This year’s Maui Invitational presented San Diego State basketball with three opportunities for NCAA Tournament résumé-building wins. The Aztecs went 1-2.
Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, the No. 22 SDSU welcomes another chance to strengthen its case to the future March Madness selection committee as it matches up with the Gaels of St. Mary’s.
The noon PT tip-off, part of the Jerry Colangelo Classic, marks the third consecutive season the Aztecs (7-2) and Gaels (7-3) have met on a neutral floor. SDSU has won all three including last year’s contest, 63-53.
A win in this year’s game keeps SDSU in the top 25 rankings for another week. But more importantly, it adds a neutral-site win against a quality opponent to the Aztecs’ potential tourney portfolio.
Last year, departed guard Trey Pulliam led the way for the Aztecs scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists. Backcourt mates Matt Bradley (14 points) and Adam Seiko (12) joined Pulliam in double figures. Nathan Mensah dominated on the defensive end against St. Mary’s pulling down 13 rebounds and blocking three shots.
St. Mary’s arrives in the desert fresh from a 66-46 win over Missouri State. The win broke a three-game losing streak for the West Coast Conference team. Mitchell Saxen, the Gaels’ 6’10” center, imposed his will early scoring the game’s first six points. The junior from Seattle, Washington, poured in 15 points in the first half and finished with 19 and six rebounds on the night.
Freshmen guard Aidan Mahaney made his first start of the season and went 6-8 from the floor for 13 points. On the season, St. Mary’s has four players averaging double figures in scoring with Alex Ducas and fifth-year guard Logan Johnson joining Saxen and Mahaney at 10 or more points a game. Local product Chris Howell, redshirt freshman from Torrey Pines, has seen action in eight games this season.
The Aztecs must take care of the ball in what figures to be a low-scoring contest.
St. Mary’s, like SDSU, has built its recent success on excellent defense. The Gaels held Missouri State to just 36.2% shooting and 7-20 from beyond the arc.
On the season, teams are scoring only 55.9 points a game, a mark that leads the WCC. Providing defensive pressure will be Johnson, who led the WCC in steals with 67 a year ago. He has 12 already this season. His disruptive play could hinder the Aztecs’ ability to be efficient in the half court as SDSU has struggled with turnovers recently, committing 17 miscues against Troy, 12 versus over-matched Occidental and another 14 in the UC Irvine game.
After a slow start on offense, senior guard Bradley has shown signs of heating up. The transfer from Cal is averaging 16.3 points in the last four games for the Aztecs.
His shooting percentage of 52.2% and 3.3 assists per game across that stretch may indicate that he is growing comfortable with the offensive fire power surrounding him.
It will be important for Bradley to continue choosing his spots wisely in the offensive flow against the Gaels.
Despite St. Mary’s impressive defensive stats, San Diego State won’t take a back seat to any team when it comes to getting in a stance and defending.
According to Kenpom, the Aztecs rank 19th nationally in adjusted defense. SDSU holds teams to 68.6 points a game in 2022, the exact scoring average for the Gaels this season.
The Aztecs frontcourt of Nathan Mensah, Keshad Johnson, Jaedon LeDee and Aguek Arop will need to keep St. Mary’s Saxen from dominating the paint on both ends of the floor.
Teams are shooting only 30.9% from behind the three-point line against SDSU through nine games this year.
The Aztecs have a great opportunity this Saturday to rack up another win in strengthening its post season tournament hopes. To get it, they’ll need to value possessions, stay efficient offensively with Bradley leading the way, and defend the paint at both ends.
The game against St. Mary’s can be found on ESPN+ and on the radio at San Diego Sports 760.