Aztecs in need of some home cookin’ as conference race heats up

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Contributors Michael Maciejewski & SDSportsFiend

Playing basketball against the Utah State Aggies at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah seems like something that a team would like to avoid. You would want to avoid having to play in front of screaming college kids who are close enough to nearly touch you as you throw the ball in bounds.

You would want to avoid playing a team that will back cut you to death. You would want to avoid playing the best shooting team in college basketball, who hits well-contested three-pointers with ease and seems to be automatic at the free throw line.

Playing the game of basketball in those conditions seems excruciating. Now imagine you have to play the game of basketball, but the referees are out here “using judgement calls” and you lose your starting point guard with 6:30 left in the first half.

This past Wednesday night the Aztecs lived this nightmare, and in spite of it all escaped Logan with a 63-61. San Diego State got out of Logan, Utah grinning after gutting out that ugly victory. The Aztecs had overcome poor officiating, an obnoxious crowd and the loss of their starting point guard to maintain sole possession atop the Mountain West conference with 6 games to go.

In the first matchup this season, the Aztecs stifled the Aggie offense in the first half and held them off in the second half. The return trip to Logan was a mirror of the first meeting, with a bunch of craziness added in. Down 13-8 seven minutes in, the Aztecs went on a 19-4 run to take a commanding lead when all hell broke loose. 

After a timeout the Aztecs were heading to their bench, when on his way to his bench Utah State’s Tyler Funk cut through the Aztecs that were spilling onto the floor to high five their teammates. When he bumped into San Diego State guard Darrion Trammell and immediately confronted Trammell with an aggressive finger to the face.

Utah State players, which had already congregated to half court watched as their coach, Ryan Odom, bull rushed the official and had to be restrained.

After a 10 minute delay, the outcome ended up being: technical on Funk, Odom, and San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher, who did absolutely nothing and was not involved.

In addition was the ejection of the 11th and 12th men off the Utah State bench and Darrion Trammell, the Aztec starting point guard, who did so little that he did not even warrant a technical foul. 

Amongst this mayhem, the Aztecs kept their composure. There defense stayed strong, holding the Aggies to 30% shooting from the field and holding them to 3-10 from beyond the arc.

Offensively the Aztecs shot the ball extremely well in the first half, making nearly half off their shots and scoring many easy buckets. Through the chaos, San Diego State took a 16-point lead into the halftime.

Like the last meeting, the Aztecs had to hold off a surge by Utah State, one that was fueled by a raucous home crowd and an officiating crew that was losing control of the game and tried to remedy it with a quick whistle. San Diego State found themselves on the wrong side of every whistle early on.

Coupled with Tramell gone, the foul difference forced Micah Parrish and Adam Seiko into foul trouble. The Aztecs were noticeably soft on defense because of this and in turn became tired as their lineup was stretched thin.

Overall the team persevered, fighting through a frigid cold shooting second half by relying on their defense—a defense which still held the Aggies in check from deep. The Aztecs were able to use just enough stops to win the game.

With Trammell out, Matt Bradley took charge and led the Aztecs with 18 points, including some clutch shots down the stretch. Jaedon Ledee continued to blossom in his offensive role and was a force inside, finishing with a double-double, 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Lastly, Micah Parrish was the other Aztec to reach double figures, scoring 12 points before taking a necessary foul down low to negate an easy scoring opportunity. He would be forced out of the game with that final 5th foul.

UNLV Round Two

Some home cooking is much needed as SDSU preps for a Saturday 1pm game at Viejas Arena vs the UNLV Rebels. The game will be televised nationally on a major network channel, Fox. The Aztecs won the first installment on New Years Eve 76-71 behind Darrion Trammell’s 21 points on 4-5 shooting from 3.

But while that may be the case, a visiting UNLV cannot be overlooked. Not for an Aztecs team that isn’t known for putting two full halves together this season.

As the New Year approached, UNLV & SDSU were considered possibilities for at-large NCAA tournament bids. For one of the teams, 2023 has been a disappointment.

Since the 1st matchup, the Aztecs have continued to win games with only 2 losses to teams at the top of the standings: Nevada & New Mexico. All while earning a Top-25 ranking.

The Rebels, on the other hand, are the epitome of inconsistency. Quality wins against New Mexico and Nevada have been offset by getting swept by Fresno State and losing to Colorado State.

Although the Rebels aren’t exactly running much these days, they are trending upward with 4 wins in the last 5 games. Their most recent victory, a 69-59 road victory over the Wyoming to earn the season sweep over the Cowboys.

UNLV poses an interesting matchup for SDSU. The Rebels have a 16-8 overall record but are staggering at just 5-7 in Mountain West conference play and will once again need to rely on a conference tournament championship in order to make the big dance this season.

Will the Rebels play up to competition like they did in round 1 vs. the Aztecs, or will their inconsistency woes continue?

Will the Aztecs overlook the Rebels after an emotionally-charged victory over a team they had circled on their calendar months prior?

The Difference Makers

Elijah Harkless has been a baller lately—averaging over 24 points in his last 5 games. Keshon Gilbert, who was an enigma offensively vs the Aztecs and committed 6 turnovers, has cut down on his mistakes as of late. Justin Webster who drained 3 shots from deep against the Aztecs is averaging 50% on his 3 point shot during conference play.

A key missing piece from the first game at the Thomas & Mack Center was Elijah Parquet—arguably the Rebels best perimeter defender. Now healthy, Parquet is another quality defender the Rebels can throw at the smaller Aztecs guards.

3 Keys to Victory

Set Screens

The Rebels have a tendency to duck under pick & roll and off ball screens instead of fighting over the screen or switching while defending. This allows many uncontested 3 point shots that the Aztecs should use to their advantage. Trammell cooked UNLV in the 1st game but he’s also been in a shooting slump. Will this be the game he breaks out of it? If he can’t, the Aztecs have other options in Adam Seiko, Micah Parrish, Matt Bradley and Lamont Butler to make the Rebels pay.

Tough Shots for Harkless

Harkless is a prolific scorer but like his predecessor Bryce Hamilton, Harkless is a volume shooter who never sees a shot he wouldn’t take. Hamilton was 1-7 in his career against SDSU. He averaged over 11 points in those games and shot a pathetic 36.6% from the field.

In the 1st matchup, Harkless dropped 18 points on the Aztecs but took 19 shots to do it. By again making Harkless take difficult shots he won’t pass up, the Aztecs could congratulate him postgame on his point total while also asking him to hold another L.

Let Bradley Ball

Matt Bradley is undoubtedly the go-to for this Aztecs offense. Whether it’s scoring, distributing or just being that constant presence the defense needs to account for. When he is on, he is ON.

Getting all the moving parts of this offense hasn’t always been easy for Dutcher & Co. New players in new positions and roles takes some time for adjustment. Aguek Arop, Jaedon LeDee, Lamont Butler, Adam Seiko have ALL been incredibly efficient players and the metrics back it up.

But Bradley is the guy who can create his own shot when the defense forces a difficult situation. And if there’s one thing Bradley is able to do, is hit a difficult shot. When he is playing loose and free, Matt is absolutely deadly.

Finding that perfect balance between running an efficient offense and giving Bradley the room to ball freely is the task for this Aztecs team. Hopefully after the insane situation in Utah, the team will rally behind each other and continue to trust their instincts and the metrics of what works best.

If the Aztecs are able to be successful and prevail, the road to the big dance will be much more visible than ever before.

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