Writer’s roundtable: The five biggest ‘what ifs’ regarding the Aztecs’ historic season

May 13, 2020

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Kareem Jones

Senior guard KJ Feagin celebrates before cutting down a piece of the net after the Aztecs' 82-59 win over New Mexico on Feb. 11 at Viejas Arena. With the victory, SDSU claimed the Mountain West Conference regular-season title.

About two months have passed since life came to a sudden halt. Businesses, schools, concerts and sporting events, including March Madness, were some of the many cancellations pulled off by the coronavirus.

San Diego State men’s basketball had just wrapped up one of its most profound seasons in recent memory. The reigning, defending Mountain West regular season champions in the Aztecs (30-2, 17-1 MWC) were preparing to continue their postseason on the national stage.

That never happened after NCAA President Mark Emmert cut the cord on all winter and spring championships in an effort to combat the pandemic. SDSU and every other program participating in March Madness never got the chance to prove themselves on the court.

The designated venues are now closed and filled with empty seats full of utter silence. There will be no Cinderella team, no underdog, no last second buzzer beaters, no nets being cut down and one big trophy will be left behind to collect dust.

Instead, all that’s left are conversations amongst ourselves surrounding the big “what ifs” regarding who would’ve been the winner of this year’s 68-team bracket under college basketball’s brightest lights.

Senior staff writer Cristian Alvarez asked The Daily Aztec’s sport section staff writers Devin Whatley, Brandon Freed, Breven Honda, Jason Freund and Amber Salas to address five “what if” questions surrounding the Aztecs’ unfinished season.

1. What if the Aztecs had a fully healthy sophomore forward Nathan Mensah this entire season?

Whatley: Nathan Mensah fully healthy, in my opinion, was one of the top defensive big men in the conference. He had a defensive presence inside with his physicality and eats space. When other guards and big men would try to drive inside, Mensah would fill in the gaps and really cause them to adjust their shots. It kind of changes things quite a bit with Mensah in.

Freed: If they had Mensah playing, I don’t know how far this team could’ve went because he’s a dominant player that they missed the entire season. I think the sky’s the limit if they had him playing this entire year.

Honda: If you look at what Nathan Mensah brought, he was a big guy the Aztecs lacked having at his position. Yanni Wetzel set to be that center but was constantly adjusting. When Mensah was out, the Aztecs went down a little but not enough to lose. They found ways to win without him, but you saw the presence he brought to the team and the program. He was one of those players where if he gets the ball, you knew it was going to go in.

Freund: I think having Nathan Mensah fully healthy would have been a huge boost for guys Yanni Wetzel and Matt Mitchell. We saw early on in the season he was a perfect fit in the rotation. The Aztecs didn’t exactly have a big man when Mensah was out. You could see players get bullied inside the zone. Having a guy like Nathan would be huge going down the stretch. They might have been undefeated if he was there all season.

Salas: Nathan Mensah was a key element in what made this team so special and strong. I viewed him as a player that could do it all. I think this team never really fell apart but definitely were rattled. Games got closer with SDSU pulling out at the last second. If the Aztecs had him, maybe they would’ve continued to get stronger, continue to dominate and maybe some of those close games could’ve had different outcomes.

2. If March Madness would have happened, how far would the Aztecs have lasted in the Big Dance?

Whatley: They could’ve gotten to at least the Elite 8. If you take into account the loss against Utah State, it probably takes them off the 1-seed line in the East, so they would have been a 2-seed in the West. The Aztecs would have had a good chance to make the Elite 8 because they would’ve played near home territory. The first and second round games would be in Sacramento, while the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games likely in Los Angeles. The fan presence there would be a huge boost for the players. A lot of them talk about loving the fan presence.

Freed: From how they were playing this season, I legitimately think depending on the bracket they could’ve made it to the Final Four. This team always figured out a way to win close ball games with the exception of losses against UNLV and Utah State. They had a lot of offensive weapons and were a high percentage shooting team much like how the NBA has turned into this shooting fest. Malachi Flynn, Jordan Schakel, KJ Feagin, Matt Mitchell could all shoot threes and Yanni Wetzel was that great inside presence. The Aztecs were exceptional and always had a fight within them.

