The NCAA Tournament is approaching and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “making the case” series continues with a look at the San Diego State Aztecs.
San Diego State has been a mainstay in college basketball’s national conversation for the past few years. The Aztecs followed up their spectacular 2020 season – which ended without playing in the NCAA Tournament due to cancellation – with a rock-solid campaign last year in which they earned a No. 6 seed. Head coach Brian Dutcher won at least 20 games in each of his first four seasons at the helm and is set to do so again this time around. San Diego State holds a 17-7 record with a few weeks remaining the regular season. Yet, the Aztecs remain right in the thick of the bubble conversation.
San Diego State is featured in 123 of 135 projected fields (91.1 percent) on the Bracket Matrix with an average seed of 10.56. While the Aztecs do appear to be ahead of the curve compared to most bubble teams, they are by no means in a “safe” position right now. Many of the fields on the Matrix were submitted prior to the team dropping a road game to Wyoming – which is nothing to be ashamed of, but was a missed opportunity.
The quest for a four-bid Mountain West appears to lie mostly in San Diego State’s hands. Colorado State, Boise State and Wyoming are in safer positions to make the field at this point.
With that said, we welcome you to the third edition of our “Bubble Babble” series. This series dives into the metrics, quadrant records, future schedules, and other extenuating circumstances with regard to specific bubble teams and their at-large hopes.
Now, let’s “make the case” for why San Diego State could make the NCAA Tournament.
How do the metrics stack up?
San Diego State’s case to reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid starts with its metric rankings. There are six metrics on the selection committee’s team sheets and all of them paint the Aztecs in a favorable light. As a bit of background, the NET is the NCAA’s own metric that is used mainly as a sorting tool for quadrant records but is also a ranking in its own way. KPI and SOR are both results-based and thus referred to as “resume” metrics. The “quality” metrics on team sheets are efficiency-based and include KenPom, Sagarin, and BPI.
Keep in mind that there are roughly 44-48 at-large caliber teams that make the NCAA Tournament every single year. Only 36 make the field as at-large bids, but at least eight automatic bids would have made the tournament anyways. With that usual number of at-large-caliber teams in mind, it is easy to see why SDSU’s metrics are on its side; all but one of its team sheet metrics are in the top 45 nationally.
The Aztecs’ overall metric average (all six numbers taken into account) sits at 33.7 right now. The best overall metric average to miss the NCAA Tournament over the last two years was 2019 NC State, at 35.7. That Wolfpack team missed the tournament largely due to ranking 343rd in nonconference strength of schedule; SDSU currently slots at No. 96 in NCSOS this year.
San Diego State’s resume is far from perfect, and I will talk about those weaknesses in a minute, but its metrics paint a pretty picture. When it comes down to making a bubble decision between a pair of teams with close quadrant records, the Aztecs’ metrics could give them a much-needed edge.
SDSU is not alone in lacking quality wins
The biggest knock on San Diego State’s resume is a lack of quality wins. The Aztecs are only 3-6 in Quad-1 games and 5-7 in Q1+2. Those are not numbers that scream “NCAA Tournament team,” but they are on par with much of the bubble. Here are some reference numbers to show where San Diego State stands compared to the “true bubble” right now:
The “true bubble” mentioned above means the Last Four In and First Four Out according to the Bracket Matrix. As you can tell, San Diego State’s records in the top two quadrants are not out of the norm, plus the team has better metrics than those squads (aside from Michigan).
Opportunities still remain for SDSU to add more to its Quad-1 record as well. The Aztecs face Wyoming on the road before the end of the regular season and opportunities should arise in the Mountain West Tournament as well. Four MWC teams are rated in the NET top 50 right now – San Diego State included – so there are three potential matchups in the conference tournament that could slot into Quad-1.
As long as San Diego State’s records in the first two quadrants remain essentially even with the rest of the bubble, the team should safely dance. This is due to the Aztecs having a leg-up on other bubble teams in metric rankings as well as zero damaging losses.
No bad losses is a win
There are 16 teams currently projected between No. 11 seeds and the first eight out on the Bracket Matrix, including San Diego State. The Aztecs are one of only two teams on that list without a Quad-3 or Quad-4 loss to their name. If Boise State manages to return to the NET top 30, San Diego State would be the only team projected lower than a No. 7 seed to have a “clean” resume, meaning no losses outside of Quad-1.
Those 16 teams hovering around the cutline are averaging 1.4 Q3+4 losses this season. If expanded to Q2+3+4 games, those teams are averaging 4.2 such losses while San Diego State has only suffered one (and that is nearly a Quad-1 loss).
When it comes down to deciding for the last few spots – which the Aztecs will hope to avoid anyways – it would be a nice feather in their cap to have no bad losses. They have proven time and time again that they handle their business against lower-level competition. Only one Quad-3 or worse game remains on San Diego State’s resume.
Diving deeper into the team sheet
Team sheets and quadrant records are always fluid up until the point of Selection Sunday. As a result, it is worth taking a dive into where San Diego State’s opponents rank in the NET right now and which games could shift quadrants. For a team on the bubble, one win moving up a quadrant or a loss moving down one could be significant. Here is what San Diego State’s team sheet looks like:
The most notable teams to watch for San Diego State fans are Fresno State and Boise State. Both opponents are hovering around NET cutlines for different quadrants. If Boise State is able to return to the NET top 30, both of those losses would fall under Quad-1 rather than the home defeat slipping to Quad-2.
San Diego State should hope that Fresno State sticks in the NET top 75 as that would maintain one of the team’s few Quad-1 victories. Additionally, the Aztecs still face the Bulldogs once more in the regular season, and that game, regardless of the result, would be more beneficial to SDSU if it stays in Quad-2.
Additionally, San Diego State has secured three victories that are all hovering between Quad-3 and Quad-4. Long Beach State, New Mexico, and UC Riverside all rank between 160-167 in the NET. Every one of those teams that is able to climb into the NET top 160 would move a victory up a quadrant for the Aztecs.
It is also important to note that San Diego State still has a home game against San Jose State left on the schedule. The Spartans are the lowest-rated team on SDSU’s schedule for the whole year and that upcoming matchup is a must-win. One of the best things about the Aztecs’ resume is their lack of bad losses.
San Diego State’s overall status
San Diego State has been steadily improving its bracketology status over the past couple of weeks while winning five of its last six games. The Aztecs have jumped 10 spots on KenPom – a team sheet metric – during this span. Dominant victories over Utah State and Fresno State, as well only losing by one at Boise State, have helped elevate their at-large likelihood. And while over 90 percent of bracketologists are currently slotting SDSU in their projected fields, some are still wavering.
The biggest reason for the hesitation is San Diego State’s poor record against high-quality competition. The Aztecs are just 3-6 in Quad-1 games this season but, as already discussed, there are other teams in the bubble mix with worse records in those games. And while those teams hang around the bubble due to strong metrics, San Diego State’s metrics are better.
Additionally, San Diego State still has at least one more Quad-1 opportunity (at Wyoming) left on the schedule. Notching a victory in that one – or over any of the three MWC teams rated in the NET top 50 during the conference tournament – would help solve the lacking quality wins conundrum.
For now, though, the case for the Aztecs is pretty straightforward: their quality metrics are excellent, their resumes do not lag too far behind, and there are plenty of teams with similar struggles against quality opposition. There is nothing particularly interesting about San Diego State’s team sheet, and that isn’t a bad characteristic.
The Aztecs are a group that should end up dancing in a few weeks if they continue on their current trajectory.