The Aztecs are back-to-back conference champions for the first time in program history after beating UNLV on the road 71-62. What did we learn from the game?
1. Matt Mitchell is the MW Conference POY
Matt Mitchell should undoubtedly be the Conference Player of the Year.
Most argue the POY award should go to the best player on the best team. That’s Mitchell. Schakel is invaluable too, but he isn’t as versatile as Mitchell is. Mitchell scores from all three levels, the offense often runs through him, and he often guards the opposing team’s best player, especially in crunch time. He held fellow POY candidate Bryce Hamilton to 9 points on 3-14 shooting and was a big reason Hamilton fouled out of the game.
If you subscribe to the thought that POY should go to the best player, regardless of who the best team is, it’s still Mitchell. Alston, Hamilton, and Sherfield are all great offensive players, but they play defense to varying success levels, none as good as Mitchell.
These players have the offense run through them, but how often do they press full court on the less glamorous end? Mitchell has that in his resume.
Mitchell’s numbers are held down by playing with good teammates and don’t reflect how important he actually is. Despite that, they’re not far off from the others. David Roddy is getting to Mitchell’s level and is better in a few areas, but not overall. Not yet anyway. Queta is a great defender, but not the offensive player or overall threat that Mitchell is.
No matter which way you look at it, Mitchell is the POY. He made a case against Boise State and followed it up by leading the team against UNLV and locking up the regular-season championship.
2. Trey Pulliam continues to play the best basketball of his career
Trey Pulliam has been playing much better over the past five games. It was highlighted in the last takeaways article, and Pulliam has continued to play well. He didn’t set a career-high in scoring again, but he did set a career-high in assists against UNLV. It has been noted before that Pulliam only truly creates about half of his assists. The rest he is a benefactor of his teammates doing work to get open. That being said, a career-high is a career-high, and even if the ratio is the same, it was a great performance.
The last few games, defenses have been showing higher on Pulliam pick and rolls, meaning the bigs come up and get in his face before he can get going downhill. What that does is open up a path to the rim for the big man setting the screen. Pulliam has missed on a couple of those connections over the last couple of games, where the ball whips off the big man’s hands, but when they connect, it’s very pretty.
In his performance against UNLV, Pulliam also showed some of the playmaking chops this team will need to make a run, both in the conference tourney and the NCAA tourney.
Here the defense shows high on him (yet again), but UNLV sends help from the strong side in the form of Bryce Hamilton to stop the big from rolling the way they did in the clip above. That leaves Mitchell wide open on the play’s strong side, and Pulliam finds him for an easy three-point shot.
The whole play was created simply because UNLV decided Pulliam was a threat coming off of screens, and he needed to be stopped. That hasn’t been the case for much of the season, but it has been for the last few games. If teams keep loading up to stop, Pulliam Mitchell and Schakel will have some great games. The key will be, when they adjust to stop Mitchell or Schakel, Pulliam will need to step up and show he’s still a threat.
Pulliam’s stats back up this improvement. Here is Pulliam over the first nineteen games of the season:
The numbers range from ok to bad here. Shooting 36.8% from the field is bad. 3.3 Assists to 1.4 Turnovers is solid, etc.
Here are Pulliam’s numbers over the last five games:
The shooting percentage has improved, especially from behind the arc. He’s been getting more steals. The assist to turnover ratio isn’t as good but is still in the positive range.
Pulliam is heating up and playing the best ball of his career at the right time. If Pulliam continues to play well, the ceiling of this team rises considerably.
3. Nathan Mensah rounding into form?
Nathan Mensah had a stretch of games that weren’t up to the standard he set for himself. He fixed that against UNLV. He was much more aggressive with the ball, and it showed on both ends of the floor.
He finished the game with 14 points and 6 rebounds. He is a threat when rolling to the rim and on dump-offs. The more he remembers that the better this team will be, as Nathan’s offense tends to directly impact his defensive engagement and effectiveness.
This team is hitting its stride at the perfect time. There’s still some work to do, especially against a full-court press. UNLV used it to some success against the Aztecs, making three games in a row they’ve struggled against it. That being said, the Aztecs are playing their best basketball of the season. They’ve improved to the first 8 seed on bracket matrix. It’s still lower than they deserve, but it’s not hard to imagine them moving up to a 6 or maybe even a 5 seed should they continue to play well and win the conference tournament. With a better seed, this team can make a run.
@evanmiya runs 20 bracket simulations each day. I looked at today's results to see how far he says the Aztecs are likely to go. Here are the results:
Round of 64- 25%
Sweet 16- 40%
Elite 8- 15%
National Champs- 5% pic.twitter.com/ONHZH4W3lS
— Aztec Breakdown (@aztecbreakdown) March 4, 2021