Three thoughts on San Diego State’s 79-49 win against No. 20 Colorado State at Viejas Arena on Saturday:
The benefits were tangible: a 30-point win over a ranked team, early control of the Mountain West race, a rise from 54 to 40 in the NCAA’s NET metric, from 41 to 33 in Kenpom, from ninth to fourth in Kenpom’s defensive efficiency rating.
But it all came with a hidden cost. The Aztecs may have lost a second conference home game in the process.
Fresno State said it couldn’t play last Wednesday. Nevada was supposed to play Saturday before COVID-19 got in the way, and the conference pivoted by moving up Colorado State’s March 1 trip to Viejas Arena.
SDSU reluctantly acceded, the latest sacrifice at the almighty altar of big boy CBS. Already this academic year, at the network’s behest, it played a football game at 9 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving; played the football conference championship without 20 players in COVID protocols (and got blown out); played a basketball game at UNLV without both its point guards when other programs might have contact traced their way into a postponement; and played the nation’s No. 20 team on short notice minus a starting guard and backup forward.
You’d think that would compel some compensation or at least future considerations from the Mountain West, but the conference doesn’t always think, or work, that way. There appears to be no back-room guarantees that SDSU will have either of its home games rescheduled, and coach Brian Dutcher didn’t sound overly optimistic.
The Aztecs now have March 1 open, but Fresno State and Nevada both have games that day. Last year, the conference left a week open at the end of the regular season for make-ups; this year, it didn’t.
“The problem is the schedule is pretty condensed,” Dutcher said. “There’s not a lot of room to add games. Most of our league is going through the protocols right now where they’re not playing. I would imagine that at the end of the year, they’ll all be able to play every game and where will be the space to find us a home game?”
That might require more unorthodox solutions, like the conference relocating either or both of SDSU’s games later in the season at Fresno State and Nevada to Viejas Arena.
But it might not just be Fresno State and Nevada. Coaches already dread coming to Viejas Arena, where the Aztecs have won 16 straight. Who’s going to want to come now, especially if they’re missing a starter or two, especially after seeing them rip apart 11-0 Colorado State while being short-handed themselves?
Dutcher made another plea for equality after the game.
“I’d like a balance at the end of the year,” he said. “I’d like an equal number of home games and road games, whatever that is. I’m not looking to play two more home games than road games. The conference knows that.”
But is it listening?
2. Going big
The coaches already knew they’d be without Trey Pulliam last week at UNLV. Then, shortly before tipoff, they learned they wouldn’t have Lamont Butler, either.
Conference opener. On the road. No point guards. Ugh.
Or maybe not.
In a serendipitous sort of way, it may have been the best thing that ever happened to them. It wasn’t so much that they beat the Rebels short-handed but how: using a lineup with three bigs in an era when most teams go with one.
The Aztecs crushed the Rebels on the glass and turned a season-high 19 offensive rebounds into 16 points. Dutcher mentioned after the game that, hey, they might have to consider using that lineup even when they have their point guards back.
Like, Saturday against Colorado State.
When the Rams went small — 6-foot-6 David Roddy and four guards — in an effort to increase the tempo and get back in the game, Dutcher did the opposite. He inserted 6-6 Aguek Arop alongside 6-7 Keshad Johnson and 6-10 Nathan Mensah with 9:31 to go and SDSU leading by 13.
Over the next three minutes, the trio combined for six points, four rebounds, one steal and one block. All three baskets were under the hoop. Two came off offensive boards.
“Our rebounding kept them from running,” said Dutcher, whose team had a 38-21 edge on the boards and 15 second-chance points. “They really had to leave guys back to box out. If you don’t rebound with that big lineup, and they get the rebound and they’re off running with guards spacing the floor, it’s a whole different story. Our No. 1 key to the game was stopping transition baskets. We can’t let them get out and run on us. I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
CSU coach Niko Medved saw the same thing.
“They’re a terrific defensive team,” he said. “If you don’t get stops, if you don’t get it off the board, (you can’t run). Sometimes we have the ability to space the floor early in transition and hurt them and create opportunities. If you’re trying to score on this team in the halfcourt over and over and over again, it’s difficult.”
Arop and Johnson stayed on the floor together for just under eight minutes, until 1:36 to go. When they finally subbed out, the lead was 27.
3. Rolling the dice
One of the obscure statistics tracked at Kenpom.com is something called two-foul participation. It is the percentage of the available remaining minutes in the first half that someone plays after getting a second foul.
Entering Saturday, SDSU was at a mere 7.4 percent, which ranked 292nd in Division I. Get a second foul, have a seat.
After Saturday, it jumped 46 spots to 12.6 percent (the national average is 21.4 percent). That’s because five players got two fouls in the first half, and three played 28.2 percent of the available remaining minutes.
One factor was the shortened bench, with guard Adam Seiko and forward Joshua Tomaic both missing because of COVID protocols.
Another factor was trust.
“You just tell them, ‘Don’t get another foul,’” Dutcher said. “And then when they get one, you say, ‘Why did I keep them in the game?’ It looks great when they don’t foul. … And then you have to believe in your bench that if a guy does foul out, you’re deep enough.”
The biggest factor Saturday, though, was tactics.
“Sometimes when you play a team that doesn’t have the ability to spurt out like Colorado State does,” Dutcher said, “you (keep them on the bench and) just say, ‘It’s going to be close at halftime. It’s not going to be decided by half.’ But you play Colorado State, and if you don’t have the right guys out there and they go on a 12-0 run before halftime, you might lose it by halftime. Their ability to score points in a hurry probably made us think twice about being short-handed to end the first half.”
Tahirou Diabate picked up two fouls in 97 seconds but returned later in the half when Mensah got his second. Pulliam got his second with 12:41 to go, then returned 3½ minutes later when Butler got his second. Then Butler spelled Pulliam for the final 3:48 of the half.
In all, Dutcher had players with two or more fouls on the floor for just over 13 first-half minutes. Based on the average from Saturday’s physical, whistle-happy game (0.6 fouls per minute), you would have expected eight fouls. They committed one, by Diabate with 2:03 left. And no one fouled out.