SDSU Aztecs midseason recap: The Resilient Bunch

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Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Resilience: the ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

A second definition: San Diego State basketball.

The 2021-2022 season has been a turbulent one for the Aztecs. They needed to figure out their team chemistry. Six different players missed games, and SDSU navigated a challenging non-conference schedule. They have had games postponed, schedule changes, and are now getting out of their own COVID-19 pause.

The team has been thrown into deep waters and been forced to sink or swim. But they have remained a resilient bunch through it all.

Coming into the year, the Aztecs lost 52% of their offensive production from the previous season with the departures of Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, and Terrell Gomez. They were relying on three new transfers to quickly find their roles this year, headlined by Matt Bradley to fill the offensive void.

With minimal time to acclimate as a team, the Aztecs faced their rival BYU on the road. SDSU is 4-30 all-time in Provo, Utah. They suffered their first loss but showed signs of toughness.

“There’s no good loss, but I knew we probably weren’t going to be ready for this game,” coach Brian Dutcher said following the defeat. “Offensively wise, not crisp enough. Some of the new guys aren’t running it efficiently enough. We’ll get to that point, but we aren’t at that point yet.”

Still gelling as a team, the Aztecs faced their next test six days later at home against PAC-12 foe Arizona State. They won a nail-biter. After overcoming a nine-point second-half deficit, they trailed by one until Trey Pulliam hit a 17-foot runner near the top of the key to put SDSU up for good with 1:05 left in the game. 

After suffering two double-digit losses to USC and Michigan, the Aztecs sat at 5-3 — the most losses through eight games since the 2016-2017 season.

“We think we can play and beat anyone on the schedule; we want to win every game we play,” Dutcher said early in the season. “We’re scheduling up. We’re playing anybody that will play us. I like that kind of challenge.”

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Dutcher knew the risk when creating the schedule. With new components on the roster and challenging games away from Viejas Arena, a crooked number in the loss column was a likely result.  With their NCAA at-large bid on the line, SDSU had to correct their inability to score and keep opponents away from the offensive glass.

They lept over this obstacle, winning the offensive rebound battle in their latest four games and shooting almost 45% from the field in their last five games.

More importantly, they have won the last five games in their most uncertain stretch of the season to date, keeping their postseason possibilities alive in the process. 

In a blowout win against Long Beach State, the Aztecs suffered their biggest injury. Lamont Butler, who is the team’s spark plug, fell on his wrist on a dunk and was sidelined for more than five weeks.

Matt Bradley shared the team’s ‘next-man-up’ mentality at the time, “coach always says, regardless of who’s here, if we got five guys, we’re gonna get the job done.”

After Butler was sidelined, the only other primary ball-handler, Pulliam, picked up the slack. He sat only nine minutes combined in the team’s next three games.

One of these games included a “must-win” game against Saint Mary’s. The contest was the Aztecs’ last opportunity to add a significant non-conference win to their final tournament resume. Once again, they showed their resilience, winning 63-53.

When the calendar turned to 2022, chaos ensued.

In the conference opener on the road against UNLV, Pulliam did not fly with the team due to being in COVID protocols. Still, without Butler, the Aztecs relied on Adam Seiko in an uncommon role to take up ball-handling duties. Walk-on Jared Barnett played important minutes. Five players scored over nine points. The Aztecs passed the test again, defeating the Rebels 62-55. 

Dutcher found the strategy of using bigger lineups in the Rebels game. The lineup combinations of Keshad Johnson, Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, or Joshua Tomaic have added a dimension to this Aztecs team to play longer defensively and crash the glass.

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

After the game, Johnson said in his press conference, “as a team. We came with a mindset that we just have to go hard.” This mindset created 19 offensive rebounds and held UNLV to under 30% shooting from the field.

Following two postponed games, the Mountain West Conference made a rash decision. They moved up the home game on two days’ notice against preseason Mountain West favorite Colorado State who was undefeated and nationally ranked.

“I’m not making any excuse. If I had my choice, it would’ve been to keep it the way it was for twice in February, where I have everybody healthy,” Coach Dutcher said.

The Aztecs were not thrilled with this decision knowing they were not at their full potential. But in typical Aztec fashion, they got to work and were ready for the challenge. SDSU won by 30 and reminded the Mountain West, who reigned at the top. 

“Every team in the country has to deal with the uncertainty of when to play, and so this is nothing new,” Bradley said after the win. “We remain focused.”

The win over the Rams is the last time Aztec fans have seen their team. Since this game, there have been three postponed games, but the Aztecs are getting out of their COVID pause this week.

Leaving the COVID pause may signify the light at the end of the tunnel for an Aztec team that has gone through a lot of adversity this season.

Players who tested positive for COVID are not subjected to testing for three months. The players should all be relatively healthy and ready for the season’s home stretch. Dutcher will hopefully get what he has been asking for all season, time to gel.

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“The beauty of this team is that I still don’t know what we will be,” Dutcher said after the Colorado State win.

With five Mountain West schools ranked inside the top-55 in the NET, SDSU will quickly learn what they are capable of. Dutcher knows what is ahead, “this is a competitive conference, and we will be challenged every time we take the floor.”

SDSU is now on to its next challenge. After only playing three games in the last month, the Aztecs, off their COVID layoff, must play three Mountain West games in five days. Making up postponed games by cramming them in between scheduled contests will likely be a common theme for the rest of the season.

The year’s outcome is unknown, but rest assured, the grit and determination they have shown all year will continue to be the hallmark of the team. The Aztecs are, after all, the resilient bunch.

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