Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson is part of the ten-member NCAA Division One Men’s Selection Committee. When the group meets at the end of the year to create this year’s March Madness Bracket, the sheer number of teams, 351, makes a nuanced approach to this process impossible. Perhaps, the most important factor in any game across the nation which they cannot take into consideration is momentum.
The committee and the computer models they consult when making their decisions treat each game on a team’s schedule the same, but basketball games can be won and lost by the confidence players bring into a contest. This week’s series against San Jose State provides a good example. SJSU has won five games the entire season and are huge underdogs to SDSU, but for several reasons, this might be the most difficult time of the season to play the Spartans.
First, San Jose State is currently on a three-game winning streak. It is their first three-game winning streak in conference play since 2017. 2017 was also the last time the Spartans swept a conference opponent in a season until they swept their series against Air Force last week. As any long time Aztec fan can tell you, rebuilding a program occurs in baby steps. SJSU just took a potentially significant step.
Second, the Spartans have been practicing and playing since December in Phoenix. This past week, Santa Clara County lifted its ban on athletic activities. Saturday, February 13th against Nevada will be the first game held on campus since the county official instituted the ban. The prospect of playing at home and the end of their time in Arizona should provide a lift for the team. The team took on the challenge of relocating and together overcame the challenge.
Finally, after playing in four games, San Jose State announced its best player Seneca Knight was opting out of the season due to concerns over Covid-19. Knight, an all-conference player a year ago, has since announced his intention to transfer to LSU. The Spartans are enjoying their current winning streak despite his absence, which should boost their confidence.
“They’re feeling good about themselves.” Coach Dutcher said about San Jose State. “They have won three straight. They struggled at the start, (but now) are playing pretty good basketball.”
Three Keys to a Series Sweep
1. Variety on Defense
There is no way to sugar coat it. San Jose State has been terrible defensively this year. They rank 337 in adjusted defense, according to Kenpom. Opponents are shooting over 45% on the season. They rank 258 in defensive field goal percentage. On average, they give up 80.8 points a game. 327 teams in the country give up fewer points each game.
The only hope San Jose State has in slowing an Aztecs offense, which is 36th in the country in adjusted offense efficiency, is to confuse SDSU. The Spartans play a variety of defenses, and while they have not been great or even good at playing any of them, confusion is still their best strategy. How the Aztecs read and react to the varying looks is the first key to the series.
“Coach Prioleau does a good job,” Dutcher said. “They mix between man (and zone). They play 1-3-1 zone. They play 2-3 zone. They matchup out of it. We’ll spend the next three days trying to get comfortable, so when we see a defense, we’ll know exactly what we want to do.”
“We don’t want to be out there guessing what will work. We’ll spend three days against all those defenses and try to find two or three things we like against each one of those, and then, hopefully, execute them on the offensive end when we see them.”
2. Slowing Richard Washington
Senior guard Richard Washington is 19th in the nation in scoring, averaging 20.7 points a game. Washington is a high volume shooter. He averages 17.1 shots a game. Washington has accounted for nearly one quarter (22.8%) of all of SJSU’s shots this season. Reigning Mountain West Player of the Week Ralph Agee is second on the team in field attempts with 133 on the season. Washington has attempted 222, 89 more than Agee.
Washington was injured against New Mexico and did not play against Air Force in the Spartans’ last series. His health is essential if SJSU is to pull off the upset. He has scored more than 30 on three occasions. He has scored in the ’20s four times. Only once this season, in games where he was healthy, has he been held to single digits.
Usually, with teams as mismatched as the Aztecs and Spartans, it would be difficult to imagine a game where SJSU could win. However, we do not have to imagine it. We can simply turn on the tape of last season’s matchup. San Jose State came into a packed Viejas Arena and took San Diego State down to the wire.
Their recipe for success that day will be the same for these two games. Play hard, hope SDSU misses shots to keep it close and make a couple of plays down the stretch to win. It almost worked last season. If not for the excellence and heroics of Malachi Flynn’s game-winning three, SJSU would have walked away victorious.
In some regards, then, these next two games are revenge games for the Aztecs. Often, paying a team back for a loss or, in this case, a closer than expected win can inspire extra motivation and effort.
Other times, though, the extra effort can backfire. Players try to do much on their own instead of playing together. SDSU has been playing amazing team basketball of late. In the last four games, they are averaging 22.75 assists on 34.75 made field goal attempts. This is the beautiful brand of basketball SDSU needs to continue to reach its full potential. If they abandon this style because they want to dominate the Spartans, their desire for revenge could work against them.