The San Diego State Aztecs are once again a top 20 program. In the latest Associated Press Poll, the Aztecs come in at No. 19. With the graduation of Yanni Wetzel, Ke’Jhan Faegan, and especially Malachi Flynn, SDSU was supposed to take a giant leap back. Instead, behind Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell’s leadership, the Aztecs are once again one of the best teams in America.
“Matt and Jordan have meant a lot to San Diego State Basketball,” coach Brian Dutcher said at the weekly press conference, “but they have meant a lot to me. We’re both on the same four-year cycle. We started together — me as a head coach, them as freshmen.”
“The four years of us being together has been gratifying. It’s been rewarding. Hopefully, we continue to win games, and we can continue this relationship into deep March.”
Aztecs’ coach Dutcher finished his remarks with a huge smile.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is underachieving once again. They enter Wednesday’s contest at 11-12. 8-8 is their record in the Mountain West Conference, which is good for sixth place. This year, Bryce Hamilton (18.5) and David Jenkins Jr. (14.4) lead the Rebels in scoring. They are 171 in Kenpom and 178 in the NET rankings. This will be a Quad III game for the Aztecs.
Finishing games has been the biggest issue for UNLV. There are signs they might be figuring out how to win in the end. Down much of their last game against Fresno State, they were able to rally and win.
“I feel like down the stretch, even though it still wasn’t perfect, it was as together as we’ve been as a team,” UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger said after the game. “I could tell in the huddle that guys felt good about how they were playing together.”
Three Keys to an SDSU Victory
1. Who is the best at position-less basketball?
Basketball the world over has moved away from easily definable positions — center, forward, and guard —to a style of basketball where those traditional positions have blurred. Samford University even put out a research paper in 2017 suggesting new position groups which more closely match how teams actually play.
For decades now — long before the rest of basketball caught onto the trend — fans of SDSU and UNLV have watched category-defying players give their all in this heated rivalry. Wednesday’s game will be no different. Whichever team is able to play this brand of basketball best will come out on top.
“Just the ways the game has developed,” Dutcher said when asked why position-less basketball has caught on everywhere. “The three-point shot, the less physical play. If you have versatile athletes that can play multiple positions, you’re harder to guard. You can play in space more, and that’s what we’ve tried to do. Both programs embrace that.”
2. Containing Bryce Hamilton
Hamilton is the do-it-all guard who needs no introduction to SDSU coaches and players. He leads the Rebels in points and steals and is second in rebounds, assists and minutes. Last week, Hamilton became the 40th Rebel all-time to score 1,000 points in his career. That he accomplished this feat in only three seasons is remarkable enough, but in two of Hamilton’s three seasons, he was unable to make a traditional impact. His freshman season, he only averaged 13.4 minutes a game. This season has been impacted by Covid-19.
“Bryce is a gifted scorer,” Dutcher said. ”He is an elite scorer. He’s one of those guys…some guys you can set a defensive game plan for, and if you execute, you can control them. You can shut them down to a large degree. Bryce, you can scheme all you want. He has the ability to rise up over you to make shots. He makes timely shots. He can create his own shot. He is the ultimate challenge from a defensive standpoint and one I hope we’re up for on Wednesday night.”
“He’s a really good all-around player, but especially at the offensive end,” Jordan Schakel added. “He can score. I was watching a couple games this year. Not only can he score, but he’s a good distributor from what I’ve seen.”
“He’s always been a good player. Growing up in LA. He grew up around the same area. I’ve seen him play, going back to high school. He’s always been a really good player. I have always respected him. There’s a lot of really good players in this league, so we’ll have to be focused and locked in.”
3. UNLV is dangerous
If anyone needs a reminder, here is it: UNLV is very talented. The Rebels win the offseason nearly every year. They seemingly always bring in the top recruiting class in the Mountain West. They currently have the 17th best 2021 class in the country, according to 247 Sports.
It is not only on recruiting websites, however, where UNLV’s talent is evident. On the court this year, when they played the upper echelon of the Mountain West, they were extremely competitive.
Overall, they own a 1-5 record against Colorado State, Boise State, and Utah State, but they have only been outscored by 26 points total in those games. Pertinent to the series with the Aztecs, only one of the three series was played in Las Vegas. They split that series with Utah State in late January.
“It’s been a long season. It’s come to this point. One game and try to win a title,” Dutcher said. “We’ve done what we’ve had to do. We have kept our own fate in our own hands, so we’re in control of our own destiny. We’re going to play a very good UNLV team on the road Wednesday.”
“We were 30-2 last year. One of those two losses was to UNLV. We know what (playing against UNLV) is. We have to respect our opponent, which we do. T.J.’s done a good job.”
“Close games are always important. They’ve played everybody close, but they haven’t gotten over the hump in a few of them. They played one-possession games both games against Colorado State. They played a one-possession game two weeks ago against Boise. In their home series against the upper division team, Utah State, they went 1-1. We know what it is going to Vegas. We know how difficult that’s going to be. We will get onto the practice floor and do everything in our power to make sure we‘re successful.”
If SDSU does not play their best game — especially on the defensive end — they could walk out of the Thomas and Mack Center licking their wounds.