Tarke’s Takes: San Diego State vs Kennesaw State

Keshad Johnson finishes on a fast break set up by an assist from Darrion Trammell. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU’s fearsome foursome return to the bench following a run. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“Bring the energy,” Coach Brian Dutcher put on the board before Monday’s game against Kennesaw State.

SDSU, who played two days earlier and lost an important resume-building opportunity against Saint Mary’s, needed to move on and take care of business against an Owls team that would leave a nasty stain on the Aztecs’ resume should they lose.

From the opening won tip by Nathan Mensah to cheering for the non-scholarship players to make a basket in the final minutes, the Aztecs heeded their coach’s message and played with enthusiasm. The team was relentless and left no doubt in the 88-54 victory.

Lamont Butler sparked numerous fast-break opportunities on Monday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Licking your chops vs licking your wounds

The loss to Saint Mary’s was important as it will affect the team’s final seeding in the NCAA tournament. The players knew how much capturing a quadrant 1 victory mattered, but they lost. 

Some teams, after suffering a big loss, can feel sorry for themselves. They may lick their wounds and think about the prior loss for too long. Considering SDSU played just two days ago, they had every right to come out flat and sulking over a defeat that cost them a spot in the national rankings.

“NBA Mentality,” both Micah Parrish and Jaedon LeDee preached after the game. It’s Dutcher’s phrase reflecting the reality of the professional game, where 82 regular season contests force players to move on from the previous game, no matter the outcome. 

It was clear early on that the Aztecs had something to prove and wanted to put the loss behind them. In the opening 12 minutes, they shot 50% from the field and went 10-for-13 from two-point range. They went through a five-minute stretch in the first half on a dominating 19-2 run. By halftime, they led 39-25, which Dutcher was not satisfied with. The team grabbed the Owls by the throat to start the second half and put the game out of reach.


“We came back, had a good practice, and really zeroed in on this game,” LeDee said.

The Aztecs also showed the ability to beat up inferior competition. Coming into the night, SDSU struggled against UC Irvine and Troy, needing last-minute plays to win both games. But as fifteen-point favorites against Kennesaw State, they flexed their muscle, and the starters were given the early curtain call for the non-scholarship players to finish the game.

Against division one opponents, this was the first time coasting to victory since the first game of the season.

“We’re used to the grind; we shouldn’t think anything should be easy,” LeDee said. “When we do have to grind, it’s just another day, and when we get breaks like this, it’s nice to see.”

Echoing the sentiment a few minutes later, Dutcher said, “This is just a long process of growing; we’ve played a good enough schedule and resume; we just have to continue to get better,” 

Darrion Trammell points to a teammate as a referee raises signals a made three. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Sharing the wealth

To begin the season, SDSU’s offense felt much different compared to last year. Not necessarily because of stellar shooting; it was through assists and a flowing offense. In the first four games of the season, they averaged 15.5 assists per game. The offense moved through a transition and juxtaposed the isolation basketball of last season.

In Maui, the team recorded 14 assists against Ohio State and shot almost 48% from the field. The offense showed firepower against a top program. But they played differently against Arizona and Arkansas. They combined for 12 assists in both games. The offense no longer moved, and sets were stagnant, with Darrion Trammell and Matt Bradley playing hero ball to save possessions. This could have been attributed to a lack of preparation for both opponents.

But against Troy and Saint Mary’s, the offense gave off the image of the same isolation basketball of last season. Bradley and Trammell attempted to beat their defenders, and when they had a cold shooting night against the Gaels, they lost.

“Saint Mary’s, Arkansas, and Arizona, they aren’t going to leave shooters,” Dutcher said. “They’re gonna say we have a seven-footer at the rim; we’re gonna stay extended on your shooters. You have to drive and score over us, or you have to hit a post, and you have to finish over us. It’s more of a byproduct of how teams are playing us than our willingness to pass the ball.”

Against the Owls, they did not have an intimidating center to deter the offense. But Dutcher said that they still worked on plays that would have success against those same stifling defenses. On Monday night, the offense was constantly moving.

The Aztecs shared the wealth. In the first half, they dished out 12 assists on 16 made field goals. They soared in transition and did not let the ball sit in one place for too long. With their assist count high, it correlated with their shooting percentage. They finished with 21 assists on 31 field goals. They shot 50.8%.

Micah Parrish led SDSU with 19 points on Monday against Kennesaw State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU needs a consistent spark plug off the bench

The team prides itself on its depth and multiple bench pieces that can start. The four main reserves have significant roles coming in but have struggled to show consistency in scoring.

