The Aztecs road to the Final Four

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Welcome to a sports fan’s dream.

Welcome to the opening weekend, four straight days in front of the television rooting for teams you did not care about until you picked them to win in your bracket.

Welcome to the month of Cinderella stories, where every game is based on matchups stars and often comes down to magical moments late down the stretch.

Welcome to March Madness.

The  NCAA Tournament last year saw an 11-seed, UCLA, in the Final Four and a 12-seed, Oregon State, in the Elite Eight. San Diego State enters this year’s bracket as an eight-seed.

The highest seed to ever win the NCAA tournament was in 1985 when eight-seed Villanova defeated Georgetown. There have been five eight seeds to make the final four.

San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said in his weekly press conference, “This is what it’s all about to play in the big dance. This is the thing that football doesn’t have. They lock out the Power five schools. For us to get in there to be on equal footing, we have a chance like anybody else to win games.”

The last time the Aztecs ended March Madness on this bracket line was in 2015. It was also the program’s last victory in the NCAA tournament. They defeated St. John’s 76-64 as Dwayne Polee faced his former team and made five threes en route to a 12-point SDSU win.

Now the Aztecs will face another Big East foe in their first-round matchup, Creighton.

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

Historically the eighth seed has struggled in its first-round matchup. The eighth seed has won 71 of the 144 matchups since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

Coach Dutcher has struggled in first-round matchups as he is winless in his two appearances. He is using his losses to Houston in 2018 and Syracuse last season as learning lessons. Against Houston, he said at halftime. He did not even recognize his team. They were playing, scared to make a mistake. Against Syracuse, they missed shots. Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez missed the threes they normally make to start the game.

“You have to believe you’re good, play with incredible swagger, and play with great confidence,” Dutcher said. “No scared team is going to win games in the NCAA tournament. So, take your shot. If you miss it, so be it, but play your game, play aggressively, play confidently, and don’t play timid.”

Clearly, Dutcher is instilling this mentality into his players. “Sometimes you can make the moment bigger than what it is,” Matt Bradley said. “When you hold it to such a high standard, it can limit your ability to compete and play free. You have to give yourself the confidence to say. I’m good enough. We’re good enough for this moment.”

To get to the Final Four or at least past Kansas in the Round of 32, it will take immense confidence on the offensive end. Below is a hopeful write-up on how SDSU can accomplish their best NCAA tournament finish ever.

Defeating Creighton:

Before even thinking about a deep tourney run, SDSU must take one game at a time. A team that has not won an NCAA tournament game since 2015 has to put all of its focus on the Blue Jays.

Creighton is coached by Greg McDermott, who has led the Blue Jays to the tournament for five of the last six years (including 2020). Last season they made a Sweet 16 run. But only two players playing on Thursday were on last season’s team.

They are an inexperienced team. They have only three upperclassmen, one of which is senior Ryan Hawkins, who is playing his first season in Division 1.

Adam Seiko thinks this will be an advantage for SDSU, “We have guys who are experienced. We know that Creighton is a young team. We want to go in there and bring it at them. We have guys who have seen the hard work and dedication it takes to win a game.”

Credit: Cali Camera

Arguably, Creighton’s best player is Ryan Kalkbrenner. He is 7’1, and the Blue Jays like to get him involved often. He has the 20th highest offensive rating in the NCAA. But SDSU and Nathan Mensah have fared very well against skillful big men this season.

They also rank 124th in offensive efficiency. They have four players who average double digits a game. But the team shoots 30.7% from three, good for 314th in the nation. Dutcher is aware that they still can hit threes, and he will base the scouting report on what the Big East defenses threw at the Blue Jays.

Creighton has not faced a defense like the Aztecs this season. They have only faced one top ten defense all year (Iowa State at 10). They have faced seven top 30 defenses this year. They are 0-7 in those games. They rank 305th in the NCAA in turnover rate offensively.

The Aztecs also have a big depth advantage. Keshad Johnson hurt his ankle in the Mountain West tournament, but Dutcher said it would be “all hands on deck” for Thursday. The Blue Jays lost their starting point guard six games ago. They now mainly rely on a seven-man rotation. In the Big East championship, they had four players record more than 36 minutes. If the Blue Jays get in any sort of foul trouble, advantage Aztecs.

Creighton is a taller team. They rank 33rd in average height, and with their starting guard going down to injury, they now start four players over 6’6. This favors the Blue Jays as SDSU struggled against size this year. The Aztecs have played seven games against teams in the top 15 in average height, but they are 3-4 in those games.

