Tarke’s Takes: Sweet 16 Victory

Credit: USA Today Sports

Mar 24, 2023; Louisville, KY, USA; San Diego State Aztecs guard Matt Bradley (20) dribbles past Alabama Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller (24) during the first half of the NCAA tournament round of sixteen at KFC YUM! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Aztecs advanced to the program’s first-ever Elite Eight. In defeating the No.1 seed Alabama, they shocked the sporting world. As they had throughout the season, SDSU survived on their defense and by hitting timely shots to overcome its opponent.

They are the first team from the Mountain West to make it this far and are three wins away from a national championship.

Fear God. Fear no men.

Before every game, Matt Bradley posts a bible verse with a headlined title as the theme for the game. Against Alabama, the motto was, fear god, fear no men.

The Crimson Tide was led by Brandon Miller, the SEC player of the year and National Freshman Player of the Year. He helped Alabama secure the overall best seed in the NCAA tournament. He is also likely to be a top-five pick in the NBA draft in June.

Miller is one of three Alabama starters over 6’9. They are long, athletic, and very skilled. Many teams that face Alabama lose before the opening tip-off. Knowing that the Crimson Tide are the better team, they press, fail to play to their strengths, and never give themselves a shot to win.

From the opening tip, the Aztecs showed no fear.

Lamont Butler swiped the ball from Miller early in the game, then threw it to Keshad Johnson for an alley-oop slam. In the first half, it was clear that this was more than a basketball game; it was war.

Both teams battled inside, and SDSU imposed itself physically.

In the second half, the Tide went on a run to erase a halftime deficit and build a nine-point lead of their own. Most of their opponents this season have wilted under the pressure when Alabama surged ahead.

In the Round of 32, Alabama led Maryland by five at the half. The Crimson Tide extended the lead to 15 with 10:15 left, and the Terps wilted. Two games prior in the SEC Championship against Texas A&M, Alabama turned a six-point lead into a 16-point advantage in a seven-minute stretch in the first half. The Aggies wilted, eventually losing by 19.

Against the Crimson Tide, the question is not if they will have a run but how a team responded when it happens. The Aztecs did not wilt; they fought back.

Mar 24, 2023; Louisville, KY, USA; San Diego State Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher reacts during the second half of the NCAA tournament round of sixteen against the Alabama Crimson Tide at KFC YUM! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

More than any other time all year, SDSU’s veteran presence was seen in its ability to calmly respond with its back against the wall. Postgame, it was evident the Aztecs believed they were the best basketball team on the court. They never folded under pressure, and it is a testament to not fearing their opponent.

For Miller, his last collegiate game was a forgettable one. He finished the game with nine points and six turnovers. He never found his outside jumper; he shot 3-for-19 from the field and 1-for-10 from deep. The Aztecs’ physicality made his life painful and gave him nothing easy.

Darrion Trammell, the savior

All season, the Aztecs have had a next-man-up mentality. Every game, someone different seems to step up in critical moments.

In the first half, Trammell was the leading scorer at nine points. He found his jumper by converting difficult mid-range shots and a long ball. He grabbed a pivotal steal and then scored a transition layup to give the Aztecs a five-point lead at halftime.

He did not score again until the 11:23 mark in the second half. Stepping up in the most crucial moment of the Sweet 16, Trammell arguably, hit the most important baskets of SDSU’s season.

Alabama came out firing in the second half. Over the first 8:20 minutes of game time after intermission, they went on a 25-11 run. The Aztecs called timeout and went back to their huddle, trailing by nine.

Out of the timeout, Trammell went around a screen, the Tide gave him too much space, and he pulled up beyond the arc, swish.

On Alabama’s following possession, he lurked in the passing lane and stole the ball for an easy layup—five points in 21 seconds.

A few possessions later, Trammell called for the same screen, and Alabama guarded him the same way. Pull up. Swish. In under two minutes, Trammell went on a personal 8-0 run to get the Aztecs within one.

He continued to find space in the second half and converted jumpers to keep SDSU’s lead. His 12 second-half points were crucial and timely. Without his hot hand, Alabama most likely would have kept the momentum and pulled away.

Following SDSU’s win over Colorado State in February, Trammell uttered these prescient words.

“Hard work is undefeated. It’s all going to click when it’s supposed to click. You can’t really get too caught up in that – what shots are falling, what shots aren’t falling. You just have to get to your spots and trust your work. I feel like I trust my work, and at this point, the team needs me to somewhat give them some points and some scoring. I just provided that tonight, and I’ve got to keep working and providing that when they need it.”

Matt Bradley’s confidence

Through almost the first 37 minutes of the game, Bradley was 0-for-7 from the field with zero points. His attempts did not look pretty off the rim.

