From the NBA bubble to seeing games played with no fans, major sports in the Covid era has been truly unique. In terms of canceled games and practices, SDSU men’s basketball team has been one of the least impacted nationally. Colorado State, on the other hand, has been one of the hardest-hit programs.
Scheduled to open the season against Louisville, CSU was forced to pause on all basketball activities due to positive tests within the program. The pause lasted 20 days. On December 9th, the Rams resumed their basketball season. Three days later, they played their first game of the season, defeating Colorado State-Pueblo 89 – 77.
They played on the road against Saint Mary’s, scored only 33 points only ten days after resuming practice, and lost by 20. Three days later, they were again on the road. This time they played at the Santa Cruz Warriors’ (the Golden State Warriors’ G League affiliate) home venue to take on Santa Clara University. They handed the Broncos their first loss of the season. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, CSU played its first conference games, a two-game series against Fresno State at home, and won both convincingly.
Picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West preseason poll, the Rams represent one of the more difficult challenges for the Aztecs season. They are young, they are talented, and they are good. Only once this season has CSU given up more than 60 points. They are led by sophomore sensations Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy. For the Aztecs to sweep the series with the Rams, they will need to win the three keys below.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Coronavirus Prep
Brian Dutcher has been a coach for 30 years and has been on the bench for some of the most memorable plays in college basketball history. He was there when Chris Webber called a timeout late against North Carolina when UNLV down 10 with 29 seconds left came back to force overtime against SDSU, and he was on the sidelines when an interim head coach took a team to a National Title. There is not much that surprises the Aztecs’ Coach, but the next two games will be something he has never seen before.
When asked about the possibility of huge competitive shifts from the first game to the next, Dutcher had said, “…you beat a team, maybe your team gets a little complacent (and it) thinks, ‘Hey, we won. We have the formula.’ And then you come out two days later and find out that that team has made some adjustments. They’re a little bit more on edge because they lost the (first) game. We’re dealing with young kids. We’re dealing with players that have never done this before or coaching staffs. So, I’m interested to see how it plays out.”
The adjustments from game one to game two will be intriguing, but the unknown quality of this matchup is equally fascinating. Conference play is normally about familiarity, but Colorado State’s scheduling challenges have provided less scouting time than usual. At this week’s press conference, Coach Dutcher said CSU’s game this week would be very important to determine the game plan because they would be the first games when the Rams have had their true rhythm since returning from their program pause. San Diego State has been preparing for the Rams for more than a week, but their game plan was fully developed until after seeing CSU play this week.
How will the Aztecs handle the unknown? Will they be able to make adjustments when the inevitable situation they could not scout for arises?
2. Managing Minutes
The Rams are in the middle of a two-week stretch where they will play six conference games. On Monday and Wednesday this past week, they played Fresno State in Fort Collins, Colorado. Following the series with the Aztecs in San Diego, they travel back home and play two more games against UNLV. This stretch of games will certainly test the mental and physical limits of the Colorado State squad. The Aztecs, in contrast, have had 10 days off since their last game on December 22.
Even without these scheduling quirks, on paper, the Aztecs’ depth should be an advantage. Two CSU players – Stevens and Roddy — average more than 30 minutes a game. Two others — Adam Thistlewood and Kendle Moore — average more than 25 minutes a game. No one else on the roster averages more than 20. The Aztecs have no one averaging 30 minutes a game but have six averaging more than 20.
Could this be the series where the Aztecs’ full-court press becomes more of a factor? To date, SDSU has used pressure to slow down the opposing team, but not to tire them out. Relentless pressure from the Aztecs’ athletes could be enough to tip the battle of fatigue in the home team’s favor.
