SDSU heads to Vegas for neutral court contest against Saint Mary’s

SDSU lines up for the Singing of the National Anthem against Long Beach State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Lamont Butler (right) implores the Viejas Arena crowd on Tuesday night. (Credit: Don Da Mars Photography/ EVT)

San Diego State, fresh off an 88-76 victory over Long Besch State, now travels to Las Vegas to take on the St. Mary’s Gaels in the Continental Tire Main Event. St. Mary’s was picked to finish first in the WCC preseason poll ahead of No.11 Gonzaga. The Gaels are 2-1 coming into this game after a stunning loss against Weber State, the Gaels led by 14 with about 12 minutes left but gave up a 23-4 run and ended up losing 61-57. Needless to say, they will be looking for redemption against the Aztecs in Sin City. 

It is the fourth year in a row these two teams will play on a neutral court. The Aztecs lead the all-time series 7-6 and have won two of the last three. 

General Observations

St. Mary’s, under coach Randy Bennett, has always played a slow and steady pace. They’ve been among the slowest teams in the nation every year for the past decade. They come into this game ranked 44th overall in KenPom and are very balanced both offensively and defensively. They also rank as the 6th tallest team in the nation, according to KenPom. For reference, the Aztecs rank 64th by the same metric. 

How to defend St. Mary’s

With St. Mary’s being one of the slowest teams in the nation, the Aztecs should try the full-court press often during the game. It is not likely to force many turnovers, but it still offers a benefit. It can get St. Mary’s out of their rhythm. If they’re used to playing slow, making them play faster can get them out of their comfort zone, which can lead to missed reads and missed shots. 

There also isn’t much risk to doing it. The Gaels tend not to run in transition unless they have a very clear advantage. So, while pressing has the downside of opening up the defense to quick scores, St. Mary’s often doesn’t take advantage of those opportunities. 

In the halfcourt, St. Mary’s tends to focus on taking shots from the painted area. They are more than capable of hitting shots from beyond the arc. However, they put their emphasis on getting shots close to the basket. They do so primarily through high pick and rolls. 

They also almost always shade to the opposite direction that the screen is coming from. Doing so is designed to get a defender off balance and unprepared to navigate a screen when it comes. 

The Aztecs have been good at navigating screens so far this season. If they play to their principles, they should be able to force enough misses. Then, the issue is securing the rebound.  The Gaels rolling bigs are great offensive rebounders, in large part to their guards demanding extra attention on drives. 

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Attacking St. Mary’s

The Aztecs have put an emphasis on getting the ball into the post early on this season. In the post, St. Mary’s has the size and skill to be able to defend players straight up. So the Jaedon LeDee vs. Mitchell Saxon matchup will be key, as most of the post strategy will be getting good position early and beating the defender one-on-one. 

The Gaels will sometimes use a “dig” coverage in the post, where a wing player will come down to help. They never fully commit to the double team, though, always ready to jump back out to contest a 3-point shot. 

In the pick and roll, the Gaels use an “over and hedge” defense. The defender guarding the ball handler will go over the screen in the hopes of preventing a 3-point shot and forcing the ball handler into help defense. The player guarding the screener steps out away from his man to prevent any easy angle toward the basket. The Gaels’ big man sticks with the ball handler until the player that went over the screen can recover to the ball handler. For a split second, it almost looks like a switch, but it’s not. 

As with any coverage, there are a number of ways to potentially beat it. One of the simplest is to rush around the hedge before it can push the ball handler out too far. If the ball handler beats the hedge man, they will often have an open lane to the rim. 

St. Mary’s defeated New Mexico 72-58 last week. One thing the Lobos had some success with schematically was getting the pass to the screener through a high-low pass. The Aztecs have been trying to get the ball to LeDee through high-low passes, so they should steal this from New Mexico. 

One last tweak the Gaels use is keepinga defender in the paint when an offensive player cuts through. Opponents have focused on defending the paint against SDSU, and the Gaels will leave shooters open in order to accomplish that. Aztec players will need to make the right reads and hit open shots when this happens. 

Plays to watch

Carolina Screen

A Carolina screen is a back screen set for a trailing big man in semi-transition. It works because it looks like the screener is moving to set a different screen, so it takes defenders by surprise. 

Chicago series

A Chicago screen consists of a player starting in the corner, running off a screen on the wing, and then receiving a dribble handoff. Even this early in the season, Aztec fans have already seen many different options come out of this simple combination. 

Ram DHO (Dribble Hand-Off)

This play starts with a screen the screener action, then the ball gets passed to the weak side and flows into a handoff. The Gaels have used this play multiple times to beat pressure defense. As players stay in the passing lane, they get out of position to defend the handoff. The Aztecs like to play intense pressure defense, so expect the Gaels are likely to try this play a few times. 

Players to watch

Aiden Mahaney, #20- 17 points, 1.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists

Aiden Mahaney is the straw that stirs the Gaels offense. He is capable of scoring inside and outside, operates well in pick and rolls, and makes his teammates better. He had 20 points in the first half against New Mexico, so he knows how to score. It will be a metaphorical battle of heavyweights when Makhaney’s offense matches up against Butler’s defense. 

Mitchell Saxen, #11- 9 points, 7 rebounds, 1.7 assists

Saxon is the starting center for the Gaels. He is a capable double-digit scorer but makes a larger impact on defense and on the glass. He is a capable shot blocker and a great rebounder. He does tend to commit a lot of fouls, so watching him and LeDee matchup will be interesting. 

Harry Wessels, #1- 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists

Wessels is the backup center and is a big body at 7’1”, 255 lbs. He is a better rebounder and shot blocker than Saxon but is more offensively limited and more prone to committing fouls. Will his size overwhelm the Aztecs, or will he be forced off the floor with foul trouble?

Alex Ducas, #44- 6.7 Points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist

Ducas has gotten off to a slow start so far, but he is a fifth-year senior who can light it up from the perimeter. He has shot 39.3% from three-point range for his career. Last season, he scored 17 points against SDSU. 

X-Factor- Rebounding

The aspect of the game the Aztecs have struggled with the most so far is arguably rebounding the ball. And it’s a problem that is present on both ends of the floor. Coincidentally, it’s also the aspect that St. Mary’s has had the most success with this season. With the slow style of offense the Gaels play, limiting them to one shot will be crucial, and given their size, it won’t be easy. 

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