Last season, he let his bad shooting nights ruin his confidence. Last year, the goal was to get Bradley in a rhythm early so he would be confident the entire game.

This year, he is not depended on as heavily. On his bad shooting nights, the Aztecs can still win. But Bradley’s mental game is also in a much different place this season.

Credit: SDSU

Rewind to earlier this year. SDSU was in a dogfight against Colorado State on the road. Bradley did not score his first field goal until 2:59 left in the game. All he needed was to see the ball drop in once, and the switch flipped. The game ended up going into overtime. Bradley scored 12 points over the contest’s final 7:59 and helped SDSU secure the road victory.

Against Alabama, he again flipped the switch after seeing a made basket. He drove to the rim on a very contested layup and somehow got the shot to fall. Two possessions later, he pulled up for a confident mid-range jumper.

With 45 seconds left and the Aztec lead only at two, he went to the free throw line composed. He converted both attempts. Clutch.

Bradley is a rhythm player. Last season, if he did not convert shots early, he struggled to find his touch for the rest of the night. Now, he trusts his game and knows that it is a matter of time before shots start to fall.

Key Hustle Play

In the second half, the tide was going in Bama’s favor. They opened the half on a 17-6 run.

Then on a loose ball, Matt Bradley dove to the floor to secure possession. He grabbed the ball but took out a Tide player’s legs on the way to it. Bradley’s head was crushed on the floor in the process. He was issued a foul, his third of the game. Head coach Brian Dutcher was irate, arguing that it was a bang-bang play. His outrage led to a technical foul.

Miller converted both free throws, then Noah Gurley made a quick jumper. Suddenly, SDSU’s five-point halftime lead turned to a six-point deficit. It felt like a technical foul that would lead to the Aztec’s demise.

On the following possession, Lamont Butler raced to the rim and drew a foul. He missed both free throws. They were deflating misses considering the moment.

But on Butler’s second miss, there was a fight for the ball. It appeared Alabama had possession, but Keshad Johnson continued to hustle and poked the ball away. Butler ended up with it and was fouled.

On the inbound, Butler found Jaedon LeDee in the paint. He was fouled on an emphatic dunk. The basket and the free throw were huge to keep the Aztecs within striking distance.

Butler was credited with the offensive rebound, but Johnson’s fight for the ball should be remembered as a key play that led to SDSU’s victory.

Press Break

Going back to the last two seasons, the Aztecs have struggled to deal with the full-court press when closing out games. They never make beating the press look easy.

Early in the season, Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell handled the duties. Being smaller guards, they struggled to see over traps. As the year has gone on, Micah Parrish has been the go-to guy on inbounds passes. He can see over traps, and with his long arms, he is unlikely to have the ball stripped. Up until the Sweet 16 game, this appeared to be the recipe.

Alabama negated that option.

On the first press break, the ball was inbounded to Nathan Mensah, he was doubled and tied up, possession- Alabama.

The next time around, SDSU was forced to burn its final timeout.

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SDSU needed to find a second route to get the ball inbounds and avoid a trap.

They decided to use Bradley. He found space in the middle of the floor and used his big body to shield the Tide defender’s from getting to the ball.  He was fouled and knocked down two free throws.

The next time around, he shielded Miller, but two Tide defenders swarmed Bradley, triple-teaming him. Somehow, Bradley, like Houdini, escaped and sprinted up the court, avoiding multiple defenders and taking valuable time off the clock.

Keeping Bradley in the middle of the floor is an effective strategy because it avoids the sidelines, which can lead to getting trapped by defenders.

Win in any way possible.

Dutcher has preached that he has a team that is capable of playing in a variety of ways in order to win.

Earlier this year, on the road in Laramie, Wyoming, the Cowboys were lights out from the field, and the Aztec defense was no match. The only way that SDSU was going to win was to keep up with them. They won 80-75, shooting 50% from the field and allowing Wyoming to shoot 57.8%.

On the road against Fresno State in February, SDSU won 45-43. It was a disgusting, offensive game that was won on the defensive end. The Aztecs proved they could win even if the score was in the 40s.

All week long, in preparation for the Alabama game, the message was clear, keep the pace in SDSU’s advantage. If the game was slow and physical and the  Crimson Tide did not have an opportunity to run up and down the floor, then SDSU was capable of winning.

In the first half, the Aztecs created a slow pace that favored them and led by five. In the second half, the Tide dictated the tone. At this pace, Alabama should have held on to victory. But the Aztecs remained in control and settled the game.

Kenpom ranked the Sweet 16 game as the Aztec’s fourth highest-pace game of the year. SDSU attempted 69 shots, a season-high. This should have been advantageous for Alabama. But the Aztecs again proved that no matter the game state, they are capable of winning. In the final tally, SDSU had eight fast break points; Alabama had zero.

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