A spot in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament is at stake Friday evening in Louisville, Kentucky as the #5 seed San Diego State Aztecs (29-6) face the tournament’s overall #1 seed—the Crimson Tide of Alabama (31-5).
Alabama, Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champions, enter the South Region contest against SDSU after two 20+ point wins in its opening round tournament matchups and has won five consecutive games and 8 of their last 10.
Meanwhile, SDSU, regular season and tournament champs of the Mountain West Conference, enjoyed a 23-point win Saturday over second-round opponent Furman and has won six consecutive games and 12 of its last 13.
The odds makers established the Crimson Tide as 7.5 point favorites for the Sweet 16 matchup and most college basketball experts have agreed, regularly choosing Alabama to advance in various publications.
For the team from the Montezuma Mesa the challenge is great. The opportunity is greater. Friday’s game offers SDSU a chance to advance further in this tournament than any Aztecs team has ever gone.
The opportunity that faces the Red and Black is why players spent all that time in the weight room, running sprints and getting up shots at all hours in the JAM Center.
This is the one shining moment.
It’s why players like Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop, Nathan Mensah and Keshad Johnson have stayed together all these years at SDSU, likely finishing their stellar college basketball careers right where it started years ago.
It’s also why transfers Matt Bradley, Micah Parrish, Darrion Trammell and Jaedon LeDee chose to transfer here. It’s what Lamont Butler Jr. will try and get back to as he leads next year’s Aztec squad.
All of it, all the work and personal sacrifice for team goals, was about making a serious run in the NCAA Tournament. Friday evening, against the tournament’s highest overall seed and in front of a national television audience, the moment has arrived.
This group of team-first, seasoned hardwood veterans steps on the KFC Yum! Center court in Louisville eager to etch its name in San Diego State men’s basketball history. It won’t be easy. Alabama is just as long, athletic and talented, if not more so, than San Diego State.
The Crimson Tide boast one of the nation’s top players in 6’9” freshman forward Brandon Miller. The Wayman Tisdale Award winner, presented to the best freshman in the country, led the Crimson Tide in scoring at 19.1 points per game on the season.
He also tied for the team lead in rebounds per game at 8.1. Miller, who went for his season average of 19 points in Alabama’s win over Maryland last Saturday, is widely regarded as the top prospect in this year’s NBA draft.
Against the Terrapins, the Tide were led by guard Jahvon Quinerly. The 6’1” senior tallied 22 points in the 73-51 victory. On the season, the Tide average 82.3 points an outing, fourth best in the country.
Joining Miller on the All-SEC Freshmen Team were guards Jaden Bradley and forward Noah Clowney. Bradley, 6’3”, tied with his backcourt mate Quinerly averaging 3.6 assists per contest, while Clowney provides Alabama with another low post option and effective rebounder.
In fact, behind Miller and the 6’10” Clowney, the Crimson Tide rank as the top rebounding team in college basketball pulling down 40.9 boards a contest.
By contrast, SDSU checks in at number 95 in rebounding, collecting 33.1 rebounds per game. On the defensive side, Alabama looks to Mark Sears and Charles Bediako to keep opposing offenses under wraps. Sears, second team All-SEC, leads the team in steals with 1.2 per game. Bediako, named to the All-SEC Defensive Team, averaged nearly 2 blocks per game.
Did we say this wasn’t going to be easy?
As we’ve seen, especially the last part of the season, SDSU brings a defensive intensity and collective effort that most teams have not faced. Just ask the usually high-scoring Furman Paladins about that.
The last time Alabama went up against a team as physical and defensive-oriented as the Aztecs was against Tennessee in February. The Tide lost.
San Diego State must come out with the same connectedness on defense as they did last Saturday if they are to stay in this contest. It won’t be enough to force Alabama off the three-point line, the Aztecs will need to work hard to get and maintain good paint position to effectively and consistently rebound misses. Second chance opportunities for Alabama have to be limited.
Offensively, SDSU bigs have struggled with long defenders. They are in for a serious test against the #1 seeded Tide. It’s a challenge Coach Brian Dutcher and his coaching staff is well aware of.
“We’re longer than most of the teams we play. We won’t be longer than this team,” Dutcher said in a pregame press conference.
“Contesting a shot will be harder, bigger players shooting over smaller players, that’s basketball, and that’s why teams win championships, but we’ll have toughness and grit will contest every shot they take. Like I said from the start of the year, as long as we’re playing at our best then I like our chances.”
If the Aztecs post players can play even with their counterparts, the game could come down to guard play. Bradley, Trammell, Butler, Seiko and Parrish have all shown the ability to knock down shots over the course of 35 games. But to win and advance at this point in the tourney, the team will need more than one or two players to come up clutch.
Super senior Aztecs guard Adam Seiko sees the opportunity in front of him and his teammates. “Yeah, when we’re shooting the ball well, we’re a different team,” he said in a recent press conference.
“Especially when Darrion is hitting shots. I’m hitting shots, these past few games past few weeks they’ve been really sticky on me, not really giving me any open looks. So, I’ve been trying to find ways to be aggressive in other areas of the floor. But when we’re hitting shots, we’re a different team. So, we’ve been in the gym this week. I’m ready for this upcoming game and hopefully being able to get some more looks on the floor and see where I get to my spots.”
Against Alabama’s tough defense, the question will be—can the Aztecs find enough offense to keep the game close to the end?
At that point all the work, sweat, depth and veteran experience can kick in and carry this team to an upset of the tournament’s top team and secure a trip to a place SDSU men’s basketball has never been—an Elite Eight appearance.
San Diego State’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Alabama is scheduled to tip off at 3:30 PDT on TBS. San Diego Sports 760 will have the radio call.