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San Diego State Aztecs achieve success with defense-first mentality

Dutcher: “Not a lot has changed since Steve Fisher was the coach here.”

NCAA Basketball: Saint Katherine at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Even before the season started, Brian Dutcher had clear expectations for his team.

“Our expectations are that we play passionate and perfect basketball on the defensive end,” said the San Diego State head coach in November. “And that we share the ball on offense, try to find out who the hot hand is, and know that from a game-to-game basis.”

It would be hard to argue that Dutcher doesn’t know what he is doing. His team started this season 5-0, and just this week moved six spots to No. 18 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. The Aztecs were able to make that jump after defeating the then-No. 23 Arizona State Sun Devils last week.

Before that game, Dutcher said he wanted to focus on the defensive field goal percentage for both two-point shots and three-pointers. A solid plan, especially because the Sun Devils ranked ninth nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

Arizona State came into the game averaging 48.1% from the field, but the Aztecs held them to 34.5 %. Josh Christopher and Remy Martin, Arizona State’s leading scorers averaging over 17 points per game, were shooting 56.0% before facing SDSU. They struggled against the Aztecs, each of them going 2-for-8 from the field.

Dutcher’s team made their 80-68 victory against the Sun Devils look easy. KenPom.com now shows them ranking 19th in the nation for defensive efficiency.

The Aztecs didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. They were the last team in the nation to lose a game last season, staying undefeated until Feb. 22. Before COVID-19 shut down college basketball, SDSU had an impressive 30-2 overall record.

The program holds a 78-26 record since Dutcher took the helm in 2017, but he admitted that the blueprint for success is not his own new concept.

“Not a lot has changed since Steve Fisher was the coach here,” said Dutcher, who took over after Fisher announced his retirement. “It’s a defensive program and a program that shares the ball at the offensive end.”

Something else Dutcher said he wants for his team is to “stay old.” This offseason season the Aztecs added two grad transfers: Cal State Northridge guard Terrell Gomez, and 6’9” Maryland forward Joshua Tomaic. There are a total of eight juniors and seniors listed in the roster. At Monday’s press conference the coach said the upperclassmen are purposely getting the most minutes right now, while the sophomores and freshmen work their way up throughout the season.

The defense sets the tone for the Aztecs, but Dutcher is looking to strengthen the offense as well. He explained that offense can take more time because there are more reads necessary for a team to play with good spacing and rhythm. He is happy with how his team is looking early in the season, but he knows this is not the final product.

“I’ve got a deep roster, I’ve got a veteran team for the most part. So we are happy with our start, but we know it’s just the start,” Dutcher said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played and we have to get better everyday.”