With expectations as high as ever, this year’s Aztec team is frequently compared to the historic 2020 SDSU team that went 30-2. While there are similarities with the addition of impact transfers and potential success, comparisons between past and present teams are unfair to the current squad because one is a known commodity, and the other is still developing its identity.
One area where there is an uncanny resemblance is in their non-conference schedules.
Two years ago, the Aztecs played in the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving, where they defeated Creighton and Iowa. In a season cut short by Covid, these contests defined that team and showed they were one of the best in the nation. The following week, the hungover Aztecs needed a desperation Malachi Flynn buzzer-beater to defeat the San Jose Spartans as 30-point favorites. This year’s Aztec team did not go undefeated over their Thanksgiving tournament, but they found themselves in a similar situation as double-digit favorites needing a Micah Parrish last-second three to claim victory over UC Irvine.
Following Flynn’s three, the 2020 team improved to 10-0 and pushed towards a historic season. The shot from Parrish moved the Aztecs to 5-2, and the future of the team will be decided in the ensuing months.
Friday night, to say the Aztecs played an inferior opponent would be an understatement. They faced off against Occidental. Two weeks ago Occidental lost 106-30 against UC Riverside. The school resides in Los Angeles, plays in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and does not offer scholarships for basketball.
In the game against SDSU, the score was not quite as lopsided. But the Aztecs cruised to a 95-57 victory and found positive takeaways going forward.
Getting Back into Rhythm
Ever since SDSU’s 23-point victory on opening night against Cal State Fullerton, they have had no opportunity to exhale. The gauntlet of a schedule against BYU, Stanford, the Maui Invitational, and a last-second victory against UC Irvine gave the coaches and players gray hair. The team needed a game to flex its muscles and enjoy an easy victory.
They dominated the glass, winning the battle 41-26, and controlled the paint. They had multiple opportunities to admire their exploits after breakaway dunks and offensive rebound put-backs.
This game also gave the players a chance to get their confidence back up and back into a shooting rhythm.
SDSU came into the night as the 256th-ranked team from the three-point line shooting 31%. Against Occidental, they needed to see the ball go through the basket. Once they did, they unloaded beyond the arc. Adam Seiko made five first-half threes; he finished with six. Parrish hit four, and Matt Bradley splashed three. The team as a whole found the bottom of the net 19 times beyond the arc, tying the Viejas Arena record set in 2003 by Troy University, SDSU’s opponent tonight.
“We played well together today,” Adam Seiko said after. “We found our (spots) and moved the ball around. So keep that going against Troy, and as the month ends, we’ll be in good shape.”
Matt Bradley has been the consistent scorer of late. Against Occidental, he decided to be a playmaker. He finished with nine points and eight assists. This strategy allowed the whole team to get involved and find their confidence.
“I thought Matt Bradley was just sensational,” Coach Brian Dutcher said after the game. “You could tell when the game started, he was only concerned with getting everybody involved.”
Lamont Butler had some forgettable moments against Arkansas and struggled the next game against UC Irvine. Against Occidental, without Darrion Trammell in the lineup, he was back to soaring through the lane, playing intense defense, and hitting jump shots. He finished the game with only nine points, but his minutes were limited due to an illness.
Jaedon LeDee opened the season as the Aztecs leading scorer with 11, 23, and 14 in his first three games. Over the next four games, he struggled from the field and looked lost, particularly on offense. He only finished with seven points on Friday, but he was a force on the boards and found his place better on the court.
Trying New Lineups
With Darrion Trammell sidelined with a hamstring injury, Micah Parrish started. He hit his open threes and played his usual intense on-ball defense. He also showed an ability to score off the dribble as he created his shot, drove down the baseline, and created plays in transition.
Parrish filling in gives height to the starting lineup. Last year, SDSU struggled against bigger teams as larger teams would outsize 6’4 Matt Bradley, 6’2 Lamont Butler, and 6’1 Trey Pulliam. Against bigger teams this season, the Aztecs are susceptible to the same issue with Trammell starting.
The case can be made that Parrish, LeDee, Seiko, and Aguek Arop all could start on this year’s team.
“You’re always thinking (about trying new lineups), you know, try to put your best team out there,” Dutcher said.
There are multiple lineup combinations that Dutcher could use. He could move Bradley to the two position and insert Parrish or Arop at the three. He could play big lineups with LeDee, and he could move around Keshad Johnson. But if he wants to make a change, it is predicated on benching one of his point guards.
As Dutcher has shown, the starting lineup does not truly matter. What is important is the five players that finish the game which changes on a per-game basis. But the team has been known to start games from a deficit before quickly throwing in the bench to find what fits. Finding the best five-guy lineup combination will be crucial for the team as the games get more important.
As the game went on, Dutcher tried multiple new lineups, including Seiko at point guard. He still has time to perfect his lineups, and Occidental provided the perfect opportunity to make trial runs of different player pairings.
SDSU’s Freshmen are legit
Games against non-division-one opponents give the coaches an opportunity to see what they have in other players. Starting the season with a challenging schedule, Dutcher has played a short bench with only nine players seeing regular minutes. Elijah Saunders has appeared in only two games and one for Miles Byrd.
Saunders was the first to check in after the first TV timeout. His size makes him a difficult matchup against any school, let alone Occidental College. He used it on the glass to grab offensive boards; he moved bodies in the paint, finishing with eight rebounds. He also was an effective passer, recording three assists.
Byrd made some freshman turnovers as he occasionally played too fast, but he flew in transition for a breakaway dunk, made his open threes, and commanded the team when he had the ball. He may be young, but he carries the swagger of an upperclassman, especially with his confidence to shoot. After injuring himself in practice at the Maui Invitational, he appeared to roll his ankle against Occidental, but he checked back in later in the contest. He finished with eight points and six assists in only 19 minutes. Postgame, Dutcher was not satisfied with Byrd’s performance.
“Yeah, you know me, I’m a coach, so all I see is the ones he throws away,” Dutcher said. “He made some beautiful passes, lobs to Demarshay, hit a couple of threes, but then he switches when he’s not supposed to, and he throws it away a couple of times… But that’s a freshman, so that’s not to be unexpected, but now we can teach and get him to be more consistent with the good play and not be as risky with the bad play.”
Demarshay Johnson Jr. is still considered a work in progress, but his size is undeniable. With his first opportunity with extended minutes, he scored the first points of his career on an alley-oop dunk. He was able to finish through a foul. On the following possession, he finished another and-one.
It remains to be seen if any of the freshmen can earn time in the rotation this season, but the trios potential is there for the years to come.
“I think we can all see that Miles will be a good player, Elijah is gonna be a good player, and they’re gonna be the future of the program,” Dutcher said. “But when they’re playing behind fifth and sixth-year seniors, it’s tough to get out there. But a year from now, they could be starters and on the floor for extended periods of time. So, any minutes they can get is valuable for now and the future.”