Up until today, most basketball analysts considered only one Mountain West team to be a possible Cinderella team heading into the tournament: Nevada. That all changed in the span of 48 hours.
San Diego State beat Nevada in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals, and then followed up with an 82-75 win against New Mexico in the tital game. Some could say that SDSU clinching a bid is conference tournament-fueled fluke, but let me tell you, the Aztecs are here to stay and here’s why.
SDSU has lost ten games this season and some of those defeats (Cal, Washington State) are aren’t great. However, the Aztecs have rarely been at full strength this year and as a result of their depleted roster, they suffered early in the year. Their spark, Trey Kell, and strong three-point shooter, Max Montana, missed six and seven games, respectively. With a full roster, the Aztecs have managed to win their last nine games and beat quality teams like Nevada (twice), and Boise State (a team with an NBA player in Chandler Hutchison).
Four players on SDSU average double figure scoring. Their leader is n senior forward Malik Pope, who averages 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in 26 minutes per game. In SDSU’s two wins against Nevada, he’s been key in terms of efficiency, shooting over 60 percent both times.
Kell is SDSU’s spark plug and when he’s on, the team is on. He scored a career-high 28 points against New Mexico in the final and if he didn’t, the Lobos would likely be dancing. Although he isn’t a dynamic scorer, his playmaking is what keeps the Aztecs in games. Exhibit A is none other than the Mountain West Tournament Semifinal against Nevada in which he had just 11 points but five assists, five rebounds and just one turnover.
Complementing Pope as a forward, the Aztecs also have freshman phenom Jalen McDaniels. The underrated freshman pitches in 10.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and has nine double-doubles on the season. According to KenPom, he ranks 26th in offensive rating for players who play at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions. In simpler terms, this means that when he has the ball in his hands, he rarely turns the ball over or fails to make a shot.
The future continues to be bright for the Aztecs with fellow freshman Matt Mitchell. The wing has been SDSU’s glue guy, and has scored in double-digits in 21 games this year. He’ll be a key reserve in case Pope or McDaniels get in foul trouble at all.
SDSU’s inconsistent body of work makes it hard to gauge how the Aztecs will fare in the tournament. They certainly are one of the hottest teams in college basketball and are capable of a win, but Kell needs to once again have the game of his life and the dynamics between the Aztec forwards must be on point.