One week into the season, the SDSU Aztecs are 1-1.
The loss against BYU was disappointing but not fully unexpected. Early on, there are still some questions that need to be answered, a lot of work to do offensively, and one huge bright spot on the less glamorous side of the floor.
This season the Aztecs look to be a bigger, more physical team. One benefit of that early on has been drawing a lot of fouls and getting to the free-throw line. In the first game of the season, the Aztecs got to the line 29 times, more than all but three games last season.
The ratio of free throws attempts to shot attempts is one of the four factors that determine who is likely to win the game, so shooting more free throws will help the team. That being said, the Aztecs left a lot of points on the floor. They only hit 62% of their free throws against UC Riverside, leaving eleven points on the floor. Free throws bit the Aztecs in the loss against BYU, where they missed ten free throws in a six-point loss.
The main issue is, outside of Matt Bradley, there aren’t any established free throw shooters on the team. This was known before the season started, but the hope was that some players would improve over the offseason. Early on, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Lamont Butler is 5-of-7 on the season, so there’s hope for him. Keshad Johnson is 1-of-5, though, and given his playstyle. He should draw a lot of contact. Getting his percentage up will be important to raise the team’s ceiling.
Is the team philosophy changing?
The team has become more perimeter-oriented since Brian Dutcher took over as head coach. A greater emphasis has been placed on taking three-point shots. Especially over the last two seasons, when the Aztecs were among the leaders nationally in three-point attempt rate. Against UC Riverside, the Aztecs only took eleven 3-point shots. They took 22 against BYU, but a few of those were desperation shots at the end of the game. They averaged 23.3 last season. It’s still early, but that’s a dramatic shift in shot selection. Some of that may be attributed to personnel. The Aztecs lost a lot of shooting last season and didn’t get much back in the transfer portal. The most established shooter is Matt Bradley, and he’s done most of his damage in the mid-range. As the season progresses, it’ll be interesting to see if the early results were just a result of game flow or a more dedicated approach by the coaching staff to get shots in different places. Considering the lack of success from behind the line, a change of philosophy may be warranted.
Who is the closer?
Coming into the season, it seemed like Matt Bradley would be the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of close games. Against BYU, in the final minutes, it was Pulliam coming off of screens and shooting three-point shots. He took multiple 3-point shots to close the game, missing all of them. Pulliam is a vet, has been with the team longer, and is the point guard. Is he the closer, though? Given a choice, Bradley should probably be the player coming off those screens and taking those shots. He never really had a chance to get going, but if he’s the guy, then let him be the guy. If he’s not the guy, then who is it? There doesn’t seem to be another closer on the roster.
The defense has been outstanding to start the game. UC Riverside should be an above-average team, and they were held to 51 points. BYU was held to 66, and a lot of those came from free throws towards the end of the game. The game was tied at 54 with five minutes left.
Put it another way, a lot of things went wrong against BYU. Shots weren’t falling, free throws were missed, the rebounding fell apart, and there was some questionable officiating. Despite all that, the Aztec’s defense kept them in the game, and in the end, they had a chance to win it. The offense needs a lot of work, but this is a defense capable of making a deep run. KenPom projected it to be the 10th best defense in the nation. It has since improved to 6th. If the defense continues to play the way it has, this team will be able to compete with anyone.
— San Diego State Men's Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) November 10, 2021