The Rams have been remarkable at limiting free throw attempts. Their opponents have only shot 72 on the season or 12 attempts a game. Despite playing a combined 699 minutes, Stevens, Roddy, Thistlewood, and Moore have been called for only 46 fouls. SDSU, meanwhile, is averaging 21.6 attempts per game. Their top four players in minutes played — Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, Tre Pulliam, and Nathan Mensah — have played a combined 722 minutes and have been called for 60 fouls. If SDSU is able to wear our or draw fouls on the Rams’ most important players, they will be in a good position for a sweep.
Individually the most intriguing matchup will be between Mitchell and Ruddy. Ruddy, the Rams’ leading scorer, is listed at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds. He is a matchup nightmare for all the same reasons Mitchell is. If he is covered by someone who weighs as much as him, he can take that player to the perimeter, but if he is guarded by a quicker player, he has the strength to take the player down to the post. SDSU has a range of defenders to throw at the sophomore guard, but it is a potential matchup with Mitchell that is the most compelling. Ruddy has only been called for 10 fouls all season. Mitchell is one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls.
When asked about playing against Ruddy, Mitchell said watching him on tape is not enough to understand what playing against someone with such strength is like. Only through firsthand experience can one understand how Ruddy wears down his opponents with his size. Mitchell, of course, knows this firsthand. There are few players anywhere in the country with Mitchell’s profile, the premier matchup nightmare in the Mountain West. David Ruddy just happens to be one of those players.
3. Dribble Penetration
San Diego State is known for its defense. They are giving up a Soapy Joe’s nightmare, 58 points a game. Colorado State is giving up 58.5. The Rams’ style of defense is to guard the three-point line and try to force contested two-point shots. Teams are shooting only 23% from three against the CSU, which is good for 4th in the country.
They pressure the ball and allow for a lot of dribble penetration leading to many points in the paint. Twenty-eight of Saint Mary’s 55 points, 34 of Santa Clara’s 57 points, and in the two-game series this week, 54 of Fresno’s States 112 points were made in the lane.
Defensively, the Aztecs will have their hands full with preseason all-conference selection Isaiah Stevens. Stevens is an attacking guard who pushes the pace and hunts for early threes for his teammates. In the half-court, he is difficult to stay in front of and when he beats his man, and skillfully finds the open man. Twice he has had games with nine assists and is averaging 5.7 assists per game.
Stevens has improved a lot since last year when he was the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year. At times last season, he played too fast, leading to games with a lot of turnovers, and he was a good shooter from three, though not elite. So far in 2020, he has been completely under control of the Rams offense, limited his turnovers in every game except one, and is shooting 50% from behind the arc.
Will the Aztecs be able to finish or find the open player when they drive to the basket? Will they be able to slow down Isaiah Stevens when he attacks off the dribble?
Getting to know the Rams
Player Minutes Scoring Rebounds Assists
4 Isaiah Stevens 6’0” 180 32.8 14.3 4.2 5.7
21 David Roddy 6’ 5” 252 30.3 16.2 9.5 2.5
31 Adam Thistlewood 6’ 6” 212 28.0 8.7 3.8 0.8
3 Kendle Moore 5’ 10” 151 25.3 9.7 2.2 2.2
10 James Moors 6’ 10” 239 19.0 5.3 4.3 1.3
1 John Tonje 6’ 5” 222 18.3 6.0 2.0 0.3
23 Isaiah Rivera 6’ 5” 209 16.8 5.5 2.5 1.0
11 Dischon Thomas 6’ 9” 232 16.0 4.2 4.0 0.2
5 P.J. Byrd 6’1” 175 12.3 2.8 0.8 0.8
December 12, 2020 CSU Pueblo W 89 – 77
December 14, 2020 Northern Arizona W 91 – 52
December 19, 2020 @Saint Mary’s L 53 – 33
December 22, 2020 @Santa Clara W 70 – 57
December 28, 2020 Fresno State W 75 – 53
December 30, 2020 Fresno State W 81 – 59
January 2, 2020 San Diego State 1 PM/ CBS
January 4, 2020 San Diego State 6 PM/ FS1