot, 300 pound, Emmanuel Tshimanga.
Talking about Arop’s defense as he guards someone heads up is only half the story. Arop is one of the main trap defenders on SDSU’s full-court press. His job is to read the point guard. If he thinks a trap might cause a turnover, he brings his seven-foot one wingspan across to the double team. He has caused a couple of miscues already this season. His mere presence on the press and the potential double team slows the game’s pace and dwindles precious seconds off the shot clock.
One final example of Arop’s defensive prowess. With 30 seconds left in the first half against UCLA, Arop was buried in the right corner opposite SDSU’s bench, guarding UCLA freshman Jaylen Clark. On the other side of the half-court, at the three-point line, Terrell Gomez and Joshua Tomaic miscommunicated on a screen, leaving a wide-open lane to the basket for Jaime Jacquez Jr. Somehow, Arop recognized the miscue and moving to his left and beat Jacquez Jr to the spot and drew a charge.
Arop is blessed with tremendous size, length, and athleticism, but so are many other players across the country. Many of those players find it difficult to guard one position, let alone the five Arop covers, on a nightly basis. What makes him such a great defender? Following the game on Friday, Coach Dutcher singled out Arop’s “high motor” and desire to compete as the reason for his success. Teammate Keshad Johnson lit up, describing Arop in practice every day. “AG brings fire and energy,” he said. Tre Pulliam summed Arop’s value to the team best.” speaking about their teammate, “AG can come in and guard any position 1-to-5, so he is a real X-factor for us, and we see it every day, and now you all are seeing it.”
Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel are the two most important players on the team, but they are not the best news coming out of the San Diego State MTE. Coming into the season, we already knew those two could produce at the highest level. It was especially clear on Wednesday against UCLA that this team will go as far as this dynamic duo takes them. The best news, however, is they have a teammate who is ready to take the spotlight. Aguek Arop is ready to rise.
1. Joining Arop in the starting unit was senior Tre Pulliam. In the two games and even 50 minutes, he played very well. Pulliam scored 17 points, dished out seven assists, and took care of the ball with only two turnovers. Against UCLA, he filled the traditional point guard well. He got the offense moving, found his teammates, and scored as the shot clock expired. On Friday, UCI scouted Pulliam’s deference and ran under screens, daring the senior to shoot. Pulliam recognized the tactic and confidently made a pair of jump shots. In total, he is an efficient 7-12 shooting to start the year.
Describing Pulliam’s evolution with the Aztecs, coach Dutcher said, “Trey was good last year, but he was playing behind an NBA first-round draft pick (Malachi Flynn). So his minutes weren’t great,…Now he’s in the starting lineup, and obviously, he’s improved because he works hard at his game. Trey has a unique ability to score mid-range on the runner or on the layup. But he also finds his teammates and gets them open looks.”
2. Coach Dutcher said, “The theme of the two games is, ‘We’re deep.’” Nine players averaged double digits in minutes played. Of those nine, Keshad Johnson averaged the least amount of minutes, and all he did was lead the team in scoring against UCI. Matt Mitchell is the only Aztec averaging double digits, but eight of his teammates are averaging six points or greater.
3. The Aztecs were actually outshot by their opponents. SDSU’s field goal percentage is 43%, and their opponents is one percentage point better at 44%. How have the Aztecs dominated both games despite shooting around the same percentage? SDSU had 29 more shot attempts combined than the Bruins and Anteaters. Following his team’s loss to the Scarlett and Black, UCLA Head Coach, Mick Cronin, said, “You cannot win when the other team gets 58 shots, and you get 43. You don’t need to get admitted to UCLA to know that that’s 15 more shots than we got. That came because we were minus five on turnovers, minus six on the glass. It’s just a numbers game.”
