The month of March Madness is a magical season. One where instant fame creates memories of a lifetime. For some, it can truly be one shining moment. For others, just a flash in the pan. Regardless of which side those end up on, the eyes of the world will all be here to watch it.
The outcomes of 64 teams invited into the bracket will truly begin to unfold this Thursday. For the Aztecs basketball program and Head Coach Brian Dutcher, their quest for greatness begins in Orlando, Florida vs the College of Charleston Cougars.
Well, the day of days has arrived, Aztecs fans. The game will be broadcast on Tru TV and Alesmith Brewery will be holding an official watch party for the game.
Will this be sweet redemption for Coach Dutcher’s version of the Redeem Team? “Super Seniors” Aguek Arop, Matt Bradley, Nathan Mensah and Adam Seiko all came back for this moment after ending last season with a bad taste in their mouth.
The Aztecs have met their preseason expectations- sweeping the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West- two banners that will forever hang up in the rafters of Viejas Arena. The 2022-2023 Aztecs have an opportunity to cement their legacy among the greatest Aztecs teams of all-time.
Standing in their way is a 31-3 Charleston team with a fiery head coach whose players reflect his scrappiness and energy in their play. Pat Kelsey in his 2nd year at the helm has patched together grad students and lower division transfers who were overlooked in the recruiting process and carry a chip on their shoulder.
The Cougars are one of America’s trendy picks to bust brackets- the popular 12 vs 5 upset that is all too common in the tournament. They have all of the characteristics of a team that is poised to go on a Cinderella run: a gaudy record, great storylines, a fast paced high powered offense.
However, when you dig a little deeper into Charleston, they may not fit into the glass slipper basketball fans want them to. While 31 wins is impressive, all but 3 of their wins were against the bottom tier of college basketball. That is not the type of schedule that prepares a team for the step up in competition in March Madness.
FGCU, who upset the Aztecs in the round of 32 in 2013, played 4 teams in the top 30 of the KenPom rankings that year. Charleston’s highest KenPom opponent this season? A loss at #46 North Carolina.
The Cougars run quick tempo relying on volume 3 point shots, depth in their rotation and their ability to rebound missed shots to increase possessions. They are also fairly small with only 2 rotational players 6’8 or taller. One major advantage Charleston has is the ability of their starting center to play anywhere on the court.
The Aztecs counter with size, equal bench strength and an ability to smother good offensive teams especially beyond the 3 point line. The Aztecs also have an ace up their sleeve Charleston doesn’t have: an eraser on defense who can make it a living hell to play against in the name of Lamont Butler.
The Mountain West conference media’s pick for defensive player of the year can make a great player look like he belongs on a JV team. Elite Mountain West scorers Isaiah Stevens, Omari Moore and Steven Ashworth all felt the repercussions of being on Lamont Island in the Mountain West tournament. Senior point guard Ryan Larson is arguably Charleston’s most valuable player who likely will be guarded by Butler. This matchup could well determine the outcome of the game.
If the Aztecs are going to get Coach Dutcher’s 1st NCAA tournament win, they will need to use their physicality in the paint by bruising the smaller Cougars and drawing fouls. They will also need to secure defensive rebounds to limit Charleston’s second chance opportunities. Expect the Aztecs to pound it inside to the big men and the guards to use their quicker first step on the perimeter to attack the rim.
This game will likely be close throughout, a combination of a history of sluggish starts for the Aztecs at early tip times, East Coast travel and a partisan Charleston crowd that can drive to their NCAA game.
It’s survive and advance time. There are no bad wins in March. This is what the seniors came back for and the team has prepared all season long for. Now is the time to grab the spotlight and introduce themselves to the world on the biggest stage. Let’s go Aztecs!