Thursday night will be the final home game of the 2021-2022 season at Viejas Arena in what has been a different year on the Mesa.
The season has been delayed from a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. There has been testing and vaccine requirements at the arena. One thing has stayed consistent from seasons past; the Aztecs playing winning basketball at home. They are 13-1 at the Madhouse on the Mesa this season.
SDSU appears to be peaking at the right time. They have won eight of their last 10 games with the losses by a combined two points. What was once a helpless offense is suddenly starting to find its rhythm and the defense has remained stellar.
After the Aztecs most recent win against Wyoming, most bracketologists have SDSU making the NCAA tournament. They are not a lock to play in March Madness, so winning one more home game is essential.
Below are three keys to beating Fresno State on the Aztecs senior night.
In the first matchup, the Aztecs won 61-44 through a tremendous defensive effort and a career game from Chad-Baker Mazara who scored 20 points.
1. Don’t let emotions of senior night overtake the game
As of last week, this senior night was supposed to be for seven players. But after Matt Bradley and Adam Seiko announced that they will return to San Diego State for another season, the remaining graduating seniors will be enough to fill a starting lineup.
The five Aztecs who will be participating in the senior night ceremony will be Trey Pulliam, Joshua Tomaic, Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Tahirou Diabate. Pulliam and Tomaic used their extra year of eligibility for this season and will lace their sneakers for their final game in Viejas. Mensah, Arop, and Diabate will be given the opportunity to return for another season if they so desire.
Last season because of COVID-19, SDSU held a private ceremony because fans were not allowed to attend the game. This was more intimate but also took distractions away from the game.
Thursday night, the five players will have their highlights shown on the jumbotron and will walk across center court with their families. During these moments the seniors get to reflect on what being an Aztec means to them. The fans also get an opportunity to show their appreciation. The moments before the game are heartwarming for both the fans and the players alike.
“Senior night is a big deal,” Head Coach Brian Dutcher said. “You’re honoring guys who have been in the program for four or five years, some a year or two. But they all came here to win titles to play their best basketball and represent this university with great class and integrity.”
If recent history serves as any indication, Dutcher will start most if not all the seniors.
But once the starters are on the floor and the ball is tipped off, the non-game-related emotions must go away.
Coach Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher have done a great job of making sure the Aztecs remained focused in the past. Going back to 2005, the Aztecs are 16-1 on senior night. But the lone loss was to Justin Hutson and Fresno State in 2019.
“They’re always emotional and fun,” Dutcher said. “Hopefully it doesn’t detract from us having a good start and getting too caught up in that.”
Pulliam is not sure what his emotions will be like come game time, but he is focused on the game.
“I don’t know how to think about (my emotions). I don’t know what to say. I’m really just focused on the win then we celebrate after,” Pulliam said.
2. Control Orlando Robinson
Orlando Robinson is one of the best big men in the country. KenPom ranks him as the sixth-best player in the nation. He is averaging almost 19 points and eight rebounds. Since struggling against the Aztecs three games ago, he is averaging 27 points and eight rebounds in his last two games.
Guarding Robinson, the future NBA draft pick, is a challenge. He can score at all levels. He has post moves, the ability to drive, and can shoot from outside. He also is a gifted passer. In the first matchup, the Aztecs were most wary of his passing ability.
They randomly double-team when he had the ball in the post, but they would also play him straight up. The unpredictable strategy on Robinson was exactly what the Aztecs were going for.
Through the unpredictable defense in front of Robinson, he could never get into a rhythm offensively. This resulted in him scoring only nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. He also had four turnovers.
“The beauty of all defensive gameplans is keeping the offense off-balance,” Dutcher said. “If you let Orlando get comfortable, he’ll pick you apart. If he knows (the double-team) is not coming, he’ll go one on one and score.”
The Aztec big men will have to continue to play strong one on one defense. When the Aztec guards do double team, they must be committed to covering Robinson, and the defenders behind must rotate to the open man.
Against Wyoming, the Aztecs opened the game with a different strategy against another dominant big, Graham Ike. They decided to double-team whenever Ike touched the ball. This worked on some possessions, but the Cowboys made the Aztecs in the first half. SDSU was too slow to rotate to the open shooters and Wyoming made eight first-half threes.
As the game went on, SDSU doubled sporadically and made sure to have their attention to shooters such as Drake Jeffries. Against the Bulldogs, they will have to continue to do this and adapt as the game goes on.
In the first matchup, fouls were a bit of an issue for the Aztecs in the first half. Mensah picked up two quick fouls and Diabate did as well in the first half. But between Mensah, Diabate, and Tomaic, they all are tremendous bodies to throw at Robinson.
Dutcher said after the game, “We’ve got great depth, we can survive foul trouble. We’ve got three quality bigs and AG can play the five if we need him.”
3. Score outside of Matt Bradley
In the first matchup against the Bulldogs, Bradley had his worst scoring performance of the season. He scored two points on 1-of-8 shooting. Fresno State came into the game with the strategy of, “do not let Matt Bradley beat you. “They doubled, denied the ball, and made nothing easy for the Aztecs leading scorer.
With the Bulldogs taking Bradley’s scoring out of the game, he became a playmaker. He created four assists in the contest.
“Matt has proven to be a really good passer,” Coach Dutcher said. “When he draws a double team he’s getting his teammates wide-open shots, then they have to knock them down or make a play.”
In the first matchup, the other Aztecs made plays. Baker-Mazara scored a season-high 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Tomaic was perfect from the field and scored seven points, Trey Pulliam added nine points and eight assists.
“The way Fresno was playing defense, they were more focused on Matt Bradley, and they were leaving guys wide open like me, Joshua, and Trey,” Baker-Mazara said after the game.
The team combined for 30 points off the bench and also shot 6-for-9 from three.
As of late, the bench has been clicking. In the last five games, the SDSU bench is averaging 22 points a game.
Coach Dutcher said in Wednesday’s presser, “We go to work every day, we practice hard, critique each other. The hard work pays off at some point. We seem to be getting better and hitting on more cylinders.”
Throughout the lineup, each player is beginning to show what they are capable of. If the bench continues to perform well, it will be dangerous in the games ahead.