For the first time since the 2014-2015 season and during head coach Brian Dutcher’s coaching tenure, the Aztecs won a game in the NCAA Tournament. The win also snapped an 11-game losing streak for the Mountain West in the Big Dance.
SDSU endured a 40-minute battle against the College of Charleston but were on top when the final buzzer sounded.
They now advance to the Round of 32 to face the winner of the Southern Conference, Furman, who upset 4-seed Virginia in the final seconds of the game.
The game started a bit late due to Furman’s miraculous win. The crowd erupted inside Amway Center, and SDSU and CoC watched as they awaited their matchup.
“That was a good thing to see right before we got on the court because as good as Charleston is, and as good as we think we are, it’s up to anybody to take the game,” Matt Bradley said.
Watching the 4-seed go down in an upset may have also activated nerves within the team. They opened the game with seven turnovers in the first seven minutes and 11 in the first half. Many of them were careless, as players were weak with the ball.
“As much as you say, it’s just another game of basketball, don’t be nervous, be the best version of you, there are nerves that go into this tournament,” Dutcher said. “I thought we were nervous at the start but settled in and played a very good basketball game.”
This was a major game for the Aztecs. A team with four returning seniors who have nightmares of losing their lead to Creighton in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last season. Six seniors with the goal of redemption.
It was clear that the players came out timid and were not themselves. They eventually refocused. In the most important 20 minutes of the season, they only committed three turnovers in the second half.
At the most important moments, they were calm, cool, and collected.
With 1:44 to play and the Aztec lead at only two, Micah Parrish, who struggled to shoot well for the last few games, pulled up from the top of the arc. Splash.
With 25 seconds left, Bradley converted two free throws to give the Aztecs a two-possession lead.
After allowing the Cougars to score, SDSU beat CoC’s full-court press. Adam Seiko was fouled for a one-and-one and converted the first, pushing the lead to two possessions. The next trip down the floor, SDSU made the defensive stop. Game over.
The Aztecs may have come out nervous, but when the game was on the line, they made the winning plays to advance them to the next round.
Depth in the NCAA Tournament
All season long, the talking point has been around SDSU’s depth. They have nine different players capable of starting and leading the team to victory.
Every game, it seems a different player steps up. This is a huge advantage in the NCAA Tournament, particularly in the next matchup against Furman.
All the players in the Mountain West know each other’s tendencies, even those stashed on the bench. SDSU’s typical opponents know what is coming in off the Aztec bench. Charleston had somewhat of a clue with four days to prepare and study the SDSU lineup.
On one day of preparation, Furman will struggle to account for every player’s strong suits in their game. The Aztecs are too multidimensional.
Against the Cougars, Dutcher’s first substitution brought in four players at once. Immediately, CoC coach Pat Kelsey looked at his cheat sheet to see the traits of the Aztecs on the floor. With Jaedon LeDee being a bruiser inside, Aguek Arop a do-it-all player, and Seiko and Parrish legitimate offensive threats, opponents will have headaches accounting for everyone.
Furman also has this advantage as SDSU is unaware of their skillset, but the Aztec depth throughout the roster should be something that the Paladins cannot fully prepare for in one day.
Against CoC, the Aztecs finished with 24 bench points. They accounted for 21 rebounds, more than the starters. In the first half, they provided a spark off the bench. With the starters struggling to score, Arop fought for steals and possession to create easy offense. LeDee was clearly the most physical player on the floor and made the Cougars pay inside.
Parrish and Seiko have proven to be vital in crunch time. Parrish has no conscience. No matter the circumstance, he is confident. Before his clutch three-pointer against the Cougars, he was 2-for-his-last-16 from beyond the arc going back to the beginning of the MW tournament.
“I’m a confident shooter; I feel like every shot that I take, I’m gonna make,” Parrish said. “So when I saw that I was open, I shot it, that’s it. I don’t really overthink any shot I take, I don’t think about the last shot I missed or the last shot I made.”
He also helps the team defeat the full-court press in late-game situations. Being one of the tallest guards on the team, SDSU looks to get him the ball on the inbounds pass. With his height, he can see over double teams, and with his long arms, it is difficult to strip the ball away from him.
Seiko, a sixth-year senior, is counted on to make the right decisions. He is the in-bounder at the end of games. Against CoC, he received the ball from Parrish to shoot the crucial free throws. Dealing with the press break has been an issue for the Aztecs this season, but they have found their recipe from their vital bench pieces.
Commentators love the line, “great defense, better offense.”
To get an open shot on the Aztecs is rare. Their stifling ball pressure and connection on the defensive end makes it difficult for the opposing team to find any separation. Throughout the year, SDSU has been one of the best teams defending the three-point line. They force opponents to shoot 28.9% from beyond the arc, the eighth best in the nation.
Charleston came into the matchup shooting threes on 47.3% of their possessions, 10th highest in the nation. They finished the game with 24 attempts, converting only five—their second-lowest shooting percentage of the season.
The Cougars had 19 games with double-digit three-pointers made. The Aztec defense deserves immense credit for denying open looks from the perimeter. But for much of the year, they have been fortunate that their opponents have flat-out just missed shots.
SDSU has allowed only five teams to shoot over 40% from the three-point line. They are 3-2 in those games. Utah State, one of the best deep ball shooting teams in the country, shot 26.3% in their three matchups. Most notably, they shot 4-for-24 (16.7%) in the Mountain West Championship.
With SDSU clinging on to leads and keeping teams close, the three-ball is vital for opponents to gain momentum and give themselves a surge.
Against Arizona in the Maui Invitational, the Wildcats’ three-ball put them on a momentum run that took over the game. Against Wyoming on the road, the Cowboys’ 10-for-22 performance almost pulled off the biggest upset on the conference schedule. Playing Boise State on the road, the Broncos used some hot shooting at the end of the game to overcome SDSU’s lead and steal a victory.
SDSU has played stellar defense all season. Their opponents have struggled to find the bottom of the net, and the Aztecs have been awarded with wins. But the Aztecs are also due for some negative regression. Eventually, no matter the defense, a player or two will get hot and score over the Aztec defenders. Until then, SDSU will continue to keep games in their favor.
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.