The nation’s casual college basketball fans are beginning to stir.
As the calendar gracefully inches closer to Selection Sunday, more and more people will take notice of storylines we at this site have been immersed in the entire year. Smack dab in the middle of that is San Diego State’s quest for
an unbeaten season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That kind of placement surely will inflame some, much like Gonzaga constantly and wrongly always does. The Aztecs’ streak-busting loss to UNLV last night puts ammunition in the “they’d be .500 in the ACC” yellers, but here are three reasons that Saturday night’s hiccup agains the Rebels shouldn’t change the thinking around SDSU as a legitimate threat in March.
The Aztecs’ defense didn’t crack
As had been established under Steve Fisher and continued in Brian Dutcher’s first three seasons, SDSU used a fearsome defense to run out to a 26-0 record, currently holding the 10th-best defensive efficiency in the country. That wasn’t the culprit against UNLV, as the Aztecs held a solid offensive team under its season averages in a number of key offensive categories, including points per possession and, especially, offensive rebounding (where they’ve excelled).
T.J. Otzelberger is a proven offensive maestro, and certainly had his moments drawing up sets on Saturday night. But the Rebels made the most hay holding down an equally potent SDSU offense to pull off the upset. If the old cliche is true and defense travels, the Aztecs — and those considering their chances in March — have no reason, at least based solely on the UNLV loss, to doubt that their gaudy metrics are skewed by a mid-major conference.
The Rebels got off to a hot shooting start, coupled with a cold shooting start from SDSU. That created a cushion that the Aztecs had a difficult time cutting into until the very end. There were certainly concerns they’ll need to clean up — like a lack of bench production — but this wasn’t a situation of a defense being exposed from wall to wall.
Malachi Flynn should be made for the moment
If experienced point guards are a trump card in March, there are few bigger than Flynn, who’s enjoyed a Player of the Year type campaign (16.9 PPG, 5.1 APG, 37.1 3P%). He wasn’t at his most efficient against UNLV, despite scoring 24 points.
Nonetheless, it was Flynn that loosened up a game the Rebels’ seemed destined to salt away by hitting a three with 2:37 left to cut the lead to six points. With a pair of pressure free throws sandwiched in between, he also hit a three with 17 seconds left to cut the lead to one point and give the Aztecs a chance at a final, potential game-tying sequence.
That ultimately didn’t pan out, but Flynn proved to be as reliable down the stretch in a tight game as he’s been all the season. It wasn’t the first time either, as he hit a dramatic game-winning three to beat San Jose State in December. You can’t quantify it, but it’s clear that the Aztecs star is comfortable in clutch time, and that could well prove the difference under the NCAA Tournament’s bright lights.
The profile simply plays
This goes beyond the UNLV loss, but the type of team SDSU has proven to be over the past three months has a track record in March. Per Bart Torvik’s analytics super computer, teams with similar profiles to SDSU in terms of offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and tempo have won, on average, 1.5 games in the NCAA Tournament.
While that may seem like a point against the Aztecs, it’s worth remembering that wins in the NCAA Tournament are, at a base level, hard to come by. And further, many of the teams on the list above over-performed their seed line to get to the second round, Sweet 16 or beyond. Even if SDSU slips below the one line, they’ll still be in a tremendous position — perhaps, even better from a geographical perspective — to capitalize on the efficient, balanced way they play and win games in March. If the trends continues with the teams above in terms of performance relative to seed line, that could be a very deep run.
Nothing that happened Saturday night should change that.