The 2023-2024 Aztecs inspired

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Jay Pal grabs a rebound against UCONN in the Sweet 16. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

SDSU Men’s Basketball has reached the Sweet 16 four times.

Like all teams, the 2011, 2014, 2023, and 2024 Aztecs had strengths and areas to improve. None of them, though, had a glaring weakness like this year’s squad.

That the Jaedon LeDee-led Aztecs overcame this deficiency to equal the success of those starring Kawhi Leonard and Xavier Thames was amazing. Their triumph offers a great life lesson.

“It’s not the ending we’re going to remember; it’s the journey because the journey is everything,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame on Thursday. “We’ve been on an incredible journey together. I take great joy here tonight with these three guys sitting next to me, the fact that they’re 7-2 on college basketball’s biggest stage over the last two years. It’s something to take great pride in.”

The main culprit in most of SDSU’s losses this year, including their final defeat against UCONN, was the lack of a big man to help LeDee control the game inside. Addressing this issue was priority No. 1 for the staff last offseason.

The Aztecs went after every transfer center, including Warren Washington, Nelly Junior Joseph, and Josiah Allick. Each chose different schools and NIL dollars over SDSU.

Lamont Butler hugs Brian Dutcher as he checks out for the last time. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

Without the quarter-of-a-million dollar war chest needed to sign a free agent big in the portal, Dutcher put a new spin on “positionless” basketball. He played the 2023-2024 season without a center.

Last June, LeDee and his father rehashed the All-American’s basketball journey on Episode 75 of The SDSU Podcast. They detailed how at Ohio State and TCU, LeDee was forced to play out of position. Injuries and immovable coaching put him at center. Both LeDees emphasized how excited they were for LeDee to compete at another position other than the five.

When it became clear inside help was not coming, SDSU’s star could have transferred. The NCAA allows graduates to depart at any time. There was not a team or system in the country where LeDee would not have thrived. Leaving could have given him a better professional audition because NBA evaluators still have rarely seen him on the court as a power forward.

Instead, like Dutcher, LeDee pivoted. His loyalty and maturity turned to perseverance and tremendous competitiveness. The lack of size made rebounding and finishing at the rim an inflection point for the Aztecs this season. Playing out of position with limited help up front, LeDee dominated offensively while somehow controlling the defensive side of the court.

“Part of (LeDee) results last year were directed towards me because I didn’t give him the freedom I’ve given him this year,” Dutcher explained. “With the team we have this year, I gave him more freedom, and he played great within that freedom.”

“He was not selfish. He shared the ball with his teammates. He was hard to guard, and we’re just proud of how he played for us and just wish him the best, hopefully, in a pro career that will start here in the near future.”

Elijah Saunders pulls down a rebound against UCONN. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

The rest of the Aztecs followed their leader. Miles Heide has a bright future but is also a forward, not a center. Jay Pal can play inside, but his skill set is more suited for playing with a true space-eating big. Elijah Saunders arguably has the most NBA potential on the team because he is a wing with a power forward’s body. Forced to play outside of more natural roles, this trio competed and helped build a team into one of the top 16 squads in the nation.

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Micah Parrish and Reese Waters sacrificed even more. They battled with much bigger players to provide the physicality the team lacked. Fighting inside likely contributed to their scoring droughts at the end of the year.

It was not without aim that the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks used to punish Michael Jordan. It was the only way to diminish his scoring prowess because they couldn’t guard him. Basketball is a game of inches, and fatigue impacts shooting.

The Aztecs sacrificed without knowing a Sweet 16 was in their future. They gambled that collectively, they could create an unconventional path to winning. Where most would have given up or complained about their deficiencies, SDSU found a way.

In 2023-2024, SDSU entertained, made Aztec Nation proud, and earned national respect. They took their place among the pantheon of the best teams in program history. But to anyone paying attention, SDSU did a lot more. They inspired.

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