San Diego State got revenge Monday against Colorado State and earned a split of the season series against the Rams with a convincing win. Below we re-examine the keys to the series offered in the preview to the series.
Coming into the game, CSU was among the nation’s best at limiting three-point field goals. Opposing teams were shooting only 23% from distance. In their previous five games, the Rams’ opponents made 27 three-point field goals The Aztecs beat that total in two games. They shot 28-57 for the series. Forty-nine percent from deep is a tremendous recipe for success.
“We’ll be hard to beat if we continue to shoot the ball from three like that,” Coach Dutcher said as he reflected on the series.
The Aztecs’ secret to the success was moving the basketball and hitting open shots. They had 18 assists in each game, which is a season-high. SDSU came into the series ranked in the 160s nationally in assists per game. If they were to average 18, as they did against the Rams, they would rank 25th in the nation. Five more assists means five more baskets and anywhere from 10 to 15 more points. With the way the Aztecs play defense, every bucket is magnified.
Seventy is the magic number offensively. The Aztecs have only given up more than 70 once this season and that was aided by late free throws. The extra points they get because of “playing the right way,” as Coach Dutcher calls it, can be the difference between scoring in the 60s and scoring in the 70s. Moving the ball and finding the open teammate is also the coaches’ preferred method of play. For the Aztecs to be a team that can make a deep NCAA run, their offensive identity needs to be what they showed for long stretches against the Rams. Nearly 70% of their made fields were the result of a teammate’s assist. They had 52 field goals and 36 assists!
When the offense is humming, each player is a different cog in the machine. Schakel and Seiko hunt for open, catch-and-shoot threes. Pulliam attacks the basket and causes even more havoc to rotating defense. Gomez does a little of both of these. Mitchell and Mensah pass the ball out of the double teams they demand. Tomaic and Arop fill in the gaps left by the defense. When the machine is humming, it is fun basketball to watch.
The person who will ultimately decide what the team’s offensive identity will be is Matt Mitchell. In this regard, his improvement from game one to game two was particularly encouraging. Following CSU’s game one win, the Rams’ head coach Nico Medved said, “Matt Mitchell is a terrific player, but I thought we did a pretty good job on him. We made him work. He was 5-for-14 and we turned him over five times, so I thought we did a pretty good job with our team defense.”
Mitchell responded in game two not by being more aggressive and making more shots, but by being coachable.
“I saw different holes and different spots for me to be able to get my teammates the ball,” Mitchell explained following game two. “Going through film, just seeing the double (team) coming at me to the post; (I saw them) sending guys — sending two every time. So I was trying to find other guys, get them a shot, and just keep the ball moving.
‘Keep the ball hot,’ that’s what we talked about in the locker room. I can’t worry about my shots. I am not worried about taking 10, 20 shots a game. I am just trying to get a win.”
When your team leader, one of your best players, and someone who has scored 35 points in a game this season is not concerned about the number of shots he takes, the rest of them team will follow. Mitchell was four of five from the field. His five field-goal attempts was the second-lowest total of the season. He had four attempts against Saint Mary’s, but against the Gaels, he also had 10 trips to the foul line. Monday night, he only had three. There is nothing in the box score to suggest Mitchell had a great game Monday except for one thing. The brightest basketball mind in the arena, Brian Dutcher, played his senior a game-high 33 minutes, this despite Mitchell being in foul trouble. Two other places where Mitchell’s improvement from game one to game two showed up: the final point totals for the games and the win column.
Corona Virus Prep
Leading into the game, all eyes were on the unknown surrounding the new scheduling format adopted by the Mountain West. Even a veteran coach was interested to see what it was like to face a team twice in three day. It turns out, it made his job a little easier.
“Obviously, the prep time is not bad because you spent two days getting ready for that team,” Coach Dutcher explained following Monday’s contest. “You’re making just more quick adjustments. When we did not have back to back games, you might have to quick get in the film room and get ready for the next game. So, that’s what we’ll do leading into Nevada, so we’ll spend a lot of time the next two days getting ready for them. But that day in between games is just to make adjustments, so that part — the second game — was a little easier to prepare for from an X’s and O’s standpoint.”
Another aspect of this unique season was the lack of game film on Colorado State because of the 20-day pause their program was on to begin the season. Once again, the Aztecs’ coaching staff accomplished what it normally does: creating a terrific game plan.
“I told them,” Dutcher said, “Even though we’re guarding them differently to start the game, I one hundred percent believe in the way we played them the first game. And I said with a day off, let’s give them a different look to start the game where they are not comfortable saying ‘They’re switching every ball screen.’ Let’s give them something different the first five minutes.”
“And I also told them, ‘But I’m not afraid to go back and say we’re switching every ball screen like we did the first game.’ We had a good game plan. That’s the beauty of the staff I’ve got working with me. We prepare hard like most coaches do, but I think the game plans we come up with are effective. They give our team the best chance to win, and we will continue to put the work in to put these guys in the best position they can be in to get victories for San Diego State.”
While the coaching staff has made their preparation mundane at this point because of their great consistency, it was not that long ago there was a question mark surrounding whether Coach Dutcher could truly take over the development and teaching of a great game plans shown under the great Steve Fisher. The first two-game series in program history provided a reminder how wonderfully skilled the coaches are.
The marquee matchup of the series was Matt Mitchell against David Roddy. Statistically, Roddy won the matchup. He was terrific in both games; however, much of his damage was when the Rams went small, and Roddy was not matched up with Mitchell. Mitchell was once again terrific at drawing fouls. Roddy was called for seven fouls in the two games. He was called for 10 all season prior.
As for the rest of the roster, the multiple games in such a short period of time did not force the coaches to extend their benches too much, though some of that was beyond their control with key players missing from injury, illness, or personal matters. Still, the second half of Monday’s game was particularly sloppy. There was an inordinate amount of player control and hand check-type fouls called. While it would be easy to blame the referees, the most likely culprit was gassed players. Oftentimes, fouls increase when tired legs cannot match the intensity needed to play at the highest levels.
Following Monday’s game, Coach Dutcher spoke about the refs.
“These are three really good refs, but (in) basketball there’s always calls if they go against you, you’re going to be upset. So, most of the time, they get them right when you go back and watch tape. So, this is a really good crew. Good teams play beyond officiating, so even if we thought we didn’t get a call, we need to just keep playing, knowing that at the end of the day, the fate of the game is going to be in our hands.”