SDSU looking for a return to the Sweet 16

Mar 22, 2024; Spokane, WA, USA; San Diego State Aztecs guard Lamont Butler (5) reacts after a game against the UAB Blazers in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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Mar 22, 2024; Spokane, WA, USA; Tip-off between UAB Blazers forward Christian Coleman (13) and San Diego State Aztecs forward Jay Pal (4) during the first half in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State survived and advanced in a 69-65 win over UAB. Jaedon LeDee starred for the Aztecs, scoring 32 points in the victory. LeDee scored the most points in an NCAA Tournament game in program history, breaking Xavier Thames’ mark of 30. Thames and LeDee’s performances occurred 10 years to the day of each other, and both happened at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

SDSU will meet No. 13 Yale on Sunday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs knocked off No. 4 Auburn 78-76. Former Aztec Chad Baker-Mazara played only three minutes in the loss. The refs ejected Baker-Mazara after the Tiger’s forward elbowed Yale guard August Mahoney in the chest.

“Excited for our opportunity to have a chance to play to make it to a Sweet 16,” head coach Brian Dutcher said on the Saturday after practice. “Just really impressed with Yale. Coach Jones does a great job, been there a long time. They’re extremely dangerous. They have our full respect. And we will be ready to play tomorrow when we tip the game off.”

Who are the Yale Bulldogs?

Yale is 23-9 on the year. They finished tied for second in the Ivy League with a 9-2 record. Yale earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a buzzer-beater win over Brown in the tournament title game.

The Bulldogs are not a particularly deep team. Their starters average at least 26.9 minutes a game. The first five played 70.8% of Yale’s 6,500 minutes this season. Against Auburn, their bench only competed for 39 total minutes, attempted only seven shots, and scored just 11 points.

As a team, they scored 75.3 and gave up 66.9 per game. Only 7.3 of their 28.1 made field goal attempts came from three. The Bulldogs do not hurt themselves, averaging only 9.5 turnovers.

Yale’s balance is their calling card. All of their starters average double figures. SDSU has struggled against bigger teams at times this season. That should not be an issue on Sunday. Only one Bulldog in the rotation, 7-footer Danny Wolf, is taller than 6-foot-7. Departing from the undersized Ivy League reputation, however, Yale has good size. No player in the rotation is shorter than 6-foot-4.

Mahoney (45.8%) and John Poulakidas (40.8%) are Yale’s sharpshooters. The duo has made 152 of the team’s 234 3-pointers on the year. Poulakidas scored a career-high 28 points in the upset over Auburn. 18 of those came from behind the arc.

“Usually, we try to stop a couple of players, but they have five players that can go, so we’re going to have to be locked in for everybody because everybody can get out there and score,” Lamont Bulter said on Saturday. “So, we can’t just focus on one player, so that makes it tough. But, we’ll be locked in for it.”

Key to Victory: Shot Making

SDSU, Jaedon LeDee
Jaedon LeDee fired up during the Round of 68 contest against UAB (Credit: CBS Sports)

Win-or-go-home contests usually come down to which team makes the most big shots. While fans remember these key attempts in the waning moments of games, they can occur throughout. Making shots at the end of the shot clock, to stop or extend runs, or on broken plays when the defense has done its job falls into the big shot category.

SDSU and Yale have both proven adept in this area. The team that wins this key facet will likely come out victorious.

This factor has shown up huge in Yale’s last two games. In the Ivy 3-poi Tournament Title Game, they trailed Brown 60-54 with 27 seconds left. PG Bez Mbeng made a conventional 3-point play, Poulakidas hit a three, and F Matt Knowling hit a short runner on Yale’s final three possessions to steal the win.

Against Auburn, the Bulldogs trailed most of the game, but the Tigers never built more than a 10-point advantage because of Yale’s clutch play. The final few minutes of the game turned into a free-throw shooting contest. Yale won, hitting all 10 of their foul shots over the final 2:54 of the game. Auburn was 2-6 in the same time frame.

“For what we’ve watched (on film) thus far, they can all shoot the ball,” LeDee said. “They have two or three, maybe even four guys that can really shoot the ball from that guard spot and then, the big man. Coach said a stat, they’re one of the best defensive rebounding teams. So, us trying to get on the offensive glass always and them being a good defensive rebounding team, that’s a challenge. So, that stuck out.”

Player to Watch: Danny Wolf

Poulakidas starred in the first game. Mbeng won the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. But for Yale to pull off a second upset, they will need a great effort from Danny Wolf. Auburn had great success inside but did not maximize it enough to win. Despite hitting on 60.6% of their 2-point field goals, 38% of their total shots came from deep. SDSU will not make that mistake.

SDSU’s biggest advantage in every game they play is LeDee. On paper, LeDee should thrive against Yale. The players tasked with guarding him are underclassmen. Wolf (7-foot, 255) and Nick Townsend (6-foot-7, 250 lbs) are sophomores. Wolf will need to own the paint against LeDee without fouling.

Depending on foul trouble, true freshman Samson Aletan (6-foot-10, 223) could play. Aletan is not in the rotation, however. He has competed in only five games since the beginning of February for a total of 30 minutes. Aletan played for seven minutes against Auburn and sealed the game with a block.

Despite his age, Wolf will not be intimidated by matching up with an All-American. This past summer, the Illinois native won a silver medal with Israel’s U-20 national team. After not starting as a freshman, the U-20 tournament was the first sign of Wolf’s rise in the sport. He had double-doubles in five of the seven contests and was named a FIBA U-20 All-Star Five for his efforts. Wolf built off that success this season with Yale. He paced the Bulldogs in points (14.3 per game), rebounds (9.7), and blocks (1.39) on his way to earning Ivy League First-Team honors.

“From what I’ve seen on him on film thus far, he’s 7-foot, but he likes to put it the perimeter,” LeDee said on Saturday. “He’s very unique in that way, so I think it’s going to be a good matchup. We’re going to have to game plan for him a little differently than a typical 7-footer. He has a good game.”

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X-Factor: Referees

Referees do not decide games, but they significantly influence outcomes. Down one to Kansas in the final moments of the game, Samford got a clear block that was called a foul. Instead of having a five-on-four advantage with a chance to win the game with 14 seconds left, the refs gave two foul shots to Kansas, and the Jayhawks iced the game.

SDSU benefitted against UAB because the refs called fouls on the Blazers’ bigs. The Aztecs are dependent on LeDee. When he draws whistles, they are hard to beat. With Yale’s thin ranks inside, the Bulldogs likely won’t be able to overcome losing their bigs for extended periods.

As the tournament progresses, the discrepancy between the number of fouls called and the free throws awarded to each team narrows. Significant in its two-pointvictory over Auburn, was Yale shooting nine more free throws than the Tigers.

Prediction: SDSU wins 68-59

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