For non-power conferences, the non-conference schedule is crucial for building a tournament resume, as the opportunities in conference play are limited. The Aztecs decided to load up on their early season schedule with a gauntlet of challenging opponents. The game against Saint Mary’s was their last chance to grab a statement win in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee.
When March comes around, they may be reflecting on this game when they see their seeding or if they fail to earn an at-large bid.
“It would have been a great win,” SDSU assistant coach Chris Acker said after the game. “We talked about that, we prepared for when you play a team like Saint Mary’s or any team that’s going to potentially be a quad 1 win, you have to know that the mistakes you’re making, they’re going to show up. The good teams make you pay for the mistakes for the mistakes you’re making.”
Players gotta make plays
“Players gotta make plays,” Acker repeated multiple times after the loss.
“There’s a lot of things that happened throughout the course of the game that, you know, ultimately we didn’t capitalize on… at the end of the day, players gotta make plays, and we didn’t make enough of them.”
Throughout the game, SDSU had moments they failed to take advantage of. In the first half, it was missed open layups by Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop. Lamont Butler missed twice at the free throw line on the front end of a one-of-one.
With 2:13 left in the game and the Aztecs down three surging on a 6-0 run, Darrion Trammell, who shoots 85% from the free throw line, missed the front end of a one-of-one.
The three occasions on the foul line cost SDSU the opportunity for six points. As a team, they went 12-for-18 from the charity stripe.
These little plays do not encapsulate the entire game. Shooting woes were the storyline, particularly in the second half. SDSU went 10-for-30 from the field in the final 20 minutes. During the almost ten-minute stretch of the 15:04 mark in the second half to 5:23, they scored six points featuring a scoring drought of five minutes and another of four.
From beyond the arc, they converted only two threes from inside half-court and were an abysmal 3-for-15 overall, including Micah Parrish’s successful final second 45-foot heave. In the last two games, SDSU is 7-for-37 from deep (18.9%).
With the offense flowing through them, the scoring duo of Trammell and Matt Bradley were cold, combining for 20 points on 7-for-24 shooting. Neither of them could find their jumper to potentially save the team. No other player was able to step up offensively and be the team’s spark plug.
Battle of Styles
Looking at Kenpom’s advanced stats, both teams are drastically different in terms of their half-court offense. SDSU is 28th in the country for their average possession length, the Gaels are 349th. Thus far into the season, the Aztecs have looked to shoot early in the shot clock. This can be done by playing up-tempo or taking the first open shot when available.
SDSU, scoring only two fast break points on Saturday, decided to play Saint Mary’s game and failed.
The Gaels’ offense flows, passes the ball quickly, and works to get off a quality look by the end of the shot clock. Against the Aztecs 18th ranked defense, they scored at will. They finished the game shooting 49% from the field. They had multiple players who were able to be a playmaker for others but also create their own shot around SDSU defenders.
Coming into the game, Coach Brian Dutcher said, “If we guard hard and they guard hard, it might be in the thirties, but whatever we need to win, we’re going to get it, if it’s 38-36, we’re going to try to get just enough points to win that game.”
The Aztecs, through the first 25 minutes, soared over Dutcher’s prediction, with both offenses finding success as the Aztecs led the game 46-44. But as Saint Mary’s defense got tougher, the Red and Black’s offense folded.
SDSU attempted to run and change up the tempo, but the Gaels dictated the game. With a struggling offense, playing quicker can be a way to muck up the game and potentially create easy baskets. By the end of the game, SDSU pressed and forced the Gaels into bad offensive possessions, but it was too late.
At the end of the game, it was difficult to surmount a comeback as the Gaels drained the clock out and limited the possessions.
Building a tournament resume
The game against the Gaels was massive for the Aztecs’ potential seeding for the NCAA tournament. SDSU knew what they signed up for coming into the season, a difficult schedule with numerous resume-building opportunities. But thus far, the teams they have defeated have not quite lived up to expectations. It is too early to use NET rankings, but Kenpom’s overall team rankings are below.
BYU is 5-5, rated 98th in Kenpom.
Stanford is 3-6, rated 68th.
Ohio State is 7-2, rated 20th.
A quadrant 1 win is defined as, a win against a team ranked in the NET 1-30 at home, 1-50 on a neutral site, and 1-75 on the road.
That gives SDSU one quadrant 1 win after non-conference play.
The Aztec non-conference resume still has potential, as the Cougars and Cardinal could improve their resume by the end of the season. Also, the win against UC Irvine has the potential to be a Quadrant 2 victory. But as it stands, their resume is disappointing, considering how close they have been to wins against Arkansas and Saint Mary’s.
Conference play will give them the opportunity to bolster their resume. As it stands, there are 10 unbeaten teams remaining in the NCAA, the Mountain West possesses three of them (Utah State, New Mexico, and UNLV). SDSU will face off against the first of this trio on December 31.
– Once Nathan Mensah is in foul trouble, he cannot get out of it. Coming into the game, Mensah was expected to be a focal point. In his previous two games against the Gaels, he combined for 23 points, 26 rebounds, and nine blocks. In this matchup, after going into halftime with two fouls, he picked up his third thirty seconds into the second half. Then his fourth came with 12:40 remaining. After he exited the game, the Gaels went on their run. They began to grab offensive rebounds and find their advantage in the paint. He finished the game with only 18 minutes played. When teams such as the Gaels target him, and with his tendency to commit ticky-tack fouls, he struggles with foul trouble. He dealt with this against Arkansas and throughout his career.
“He’s just gotta be better, gotta be smarter and put himself in better situations and positions to not foul… they came out, they attacked him,” Acker said.
– The late lineup. With 5:29 remaining, Coach Dutcher burned a timeout as Alex Ducas hit a three to extend the Gaels’ lead to nine. With the game on the cusp of being over, he decided to make a last-ditch lineup change. After the game against Troy, he said that the players having the most success in the game are the ones that finish it. He decided Bradley would fit best on the bench. The lineup he employed was Darrion Trammell, Lamont Butler, Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop, and Nathan Mensah. They brought energy to the court, and suddenly Trammell found himself on the free-throw line to make it a one-point deficit. But after he missed the front end of a one-of-one, Mensah fouled out on the following possession on a made basket which essentially iced the game.
– The value that Aguek Arop brings to the team cannot be stated enough. He makes winning plays both offensively and defensively, as he finished with six points, four assists, and three rebounds. He is able to be a playmaker as he looks for cutters and helps the offense flow. In key moments, Dutcher designed a play for Arop to fake a screen and cut to the basket, which worked twice. Arop is vital to the team’s success, and if his health allows him to, he needs extended minutes. But as the game almost concluded, he looked in pain with lower back issues.
– No spark off the bench. Last year, Adam Seiko started for an injured Butler against the Gaels. He went 4-for-4 from deep and finished with 12 points. In this year’s matchup, Saint Mary’s gave him no space to work with. He scored zero points and only attempted two field goals. Besides Arop, no one off the bench could bring life to the team, particularly on offense.
– Micah Parrish’s halfcourt heave. If you watch the Aztecs warm up, you know that about five players shoot from half-court before the game, Parrish is not one of them. Yet, to end the first half, he banked in a half-court shot at the buzzer to tie the game. This was a momentous three going into the half as the Gaels controlled the game but did not lead.
– Playing Big. With Mensah on the bench and SDSU struggling to control the glass, the Aztecs never utilized a lineup with Jaedon LeDee, Keshad Johnson, and Arop on the court at the same time. Heading into the year, the main drawback against playing three bigger players together was it would limit SDSU’s outside shooting. Given how poorly its shooters are performing, perhaps, it is time to revisit that choice.