The Aztecs had a great, albeit stressful, week. They went 3-0 and finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak and winning nine of their last ten. SDSU beat Wyoming in Laramie, the only team to do that this year, and then squared by Fresno State and Nevada with one-point victories.
Here are the takeaways:
Defense carries –
The games against Fresno State and Nevada both came down to a final possession where the opponent had the ball. The Aztecs couldn’t hit clutch free throws against the Bulldogs and couldn’t break the full-court press against the Wolfpack. I’m both games. The defense won the game.
Against Fresno State Joshua Tomaić switched onto Isaiah Hill and got a great shot contest to win the game. Against Nevada, Nathan Mensah was able to Block Grant Scherfield in the paint, followed by a Keshad Johnson block on the perimeter, to seal the game.
The offense has improved, but the defense is the calling card of the team. If they manage to win the MW tournament, it will be because of their defense.
Breaking the Press –
The Aztecs, at one point, held an 18 point lead against Nevada with twelve minutes to go. It was a 17 point lead with eight minutes to go. Then Nevada started using a full-court press. They forced six Aztec turnovers in the last eight minutes, and those turnovers were the reason they were able to get back in the game.
It was eerily reminiscent of the game against Michigan, where the Aztecs were in it until they struggled to break the Wolverines’ full-court press. Without Lamont Butler to spell Pulliam, the Aztecs had 16 turnovers against Michigan. They had 19 against Nevada.
It’s almost a testament to the offense that they were able to score 79 points despite giving up 19 possessions. That won’t be sustainable, though. After seeing Nevada pull off a huge comeback, other teams will likely press in the tournament. The Aztecs will need to figure out how to break it if they want to advance to their ninth conference championship game in eleven years or win their third championship in five years.
Lamont Butler’s Offense –
It’s hard to remember, but earlier in this season, Lamont Butler was the guy that ran the offense. He started off the season scoring ten points per game with two assists and two steals and was the team’s best shooter, connecting on 47% of his three-point shots. Butler going down with a wrist injury was part of the reason the team fell apart against Michigan. After the wrist was healed, the team went on COVID pause, which was a bit of a restart for everyone. Lamont and his family also experienced a tragic loss in the family this season. It is enough to shake anyone from their game.
Through it all, Butler has played elite defense. Evanmiya.com ranks him as the best defender in the conference and the 16th best defender nationally. Even without scoring, he still brought immense value to the team. That defensive impact continues in every game this week. The difference was the offense was there against Nevada.
Butler scored eleven points against Nevada and by two three-pointers. One was a nasty step back.
He put him on skates😲
— San Diego State Men's Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) March 6, 2022
He was also really aggressive in getting to the rim, which is something the team desperately needs.
Hopefully, his offensive outburst is a sign of things to come over the next few games. The team looks much better when Butler is clicking on both sides of the ball.
Previewing the Conference Tournament –
The Aztecs have earned the three seed in the Mountain West Tournament.
The good news is they get the first-round bye. No team has won four games in four days under the current tournament format, so securing a top-5 seed is crucial. The Aztecs will play the winner of Fresno State-San Jose State (likely Fresno State) late on Thursday. Should they advance, they will play the winner of Colorado State-Utah State (likely Colorado State) late on Friday.
They swept Fresno State in the regular season, beating them by 17 on the road and winning by one in double overtime at home. The Bulldog have a great defense, and it will not be an easy matchup. Having fresh legs may be the difference, as whoever the Aztecs play in the first round would be playing their second game in two days. Historically it hasn’t been much of a boon, though, as the three seed has into advanced to the semi-final round in four of the eight tournaments under the current format.
If the Aztecs are able to pull out the victory, they will play a late game on Friday night. They split the season series against both possible opponents. Either opponent would be tough. History also isn’t on the Aztec’s side in the semi-final round, as the three seed has won that game just once in the eight years of the current format. The three seed has also never won a championship in the current format. In a number of ways, the odds seem stacked against the Aztecs.
Those looking for a sign of hope may take solace in the fact that the only time a five-seed won a championship in the current format was when a Brian Dutcher-led Aztec team did it in 2018. Maybe the Aztecs can pull it off again and be the first three seed to win it all in the current format.
March Madness Hopes –
At this point, the Aztecs should be in the field of 68 regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. They currently have no losses outside of quad-1 and are 8-7 in quads 1 and 2. Their metrics are also great. They are currently 29th in the NET. Last year every team in the top 41 made it. They are 23rd in KenPom. Over the last twelve seasons, only one team in the top-25 of KenPom didn’t make the tournament, and it was the 25th ranked team.
The worst-case scenario is that they lose to San Jose St in the quarter-finals. If that happens, Aztecs fans will have a nervous selection Sunday. Any other outcome, including losing to Fresno St, should still result in an invite.
Bracket Matrix currently has the Aztecs as a nine seed. This is not a team on the bubble and is not a team that needs to win the conference tournament. They are pretty solidly in.