Aztecs Have Proven a Quick Study in Postseason

March 13, 2018


By Mick McGrane, Senior Writer

A pressing issue had San Diego State’s coaching staff pressed for a time.

With its team having just dispatched top-seeded Nevada in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament, and needing the better part of another three hours before learning of their opponent in the title game the following day, Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher and his cadre settled in for a midnight study session.

The final exam was now roughly 15 hours removed, and if SDSU couldn’t solve New Mexico’s press, chances of achieving a passing mark weren’t overly robust.

Bleary-eyed and fueled by adrenaline, breakfast but a blur, Dutcher and his staff assembled the team in a ballroom of Las Vegas’ South Point Hotel. Less than five hours remained before the entourage would bus to the Thomas & Mack Center, a league-best fifth MW tournament title hanging in the balance.

First and foremost, however, was the little matter of New Mexico’s “Run and Stun” full-court press, a defense refined by former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey and embraced by first-year New Mexico coach Paul Weir. It also had clearly been embraced by Weir’s players, as the Lobos posted a league-best turnover margin of 4.12. Nevada was second at 3.06. No other team in the MW posted a margin above 2.0.

And while SDSU finished with its regular-season average of 12 turnovers in its only meeting of the season against the Lobos (a 79-75 loss), it also was outscored 9-5 in points off turnovers.

Class was in session, and the Aztecs were on the clock.

“We’d only played New Mexico once, and they press the whole game; they play differently than anybody else,” Dutcher said. “As a coaching staff, I think we got a total of maybe two or three hours of sleep. But in an hour and 15 minutes in a ballroom the morning of the game, we were able to walk through a game plan. We put in an entirely new press offense in an hour and 15 minutes that we thought would allow us to beat New Mexico’s defense. We might have spent 10 to 12 hours that night getting ready for that hour-and-15-minute meeting. To the players’ credit, they took what we gave them from that meeting and did everything we asked them to do. There’s a lot of time that goes into it, but it’s necessary.”

Lest a team face the fire drill that comes with being seeded in the First Four, an event staged 48 hours after Selection Sunday, the first round of the NCAA Tournament affords teams four to five days to prepare for an opponent. Dutcher, whose team will face Houston in Thursday’s first-round West Region game in Wichita, well remembers the prep work SDSU’s staff put in after the Aztecs earned an NCAA Tournament bid in 2002 under Steve Fisher, the program’s first in 16 years. The Aztecs, a No. 13 seed, drew No. 4 seed Illinois in a game staged at the United Center in Chicago, two hours removed from the Illinois campus in Champaign.

Final: Illinois 93, SDSU 64.

“I remember watching Illinois on tape when we went to the NCAA Tournament and thinking, hey, maybe we can take advantage of this or that,” Dutcher said. “Then we walk onto the court at the United Center and they’re like four inches taller than we are at every position.”

Such won’t be the case against Houston, whose tallest starter is 6-6 senior Devin Davis. The Aztecs’ roster includes seven players 6-6 or taller. But what the Cougars lack in height they compensate for in bulk, with seven players weighing in at 220 or more, including four at 230-plus.

“On tape, and when you look at the roster, Houston isn’t extremely tall,” Dutcher said. “What you notice is how thick they are. So, it’s one thing to watch tape and prepare, and another when you step onto the floor and actually encounter it. You can watch tape and get a feel for everything they’re trying to run, but in the end, it’s all about the game. It’ll be left in the players’ hands. The coaches will do everything they can do, and then the players will make the coaches look either really good or really bad.”

At the moment, with a nine-game win streak in hand that includes an average margin of victory of 13.3 points, SDSU’s coaches couldn’t look better.

“In this day and age, we have tape of every game (Houston) has played that allows us to dissect it and ask ourselves why they’re playing a certain way and be able to see some of the subtleties of it,” Dutcher said. “Are they trying to send a guy left on the dribble all the time? Are they trying to stay connected to a certain guy all the time at the expense of not playing help-side defense? Some teams won’t run set plays this time of year because they’re so well scouted that they take that play away. Then, all of the sudden, they’ll run a set play that they haven’t run for three weeks.

“There are things that maybe you have to go back farther into the season to see (on tape), because teams know they’re playing a new opponent that might not be ready for it. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

And in a first-round NCAA Tournament game anticipated to be as much about bump as grind, the workload doesn’t figure to get any lighter on Thursday.

“They play with a physicality that we haven’t played against for awhile,” Dutcher said. “They pound you inside, they bump cutters, they restrict your movement. It’s hard. They defend with a lot of the same schemes we’ve seen, but they do it with a physicality that we haven’t seen.

“It doesn’t change the way we play. We just have to know that there’s going to be more contact. We have to be able to play through it and not look to the refs to correct it.”

Leave that to the coach.

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