The Aztecs won a “tougher than it should have been” game against Cal State Fullerton 66-56.
Here are some takeaways from the week.
The defense is elite and can still be better.
The Aztecs have held seven of their nine opponents to less than 60 points. They have been dominant in more than just games against weak teams. USC only scored 58. The Aztecs have the ninth-best defense in the nation right now, according to KenPom.
The scary part for opponents is that the defense can still get better. Their potential improvement is more than just coach speak “we can always be better.” It is in real, concrete terms.
The Aztecs do a great job at contesting shots and forcing misses. They force an above-average amount of turnovers and do not send opponents to the free-throw line very often.
The Aztecs are struggling in two important facets of the defensive game, however. The first is defensive rebounding. One of the most efficient ways for an offense to score is an easy put-back off a missed shot. The Aztecs are giving up ten offensive boards per game (222nd in the country). Opposing teams average 12-second chance points per game, meaning nearly 20% of the 61.2 points per game the Aztecs give up come after SDSU’s defense has forced an errant field goal attempt. If the Aztecs can be better in the glass, they will give up even fewer points.
The second issue actually has to do with the offense. The Aztecs have been giving up the ball a lot. The absolute most efficient way to score the ball is in transition, off of a turnover. The worst transition offenses still score more efficiently than all but the best half-court offenses. So, to give up the ball the way the Aztecs have been makes it harder to play good defense. The Aztecs have been giving up eleven points off of turnovers each game. If they can take better care of the ball, they can prevent a couple of extra points by forcing teams to beat them in the half-court.
Both of those issues can be improved over the course of the season. As the team focuses more on boxing out and securing rebounds, they’ll give up fewer offensive rebounds. As the players get more comfortable in the offense, the turnovers should get better. When Lamont Butler is healthy, he should help with that as well.
The defense is already elite. It’s better than it’s been the last two seasons. And the good news is, it still has room to get better.
Matt Bradley is stringing some games together.
Matt Bradley was brought in to be the primary scorer for the team. Early on, he has struggled with efficiency. He has strung a couple of good offensive games together, though. For the first time this season, Bradley has had consecutive games with an offensive rating over 100. He still is not perfect and is still finding his way with his teammates. He can dribble the air out of the ball at time and take contested shots rather than passing to open teammates. All that being said, the shots have started to fall. He’s scored 22 points in each of the last two games. Bradley is also 5-11 (45%) from deep over the last three games. It’s a small sample size, but it is good to see the ball go through the net. If he can continue to score, it will help the offense return to an average level.
Baker should get more chances to run the point.
The Aztecs have a lack of ball handlers, and that is exacerbated by Butler’s injury. Pulliam has had to play extra minutes to ensure there’s at least one ball-handler on the floor. He played 37 minutes against Michigan and 36 against Fullerton.
In the four minutes, Pulliam was on the bench; Chad Baker-Mazara initiated the offense. He had a lot of success doing it.
By my count, the Aztecs had 6 offensive possessions last night with Pulliam off the floor. During that time they shot 4-5, 3-3 from behind the arc, and had one turnover (a questionable travel call on Matt Bradley.)
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) December 9, 2021
This is not to say Baker-Mazara should run the point full time. The team had some success with Pulliam off the floor, and coach Dutcher should feel a little more confident in giving Pulliam a few extra minutes on the bench so that he is fresh when he is on the court. It’s hard to play defense the way the Aztecs do for 36+ minutes. Getting him down to 32 minutes a game should help the Aztec defense stay elite. Giving Baker-Mazara more opportunities to run the offense will pay dividends later during conference season.
The Aztecs still have several quality opponents on the schedule, starting with St. Mary’s on Friday. An elite defense gives them a chance against anyone. The improvements of Bradley and Baker-Mazara can only help the cause as well.