San Diego State finished the season as both the regular season and conference tournament champions of the Mountain West. The Aztecs went 23-4 overall, including a 14-3 record in conference play, and tacked on three additional wins through their march to the conference title.
SDSU has not lost since January 16 and will bring a 14-game winning streak into their NCAA Tournament first round contest against Syracuse. That loss came at Utah State, as did one of their other defeats. The Aztecs lost earlier in the season at home against BYU and Colorado State, so there are no bad losses on their schedule.
Ken Pomeroy has San Diego State listed as the #20 team in the nation, with the team ranked #44 in adjusted offensive efficiency and #11 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Traditional stats back up the toughness of the Aztecs’ defense, as they have allowed opponents to make just 38.7 percent of their field goal attempts on the season, standing sixth in the nation in that category. They also force over eight steals per game while playing man-to-man defense.
The SDSU offense is strong without being elite in any one category. The squad shoots 45.5 percent from the field, which gets them into the top 100 nationally, and 37.5 percent on three-pointers, which is good for 35th in the country.
Head coach Brian Dutcher uses liberal substitutions with his veteran roster, as ten players have appeared in at least 20 of their games and average over 12 minutes per game with nine of those players starting at least once this season. Eight members of the rotation are upperclassmen and the starting lineup is comprised of four seniors and one junior. San Diego State has used that lineup in all but one of their last 13 games, the exception being starting five seniors for the final home game of the regular season.
San Diego State on offense
The Aztecs are balanced and composed on offense. All five starters averaged at least seven points per game while playing between 21 and 30 minutes per contest.
Matt Mitchell, the Mountain West Player of the Year, is the leading man for the Aztecs. The 6’6”, 235-pound Mitchell is a powerful player with a solid all-around game who averaged 15.4 points per game by scoring from everywhere. The senior forward made 30 threes on the season, is capable of scoring from all three levels, including driving to the basket, and shot 81.5 percent from the foul line.
Two of the three starting guards, Jordan Schakel (6’6”) and Terrell Gomez (5’8”), are excellent three-point shooters. Schakel led the team with 78 threes and a 46.7 percent shooting mark from distance while Gomez was no slouch, connecting on 50 triples at a 41.7 percent rate. Both attempted over 60 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc and are excellent foul shooters, both connecting on over 88 percent of their attempts from the stripe. Mitchell shoots 36.1 percent from deep and Adam Seiko (6’3” guard) made 27 threes off the bench. Trey Pulliam, the other starting guard, is more of a set-up man, leading the team in assists, but shooting a mere 61.9 percent at the foul line.
Both 6’10” and 230 pounds, forwards Nathan Mensah and Joshua Tomaic play mostly as traditional post players. Mensah, the starter, shows a little more shooting consistency away from the paint, while Tomaic has made five threes this season (on 23 attempts). Mensah also has some ability to pass out of double teams, something the Orange should be wary of when the zone collapses on him.
San Diego State on defense
The Aztecs play a no-frills man-to-man defense that is active and aggressive without overplaying. SDSU looks to avoid switching on screens, preferring to fight through or go around picks. They will double team or at least show help on occasion in the low post, but generally will play straight up. San Diego State is also very hard to beat down the court in transition. They have permitted an opponent to score ten or more fast break points twice in their last 18 games. Mensah will chase some blocks and their active style will generate steals, but those come more from opportunity than aggression in passing lanes.
San Diego State also frequently deploys man-to-man full-court pressure. That press is not overly aggressive, looking to force turnovers, but deployed more to slow the opponent, putting a little more onto their opponents’ guards, and bleed some seconds off the shot clock (Syracuse fans can think of North Carolina State’s press as a reference point).
How Syracuse should play
In their base positioning for the zone, the Orange will likely play their forwards up to protect the three-point line, at least against the Aztecs’ starting unit. With three good three-point shooters in that group for San Diego State, SU will need to aggressively defend the arc. The Aztecs are also a smart, composed offensive team and both Mensah and Tomaic have the athleticism to go with their height, making them more than capable of punishing the Orange with backdoor lobs.
Marek Dolezaj will have to play strong positional defense in the middle without fouling, as Mensah will have a size advantage and is competent enough on offense to exploit it. While that may present an opportunity for Jesse Edwards to get some minutes off the bench at center, his lack of bulk may prevent him from bothering Mensah that much.
On offense, Syracuse will have to be patient and strong with the ball. The Aztecs play with active feet and hands on defense and will take the ball away from careless or sloppy players. Dolezaj could cause problems when facing up from 18 feet, as the Aztec’s bigs are more of interior defenders than perimeter guys.
This game screams for major minutes from Kadary Richmond, if he is healthy enough to play at full speed or close to it. Terrell Gomez is a valuable player for the Aztecs, but his 5’8” size makes him vulnerable against the Orange, either to Richmond when driving or Buddy Boeheim backing him down into the paint. Richmond replacing Joe Girard III on the floor means both guards can look to exploit their height advantage. The other guards in the SDSU rotation are listed at 6’2” or 6’3”, giving Boeheim and Richmond both a height advantage, but Gomez’s height makes for an easy target.
In addition to his ballhandling, Dolezaj will need to be an effective screener, as will Guerrier and Edwards (if he plays). San Diego State defenders will work hard to stay with their assigned man, so effective screening is a requirement for the Orange to get open looks, both for drivers and perimeter shooters trying to get open looks.
One helpful thing is the Aztecs commit 18.6 fouls per game (Syracuse is at 14.5 per game) and SU’s proficiency at the foul line (78.4 percent as a team, four players over 77 percent) could give the Orange a few points in a game when they almost certainly will be at a premium.
It sounds extremely simplistic to say this, but Syracuse will need to play very good defense and make open shots, in large part because they will not get many of them. San Diego State is a very frustrating team to play against because nothing is easy on either end. The Aztecs have earned their six-seed and the Orange will need one of their best performances of the season to beat them.