Honda: You have to look at the different bracket projections and think about the teams that could’ve been in that bracket. Unlike past years where you knew there was a favorite that was going to win it, that really wasn’t the case this time around and because of that it would’ve helped mid-major programs like the Aztecs or Dayton. I feel like they could’ve gone at least to the Elite 8 but as far as the Final Four.

Freund: The Aztecs would’ve likely been a 2-seed in the West region and probably would have faced Gonzaga at some point. I could see this team making a Sweet 16 appearance at the very least. They were very balanced and clutch. Even when they would be losing down the stretch, you’d see someone step up. This team could easily ride the hot hand and take that to victory.

Salas: I think this team would’ve made the deepest run. They could’ve gone to the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8 depending on the health of everyone and the opponent — maybe even making it to the Final Four. The thing about this Aztecs team is they were so hungry. They knew they had something special but never let that get to their head. It was more about what everyone else was saying that fueled their fire. At the tournament, I think they would’ve kicked it up to another level because they dreamed and worked so hard for that moment. On the national stage with everyone watching, it would’ve been the chance for them to show who they were and why they had that record.

3. What if the 2019-20 Aztecs were to win four more games and make a Sweet 16 appearance? Do they surpass the 2010-11 team and become the greatest group in program history?

Whatley: I’d say yes at that point because they were so complete on both ends of the floor in terms of talent, how they’d run their plays, personnel and coaching. I don’t think the 2010-11 team was that complete from an offensive standpoint. That team mainly used talent to win games. This 2019-20 team didn’t have a bunch of guys who were star players but really experienced. They played so well as a team and their chemistry is what made them so good.

Freed: I think this was the best team the program (has) ever had. They broke their own program record of most wins in a row without having a loss to start a season. This Aztec team was just firing on all cylinders all year long. Even if they were down in close games, they could start out with bad first halves and click in the second. Malachi Flynn said all year long that basketball is “a game of runs” and the Aztecs always seemed to have more of those in games than their opponents. If they would’ve made it to the Sweet 16, which I think they could have, they would’ve also had the best record ever in SDSU history.

Honda: That’s extremely tough. It’s like comparing the 00’ Los Angeles Lakers to the 91’ Chicago Bulls. It’s one of those comparisons where it’d be nice to see a game between the two, but that’s not going to happen. You have to look at the players that team had 10 years ago. You had three seniors, a sophomore and freshman on that starting lineup. This year you had two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore if you include Nathan Mensah. I think both teams are comparable, but they’re pretty evenly matched. The 2010-11 team had a Sweet 16 appearance while the 2019-20 team had the best record in MW conference history at 17-1 along with starting 26-0 overall. It comes down to how great of a defense you’d say both teams could play.

Freund: That’s an excellent question. The 2010-11 team was very good and had elements this team didn’t have. Going head to head would be a coin flip for me. Both teams are very skilled and talented. I would honestly say maybe this team gets a hair above the 2010-11 team.

Salas: It’s so hard to say which team is the greatest ever because they were all special and unique in their own way. There were so many Aztec legends on that 2010-11 team and when you look at this team people are going to remember players like Malachi Flynn, Matt Mitchell, Yanni Wetzel and KJ Feagin. What I think is so special about this team is the atmosphere they brought back to Viejas Arena. They were having sellout crowds and brought the environment that San Diego State was known for and caught people’s attention by starting 26-0 before losing their first game.

4. What more could the Aztecs have done to prove they were a top contender in the eyes of their critics?

Whatley: If the NCAA tournament happened and the Aztecs make the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, I think then people would start to take notice. In the national tournament, you’re playing teams outside of your conference and that’s a different league of competition. The Aztecs playing in the NCAA tournament would’ve been able to showcase their chance to win and maybe not as many people doubt them.

