The Aztecs passed through the opening gauntlet of their schedule undefeated at 3-0 with big wins against BYU and Stanford. These victories came with valuable lessons and will strengthen their NCAA tournament selection résumé in March.
Now comes the real test: 3 games in 3 days against some of the best teams in college basketball. Did we mention it was all taking place in arguably the most beautiful settings on the planet?
The #17 ranked Aztecs face-off against Big 10 power Ohio State in the opening round of the Maui Invitational on Monday, November 21 at 6 p.m. PT. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
SDSU will get either Cincinnati or Arizona in their 2nd game and Texas Tech, Arkansas, Creighton or Louisville in their final game.
The Aztecs have the talent, depth and maturity to win the tournament which would surely catapult them up the national rankings. The ultimate result would be setting the program even higher on the radar for who could be cutting down nets in April.
Here are the rankings according to KenPom of the teams in the Maui Invitational.
The Buckeyes (3-0) have not been to Maui since 2003. Head Coach Chris Holtmann has blended a group of veterans, transfers and freshmen into this year’s roster.
While they are talented, they have not been tested like the Aztecs have early on. The Buckeyes’ 3 wins came against teams above 300 in the KenPom rankings—teams otherwise known as cupcakes. It will be a trial by fire for Holtmann’s squad to see if they are ready for the step up in competition.
Ohio State has only 1 player over 6’8 but is heavy on wing players between 6’4-6’7. This could create matchup problems for both teams considering the Aztecs’ have smaller guards but bigger interior players.
Leading the way is Zed Key- a 6’8 power forward/center who is averaging 13 points & 12 rebounds. The matchup between Key & Nathan Mensah/Jaedon Ledee down low will be interesting to see who controls the paint and the glass. Early foul trouble on Key could spell doom for the Buckeyes chances for a victory.
Brice Sensabaugh leads the team in points per game (17.0) and is among 4 freshmen who should get significant playing time vs SDSU. Justice Sueing, a 6’6 wing and a teammate of Matt Bradley at Cal, is returning from a season ending injury a year ago and averaging 12.3 ppg.
Defensive specialists Keshad Johnson, Micah Parrish & Aguek Arop will likely be tasked with defending them.
Both Sensabaugh & Sueing get a lot of touches in the Buckeyes’ offense and are turnover prone. Ohio State as a team averages 15 turnovers per game. Through 3 games, the Aztecs have been really good at speeding teams up & stealing the ball.
Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell have combined for 19 steals. If Ohio State continues to cough the ball up like they’ve been doing against inferior competition, look to see the Aztecs convert these mistakes into easy transition buckets.
The question mark for the Aztecs is how will they deal with the Buckeyes’ length at the guard and wing positions in the half court offense? The Aztecs need solid offensive efficiency from their guards to win games in Maui.
Both Stanford and BYU were taller than SDSU at the 1-3 positions. BYU held the SDSU guards to a combined 11-37 (29%) shooting. Against Stanford, SDSU’s guards moved the ball more and produced more open looks but still only shot 36% as a group.
So How Will the Aztecs Beat The Buckeyes?
Sharing the basketball, making Ohio State work for their stops and shot discipline are the recipe for a win against the Buckeyes. As of now the Aztecs are -2 favorites to win.
Since Arizona are heavy favorites against their 1st round matchup Cincinnati, the most likely scenario is that if the Aztecs beat Ohio State they would play Arizona in the next round. Lose to Ohio State and the Bearcats are likely the opponent.
#14 ranked Arizona got the best of the Aztecs the last time they faced each other in Maui- a heartbreaking 2 point loss for SDSU in the 2014 championship game.
Head Coach Tommy Lloyd has done a nice job fortifying the program’s foundation in the wake of Sean Miller’s firing. Lloyd led the Wildcats to a 34-3 record, a Pac 12 championship and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2021-2022. Arizona lost 3 players to the NBA draft but still have plenty of talent left over from last season.
The Wildcats’ rotation is very tall- 3 players stand 6’11 or taller and 4 guards are between 6’3-6’6. Through 3 games, Arizona has been very efficient offensively averaging 105 ppg but against weak competition.
As expected with their height advantage, they dominate in rebounding (45.0) and blocks (5.0) per game. They share the rock really well and shoot a mind blowing 46.7% from beyond the 3 point arc albeit in a small sample size.
So What’s the Key for SDSU to Beat Arizona?
Like Ohio State, Arizona’s ball movement makes them vulnerable to turnovers. This should play into the strength of Trammell & Butler’s ball stealing abilities.
The Bearcats won 3 straight before being blown out by Northern Kentucky where Cincinnati only scored 11 points in the 2nd half.
David DeJulius, a transfer from Michigan, leads the Bearcats with 18.3 points per game. 6’7 guard Landers Nolley transferred in from Memphis and averages 14 a game.
Other than DeJulius the Bearcats have struggled to shoot 3 pointers well. This is a game that the Aztecs should walk away from with a victory.
Listen to the newest Kiss The Rings Aztecs Basketball Podcast were the guys recap the first 3 games and preview the Maui tournament.
#23 Texas Tech vs. #19 Creighton and Louisville vs. #9 Arkansas are the other 1st round games in Maui. Creighton and Arkansas are favored in both of their games so if the Aztecs beat Ohio State they will likely will play one of those teams. If they lose to Ohio State, Louisville or Texas Tech are most likely the opponent on day 3.
For obvious reasons, Aztec players and fans would love to get a rematch vs. Creighton- a team that is even more loaded than when SDSU faced them in March.
Eric Musselman’s Razorback squad features potential NBA lottery pick guard Anthony Black along with a solid core of veterans and transfers. The wildcard for Arkansas is Nick Smith who will likely be a top 5 pick in next year’s NBA draft. The 5 star freshman point guard is listed as day to day with a knee injury and hasn’t played this season.
Don’t be surprised if he suits up and makes his debut in Maui against the Cardinals.
Regardless of the outcome in Maui, the Aztecs are guaranteed to face a level of competition above what they will expect to face in the Mountain West. These games should prepare them well for conference play and the post season.
Early season tournaments favor teams with experience and there may not be a more experienced team in Maui than the Aztecs. If they can find a way to get Bradley going offensively, SDSU has a fair shot at winning the title and coming away from Maui with a top 10 possibly top 5 AP ranking.
But maybe more importantly, an SDSU Championship in Maui means large swaths of territory on Joey Loose’s MAP.
Get your popcorn ready for the Maui Invitational and as always Go Aztecs!