2019-20 Record: 30-2 (17-1 in conference)
Key Returners: Matt Mitchell (6’6 Wing, Senior), Nathan Mensah (6’10 Center / Senior), Jordan Schakel (6’6 Wing / Senior)
Key Losses: Malachi Flynn (6’1 Guard / Pro - Toronto), Yanni Wetzell (6’10 Center / Graduation), KJ Feagin (6’1 Guard / Graduation)
Key Newcomers: Joshua Tomaic (Maryland Transfer / 6’9 Forward) , Terrell Gomez (CSUN Transfer / 5’8 Guard), Lamont Butler (4* / 6’0 Guard)
It could have been a dream season.
It could have ended with a Final Four banner hung in the rafters of the Viejas Arena, a forever reminder that this ragtag group of defensive stalwarts made history.
Instead, it ended with a loss to Utah State in the Mountain West final. The finality of it - to lose in the championship to a team they romped twice in the regular season - has to carry a vicious sting. To win thirty games and not have an opportunity to swing at the sport’s giants must leave an insatiable lust that will never bring satisfaction.
The season that seemed so full of exceptional promise fizzled into the dreary remnants of a season cut short by a pandemic. The memories of Malachi Flynn setting the basketball world ablaze with his relentless scoring drive and passing acumen, KJ Feagin acting as the ultimate glue guy every Mid Major squad needs for a deep March run, and Yanni Wetzel dominating down low to balance it all out - it all seems so distant. Like a fairytale that has its final pages ripped from the binding, we’ll never know the heights this team could have achieved, we’ll never know if Cinderella gets saved.
It must be dour to reminisce about it at this juncture. The show must go on, but will it ever be that good?
Brian Dutcher has a chance to take his team to the dance to finish off what his team was unable to. He has a chance to mold a championship contender again. Will it be as dominant as it was last year? Will he - save for the tilt against UNLV - be able to run the gamut in the Mountain West again? Or is there just too much unknown?
Give Dutcher a lot of credit for this slate. To have a trial-by-fire with a squad that bolsters nine players that have never logged game minutes in an Aztec uniform is something to be commended. It’s been incredibly difficult for coaches to round out a reliable schedule and keep it mostly regional. San Diego State has five non-conference opponents and they’re mostly excellent.
Wednesday, November 25th - v #22 UCLA
Friday, November 27th - v UC Irvine
Thursday, December 10th - @ Arizona State
Friday, December 18th - v BYU
Tuesday, December 22nd - v Saint Mary’s (in San Luis Obispo)
The conference slate will consist of double-headers at each school in the Mountain West. They’ll play the second game two days after the first. For example, when the Aztecs welcome Colorado State into town in early December, they’ll play on December 3rd and then December 5th.
Three Things To Watch
Nathan Mensah’s Health
At 6’10 and 220lbs, Mensah was a beast to deal with in the first half of last season. An absolute terror on the boards and the ability to dominate defensively in the paint, Mensah was an integral part to the early success the Aztecs had.
It’s unclear what exactly happened to Mensah. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Mensah suffered from a pulmonary embolism, a bloodclot that formed in his lungs and subsequent treatments required him to sit out from contact sports. According to the article, the native Ghanaian seemed on track to return to basketball in June before the coronovirus shook things up. Although it was stated he could’ve been cleared to return had the Aztecs made the Final Four, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
If his health troubles are in the rearview and he’s able to compete at 100%, Mensah will be a key contributor. In his 14 games played last season, Mensah averaged 6.4 RPG and had a team high 22 blocked shots. With a 62% shooting clip from the field, his presence and veteran leadership can give the Aztecs a jolt that’s desperately needed.
Lamont & Terrell
Replacing Malachi Flynn won’t be easy. To right the ship for this season and the season’s of the future, Brian Dutcher was able to nap Terrell Gomez from Cal State Northridge. Gomez was an All-Big West player that led the league in scoring, field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throw shooting percentage. As a grad-transfer senior, this is Dutcher’s way of bridging the gap from Flynn to his inevitable successor in Lamont Butler.
Butler, a four-star freshman from Moreno Valley, California, broke a high school scoring record at Riverside Poly High School.
That record was held by Reggie Miller.
Coming from the same city as Kawhi Leonard, Butler was a late bloomer in high school, growing four inches and adding fifty pounds on his frame throughout his four years. His ability to score and his defensive abilities make him the clear point guard of the future. The luxury of having Gomez to lean on as Butler endures the throes of the college game is incredibly important for his development.
How Dutcher will manage the two of them will be a testament to the success of the season. If he relies too much on Gomez he runs the risk of discouraging a burgeoning star. If he relies too much on Butler he risks allowing typical freshman mistakes to flourish. With the proper balance, the two can feed off one another.
You can picture it perfectly in your mind’s eye. Old grizzled vet showing the ropes to the up-and-coming youngster. Like Bull Durham or The Land Before Time 11: Comet’s Revenge.
Defense has always been the identity of the Aztecs. They’re tenacious. They’ll pick at your weakest link until it breaks, then break every link after that. They’ll run over you like a frenzied black Friday crowd at a Wal-Mart in some po-dunk midwest town.
Adam Seiko best embodies that spirit.
In his sophomore campaign, the 6’3 guard has a bit of a cult following among Aztec fans. His on-ball defense is something that’s heralded. He may not fill up a stat sheet but he makes an impact when he’s on the court. He managed to help hold Sam Merrill to 16 points in the second regular season meeting against Utah State. He’s the secret weapon that Dutcher can deploy off the bench at a moment’s notice to toss water on an opposing guard’s heat check.
He’s been described as a “grinder,” a “pest,” and a “game changer.” Entering his junior season, it’s expected that the sharp shooting 3-and-D guard will be a formidable leader on this young Aztec squad. How Dutcher uses him, the minutes he gives him, will be telling how much progress he made from last year to this year. If Dutcher gives him the green light he could be the X-Factor for the defense.