Like a broken record, the Aztecs advance to their sixth straight Mountain West Basketball Championship game under Head Coach Brian Dutcher.
SDSU coasted to victory in the semifinals due to sticking with their bread and butter, elite defense. They ended San Jose State’s Cinderella hopes.
They are one win away from claiming their seventh Mountain West Tournament Title.
All season, the talk of this year’s Aztec team has been that this year’s defense is not at last year’s level. Over the past month, that has changed. Kenpom rates them now as the 10th best in the nation.
Friday may have been their best performance of the season. In the first half, the Spartans shot 26% from the field. From the 16:16 mark to 2:42, SJSU scored four points. They had multiple scoring droughts, which allowed SDSU to build a double-digit lead. SJSU looked completely out of sorts, and they never found a rhythm for the rest of the contest.
“When you come to San Diego State, you’re told, you defend at a high level, you don’t like playing defense, don’t come to this program,” head coach Brian Dutcher said.
The box score suggests that this should have been a much closer game. SDSU made only three more field goals, were outrebounded by seven and lost the battle in the paint. But It did not matter because of the way SDSU competed on Friday.
“This game was physical and aggressive,” Dutcher said.
That style plays into SDSU’s hands as their physicality on the defensive end overpowers the opposing team. Following the Spartans’ win over Nevada, Miles said that scoring inside was key to their victory and would need to replicate that against the Aztecs. After the loss to SDSU, Miles said SJSU needed to score at least 15 more points in the paint to have any chance to defeat SDSU. With the referees allowing a physical game, SJSU did not have this luxury.
“They’re together, they really work hard together, they’re connected defensively especially given the way they switch,” Spartan coach Tim Miles said.
Throughout the year, Dutcher repeatedly mentioned that his teams, historically, get better as the season goes on. With the emphasis the staff put on defense, the Aztecs are peaking at the right time of year.
With a game against Utah State on the horizon, they will need to be connected on defense. The Aggies use quick ball movement to find open shots. They are the fifth-best three-point shooting team in the nation, according to Kenpom. If they find an open look, they will make you pay.
Omari Moore locked up
This year’s Mountain West Player of the Year race was a toss-up. There were many players equally deserving of the award, including SDSU’s Matt Bradley. The award was given to Omari Moore, who led the Spartans to their best season since 1980. On Friday, the Aztecs shifted the court towards him and made his life miserable. No one watching would have guessed Moore was the conference’s best player this year.
He opened the game by making a wide-open three-pointer. A few possessions later, he made a layup. After that, he lost all space. SDSU made sure Moore did not have room to breathe the rest of the way.
The Aztecs switched defenders all game. Lamont Butler hounded him, SDSU’s bigs stayed in front following screens, and if Moore beat his defender, he was usually met at the rim.
“You never feel like you can get to your spots,” Miles said about SDSU’s defense. Moore could never get into a rhythm or find his openings.
“San Diego State is one of the best defenses in the country,” Moore said. “They typically have a good gameplan coming into it, and that’s a lot of credit to what they have going.”
After his quick start, he did not score again until 28 minutes of game time later. The Spartan offense revolves around Moore. It was clear he was frustrated. Multiple times the offense looked stagnant, and the other players on the court passed to Moore to play hero ball. He deflected and passed out of isolation sets. In the second half, he went almost 10 minutes without attempting a field goal.
“Just make his life hard, make all his catches hard, press him the whole game, high hands, just the little things,” Darrion Trammell said on how the Aztecs guarded Moore.
Shutting down the opposing team’s best player, particularly guards, has been a calling card for the Aztecs as of late. On Thursday, Isaiah Stevens went 5-20 from the floor. The previous game against Wyoming on Senior Night, Hunter Maldonado scored three points.
“We had no Robin, we needed a secondary scorer,” Miles said, reflecting on the loss. When the Aztecs shut down an opposing team’s best player, they are forced to rely more heavily on their second or third options.
Going forward, defending the opponent’s guards will pay dividends in the team’s success. Steven Ashworth is the engine for Utah State’s offense. In March, guards win games. Having the media Defensive Player of the Year, Butler is huge for the high-leverage games when there is an elite guard on the other side of the floor.
Any Given Night
Last season, SDSU’s Achilles heel was clear, they were too reliant on Matt Bradley. If he had an off-shooting night, the Aztecs would need to find a way to grind out a victory.
This season the storyline is depth. Everyone in the rotation can start, and on any given night, anyone can lead the team.
Against the Rams, it was Lamont Butler and Matt Bradley. Against the Spartans, it was Trammell and Keshad Johnson. The duo combined for 30 points.
“Coach Dutch does a great job of letting us know that it can be any one of our nights each and every day that we go out there and play,” Johnson said.
The offense may not be sensational every night, but the formula remains the same. Some games, it’s the starters who step up. At other times it’s the guys off the bench. This is a nightmare for the NCAA tournament teams, who must create a defensive game plan against the Aztecs.
“We’re not one guy, where we go constantly to the same guy,” Dutcher said. “We play team basketball, and whoever is having that hot night seems to find it.”
With their elite defense, when multiple guys produce, SDSU is a really tough team to beat.
– Darrion Trammell was sensational against the Spartans. To end the first half, he hit a three-pointer in the waning seconds, and a defender landed under his feet. Trammell hobbled into the locker room. He came out in the second half with his calf wrapped up. He played through the injury and said he will be fine tomorrow, but he was visibly in pain.
Trammell talked to the referee to begin the second half and told him that he was not getting enough space to land on his jumpers. On the first possession of the second half, he drew a foul on his three-point attempt.
– Bradley’s favorite shot has become his left-hand layup. When he is in isolation sets, he can use a variety of crafty moves to create an open jump shot. But when he is driving to the rim, he looks to finish with his left hand. He scoops his hand around the defender and can also finish through contact.
– Twice in the first half, Nathan Mensah was asked by a referee to tuck in his jersey. He seemed uncomfortable with having it completely tucked in. Meanwhile, Seiko wore his shirt completely untucked and never received a comment.
– Beating a good team three times in a season is tough. SDSU defeated the Aggies easily at home and won a nail-biting victory on the road in the regular season. Utah State has looked like the best team in the MW tournament, as they scored 91 points against New Mexico and had four players in double figures against Boise State. They will be a very difficult test for SDSU. The Aztecs will need a full 40-minute effort to cut down nets at the end of the game.
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.