San Diego State vs Utah State basketball preview

SDSU against Utah State in 2023. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The San Diego State Aztecs return to Viejas Arena for a crucial game against the first-place Utah State Aggies. Coming off a road loss against Colorado State, the Aztecs need to win this game to stay in the race for a conference championship. 

Meanwhile, the Aggies have been cruising all season. After getting picked to finish 9th in the preseason polls, they are in control of their own destiny halfway through conference play. Their only loss took place against New Mexico in the Pit. 

General Observations

The Aggies play faster than average but aren’t blazing fast. Their overall size is pretty average. In terms of experience, the Aggies are an older team. Despite Danny Sprinkle being a defensive-minded coach, Utah State is slightly better offensively than they are defensively, ultimately being a very balanced team. USU is top-50 on both ends of the floor, according to KenPom. 

How to guard Utah State

This is a chance for the Aztecs to give their opponents a taste of their own medicine. The Aggies have a dominant big man in Great Osobor and a lack of shooting along the perimeter. Utah State is very gun shy beyond the arc, taking roughly six  fewer 3-point shots per 100 possessions than an average team. They also shoot about three percent worse than an average team. 

Where the Aggies excel is inside the arc, particularly around the rim. This combination will give the Aztecs a chance to pack the paint and double or triple team Osobor in the hope of forcing tough shots or causing turnovers.

One tactic that should be considered is fronting in the post. Colorado State  had success against Osobor when keeping a player in between him and the ball. Fronting can force tough passing angles and punish Osobor when he gets deep position by giving him less room to maneuver. 

Fronting the post requires excellent weakside awareness as another player needs to rotate on time to make sure if a pass is caught that any resulting shot is contested. That is something both Jay Pal and Miles Byrd have had success doing this season, and the Aztecs should use that to their advantage. 

On the perimeter, Utah State will use various screen-the-screener or stagger screen actions to get their players into optimal positions. 

Screen-the-screener works by making the help defender work through a pick. When executed well, the help defender is out of position, making it easier for the offense to score. Beating it requires excellent screen navigation, as well as communication, so the defense plays as one. Switching defenses can work well against screen-the-screener plays but are tougher to execute against staggered screens. Ultimately, SDSU will likely use a combination of switching to throw off rhythm, combined with a standard drop coverage to pack the paint. 

How to attack Utah State

Utah State’s defensive game plan will be very similar to every other game plan over the last five or so games. Expect to see a lot of perimeter players going under sceeens, combined with big men in drop coverage. They will pack the paint, deny LeDee the ball, swarm him when he touches it, and encourage perimeter jumpers, especially off the dribble.

The easiest way to succeed will be to hit the jump shots the Aggies give up. Saturday would be a fantastic time for Micah Parrish to get out of his shooting slump (20% behind the arc over the last five games.) 

Aside from simply shooting better, there are a couple of tactical options. 

The first involves off-ball screening to punish defenders that are sagging off their man to help on LeDee. That can allow open shots or opportunities to attack close outs. 

The other, especially when LeDee touches the ball, is to have the other big man crash the glass. LeDee draws so much attention that Aztec big men have been able to slip behind defenders for layups and putbacks. 

What needs to be avoided is turnovers. The Aztecs had multiple instances against Colorado State of driving into traffic and committing a turnover. Some turnovers will happen, but the offense needs to move the ball when the defense collapses into the paint rather than trying to bull through multiple defenders. 

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Play to watch for

Horns Cross Stagger Punch

This play has multiple reads out of it, but the primary goal is to get Osobor a touch in the paint. The design often lets Osobor establish deep position while his defender is helping elsewhere. The main goal for the Aztecs will be to prevent that deep position and force the ball out of Osobor’s hands if he does get it. 

Players to watch

Great Osobor, #1, 19.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists

Osobor followed Sprinkles to Logan from Montana State. He is a load down low. In terms of size, he is comparable to LeDee and plays a very similar game. He wants to bully opponents down low and control the glass. Osobor has not shown to be as versatile as LeDee to this point. He’s not as effective outside the paint. Inside he iss a monster though, and it will take a team effort to slow him down. 

Darius Brown, #10, 11.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists

Brown is another Montana State transfer, and has continued to thrive in the has  Mountain West. The 2023 Big West Defensive Player of the Year scores well enough that he can not be ignored, is second in the conference in assists, and continues to plays stellar defense at the point of attack. 

Ian Martinez, #4, 14 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists

Martinez plays the role of sniper for the Aggies. He is second on the team in three-point attempts and is hitting them at a 43% clip. He is not someone defenses want to leave alone behind the arc. 

X-Factor

Ball movement. Utah State excels at defending the three-point line but struggles more inside the arc. That is usually indicative of a team that overpursues on the perimeter. The way to take advantage of that is to move the ball quickly, and when the Aggies send double teams, find the open man. If the Aztecs do that, they should win. If not, it could be a long game.

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