Three thoughts on SDSU’s victory vs. UC Irvine

Credit: Josh Jimenez/ EVT Sports

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Credit: Josh Jimenez/ EVT Sports

Playing through Nathan Mensah

Nathan Mensah’s reputation holds weight on the defensive end, although Jaedon LeDee has been the more impressive big man on the offensive side for the Aztecs. The 6’10 center led the conference in blocks on his way to earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year last season. He has continued to play up to expectations, with the second most blocks by any Mountain West player through seven games this season.

His progression as a threat on offense was put on display against UC Irvine because they chose not to double-team him most of the game. Mensah was physical from the start and was a factor in the pick-and-roll offense finishing athletically above the rim on multiple occasions.

In the offseason, assistant coach JayDee Luster said the key to Mensah’s game was to simplify his approach. Luster said a post player needs one go-to shot and a counter when defenders anticipate the primary move. In the early part of the year, Mensah’s most effective shot has been a left hook. It was on display Tuesday night. He used it to score multiple times and forced the referees to call fouls.

He finished Tuesday’s contest with 18 points, with four of those points coming from the foul line. Mensah has proven to be effective when given opportunities down low, scoring just seven fewer field goals than Matt Bradley, who has taken 51 more shots. The big man in the paint has scored in double-digits every time he has taken at least four attempts in the 2022-2023 season. As teams focus on SDSU’s threats outside, expect Mensah to capitalize on more touches in the post in the upcoming games due to his strength, athleticism, and touch around the rim with the left hand.

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Toughest schedule yet

Due to the quality of opponents through the first quarter of the season, the Aztecs are still highly respected despite falling short in two straight games in the Maui Jim Invitational. The Aztecs left San Diego as the 17th-ranked team in the nation and returned to the Mesa as the #24 team. Postgame SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said when “most non-power five schools lose two in a row, they can’t get them out of the rankings fast enough.”

Credit: Josh Jimenez/ EVT Sports

In addition to battling the jetlag and fatigue from battling on the court for three straight days, the Aztecs did not receive a warm, welcoming home. This UC Irvine team had already shown to be special before making the trip to San Diego, knocking the #21 Oregon Ducks out of the Top 25 in their second regular season contest. After Tuesday’s close game that went down to the wire in a winning effort against the Anteaters, Dutcher said, “now that’s how coaches get gray hair right there.”

While these nail-biting games and the lessons drawn from them can be stressful, it is always better to find improvements following a win. The Aztecs hope this early level of difficulty will pay off come time for the conference tournament. Coach Dutcher said the transfer portal could be the reason every game has been a challenge this season and why “this might be the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve ever played San Diego State.”

Three Point Struggles

Micah Parrish’s game-winning shot Tuesday against UC Irvine was also the third time this season the Aztecs have tied their season high in three-point field goals attempted with 21. SDSU continued its trend of poor shooting. They were held to 28.6% from three by the Anteaters. Three of their six made attempts came in the final five minutes of the game.

The Aztecs shot 34% from three-point range in the Maui Jim Invitational and have only shown signs of being able to do damage from distance in two contests. Micah Parrish and Adam Seiko are the only players shooting at least 40% from three through the first seven games of the season. The Aztecs have been helping opponents, leaving with empty, offensive possessions by taking nearly 19 three-point shots each game despite only converting 31.1% of their attempts.

Unlike most games, the Scarlet and Black were able to create open looks from three against the Anteaters but were unable to put them in until victory was on the line. When Coach Dutcher was asked about the recent shooting struggles, he said their results have been “a byproduct of people not helping” or opponents “not leaving shooters.” He noticed that they struggled to draw help defenders when tough matchups like “Arkansas and Arizona didn’t leave help at all off the perimeter. They tried to stop ball screens playing it two on two.”

Coach Dutcher and the group look to turn things around against upcoming opponent Occidental and end their cold streak from three-point distance.

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