Adam Seiko has provided spark off the bench for the majority of the season. When the team is struggling on offense, he checks in to end shooting droughts or ignite a momentum run through his skill from three-point range. But he is a spot-up shooter; when teams such as Saint Mary’s do not let him find his normal openings, he can disappear on offense.

Last season, Chad Baker-Mazara was the spark plug for the 167th-ranked offense. He had the ability to get hot quickly and carry the team through ice-cold shooting stretches. With the team suffering similar offensive droughts, the bench has lacked this type of player in the lineup.

Against the Owls, Micah Parrish checked in after three minutes and immediately gave the team a jolt. He scored seven quick points and was one of the only players who could hit a shot from beyond the arc. By halftime, he was the only player in double figures. He finished as the leading scorer at 19.

Parrish said afterward that he’s still adjusting to coming off the bench as he is used to starting every game at his old school Oakland. He said that off the bench, he is able to see the game from a different perspective. If the starters are missing something, he can enter the game and change the tone.

“It’s just game by game; I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team win,” Parrish said.

Against teams such as Kennesaw State, a key bench contributor is not necessarily needed. But against stronger opponents and in closer games, the team needs an accountable scorer off the bench. Players such as Seiko, Parrish, and LeDee all have this ability.

Nathan Mensah flushes home a basket. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Quick Takes:

– LeDee finished the game with 14 points, the most he scored since the third game of the season against Stanford. He only attempted three field goals, but he went 10-for-11 from the foul line. He abused defenders in the paint and created openings through his size.

“I gotta get back into rhythm, back into what we do and how we try to do stuff in my role,” LeDee said.  

“I tell him, I’ve lost no confidence in you at all, Jaedon; you’re a very good player,” Dutcher added. “You got to just hit your rhythm; you got to get comfortable.”

– This was the first game all season that the Aztecs were not ranked. The team isn’t concerned about it. “Rankings don’t mean anything by March,” Parrish said.

– Both teams wore ‘Athletes vs ALS’ shirts before the game. The ALS Association sponsored the game. “We all know Mark Fisher, I think this is 12th year with ALS on the bench today,” Dutcher said. “Like I always say, you never have a bad day when you look at what Mark has to deal with. So we honor Mark, and we honor all who are fighting ALS and have fought the hard fight with it.”

– The Owls bench was louder than most visiting teams. They cheered, clapped, and communicated to their teammates on the floor. This might be since they are finishing an incredibly lengthy seven-game road trip. The players on the bench have been their only fans since their last home game on November 14th. At the start of the contest, Kennesaw State’s head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim emplored his bench to be louder than the Viejas Arena crowd. At times they were. 

Keshad Johnson finds the camera after a dunk. (Don De Mars/EVT)

 

– Non-scholarship player Cam Lawin may not get much game action this season, but he does not miss shots in warm-ups. He only attempts threes, but it’s not a question if it goes in or not; it’s whether the ball hits the rim or all net. The one time he missed in 10 consecutive attempts pregame was when his teammate shot a ball at the same time, and the balls collided. His teammates couldn’t help themselves but smile after his swishes.

 –  The team once again struggled to shoot from outside. In the first half, they continued to put up brick after brick. They went 4-for-18 in the opening 20 minutes. But in the second half, they decided to stop shooting from the outside and looked for openings inside. Through this strategy, their lead extended. They finished the game 8-for-24 from beyond the arc.

Both Parrish and Dutcher are still confident in the team’s ability to fix their outside shooting. “It’s like a pitcher who is being paid millions of dollars and can’t find the strike zone,” Dutcher said. “You know, sometimes you just can’t make a three as good as you are doing it.”

– Adam Seiko was a late scratch and did not suit up for the game. “Adam was shooting before the game, he was out here when I got here, and he was shooting hard,” Dutcher said. “On one of his last jump shots that he took, he came down and felt like he had a lot of pain in his Achilles. So we got him into the locker room, and our team doctor looked at him, and they thought structurally it was fine. He’s had some issues with that last year, but out of an abundance of caution, we decided we weren’t going to play him.”

The Aztecs will now finally get some much-needed time off. Their next game is in eight days then they start conference play against Air Force another eight days later. “I told them we’re going to take the next two days off, and I think they’re happier over that than winning the game,” Dutcher said. “They don’t want to see me, and I don’t want to see them for a couple of days.”

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Austin Tarke
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.
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