What SDSU needs to bring home a National Championship

The 2023 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship trophy. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU’s bus rolls up to the arena on Friday with a police escort. (Don De Mars/EVT)

San Diego State Men’s Basketball is two victories away from winning the program’s first NCAA title.

Like the other three teams playing in Houston, they have won four games to get to the semifinal round.

The Aztecs’ previous tournament contests have clarified what SDSU needs to do to be the last team standing.

Matt Bradley address the media on Friday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Settle in Early

SDSU controlled its Round of 32 matchup against Furman. It did a somewhat similar thing for about thirty minutes in the Sweet 16. In the Round of 64 and Elite 8, the Aztecs needed late-game heroics to put the opposition to rest. Following each of the latter contests, head coach Brian Dutcher spoke about his player’s anxiousness at the beginning of those games.

Against Charleston, SDSU trailed 20-13 with 7:35 left in the first half. Lamont Butler hit a three, and the Aztecs settled in and led at the break 32-29 following a 19-9 run to end the half. After falling behind by seven, they were only able to build up a nine-point lead of their own. If not for the slow start, CoC would not have been able to get back into the game late.

Two contests later against Creighton, SDSU gave up 24 points (and scored 16) over the game’s first 12:39 of play. Another Butler jumper eased the Aztecs. They surrendered 32 the final 27:31 of the contest. Once the Aztecs settled in, they controlled one of the best and most balanced offenses in the country.

Nerves will undoubtedly play a role for every team in the field. Whichever club settles in quickest will have a decisive advantage.

“The biggest thing that stands out is defense wins these games,” SDSU’s Matt Bradley said on Friday. “You have teams making two, three three-pointers in game. When it comes down to them winning, it usually comes down to defense. We’ve got to stick to that. That’s our stronghold right now. … FAU, they’ve got a really good team on the offensive end, so it’s not going to be easy. Definitely going to be a battle, but I think we got the game plan and the players to do it.”

SDSU poses for a team photo. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Adjust to the shooting background

The stage the Aztecs are playing on is literally one of a kind. Long time Aztec fans will remember the game played at Petco Park in 2015. That is the closest comparison to what the Aztecs will play on tomorrow against Florida Atlantic.

“NRG Stadium is crazy,” SDSU forward Keshad Johnson said on Friday. “The backdrop feels like we outside. It’s like a blacktop kind of feeling (with) the outerspace theme. It’s crazy. It’s a little everywhere. We have to stay focused on the task at hand. Stay focused. Don’t let the outside experience get to our minds being focused on the game.”

Johnson’s description of a game out on the blacktop would seem to favor SDSU. Of all the teams in the field, the Aztecs are least reliant on the outside shot to score. 53.2% of its NCAA tournament points have come from inside the paint. UCONN is second with 45.9%, followed by FAU (44.2%) and Miami (37.5%).

On Friday afternoon, there was no noticeable difference between the shoot-around at NRG Stadium and those at practice at the Jam Center or pre-game at Viejas. Perhaps, that bodes well for Saturday.

Basketball game comes down to making shots. In this unique environment, the team able to find its rhythm shooting first will have huge advantage.

“It’s more about the heart that we go out and play with; it’s not about the length,” Johnson explained. “You can have all the length possible, but in March, it’s about the toughness of your team. We’re just going to try to be a tough team to win through all the obstacles, overcome all adversities, and continue to play as hard as we can.”

Lamont Butler dribbles the ball during SDSU’s open practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)
 Stepping up in the critical moment

SDSU’s NCAA run has hung in the balance a handful of times in three of its four games. The Aztecs only had six points in the opening 8:34 of the tournament. Down seven at that point, Bradley nailed an important three. Butler hit another triple about seven minutes of game time later, with CoC up by the same margin. At the end of that contest, Bradley hit a short jumper to break a 53-53 tie. On the next trip down, Micah Parrish hit a dagger of three to end the Cougars’ season.

Darrion Trammell and Bulter put on the hero’s cape the following weekend.

Down nine in the Sweet 16 after Alabama’s furious run to the start the second half, Trammell went on an 8-0 scoring run to bring the Aztecs within one. A few minutes later, he made a pair of late-in-the-shot-clock, two-point jumpers on successive possessions to extend the Aztecs’ lead to five.

Against Creighton, Trammell seized the momentum away from the Bluejays by burying a three in the first half when the Aztecs were down eight. His last-second free throw that provided the margin of victory was earned with a great move to the basket.

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During the Alabama run that led to Trammell’s heroics, Butler was the only Aztec to find success. The Crimson Tide quickly took a nine-point lead. It could have been 20 without SDSU’s point guard. He scored four points, dished an assist for a dunk, and corralled a pair of boards to keep SDSU within striking distance.

Butler actualized his NBA potential against Creighton. 18 points on 8-11 shooting is the kind of line the Bluejays’ Ryan Kalkbrenner routinely puts up because he is 7’1, 260lbs. That a point guard could perform that exceptionally in the Elite Eight is special.

These defining moments cannot stand alone if the Aztecs are to walk away with an NCAA Tournament title. Others will need to step up this weekend for the Red and Black. Matt Bradley, in particular, can be the best player on any court he plays on. Returning to form as the Aztecs’ best player will obviously do wonders for the team’s chances in Houston.

“I think the biggest thing for me I failed to do this past week was have fun,” Bradley said. “I was worried about having this Cinderella Story game where I’m kindling and doing my thing. But, ultimately, it’s about winning right now, winning the Final Four. And as a leader on the team, I just have to be facilitating, being a cheerleader for my teammates. I think the game will come easy if I do those two things. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to play in the Final Four.”

Keshad Johnson addresses the media. He saved his highest praise for his brother, Kenny. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Kenny Johnson, the Golden State Road Warriors

Johnson is not the only one in his family in the Final Four. His older brother Kenny is playing in National Wheelchair Basketball Association National Championship this weekend in Wichita, Kansas. He plays for the Golden State Road Warriors, who are the No.1 seed in the Division I tournament.

After a first-round bye, the Road Warriors won their opening match 65-39. Like the Aztecs, they are two wins away from a title.

“It meant the most,” Keshad Johnson said when asked what his brother’s journey has meant to him. “Just the courage, seeing what it really takes to go through that and overcome obstacles like that. That’s something that I don’t even believe I could do. He is the strongest man that I have ever seen in my life. To see him still carry on his dream and for me to also live his dream with him is just a blessing.”

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