Conference season has officially started.
The Aztecs have been playing with only one point guard for a few games, and shortly before the game against Saturday, fans found out they would be playing without any point guards to start the conference season. College basketball is a guard-driven game. As such, coaches often try to play small by putting multiple point guards on the floor at once. Think back to 2020 when Coach Dutcher would play K.J. Feagin, Malachi Flynn, and Trey Pulliam at the same time. The UNLV team that beat that 2020 team had four guards in their starting lineup. The news that the Aztecs would not have either of their point guards could have been a death knell for the team. Instead, the coaches made the decision to play big in an era of small ball.
“They played small, they played four guards, we played big, there’s always a tradeoff,” Dutcher said postgame. “… I thought our defense held up against a four-guard lineup, and that allowed us to go inside against those guards. We threw it inside a lot, and we rebounded a lot against a smaller team.”
The Aztecs played many minutes with Mensah, Arop, and Johnson all on the floor. Normally that would cause a lot of concerns. Big lineups tend to lack spacing offensively and generally struggle to guard smaller players defensively. The Aztecs’ bigs are all versatile defenders. However, able to guard smaller players effectively and made up for a lack of spacing by dominating the glass and collecting 16-second chance points.
— San Diego State Men's Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) January 1, 2022
In an era where teams are getting smaller and smaller, the Aztecs went big and still won. It is not something they will often do, but the team is showing they can win in several ways and match up well with different teams.
The Good and the Bad with Nathan Mensah
The main reason for SDSU’s success defensively is Nathan Mensah. He is the rim protector on the back end, cleaning up the mistakes that other players make. He is also incredibly versatile, able to switch onto much smaller players without giving up drives or uncontested shots. Against UNLV, he moved into third place on the all time blocks list in SDSU program history. Rob Dauster earlier this season described Mensah as a top-five defensive center in the country, and Mensah has lived up to that billing.
The advanced metrics back up his impact as well, as Mensah currently leads the Mountain West in Defensive BPR as well as Defensive PIPM. That is the good news.
The bad news is, his offense has not lived up to that standard. After a hot shooting start, Mensah’s offensive production has plummeted. Against UNLV, he took fourteen shots and only made three of them. The game plan was to let the bigs try and score inside against a smaller UNLV team, but Mensah could not get the job done efficiently. The coaches will need to decide if Nathan is in some type of slump or if he needs to be more selective with his shots. He currently ranks in the 13th percentile in post-up efficiency, so giving him less of those shots should help the offense be better.
Nathan is too good defensively not to play, but his offense needs to improve, or the team will need to tweak his role on that end of the floor.
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The importance of depth
An argument can be made that Lamont Butler is the best player on the team when healthy. Reasonable minds can disagree on that thought, but his skill set is very valuable to this team. That being said, the Aztecs are 4-1 in his absence, with a win over a good St. Mary’s team. Other players have been able to step up and play well in Butler’s absence. Against UNLV, it was Chad Baker, who scored eleven points on only six shots. Adam Seiko also had his hot shooting streak to help lift the offense over the last few games.
It all bodes well for Butler’s eventual return. This Aztec team has a lot of talent on it and have continued to win despite being down a starter, or in the case of the UNLV game, being down two starters.
Aztec Breakdown recently looked at who the best players in the conference were based on several metrics. Only Trey Pulliam made the top-10, but the Aztecs led the league with five players in the top 25. That depth will matter when there are injuries, or if a player has to miss a game with Covid, or in the Mountain West tournament when legs get tired after playing games back to back.
A piece of analysis I wasn’t able to add on time, top 25 players per team according to this analysis:
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) December 25, 2021
UNLV is not the best team around, but they are considered above average nationally. For the Aztecs to beat them on the road, down two starters, says a lot about the guts this team has. As the team continues to gel and as players get healthy, they have shown they can make a run. Whether the run happens or not remains to be seen, but this is a versatile team that can win in multiple ways.
Native San Diegan living in Montana. Big time Aztec Basketball fan. Creator of Aztec Breakdown. Hoping to help people enjoy basketball more by increasing their understanding of it.