Four weeks into the season, the San Diego State Aztecs are 5-3. They have no quality wins but no bad losses.
The offense is not getting any better –
The offense has been bad all season. This is not news to anyone who has watched the teams. The game against Long Beach State was better, but they still had 14 turnovers (more than an average team) and only shot 33% from deep (the national average.) Michigan, to their credit, has a great defense, but the Aztecs looked out of sorts for much of the game. Time is quickly running out on the window to say, “it is still early in the season. They will figure it out.”
A big problem has been 3-point shooting. Through eight games, the Aztecs are shooting 27.4% from deep. That mark is good for 321st out of 358 teams. It is no surprise that the Aztecs do not shoot the ball as well as in the last few years. Losing two 40% shooters is hard to make up for. They were not supposed to be THIS bad, though.
Matt Bradley was a career 40% shooter from behind the arc before coming to San Diego — He is shooting 22%. Chad Baker shot 40% from deep last year and is at 18% this year. Adam Seiko was a career 35% shooter before this season and is shooting 25%.
Keith Dinwiddie had a reputation as a shooter in high school; he is shooting 29% from deep. Analytically speaking, these are still tiny sample sizes, and any of these players can heat up any game. It is starting to look like that will not happen, though. Not on a consistent game-to-game basis.
This team also lacks consistent ball handlers. Very few players on this team can create shots for themselves, let alone for others. When Michigan played a full-court press, the Aztecs could not do much about it because there were not enough players who could beat it off the dribble. Bradley has a very loose dribble and gives the ball up more than he should. Seiko and Dinwiddie are not primary ball handlers. Pulliam is the only healthy player who can shoulder that load right now, but he cannot do it for 40 minutes each game. Lamont Butler coming back will help with that problem, but having only two guys is still not ideal.
And speaking of Lamont Butler:
This is Lamont Butler’s team
There have been flashes and glimpses all season, and many fans were already on this train, but this is Lamont Butler’s team. He may not be the loudest, he may not score the most points, or be the flashiest player around, but he is the engine that helps the team run. His absence against Michigan only helped prove this point. The Aztecs lost to Michigan for three main reasons.
The first is turnovers. The Aztecs struggled to break Michigan’s full-court press or create shots in general. Having Butler in the game would have helped with that. Butler can be turnover-prone himself, but he would have helped break the press and get the Aztecs into their offense more often.
The second is missed shots — especially open 3-point shots. Butler has been the most efficient shooter from deep, tallying a 47% mark at this point in the season. That’s bound to come down, but a couple of extra makes would have been huge in that game.
I can think of three shots like this off the top of my head that were wide open but still missed. Hard to watch. pic.twitter.com/0PaR7IEv5L
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) December 5, 2021
The last reason was Michigan being uncharacteristically hot from behind the arc. Butler may not have helped with that, but the first two points still stand.
Would Butler have been enough to change the outcome of the Michigan game? Maybe, maybe not. His skillset, aggression, and leadership were sorely missed. The Aztecs will have to find a way to survive without him for the next few weeks until he can return. He will not solve all the problems when he does, but he will fill many holes, and the team will have its leader back.
Tourney Status at this point
Officially, there are no bad losses on the Aztecs’ resume. That is the first step to getting an at-large bid. Similar to last week, there are no good wins either. None of this is cause for alarm in and of itself. However, there is cause for concern looking to the future.
Teams that are as good defensively as the Aztecs are can keep up with almost anyone in the nation. The problem is, there will be games where the other team still manages to score despite the excellent defense. Sometimes the other team gets lucky. Teams that have balance can still win games when their opponent gets hot. This Aztecs team does not have balance. If their opponent gets hot and hits some lucky shots, the Aztecs have not shown an ability to keep up.
Take the Michigan game, for example. The Aztecs did not play poorly defensively. Michigan simply got hot from deep. Before the game, the Wolverines were shooting less than 30% from three. They shot 55% against the Aztecs. Hunter Dickinson, who was 1-9 for his career from behind the arc, went 3-3. Had the Wolverines shot the 30% they had all season leading up to that game, they would score 15 fewer points in a game they won by 14.
That does not give the Aztecs an excuse, it is just the most recent example that the lack of offense magnifies everything else, and if the other team gets hot, the Aztecs have nothing to fall back on.
So far, it has not resulted in any bad losses. Should a team like Wyoming, or Air Force, or New Mexico hit some lucky shots, though, it will likely erase what little chance the Aztecs have at an at-large bid.
All this to say that at this point, they are not officially in a “have to win the conference tournament” situation, but the odds that they will be by the end of the season seem pretty good.