This year’s Aztec team did something not many Aztec teams have done. They won the tournament championship. They’re the first Aztec team since 2011 to win the conference regular season and the tournament in the same year. This team has come a long way from where they started. What have we learned over the last few days?
1. This team isn’t an 8 seed
The Aztecs needed to get at least one quad 1 win in the tournament to improve their resume. Ideally, they would’ve gotten two, but that chance was taken from them when Nevada beat Boise St. Nevertheless, beating Utah St. gave SDSU the quad 1 win they needed. The Aztecs are top 20 in almost every major rating system. They rank 15th in the massey ratings composite (average of 55 different computer and human ratings.) There is no good reason this team shouldn’t receive a No. 6 seed. They honestly deserve a No. 5 seed, but that seems unlikely due to, *checks notes* “reasons.”
2. Trey Pulliam should’ve won Tournament MVP
This is no disrespect to Matt Mitchell. Mitchell’s presence allows the rest of the team to operate the way it does. Wyoming’s whole game plan was basically to shut down Mitchell and make Pulliam beat them, and it almost worked. Mitchell was tied for a game-high +13 (tied with Mensah) against Utah State. Mitchell is absolutely valuable, the heart and soul of the team, and deserved POY.
All that being said, Trey Pulliam should’ve won Tournament MVP. all three opponents set up their defenses in different ways, but the goal for all of them was to make Pulliam beat them, as opposed to letting Mitchell of Schakel beat them.
All three opponents lost.
Pulliam stepped up in a major way during the tournament and played the best basketball of his career. He is doing the things he always did. He is passing. He is defending at a high level. He keeps possession of the ball and doesn’t turn it over. He added scoring, and efficiently at that, to the list of skills he provides.
Who would’ve thought that the guy we all wanted to bench in January would put up these numbers in the conference tournament?
12.7 pts, 2.3 rebs, 3.7 asts, 2.3 stl, 59% from the field.
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) March 14, 2021
Pulliam playing as well as he has the last few games really raises the Aztecs’ ceiling. Their weakness all season was Elite point guard play. Pulliam will never be Malachi Flynn, but the way he has been able to slither through defenses and hit shots has been amazing. As Pulliam continues to do that, this team will make a run in the Tournament.
3. Spacing is so important
This isn’t news. Modern basketball on the offensive end is based so much on spacing defenders out to open up driving lanes. It puts the defense in a position where they have to decide whether to give up an uncontested layup or an uncontested 3-pointer. This play early on against Utah St. shows the concept so well.
Mensah got the ball in the post. Queta was forcing him baseline, so Mensah spun off with the intention of hitting a short turnaround jumper. Woerster timed the double team really well and surprised Mensah, but he left one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters open in the process. Mensah was able to find Gomez, and Gomez did what he does.
The Aztecs have two of the best shooters in the nation in Gomez and Schakel. Mitchell and Seiko are also legit 35%+ shooters. As we’ve seen over the course of the tournament, it is hard to lock down that many shooters. Even if one or two go cold, the others will still hit shots.
The Aztecs beat Utah State in the paint. They only shot 13% from behind the arc. That was in large part due to the spacing players provide.
4. Defense wins Championships
It is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but it’s still true. The two teams that made the conference title game this season were both built around defense. The Aztecs played some great defense to come out with the win. Nathan Mensah, in particular, played a great defensive game. He bothered Queta all night, never letting him get comfortable, routinely swatting the ball out of his hands, and just being a pest. The results were obvious, and Queta’s frustration screamed through his body language.
This clip shows a serious defensive duo, and bodes well for this year’s March Madness run, as well as next year’s team.
Mensah stays glued to Queta in the post and never lets Queta get into a good position. Queta tries a couple of upfakes. Mensah will often bite on upfakes because he wants to get blocks. He did get off his feet on one, but mostly stayed grounded and vertical, and forced Queta into a tough position. It was textbook post-defense. Basketball fundamentalists say the primary defender in the paint shouldn’t try to get blocks. The reason being the defender is more likely to commit a foul or jump out of position than they are to actually get a block. The primary defender should stay vertical and contest as well as they can with their feet on the ground.
The help defender is the player who should go for blocks. If they jump, they’re less likely to compromise the defense or commit a foul. That is exactly what happened in this play. Mensah satays vertical, Johnson comes down to help and gets the block. It was textbook defense. Aztec fans should see much more of this in the coming games.
5. Mitchell and Schakel are such good leaders
Leadership is one of those things you can’t really measure. It’s not about scoring points or racking up assists. It’s about how you carry yourself every day. It’s about not just saying the right things, but doing the right things. It takes a lot of different aspects to be a good leader. Mitchell and Schakel, though they do it and approach it in different ways, have both been excellent leaders this season.
Mitchell has had a consistent message all season. In a year where he won Conference Player of the Year, Tournament player of the year, 1st team all defense, etc., he has consistently said that while awards are nice, he is here to win. Winning always comes first in his mind. It’s clear when listening to him that it’s not just lip service. He really believes it. On the floor, he never pouts, he never lets the moment get too big for him, he always moves to the next play. There were several times where Queta wouldn’t get a call and would slouch and walk back on defense. Mitchell doesn’t do that. It sets the example for the rest of the guys. If Mitchell can come out and score 15-20 points a game, while often guarding the opponent’s best player, and still run back on defense after getting whacked, then no one else has any excuse. The team believes it, and it shows in the results.
Schakel is very similar. He has made similar comments about winning being more important than any individual accomplishment or award. He also had arguably the best quote of anyone on the team after winning the tournament. “They can steal a trophy, they can rip down a banner, they can get on a ladder, but they can never take away the memories and the bonds you made with your teammates and your coaches and the trainers, and you know everybody that goes with us.”
Jordan Schakel on San Diego State’s toughness. pic.twitter.com/famaMmSBXY
— Jon Schaeffer (@jonschaeffer) March 14, 2021
This team is really a family. They truly care about each other, on and off the court. That type of culture has impacts on the court that can be hard to quantify, but easy to identify. In a year with so much uncertainty and turmoil, the fact that the guys in the locker room have the bond that they do helps so much. Schakel is showing maturity well beyond his years with this quote. That’s what leadership looks like. Between the talent of the team, the leadership at the top, and the bond they all share, this team has some potential to make some noise.