San Diego State’s defense has made life miserable for March Madness opponents. Do the Aztecs have two more wins in them?
At long last, San Diego State is in the Final Four. A program that legendary coach Steve Fisher built up from the rubble is now just two wins away from its first national title.
Sixth-year head coach Brian Dutcher entered the season with a talented, experienced group that had its sights set on a lengthy tournament run. In typical SDSU fashion, the Aztecs lean on their stingy defense that has ranked top 25 nationally in efficiency in each of the last four seasons.
This year’s team — similar to the ’19-20 group that went 30-2 before the COVID shutdown — has more scoring pop than in years past. Of course, the Aztecs still prefer the gritty-not-pretty style of play but now have enough shot-makers to avoid the lengthy scoring droughts that plagued them in recent years.
After a run of unfortunate tournament luck, San Diego State is ready to compete on the sport’s biggest stage.
READ HEAT CHECK
how they got here
San Diego State earned a 5-seed after a 27-win season, capturing both the Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament titles. SDSU drew a popular Cinderella candidate in Charleston in the first round. After a shaky start, the Aztecs settled in and were ultimately able to fend off the Cougars 63-57. Thanks to an upset in the other half of the Orlando pod, San Diego State faced 13-seed Furman after the Paladins’ last-second win over Virginia. It was clear early on that SDSU’s physicality and defensive prowess were too much for the Paladins, holding one of the nation’s better offensive teams to just 0.83 points per possession.
After advancing to its first Sweet 16 since 2014, San Diego State took on No. 1 overall seed Alabama and star freshman Brandon Miller in Louisville. From the opening tipoff, SDSU asserted its defensive intensity and dictated the tempo of the game, turning the matchup into a halfcourt grinder as opposed to Nate Oats’ free-flowing, 3s-and-layups offense. A 16-2 run in the second half put the Tide on the ropes and they could never recover. Miller had his worst outing of the season, scoring just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting with six turnovers.
Much like the Alabama game, SDSU turned its Elite Eight duel with Creighton into another slugfest. The two teams were a combined 5-of-30 on 3-pointers and neither squad was able to separate itself with multiple baskets and stops. But after Baylor Scheierman tied the game up on an errant inbounds pass by SDSU, Darrion Trammell drew a controversial found in the closing seconds and hit the second free throw to give the Aztecs the win.
HOW THEY BEAT YOU
Defense travels. The Aztecs certainly aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing team in the country, nor do they care. San Diego State’s four tournament opponents were a combined 34.4 percent on 3-pointers during the regular season, but they have gone just 16-of-94 (17 percent) against SDSU’s perimeter defense during March Madness.
It’s not just the 3-point line where the Aztecs suffocate opponents. Big man Nathan Mensah is one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball. The fifth-year senior uses his long arms and positional awareness to frequently alter shot attempts in the paint. The Ghana native already has 12 blocks in this tournament — five against Alabama — in addition to countless contested shots in the painted area.
HOW YOU BEAT THEM
Since Brian Dutcher succeeded Steve Fisher as head coach in 2017, the Aztecs are 116-9 when they score at least a point per possession and just 34-37 otherwise. In other words, when shots aren’t falling, wins are tough to come by for this program. Otherwise, the defense is typically too much for opponents to handle.
The one blemish on SDSU’s defense, if there is one, is the Aztecs’ tendency to foul, oftentimes due to their overall physicality and ball-hawking nature. Losing Mensah to foul trouble would take away SDSU’s defensive anchor, and the team’s other big, Jaedon LeDee, has had his bouts with foul trouble as well. FAU’s 7-1 center Vladislav Goldin draws 5.2 fouls per 40 while UConn’s duo of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan draw an average of 4.9 fouls between them. Sending Mensah to the bench could be huge in opening up the offense.
player TO WATCH: Matt bradley
Former Cal transfer Matt Bradley has been the team’s go-to guy ever since he stepped on campus two years ago, recently becoming a 1,000-point scorer in an SDSU uniform. It’s been a rough go of it lately for the 6-4 senior, though. Since dropping 17 points on Charleston in the first round, Bradley has just 18 points in the past three games, shooting 6-of-27 from the floor and missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
Fortunately for the Aztecs, backcourt teammates Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler have stepped up during Bradley’s struggles. Still, it’s hard to envision SDSU winning six games in March without Bradley consistently hitting shots. When he’s on, San Diego State is even tougher to beat.
CAN THEY WIN IT ALL?
Yes, but the offense has to get going. The other three Final Four teams rank third (UConn), fifth (Miami) and 24th (Florida Atlantic) in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. SDSU sits at 74th — not a terrible mark by any means, but certainly not the same echelon as its competitors.
Hitting the ground running offensively would be huge. San Diego State’s semifinal opponent, FAU, has made a habit of second-half surges throughout the season, and the Aztecs may need a cushion for when the run inevitably comes. Elite scoring attacks typically win in March, and SDSU has done well to buck that trend so far. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that its remaining opponents will shoot the ball as poorly as in the previous four games, no matter how dominant the Aztecs are defensively.