Cronin singled out turnover and offensive rebounds as the main culprit for the disparity in shots. Still, another overlooked area where the Aztecs thrived during the MTE was drawing illegal screens in their half-court defense. After his team drew four such fouls against the Anteaters on Friday, Coach Dutcher explained the nuance of the play, “Because we’re so hard on the ball, sometimes there’s not space to set that screen. They almost have to run up into us because we’re into the ball so hard. Some of the offenses that are trying to run, they have to run further from the basket because we’re guarding the ball so hard. You run out there, and you tend to set an illegal screen because their guard’s under duress. So I like our ball pressure, and I thought we did a real nice job defensively against a team that knows what it wants to do is pretty disciplined in the way they do it.”
4. Adam Seiko scored zero points against UCLA and three points against UCI, due primarily to limited catch and shoot opportunities; however, watching him play defense is such a treat. Like Arop, he can guard multiple positions. Towards the end of the UCLA game, SDSU employed a unit of Tre Pulliam, Matt Mitchell, Aguek Arop, Keshad Johnson, and Seiko. The defense switched every ball screen. UCLA scored six points in five minutes against this unit.
5. When the scoreboard reaches 20, the Aztecs turn up their intensity on defense. At the 6:54 mark in the first half, UCLA’s Chris Smith hit a jumper to give raise the Bruins’ point total to 21. Four minutes and 20 seconds of game time later, they would collect their next points. Mick Cronin describing this section of the game, “Certain teams in the country, they thrive off their defensive toughness. … I’m going to say that we were stuck on 21 points for a long time. We couldn’t get a shot to go down.”
UC Irvine scored their 20th point about the same time as UCLA. Collin Welp hit a jumper with 7:02. Nearly two minutes later, UCI scored again on back-to-back possessions bringing their total to 25 with 3:59 seconds left in the first half. They got their 26th point on a free throw by Welp at the 18:30 mark in the second half!
6. Newcomers Terrell Gomez and Joshua Tomaic both had encouraging starts to their Aztecs’ career. Gomez saw time at the point on Wednesday but was not the primary ball-handler the majority of time in both games. Gomez’ averaged more than 19 points a game the last two seasons for Cal State Northridge. Aztec fans should feel encouraged with their team’s performance considering how dominant they looked, with Gomez still getting acclimated to his new role. Gomez was second on the team in scoring over the two games, nonetheless, but his nine-point average through two games a far cry from his CSUN days. Expect that number to increase in the coming weeks as SDSU builds towards reaching their potential in conference play.
On Saturday, Joshua Tomaic tweeted, “TBH, I haven’t really had pure and real fun playing basketball in a minute (probably years). I truly appreciate my teammates & coaches for being part of this team and giving me the chance to enjoy basketball like I was a kid again. And it’s only been 2 games so far… #Romans818.” Tomaic played meaningful minutes as a reserve behind Nathan Mensah, and he showed he belongs
7. Keshad Johnson subbed in with 17:05 left in the second half. He was the first sub off the bench. SDSU was up 12. Johnson completely took over the game. He had a defensive rebound, made a three-point shot, added an offensive rebound, a second three-pointer, a monster dunk off an alley-oop, two free throws, a third three, a steal, a second offensive rebound, and ended the stretch with another defensive rebound. If there was a time when the Viejas Arena crowd was missed most, it was at the 12:04 mark when Coach Dutcher replaced Johnson. Normally, 12,414 fans would be on their feet offering a thunderous standing ovation in appreciation as the sophomore made his way to the bench and his team up 24. Doubtless, he brought many out of their seats in their living room. The hype surrounding Keshad Johnson was real for a sensational five minutes stretch!
8. The Aztecs Women’s Basketball Team began their season in Las Vegas against The University of Washington and Lamar University this past week. Both games were competitive and came down to the end. UW made a game-winning bucket with 5.4 seconds left in the first game. The Aztecs held off Lamar 60-54 in the second game. Despite never trailing in the first three quarters, SDSU needed a come from behind 11-0 run in the fourth to get the victory. Sophia Ramos starred in the second game. She joins Aztec legend Paris Johnson as the only player to have at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in a game while SDSU has been in the Mountain West.