San Diego State’s run to the national championship game wasn’t a fluke — the Aztecs may have similar success again this season.
The modest expectations stemmed in part from the Aztecs being a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Only 10 teams that earned No. 5 seeds have made the Final Four in NCAA Tournament history (including SDSU and Miami last season), and the Aztecs were only the fourth to play for a title (none have won a national championship). Part of it came from the fact that the Mountain West hadn’t won a game in the Big Dance since 2018. Moreover, SDSU itself fell short in its biggest non-conference games during the first month of the season.
The belief within the program, however, never wavered. Head coach Brian Dutcher believes San Diego State has been playing at that level for a while now and felt that the team, which won its third Mountain West title in four seasons, was at the same level.
“We’ve had teams in the past that were capable of [making a run to the title game] but weren’t able to,” Dutcher told Heat Check CBB. “The team with Kawhi Leonard could’ve done it but ran into a hot UConn team that won the title. The 30-2 team from a few years ago that didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament could’ve done it.”
During media availability the day before the national championship game, Dutcher was asked about San Diego State’s staying power. That prompted the following bold statement to reporters:
“I think we’ll be better next year. We’re not a one-hit wonder.”
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‘Next year’ will quickly be upon us, and those who are equally quick to write off a repeat performance from the Aztecs simply aren’t paying attention.
A strong defensive identity has been the backbone of this program going back to the days when Steve Fisher roamed the sidelines and has only gone to another level under Dutcher. San Diego State has had a top-30 defense nationally, per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, in five of his six seasons at the helm. The Aztecs have ranked in the top 10 in three of the last four seasons, too.
Now, the anchor of that defense is gone. Nathan Mensah was one of the best rim protectors and interior defenders in the country. Bouncy forward Keshad Johnson’s transfer to Arizona hurts as well. At the same time, there’s enough belief — and proof — in this system to expect the Aztecs to keep playing at a high level.
Micah Parrish and Jaedon LeDee showed the ability to defend multiple positions last season, with LeDee also flashing as a high-quality interior defender. He isn’t Mensah, but his athleticism and wingspan allow him to significantly alter shots at the rim. Campbell transfer Jay Pal was an elite shot-blocker in the Big South, and there’s hope that some of their younger players, namely Elijah Saunders, will step forward.
The strength of SDSU’s defense may actually come on the perimeter. Starting guards Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler excel at pressuring opposing ballhandlers and forcing turnovers, which will be the key to this unit rather than the complement to Mensah. USC transfer Reese Waters, the reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year, adds to this as a 6-5 lockdown wing who was one of the Pac-12’s best perimeter defenders.
The lack of proven size, coupled with strong depth in the backcourt and versatility of some wing pieces, may cause San Diego State to utilize smaller lineups more often than it did a year ago. That will not only enhance its defensive pressure, but should also provide a boost to an offense that lacked it last year.
Perhaps the biggest reason why many were bearish about SDSU’s chances of a March Madness run was because of its offense and the scoring droughts it would go through. The Aztecs were 238th in effective field goal percentage, per KenPom, and 281st in 3-point rate, both of which matched the eye test. Simply put, San Diego State struggled to consistently score in the half-court with its efforts often looking burdensome.
Some of that was due to the physical style this program employs, and some was due to personnel. This season’s smaller lineup will, in theory, provide more spacing. That should generate easier shots given the lack of defined structure in SDSU’s offense. Last season, guards often drove into clogged lanes with multiple help defenders.
Butler, Parrish, Trammell and Waters are all quality perimeter shooters, and opposing defenses have to respect them. If sophomore Miles Byrd and freshman BJ Davis contribute as the coaching staff hopes, the Aztecs should be vastly improved in the shooting department.
That lack of defined structure is by design. It allows players the freedom to make reads and plays based on what the defense is doing and giving them. This approach becomes easier with more space to make decisions and more ball-handlers on the court. Trammell and Butler both ranked in the top 10 in the Mountain West in assist rate, showcasing their ability to make those reads.
Dutcher made some slight adjustments late in the year that paid off in the tournament, namely using high ball-screen action to initiate the offense. Those actions not only gave the ballhandler an advantage, but they also took a defender out of the paint. The end result was a bit more space for Trammell in particular.
San Diego State has new pieces to break in, and Dutcher will have to cultivate a reliable bench rotation full of younger, unproven players. Unlike last year, this team is not the extremely experienced defensive juggernaut with a limitless bench.
Still, the holdovers from 2022-23 are perhaps its most talented and dynamic, particularly on the offensive end. This group may not look quite the same, yet at the same time, the Aztecs will play the same style that has guided them to consistent success.
“We’re going to be good again,” Dutcher told Heat Check CBB flatly. “Not a whole lot has changed. This has been a long process. Expectations are always high.”