San Diego State vs. Colorado State basketball preview

SDSU heads to Colorado State. Pictured is the "Orange-Out" against SDSU in 2022. (Credit: Porterland)

Darrion Trammell focuses in on defense against Wyoming. (Justin Mojica/EVT)

The San Diego State Aztecs won their last game against the Wyoming Cowboys in Viejas Arena and have been on a bye week. They should be well rested for a game against a tough opponent in, the Rams of Colorado State. 

In their last game, the Rams lost in overtime on the road to the Wyoming Cowboys. After a great start to the season, including victories over Creighton and Colorado, the Rams have been struggling in conference play. They will be looking to get back on track at home against the Aztecs. 

General Observations

CSU has an efficient offense. They get assists on roughly 65% of their made baskets, good for fourth in the nation. They are eighth nationally in effective field goal percentage. The Rams are a deep, veteran team. They lack elite size, so the Aztecs may be able to have an impact on the glass. 

How to guard Colorado State

The answer to the question “who has the deepest playbook in the Mountain West” is probably Colorado State. 

To make things even more difficult, the Rams are led by an all-American level point guard in Isaiah Stevens. 

Stevens is the type of player that can’t fully be contained. A successful defense against Stevens results in holding him only 12 points and 4 assists. The Kansas Roos from the Summit League are the only team to hold Stevens to those numbers all year. His 7.4 assists per game ranks third in the nation.  

The Aztecs will try to hound Stevens with Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell by face-guarding him and attempting to keep the ball out of his hands. Giving up easy shots like the clip below should never happen against an Aztec defense. 

The Rams have a wide array of sets that can cause confusion for a defense. The clip below is a Spain Pick-and-Roll. It looks a little funny because Utah State decided to switch the screens. The combination of screens caused confusion and left a Ram player alone under the basket. 

San Diego State likes to switch screens, so they will need to ensure they know the assignments even when switching multiple times. 

Make no mistake, Stevens is CSU’s best player, but every Ram has a high basketball IQ and knows how to read and react to defenses on the fly. They have a number of off ball screens where the cutters are given options depending on the defensive coverage. The clip below shows a Utah State player trying to take a shortcut to the final destination of the cutter, so the cutter turns back and hits a wide-open 3. 

The next clip shows a designed back cut, but the passer saw the defense overplay. He threw the pass, anticipating where his teammate would end up. That pinpoint timing, accuracy, and chemistry makes the Rams dangerous. The Aztecs will need to stay focused and connected on defense to prevent the Rams from scoring. 

How to attack Colorado State

The focus for Colorado State, as it is with every conference opponent, will be slowing down Jaedon LeDee. They will double-team LeDee in the low post, likely on the catch. When they faced USU’s Great Osobor, they sent the double team on the dribble, but they will not wait that long against LeDee. Their preferred double utilizes both interior players, where they bring a second big man to double the ball. 

The Aztecs can make sure a smaller player comes on the double by spreading out players like Saunders or Pal away from LeDee. Keeping them either at the top of the key or in the opposite corner will, at a minimum, force the Rams to compete without their favorite tactic.

In the pick-and-roll, Colorado State will use multiple coverages. Within the course of one play, the Aztecs may see different coverages based on personnel. In the clip below, the Rams face three screens. They employ a drop coverage for the first two and a hard hedge for the last screen. 

SDSU will need to identify the coverage quickly in order to effectively call plays to beat it based on who they want taking the shot. 

In addition to drop and hedge coverage, the Rams will also switch defenders on screens. 

The switch is also dictated by personnel. They will not let Stevens guard LeDee, so exploiting the obvious mismatch will not be an option. 

A mismatch that could happen is Stevens guarding Reese Waters. Stevens is a great player but is pretty average defensively. Matching him up against Waters, who is five inches taller, could prove beneficial by either getting easier buckets or drawing fouls. Either outcome would be a win for the Aztecs. 

A more scheme-based option is to have LeDee set off ball screens. The brilliant thing that Utah State does in the clip above is they realized the Rams were not switching off of Osobor. USU had Osobor set a hammer screen, knowing the defender would stay home. This put tremendous pressure on the Ram Osobor picked to chase down his man. 

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Plays to Watch

Spain Pick-and-Roll

A Spain Pick-and-Roll involves two screens. The first is a traditional screen set by a big man for a ball handler. After setting the screen the big man rolls to the basket like usual. The difference is the second screen. Another player will set a screen on the rolling big man’s defender. Ideally, it leaves the big man wide open under the basket. 

Cross-Down combination

Most Mountain West teams run this action in some capacity. In the clip below, the Rams are running it out of a sidelines out-of-bounds play. The combination involves two screens. The first is a cross-screen with the goal of getting a player deep in the paint. Then, the original screener runs off a down screen with the intent of getting an open look at the top of the key, which is what happens in the clip below. 

Key Players

Isaiah Stevens, #4, 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists

Stevens is having an all-American caliber season. His offensive abilities, both as a scorer and a floor general, are among the best in the nation. They are so elite that even as an average at, best defender, he is still one of the best players in the conference. Lamont Butler has had some success against Stevens before, but ultimately, Stevens is a player that cannot be stopped. The only hope is to slow him down.

Nique Clifford, #10, 13.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists

The Colorado transfer has been great for the Rams. He’s been the ideal floor spacer to pair with Stevens, connecting on roughly 50% of his shots from behind the arc. Clifford also brings a defensive presence on the wing that would be sorely missing without him.

Patrick Cartier, #12, 12.2 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists

Similar to Clifford, Cartier is another player whose skill set compliments Stevens’ well. His value comes from his polished post moves as well as stretching the floor out to the three-point line, which he is doing more frequently this season. He is also a very high IQ player and passes the ball extremely well. When playing defense or rebounding, Cartier’s game is less remarkable.

X-Factor

Defensive intensity. Defense travels, but maintaining it for forty minutes at elevation will not be easy. The Aztecs will need to find a way to disrupt the Rams’ sets and keep the score low. If Colorado State gets hot, it will be long odds for the Aztecs to win, so preventing that from happening in the first place will be key. 

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