Win or lose in the Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 overall seed Alabama, San Diego State strives to control the pace.
For the Aztecs to defeat the Crimson Tide in the South Region semifinal on Friday in Louisville, Ky., the No. 5 seed has to live up to its reputation.
“San Diego State’s defense is elite,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said.
The Aztecs (29-6) led the nation in transition defense, and with a rotation that touches 10 players and beyond, San Diego State follows an old-school philosophy: Defend and offense will follow. The Mountain West champions expected to be in Louisville with this opportunity, even if others didn’t.
“Defense travels,” Aztecs guard Darrion Trammell said. “That’s something we have on the paper every game, every away game. That’s something that we hang our hats on. I think that’s going to take us very far. Like (in the second round against Furman) if the offense is flowing, I feel like we’re a very hard team to beat, but it’s not something we have to rely on like a lot of teams do. I feel like that’s an advantage against our competition.”
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher confessed upon his team punching a ticket to the Sweet 16 with a takedown of Furman in Orlando, he knew “nothing” about Alabama. A former Steve Fisher assistant who followed from Michigan, Dutcher has been at San Diego State since 1999 and has the team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
His focus as long as the Aztecs, who hold opponents to 63.1 points and 6.4 made 3s per game, are around is to convince his players to focus first on themselves, their job and role, and being too connected as a team to lose.
“Teams don’t win that play on their heels. We’ve got to play on our toes and with that comes intelligence,” Dutcher said. “You can’t go out and play crazy. I think we play connected, we play the right way, and we play with confidence.”
Oats might be interested in thoughts from San Diego State’s NCAA Tournament victims so far, Charleston and Furman, to get to know his Friday night date. Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said SDSU “kicked out butts” physically. Furman coach Bob Richey sounds like a believer, too, saying the Aztecs “could advance as far as they want in this thing because of how physical they are.”
Of course, Alabama stands on the pedestal as the No. 1 seed for a reason. The Crimson Tide won two games in Birmingham by an average margin of 21.5 points, led by point guard Jahvon Quinerly and All-American Brandon Miller.
Maryland fell short in a second-round matchup with Alabama last week, and Terrapins coach Kevin Willard said a prime takeaway for his team was the way the Crimson Tide committed to using collective athletic ability to defend.
“There’s a reason why they were second in 3-point field-goal defense,” Willard said. “I think they are (third) in overall field-goal defense. They have a very simple game plan, which works. They just funnel everything into the big guy and they take away the strong side and the kicks — they do a great job of it. They use their length tremendously.”
The Crimson Tide will appear in the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in program history, last making it in 2021 and losing to UCLA.
“Losing to UCLA two years ago, I remember that feeling,” Quinerly said. “I’m just going to let the guys know that, you know, we’re close. We’re very close, but we still got a ways to go.”
–Field Level Media