The SDSU Aztecs beat New Mexico at home 72-47 early in the week. They then followed up by losing on the road to Colorado St. 58-57. Here are the takeaways:
Is this the worst offense in the Fisher/Dutcher era?
The Aztecs are known for having great defense and lousy offense. Steve Fisher instilled a defensive culture when he arrived on the mesa, and for one reason or another, the offense has not been able to keep up with the defensive talent. That being said, the offense generally is not as bad as the narrative suggests.
In division one basketball, there are around 350 teams. The number changes yearly but is usually in that range. This means being ranked in the 150-200 range makes a team average nationally. KenPom tracks teams all the way back to the 1997 season. Since Steve Fisher arrived, most teams have been in that average range or better. In fact, eleven times since Steve Fisher took over, the team was ranked in the top 100 in offense, well above average.
There have been two seasons in that span where the Aztecs were ranked less than 200th in adjusted offense. The first was the 99-00 season, Coach Fisher’s first at SDSU. They finished the season 291st in offense that year. The second is this season. The Aztecs currently rank 220th in adjusted offense.
There have been glimpses of hope. Bright spots in the season where the Aztecs played like a top-50 offensive team in the nation. It has been awhile since they’ve had a good offensive game, though. Over the last five games, the Aztecs have an adjusted offensive rating of 90.7, which would be within ten spots of last place if held over the whole season.
In short, it has been bad. The Aztecs need to figure it out to achieve any consistency. The defense is good enough to keep them in any game, but the offense needs to catch up in order to consistently win.
New Offensive System?
One thing to note that is interesting is that the Aztecs have moved away from the Mover-Blocker system they used at the start of the season. They have not run it consistently for at least the last five games. They have had two main offensive sets over the last few games. They run a set out of the pinch post, they run a variation of an action called “Celtic,” and they use a lot of Chicago action when no sets are called. The Celtic action specifically is new this season and has been used a lot more over the last few games. It has coincided with Matt Bradley’s offensive outburst. Bradley has averaged 18.3 points per game on 57.1% eFG% in conference play. It seems the coaches may have found the way to optimize him. The next step will be getting everyone else on board. The team needs a second option that can play off of Bradley.
Chad Baker-Mazara has looked promising since conference season started but did not play well against the Rams Friday night. Lamont Butler has a lot of talent but has not been the same since the team came back from their Covid pause. Trey Pulliam started the year off well, but since the team has come back from Covid pause, he has scored 22 points and committed 15 turnovers.
As a team, if the Aztecs can play just average-level offense, they should be able to make the big dance. Finding a consistent second option will go a long way towards reaching that goal.
The Aztecs have had a bad habit of starting each half slowly. JG Trends calculated each team’s offensive rating by quarter (yes, college basketball runs in halves, but for these purposes a, they decided to break the game into ten minutes segments.) Hidden all the way at the bottom of the graphic for the third “quarter” is San Diego State.
— JG Trends (@jgtrends) February 1, 2022
@advancedstats23 broke down SDSU’s score differential by quarter and found that the Aztecs have played worst in the third quarter, but the first quarter has not been great either.
@advancedstats23 looking into score differentials for Aztecs games by “quarter.”
1st “Quarter”- +20
2nd Quarter- +63
3rd Quarter- -28
4th Quarter- +77
The big problem is the third quarter, but starting each half slowly isn’t a great look. https://t.co/vqMiFGreOo
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) February 6, 2022
The team obviously has the capability to outscore opponents, but slow starts are really holding them back. Any number of things could cause this, including simple variation or “luck” in layman’s terms. It will be worth it for the team as a whole, coaching staff and players, to do some inward reflection and try to figure out what is causing the slow starts. Both Boise St. and Colorado St. were winnable games if the Aztecs had not fallen way behind to start the second half. Simply breaking even in the third quarter could be enough to change the narrative of this team.
One thing to consider would be a lineup change. Data from evanmiya.com suggests that the starting lineup is the worst offensive lineup the Aztecs have (minimum fifteen possessions.) Combine that with the fact that about half of the first and third “quarters” of the game are spent with the starting lineup on the floor, and it is something worth considering. There are potential downsides to changing the lineup as well, but given the information at hand, it is worth considering.
Looking ahead –
In last week’s takeaways, the goal of going at least 5-1 over the next six games was established. The Aztecs are currently 1-1 in that span. The next four games are Home against a Nevada team that has lost four in a row, on the road against San Jose St., who is winless in conference play, Home against a scrappy Air Force team that is better than their record suggests, and home against Utah St., who defeated SDSU by 17 in Logan.
Going 4-0 in that span should be realistic. No team can be overlooked, but Air Force and San Jose St. objectively are not good. We’ve seen the Aztecs dominate bad teams this year. Nevada will be tough because they have good talent, and the Aztecs will be playing on short rest. Utah St. has shown they can beat the Aztecs, but this time will be at Viejas, and the Aztecs will not be playing their third game in five days. Winning the next four games will keep the Aztecs right on the bubble, or maybe slightly improve their chances.
The bigger goal over that time will be to build some offensive cohesion and rhythm. This is the easiest stretch of the season. If ever there was a time to iron out some kinks, it is now. If the team can solve it’s offensive woes over the next couple of weeks, they will have a shot at making the tournament. If not, it likely will not matter if the Aztecs win the next four games or not.