1. Be confident in the shot selection
Going into the first NCAA Tournament matchup with Creighton (22-11, 12-7 Big East), Brian Dutcher departed a piece of hard-earned experience to the Aztecs’ flagship radio station.
“Against Syracuse, I thought we missed shots that we normally make,” said the San Diego State head coach. “We have to go out there, play aggressively and believe in [ourselves] and take [our shots] with great confidence.”
On paper, it reads as if the Aztecs are struggling under the March spotlight to put out enough offense to edge out their opponents.
Opposite the Orange, SDSU was an abysmal 26.5 percent from the three-point range, even with catch-and-shoot players like Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez. Their 2021 average from the arc was 37.5 percent. In their 2018 tourney loss to Houston, they shot 37 percent shooting from the field, well below their average of 46 percent.
Matt Bradley, who had a quiet two matches in the Mountain West tournament, came back to average versus Boise State, shooting 17 points on 6-of-17 from the field. Defensive-minded Mountain West teams were doubling him and denying clean jumpers, which fortunately allowed Lamont Butler and Trey Pulliam to score a combined 33 points in their wins over Fresno State and Colorado State.
Including Butler and Pulliam, the Aztecs return six rotation players (Keshad Johnson, Nathan Mensah, Joshua Tomaic, and Adam Seiko) from their 2021 tourney team, and with them comes the experience of internalizing the need to stick to their style of play. The six scored a combined 19 points on 7-for-23 field goal attempts, and most of their scoring came from seniors Schakel and Matt Mitchell.
Despite his first March Madness appearance and below-average contests in Las Vegas, the senior from the Inland Empire echoed his coach’s sentiment, “we should go into [March Madness] knowing that we should win some games. When we do that, I think we will play our game in the best possible way.”
Bradley and his teammates must have the confidence in shooting their jumpers because whoever can make more contested shots will determine who if San Diego State advances to Saturday.
2. Beat the Big East Defensive Player of the Year
The Creighton Blue Jays have seen the San Diego State Aztecs seven times all-time, but under coach Greg McDermott, they have faced off only three times. SDSU has taken the two most recent meetings, one at Viejas Arena and another in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. McDermott’s team went to the Sweet 16 last year but lost to Gonzaga in an 83-65 blowout.
This year the Blue Jays are a young team that has kept opponents from scoring. Their 65.9 points allowed is third in their league behind number one Villanova and number two UCONN. They return no starters from last year’s team, and Big East Freshman of the Year Ryan Nembhard, who has a brother at Gonzaga, suffered a season-ending wrist injury on February 23. Before the injury, the freshman had averaged 11.3 points per game and was their primary ball-handler.
“[They overcame] the loss of their starting point guard so late in the season and played at a high level,” remarked Dutcher. “Ryan Kalkbrenner has a presence in the low post, much like Nate [Mensah]. He is an elite shot-blocker.”
Over the summer, Kalkbrenner won a gold medal with USA Basketball at the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup in Latvia. His extra training time paid off as he became the 2022 Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Kalkbrenner’s 7-foot-1 frame allowed him to secure five double-doubles in his second stint in Omaha. He has not scored in single digits since facing Butler on February 8th – a streak of 11 meetings averaging 17 points per game, shooting 71 percent.
The big man is eighth in their conference in total rebounds with a 7.6 average per game, second with 2.7 average blocks per game, and leads the Big East at field-goal percentage with 64.6 percent. One of the few things he is not good at is three-point shots, where he only converted three all year.
He excels in the paint on both sides of the floor but does not hold on to the ball well enough. The Blue Jay has turned the ball over 47 times this season, compared to Mensah’s 40. Creighton commits 14.1 average turnovers per game to their opponent’s 10.6, placing them dead last in turnover margin in the league.
The Aztec defensive strategy will put the two conference defensive players of the year against each other. Nathan Mensah is 6-foot-10 and, despite the slight height difference, has done a good job defending 7-footers. As the case with center-type players facing the San Diego State defense for the first time, the full intensity from Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Tahirou Diabate in the paint disturbs their offensive rhythm.
Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson only scored nine in the first meeting, and Georgetown’s two 7-footers, Ryan Mutumbo and Timothy Ighoefe scored a combined two points. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson (23 points) is the exception to this because Diabate did not make the trip to Ann Arbor.
Creighton’s big man does an excellent job on defense and gets rewarded with buckets in the paint. The Blue Jays will try to attack down low and use their size advantage. For a San Diego State win, Mensah has to stay out of foul trouble, and supporting defenders have to swarm the paint.
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3. Adam Seiko, the x-factor
Adam Seiko and his brother Arthur Kaluma, separated by four years and two time zones, will suit up against one another for the first time. This past summer, both played for the Ugandan national team in the FIBA AfroBasket tournament held every four years.
In the offseason, Seiko spoke about how his mother, Eva Saira Ariko, took in the experience in an East Village Times exclusive interview, “while we were at AfroBasket, her energy was like she was the happiest woman ever.” Seiko further explained that seeing both her sons play at a high level together meant her plans for them came to fruition.
Now with American households tuning in and thousands of fans in attendance, the guard with Ugandan roots has a chance to cement a special moment with the Aztecs. With the extra energy surrounding the Sierra Canyon graduate, getting through this first-round encounter will have to come from his three-point stroke.
In 12 minutes against Boise State, he attempted two three-pointers but could not find the bottom of the basket. It was the first time since the season opener against UC Riverside that he was held without a point. In the other conference tournament games, he recorded 12 total points, 4-of-7 from the perimeter.
The guard from Boston has been a streaky perimeter shooter this season, shooting an average of 41.1 percent. His best performance this season came against Saint Mary’s, where he was a perfect 4-for-4 from deep. Given how strong this defense plays, even two three-pointers will go a long way.
As one of the returning players who experienced March Madness, Seiko must find his shot and be comfortable in taking them. As their coach has said, “timid teams do not win in the NCAA tournament.”
Erwin Mendoza grew up a SoCal kid, but now is raising a family in the Pacific Northwest. Besides covering San Diego State basketball, he loves lamenting the lack of sports championships from San Diego — minor league teams don’t count— while drinking the local stout on nitro.