If the Aztecs can overcome the height disadvantage, they should be able to defeat Creighton. The Blue Jays have the 18th ranked defense, so it will be another gritty battle, but with SDSU’s other advantages, they should be able to prevail and win their first NCAA tournament game since 2015.

Defeating Kansas:

The Round of 32 matchup is what makes even the optimistic Aztec fan think it is the end of the line for SDSU.

The Aztecs have had success against the Jayhawks before. In 2014, Xavier Thames and company stormed into Allen and Fieldhouse and snapped Kansas’s 68 game home non-conference win streak. In that game, they defeated the first and third pick in the following NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Two seasons later, the Jayhawks returned the favor at Viejas Arena.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Kansas in recent years has struggled in the NCAA tournament. In their last two appearances, they have lost in the second round.

This year’s Kansas team may be a one seed, but they are not an unbeatable juggernaut.

Kansas finished the year 28-6 and easily won the Big 12 tournament. Their worst loss was Dayton, who was the first team off the bubble. They are battle-tested playing in the Big 12. They played seven games against a team that ranks in the top ten of defensive efficiency. They went 6-1 in those games. So, the Aztec second-ranked defense will not catch them by surprise.

But, against disciplined athletic defenses, they were given challenges. They suffered four road losses in the state of Texas, losing to Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas, and TCU. Thankfully for SDSU, the game will be played in Fort Worth, a state the Jayhawks are winless in this season.

In these games, Kansas has lost through struggling in one offensive area. Against Baylor, they shot 34% from the field. Against Texas Tech, they turned the ball over 17 times, 15 times against Texas, and TCU forced them to shoot 37% from the field. The point is that even though their offense ranks sixth in the nation, a great defense can give them trouble.

Kansas’s defense, on the other hand, ranks 29th in defensive efficiency. The Aztecs have played eight games (after Creighton, it will be nine) against teams with a better defense, and they have gone 5-3 in those contests. Aside from a neutral site win against Saint Mary’s and a road win to Fresno State, the offense was not stellar in those games. But the Aztecs have faced more difficult defenses, so Kansas should not intimidate them.

The Aztecs have also struggled against height and teams that rebound well. KU grabs offensive rebounds at a high rate, ranking 36th in the nation. But they rank 146th in average height and 209th in defensive rebounding—advantage SDSU.

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

The game is also tortoise vs. the hare. KU likes to run and score in transition. They rank 46th in the nation in shortest offensive possessions. The Aztecs are number one in the NCAA in forcing teams to have long possessions. If the Aztecs can dictate the pace, advantage Aztecs.

As far as Kansas’s talent, they certainly outmatch SDSU. Ochai Agbaji is spectacular. The 6’5 NBA-bound guard can shoot from three, drive to the basket, and create for his teammates. He will be a matchup nightmare. Mountain West All-Defense, Lamont Butler, will have his hands full with him, as will the other SDSU guards.

They also rely on their big man David McCormack for most of their possessions. The Aztecs have fared well against top centers this season mainly due to Mensah, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.

Kansas will be by far the biggest challenge for SDSU this season.

But Trey Pulliam said it best in the weekly press conference, “I want all of our guys to have the best game of their life. I’m looking forward to it, just going to give it my all.”

Everyone on SDSU will have to play at their peak performance. Beating KU seems unlikely, but it is certainly possible.


Sweet 16 and Beyond:

If the Aztecs can make it to the Sweet 16, then the tournament is already a huge success. Every game afterward is playing with house money.

But Dutcher will not be satisfied with that. After the championship loss to Boise State, he said, “We’re here to play for a national championship. We’re here to go to the final four.

If the Aztecs beat the one seed in the Midwest region, suddenly their path to a Final Four looks feasible.

The next best seeds they would face in the Sweet 16 are either Iowa or Providence. Two teams with offensive firepower but adequate defenses that would rank as the sixth most difficult in the Mountain West.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

With the Aztecs having the best defense and one of the best players in the nation, anything is possible in March. It will take max performances on both sides of the ball, but one thing is for sure, SDSU is confident.

Bradley was asked who he thinks is going to shine in this tournament, “Trey Pulliam, he’s been getting really comfortable these past couple games. He stepped up big time in the Mountain West tournament. He’s the reason we got to the championship.”

But then the normally humble Bradley put some added pressure on himself.

“To be honest, I think I’ll just put myself out there. I’m gonna play well,” Bradley said. “I gotta have confidence in myself right now. I’ll be comfortable, have fun, and play the game I’m capable of playing.”

If the Aztec stars are shining, then they could be the Cinderella team that will get the whole nation’s attention.

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Austin Tarke on Twitter
Austin Tarke
Senior at San Diego State University, class of 2022. 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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