Freed: They set the standard for the teams they played against. It would have been interesting to see how they would play against the top teams across the nation. I felt like it wasn’t the Aztecs’ fault for why they’re playing these teams. I feel like other teams would be scared to play SDSU knowing how good they were and especially when they’re feeding off a fan base like The Show. People can say all they want about not playing the best schedule and that they’re in a weaker conference, but the Aztecs don’t control who their opponents are.

Honda: A lot of other conferences don’t have to worry about the elevation factor like the Mountain West. Half the schools in the conference are above 3,000 feet. A lot of people undermine conferences that aren’t in the Power Five because of the intangibles. When you look at the Aztecs’ schedule, you see big wins over BYU, Utah, Iowa and Creighton. They were all good conference teams in the Big East, Big (10) and WCC. Take a look at other wins against teams like LIU and Texas Southern who played in the NCAA tournament within the last five years. It’s a great schedule that people didn’t realize how great it was for a program that wasn’t in a Power Five conference.

Freund: They could have proven their point in the NCAA tournament. That was a time where the Aztecs could have proved everyone wrong. We saw these guys take down big opponents like BYU at home and cleaned Iowa’s clock in the second half. This team took on and beat big opponents. If they didn’t lose two games, they would’ve been more respected. The MW is not a terrible conference. Utah State was ranked in the preseason poll. A lot of people underestimate factors like the traveling teams have to do in the MW.

Salas: It just comes down to the history of college basketball. These powerhouse conferences that have amazing teams like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have all been around for so long. I think San Diego State is up and coming and will soon be a team everyone talks about. The Aztecs just need to continue establishing themselves and have more great seasons like this one. The talk of the conference can be so much to some people but they definitely played some talent this season. Over time, the program will continue to build its name.

5. Did the loss against UNLV hurt the Aztecs’ momentum heading into the MW tournament, if not towards March Madness?

Whatley: I don’t know, but the loss definitely helped them overcome adversity. However, I kind of felt like they were never the same from an edge standpoint. You noticed how the Aztecs would go down by more than 10 points during games towards the end of the season which made it harder to come back. They still found ways to fight back, but it changed their moxie in terms of not starting games to come out and throw the first punch. A lot of teams were starting to figure them out which is why they lost that fire toward the end. I don’t know if that affected the outcome of the MW tournament but Utah State stepped up to the challenge rather than SDSU faltering.

Freed: The loss to UNLV was a setback for them, but I don’t think it was a huge factor. I think the main reason for why they didn’t win the MW tournament is because they knew they had already made the March Madness bracket and that’s what their focus was. They obviously wanted to win the rest of their games and that tournament because they could never get past Utah State. I think they mainly wanted to win a national championship.

Honda: No, I don’t think the loss against UNLV hurt as much as people thought it did. People had to realize that was the Aztecs’ very first loss of the season. There were a lot more teams that lost multiple games and were still a top seed. When it came to the tournament every game and win counts. The final game against Utah State meant so much more than a conference tournament championship between these two teams.

Freund: I don’t think it really factored much in a negative way. It made them upset but in a good way to get more motivated to kind of say, “OK, we can lose and we’re mortal now. We don’t want to admit it, but now we can’t let this happen again.” Looking around Twitter after that loss, I saw players were not happy with their performance. Do I think it perhaps made them a little nervous in the conference championship game? Maybe it might have thrown them off mentality but I don’t think it truly affected them because they were a disciplined team.

Salas: That’s definitely something I think a lot about. The loss against UNLV taught them so much. Every team wants to be perfect, but when they lost coach Dutcher said they “felt human again” and remembered this is college basketball where games come down to the last second. I’m sure they didn’t hope to have that loss in the MW tournament either. I think if they did go on to play in the NCAA tournament, they would’ve remembered those losses and what they felt like. I do believe there are valuable lessons they took from those games that I personally think would have helped them out in March Madness.

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