The SDSU Aztecs went 2-0 this week with wins over Utah St. at home and Fresno St. on the road.
Things seem to be falling into place as the team gears up for the stretch run of five games in twelve days. Here are the takeaways from this week:
Aztecs in February-
Brian Dutcher makes it a point to have his teams playing their best at the end of the season when it matters most. It is part of the reason why he has never missed the Mountain West championship game. Even when his teams have ended as a four or five seed, they make it to the championship and have won it in two of his four years.
The run starts in February. In the Brian Dutcher era, the Aztecs are 29-6, winning 83% of their games. In the last two seasons, they are 11-1 (92%), with their only loss being by one point to Colorado St. on the road. This coaching staff knows how to get guys ready for March, and those results start coming in February. Compare that to Boise St, who is known for having late-season collapses. They are 18-16 in February since 2018. On multiple occasions, they have found themselves in position for an at-large bid only to implode in February and lose it.
The Aztecs’ dominance in February, along with playing each of Boise St. and Wyoming once more, albeit on the road, means the Aztecs still have a shot at the regular-season title. It’s a slim shot, but there is a path towards it. It would be Coach Dutcher’s third regular-season title and fifth title overall in five seasons.
More than Matt Bradley-
Against Utah St., Matt Bradley did his thing and scored 22 points in a game the Aztecs won by 19. He was not the only double-digit score, though, as Keshad Johnson scored 14 and Adam Seiko scored 11.
Fresno St. decided their game plan was to make players other than Bradley beat them. The double teamed and hounded Bradley all night, and Bradley finished with two points on eight shots. He did contribute seven rebounds and four assists, but his scoring production was down.
A few weeks ago, that would have spelled disaster for the offense. The last time Bradley scored in single digits was the game against Boise State, where the Aztecs only scored 37 as a team.
That was not the case Saturday night, as Johnson scored 13 and Chad Baker-Mazar scored twenty points on only seven shots. It was the third game in a row where two players other than Matt Bradley have scored in double digits, and the offense has looked much better because of it. Keshad Johnson specifically has stepped up, averaging 10.6 points per game over the five-game winning streak.
When Matt Bradley is rolling, the team is dangerous. When Matt Bradley gets help, this team becomes top-25 worthy.
Trey Pulliam returning to form?-
Pulliam has struggled since the team came back from Covid pause. His shooting efficiency has been way down, and he has struggled with turnovers. Against the 30th best defense in the country in Fresno St, Pulliam looked much more confident and like his old self. He had nine points and eight assists to only two turnovers. He ran the offense the way a good point guard should.
Eleven minutes into the game against Fresno, the Aztecs were down 13-8. Pulliam got the Aztecs back in it with a 40-second stretch that involved hitting a midrange pull-up. Grabbing a defensive rebound and throwing an alley-oop to Keshad Johnson, and then helping to force a ten-second violation. Pulliam would get another assist before the 11-0 Aztecs run ended, and they never lost the lead after that.
The best version of this team is one where Pulliam is playing well. He had a similar slump last season, but the coaches stuck with him and Pulliam rewarded coaches and fans alike with his stellar play in the Mountain West tournament. Against Fresno State, he looked as if he was getting back into form, and the coaches should stick with him so he can get his groove back.
Beating two good teams in Utah St and Fresno St by 19 and 17 respectively really helped the Aztecs’ metrics. They are now within the top 40 of every major metric on the team sheets the selection committee will use, including ranking 34th in the NET and 23rd in KenPom. If the season ended today, they’d likely be on the right side of the bubble.
The season does not end today, so there is still work to do to improve the resume. Luckily, as it stands, four of the last five games are against quad one or quad two opponents, so there are opportunities to add more quality wins.
The Aztecs can also receive some help. The Fresno St win currently counts as quad 1, but if they drop one spot in the rankings, it falls to quad 2. Similarly, the Win against Colorado St was quad one until they lost to UNLV. Aztec fans will want to root for both Colorado St. and Fresno St. for the rest of the season to improve their own resume.
As for their own schedule, winning at either Boise St. or Wyoming would really help the Aztecs’ resume. Both games are winnable if the team keeps playing the way it has. The Aztecs played Boise tough in their first game back from covid, and Wyoming recently struggled against Air Force and lost to New Mexico. Neither game will be easy, but winning one would go a long way. Going 3-2 over the last five games may be enough, especially with a run in the conference tournament. 4-1 should all but lock the Aztecs into an at-large bid.