The Sons of Montezuma ride for history Saturday.
The aptly named San Diego State Aztecs are in Houston and are ready to fight Saturday alongside each other to chase the program’s first title. Led by no particular player, head coach Brian Dutcher starts four seniors and one junior.
“We’ve got an older team,” Dutcher said. “The fun thing is to watch them integrate the freshmen in, have fun with the freshmen. Usually when there’s that big of a age difference, they don’t want to have a lot to do with each other, but they’ve bonded and they have fun together. They’re a tight group. I say player-driven teams are better than coach-driven teams.”
Dutcher’s hands-off approach with this team has been the difference for them. Senior forward Nathan Mensah, who made the decision to stay for a fifth year before the season instead of going pro, spoke on his team’s closeness.
“It’s on the court where you could see us like hanging around each other, in the locker room,” he said. “We have practice that ends around 3 p.m., but we just stay there till like 4 p.m. or 4:30, and we lose track of ourselves. We enjoy being around each other, and that’s helped us become as successful as we are.”
Mensah, a 6-foot-10-inch forward from Accra, Ghana, holds down the paint for a San Diego State squad that prides itself on its stout defense. He has averaged 3.0 blocks per game for the Aztecs in their four Tournament games so far, racking up five against Alabama in the Sweet 16.
Moving down the lineup, senior guards Matt Bradley and Darrion Trammell plus junior guard Lamont Butler are all serious threats to get hot for the Aztecs. Bradley had 17 in the first round, and Butler notched 18 in the Elite Eight. Trammell netted 21 in the Sweet 16.
The Aztecs head into this matchup ranked fourth in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency, the highest among the remaining teams. With Mensah and Butler earning Mountain West All-Defensive team nods, they can guard in the post and on the perimeter despite a noticeable size difference among the other teams in the field.
“I always say our defense is not based on size,” Mensah said. “[It’s] based on principles, and each member of the team has bought into that principle tries to help one another. That’s carried out this far because we don’t have a weak link. I would say because we kind of take care of one another so that we will be supported.”
Mensah pointed to the great team chemistry as the driving force to the team’s great defense. Great on-ball defense comes when the players are connected on a mental level.
“They’re just connected,” Dutcher said. “That’s how you’re good defensively: you play connected. If a guy gets beat on a drive, one guy will take him, and the other guy will peel off. Very rarely do you see us with two guys on the ball. That’s where you give up 3s... Eventually they start making plays where you’re like, ‘wow, that was incredible what you two just did there, how you saw that and covered for one another yet got out on the shooter,’ This is just the process where the more comfortable they get, the more connected they get, and the better we are.”
Dutcher was on the Final Four stage. He was an assistant coach for Michigan’s “Fab Five” in the 90s. That group of freshman was a stark contrast to Dutcher’s current squad.
Bringing in Bradley last season from UC-Berkeley and Trammell this year from Seattle, Dutcher’s adaptation to the transfer portal has given him the team he has today.
“The nature of the game changes,” he said. “How long players stay has changed, and if you can’t adapt in this business, you’re not going to make it... We’re adapting to the transfer portal. You can’t sit there and say, ‘boy, I wish it was the way it used to be.’ It’s the way it is, and so I think I’ve had an ability to adapt to whatever rules are thrown at us, change-wise, and we’ve been able to adapt and continue to be successful.”
When they step onto the court at NRG Stadium Saturday, the Aztecs can be sure of two things that will remain with them: their defense and their teammates.
“Our defense, it travels,” Dutcher said. “It plays 40 minutes every game.”
Even 1,467 miles away home, that defense will stand strong in Space City.