Were it not for monetary concerns, the arena on Montezuma and 55th would undoubtedly be named Steve Fisher Arena. With Brian Dutcher by his side, Steve Fisher resurrected a program that was left for dead. SDSU began playing Division 1 basketball in 1970. From 1970 to 1999, the year Fisher took over, the Aztecs won 376 games. In 18 years as head coach, Fisher compiled 386 wins.
If there was a school on the West Coast that could match SDSU’s futility during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, it was Saint Mary’s. From 1970 to 2001, they had 384 victories. But that all changed with the hiring of Randy Bennett. Two years after Steve Fisher was hired at SDSU, Bennett, who played college ball at Mesa Community College and UCSD, took over for the Gaels. In his career, he has amassed 414 victories, six conference championships, seven NCAA tournament berths, and one trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Aztecs and Gaels have met 11 times, the first being in 1961. Saint Mary’s holds a 6 – 5 series advantage. Their only postseason matchup in the Quarterfinals of the 2009 NIT is one of the more memorable games in SDSU history. Richie Williams lob to Billy White is easily one of the top ten plays in program history.
Following its first loss of the season, San Diego State travels to San Luis Obispo for a 6:00 pm tussle against Saint Mary‘s. It will be the first matchup between the programs since 2010. The game will be played at The Robert A. Mott Athletics Center on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The Gaels picked to finish third in the preseason WCC poll come into the game riding an eight-game winning streak. Their lone loss came on the season’s opening night – a 73 – 56 crushing at the hands of Memphis. Since then, Saint Mary’s has been perfect, though, on paper, their schedule has not been rigorous. They have the 186th toughest schedule according to Pomeroy and 167th, according to ESPN. Their best wins of the season were a 72 – 59 neutral court win over South Dakota State and a home win over UTEP 73 – 61. UTEP defeated Arizona State in Tempe this past Wednesday.
However, like SDSU, the Gaels have played one of the more challenging non-conference schedules in the country. ESPN’s Strength of Record – a statistic that adds more factors such as travel distance, days rest, etc., in addition to the strength of the team’s record – ranks Saint Mary’s 24th in the country.
San Diego State, meanwhile, is wrapping up a non-conference slate that was thought to be among the toughest in program history and is proving to be just that. Recent losses by Pepperdine and Arizona State have diminished the Aztecs’ NCAA resume some. However, their schedule still ranks 59th according to Pomeroy and 73rd, according to ESPN, and their Strength of Record is currently 21st. The Aztecs’ best win continues to be their opening night victory against UCLA. Their
Three Keys to an Aztecs’ Victory
1. Free Throws
Tuesday’s game is likely to be close. The difference in the game could come down to the number of free throws made and attempted. St Mary’s is averaging 10.7 points a game; SDSU is averaging 15.3. SDSU’s season-low in free throw attempts was 12 against UCLA on opening night. Three times this season, Saint Mary’s has shot less than ten free throws – including a season-low two Saturday against Colorado State.
In those three games, Saint Mary’s was more of a perimeter-oriented team than they typically are. 46.3% of their shots came from behind the arc compared to 37.6% in all of their other contests. Will SDSU’s athleticism push Saint Mary’s to the perimeter and keep the Gaels off the charity stripe?
SDSU, on the other hand, has been at its best offensively when it is driving to the basket aggressively and drawing fouls. In their loss to BYU, they only attempted 15 foul shots. It was only the second time all season. They shot less than 20. Will SDSU recapture its aggressiveness, and will that translate to attempts from the line?
2. Containing Matthais Tass
Saint Mary’s leading score and primary ball-handler are Tommy Kuhse. Like fellow WCC stars Colbey Ross and Alex Barcello, Kuhse will usually have ball in his hands and take the most shots. However, if San Diego State is going to stop the Gaels on offense, they will have to keep Matthais Tass bottled up.
Tass, a preseason all WCC selection, is a 6’ 10” forward averaging 10.2 points a game. Saint Mary’s offense runs threw him. He is the Gaels’ primary post player, and with four sharp-shooting specialists around him, he often has plenty of room to work. He also forms an effective duo with Kuhse in the pick and roll.
As they have done for much of the season, SDSU at times will likely switch all ball screens, so the help defenders do not have to leave Saint Mary’s shooters. Doing so will place pressure on Nathan Mensah to cover Kuhse and an Aztec guard to cover Tass. Managing these matchups will be key. When the Aztecs have smaller defenders on Tass, will they be able to keep him from scoring?
3. Hitting the open shot
BYU has provided a script for other teams matching up against San Diego State, but there are not many 7’ 3” centers who fill space like the Cougars’ Matt Haarms. It remains to be seen if Saint Mary’s will be able to defend in the same manner as BYU and what adjustment SDSU will make if they do.
Like SDSU, Saint Mary’s is a team that has built a winning tradition on the strength of its defense. Watching their games this season, they do a good job of playing help defense. When they do, they leave open shots. Even in their most recent game against Colorado State, where they gave up only 33 points, the Rams had a number of open shots that they failed to hit. More than making contested buckets, the Aztecs will need to convert their open looks to find their rhythm on offense Tuesday.
Getting to know Saint Mary’s
Player Points Rebounds Assists Minutes
# 12 Tommy Kuhse 6’2” 185 15.4 3.8 6.3 34.9
# 44 Alex Ducas 6’6” 215 10.9 5.3 0.4 25.4
# 11 Matthias Taas 6’10” 245 10.2 4.3 2.1 26.2
# 00 Logan Johnson 6’2” 170 8.2 3.8 1.0 23.0
# 42 Dan Fotu 6’7” 225 7.9 4.9 0.7 18.6
# 23 Leemet Böckler, 6’6” 215 5.5 1.5 0.1 11.0
# 14 Kyle Bowwn 6’ 8” 225 4.8 5.8 0.3 20.8
# 2 Quinn Clinton 6’3” 185 4.8 1.4 0.7 13.4
# 5 Jabe Mullins 6’ 5” 190 4.4 2.0 1.0 19.6
# 10 Mitchell Saxen 6’10” 230 3.4 3.7 0.3 12.0
November 25 Memphis (Neutral) L 73 – 56
November 26 Northern Iowa (Neutral) W 66 – 64
November 27 South Dakota State (Neutral) W 72 – 59
December 1 Nicholls State W 73 – 50
December 3 Texas Southern W 82 – 70
December 8 UTEP W 73 – 61
December 11 San Jose State W 96 – 61
December 15 Eastern Washington W 80 – 75
December 19 Colorado State W 53 – 33