The drama of college basketball is unsurpassed.
On a nondescript Friday in December outside of the national spotlight, Jaedon LeDee’s offensive rebound and putback at the buzzer of a Lamont Butler miss lifted SDSU over crosstown rival UCSD.
As improbable as teams currently separated by 206 spots in the Kenpom rankings competing so closely would seem to those who depend too much on analytics, anyone familiar with the Aztecs’ history of playing local schools knew Friday’s outcome was possible.
UCSD and SDSU have competed three times since the Tritons moved to Division I. Both games at Viejas Arena were over by halftime before last night’s nail-biter in La Jolla. The Aztecs played USD every season from 1998-2019, going 15-7 against the Toreros in that span.
Even as the two programs took divergent paths, with SDSU ascending into national prominence once Kawhi Leonard stepped on campus, the games between the schools were frequently competitive. Leonard and the Aztecs needed overtime to defeat USD in 2009. SDSU’s Sweet Sixteen team, led by Xavier Thames, fresh off a Wooden Legacy Championship four days earlier, needed a buzzer-beating shot to rim out to win 65-54 over the Toreros. These close contests, coupled with a pair of USD victories, reveal the nature of the rivalry.
With computer metrics unable to account for nuance, future games against USD or UCSD are fraught with danger for the Aztecs. Only blowout wins can improve SDSU’s numbers, an unlikely outcome on the road.
Nothing to lose
Four thousand spectators watched Friday’s game at LionTree Arena. In contests not including the Aztecs, UCSD averages 1,427 fans at home. On November 13, a gathering of 871 diehards watched their contest against DIII La Verne. Playing SDSU was an audition for the Tritons as it attempts to build its fanbase. Add in the energy of competing in a full gym, and Friday’s tussle held far more significance for UCSD.
“I can’t imagine there’s a lot of Top 20 Kenpom teams playing Quad 4 road games in the non-conference,” UCSD head coach Eric Olen said postgame. “(Ducther) has obligations to their program to do the best things that are in their interest. My hope is we continue to build (and) we get to a level where it makes sense for them to play. … We would all love to continue to do this, but I think it’s important to recognize all the factors that go into that decision-making. … I think it’s great for San Diego basketball … They’ve done more than their fair share for San Diego basketball. We’re all indebted to them.”
Despite the landmine that games on the road against UCSD and USD present, SDSU should play in San Diego away from Viejas Arena once a year. While the celebration and growth of basketball in America’s Finest City is a compelling argument for the matchups, there are more than altruistic reasons for head coach Brian Dutcher to drive across town for a contest.
SDSU’s maturity was the deciding factor that led to its championship run. Qualitatively, that factor showed up in the way last season’s team competed on each possession. Elite effort on every play was the hallmark of that group.
Experience, not coaching, teaches this quality. UCSD taught the Aztecs that focus and intensity can close the talent gap. It’s the same lesson Alabama learned the hard way against SDSU in the Sweet Sixteen.
With increasing reliance on one-time transfers and without an extra COVID year of eligibility, the Aztecs will never again be as mature as they were last year. Scheduling a road game against USD or UCSD every season is like a laboratory to teach the invaluable lesson that heart matters as much as skill. Playing against a hungry opponent with everything to gain and nothing to lose would serve the Aztecs well.
Taking over a hostile arena
Road contests, close to home, also offer SDSU a chance to energize its fanbase. There is nothing more exhilarating for Aztec Nation than taking over an arena.
With marquee teams unwilling to come to Viejas Arena, there are few opportunities for Dutcher to give unforgettable experiences to the fans.
Whatever the UCSD victory costs the Aztecs in terms of its NCAA resume, it more than makes up for with thousands of supporters more locked into the team.
The fans in attendance on Friday will not forget LeDee’s buzzer-beater any more than those present in Houston will forget Lamont Butler’s in the Final Four. Sports are special that way. The more memories SDSU can create, the more ticket sales and NIL money it will generate.
Tangibly, USD and UCSD do not offer a compelling reason for SDSU to continue playing those schools on the road. Intangibly, however, the Aztecs have a lot to gain. For a school that reached its heights for believing that success is more than meets the eye, the unseen should be enough.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.