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March Madness Analysis: How San Diego State Made the Final Four

Defense Carries Surprising Aztecs

It doesn’t always look pretty when San Diego State takes to the court. However, nobody is complaining from the Aztecs camp as they are ready to take on Florida Atlantic in one of the most improbable national semifinals on Saturday night.

When considering making March Madness predictions, San Diego State ranks 32nd in scoring margin, and among the Final Four teams, the Aztecs have the best adjusted defensive efficiency mark according to the Pomeroy college basketball ratings database.

The San Diego State Aztecs celebrate after defeating the Creighton Bluejays in the Elite Eight round
The San Diego State Aztecs celebrate after defeating the Creighton Bluejays in the Elite Eight round | Andy lyons/getty images/afp

Matt Bradley is the only double-digit scorer for the 31-6 Aztecs. However, Darrion Trammell checks in with 9.9 points per game but that number has jumped to 12.8 during the NCAA Tournament.

According to the March Madness expert picks, the Aztecs (+350) are behind only UConn in the odds to win the NCAA Tournament. San Diego State is the only one of the Final Four teams to be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.

When looking at the March Madness picks, San Diego State is listed as a two-point favorite in the first of Saturday’s national semifinals at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Here’s a look at how the Aztecs got this far.

How They Got into March Madness Bracket

San Diego State didn’t have to worry about winning the Mountain West title to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Aztecs took care of business with a hard-earned 62-57 win over Utah State in the title game that was aided by a 20-7 advantage in free throws made.

San Diego State barely escaped with a three-point win over Colorado State in the Mountain West quarterfinals.

The Mountain West was eighth in the Sagarin conference ratings. However, that is a result of Colorado State, Fresno State, Air Force and Wyoming finishing a combined 29 games under .500.

Road to the Final Four

San Diego State was projected to be on the wrong side of a 5-12 March Madness upset when the Aztecs drew a dangerous Charleston team.

It wasn’t an easy game as Charleston was within three points with 19 seconds to play. However, Micah Parrish blocked the only shot that Charleston got the rest of the way as the Aztecs secured the six-point win at the foul line.

Furman took out No. 4 seed Virginia and then the Aztecs had no problems eliminating the No. 13 seed in South Region with Parrish scoring 16 points off the bench to lead four players in double figures in the 75-52 win.

That set up a showdown with overall No. 1 seed Alabama, with the sportsbook listing the Aztecs as the 6½-point underdog. The Crimson Tide were just 3 of 27 from 3-point range and freshman star Brandon Miller was 3 of 19 from the field and 1 of 10 on 3-pointers against a suffocating Aztecs defense.

Nathan Mensah’s five blocked shots played a huge role in the 71-64 upset.

San Diego State had to fight to the bitter end to edge Creighton and secure a trip to the Final Four. No official’s call in the NCAA Tournament generated more debate than the one that sent Darrion Trammell to the line with one second to play in a tie game.

Trammell missed the first foul shot before hitting the second to break a 56-56 tie and send the Aztecs to Houston.

Looking at the Staff

Brian Dutcher was a part of Steve Fisher’s staff at Michigan when the Wolverines won the 1989 national title and helped recruit the Fab Five before joining Fisher at San Diego State in 1999.

After helping Fisher and the Aztecs record seven 20-win seasons, he was named the head coach-in-waiting in 2011. It was a bit of a wait with Dutcher taking over as the head coach in 2017 following Fisher’s retirement.

The Aztecs have reached the Mountain West title game in each of Dutcher’s six seasons as the head coach.

Dutcher has been aided by assistant coaches Dave Velasquez and Mark Fisher, the son of the former San Diego State head coach, both being in their 21st season on the San Diego State coaching staff.

A Look at the Roster

The Aztecs returned four starters off a 23-9 team.

Former Cal standout Matt Bradley’s offensive numbers dipped from the ones he put up in his first season as an Aztec. Still, he is the leading scorer on the team at 12.5 points per game. He managed just eight points in the wins over Alabama and Creighton.

Lamont Butler, in his second season as a starter, is averaging 10.3 points in the four NCAA Tournament games. Keshad Johnson doesn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers, but he is a key piece of one of the nation’s top defensive teams.

Speaking of defense, fifth-year senior Nathan Mensah is a force inside at 6-foot-10 and a shot-blocking presence.

Trammell has made an immediate impact after transferring in from Seattle. His 21 points against Alabama kept San Diego State’s title hopes alive.

TCU transfer Jaedon Ledee joins fifth-year seniors Adam Seiko and Aguek Arop as key role players.

San Diego State has been without freshman Miles Byrd since late December.

Getting Defensive

San Diego State ranks third nationally in 3-point percentage defense and in the NCAA Tournament, teams are 16 of 94 from 3-point range. With Mensah there to protect the rim, scoring against this San Diego State team has become quite challenging.

San Diego State has only committed 43 turnovers in the four tournament games, so controlling the pace and not beating themselves has been a key part of a script during the tournament run.

San Diego State was in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West during the regular season when it came to covering against the college basketball odds.

However, the Aztecs covered in the Mountain West semifinals and finals and in all four NCAA Tournament games to move to 19-17-2 ATS.

Each of San Diego State’s last 12 games finished under the NCAA odds total. Just 14 of the Aztecs’ 36 games have gone over the total this season.

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