Three observations: Men’s basketball gearing up for unconventional season

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Sam Mayo

Then-junior forward Matt Mitchell fires a shot over a Grand Canyon defender during the Aztecs’ 86-61 win over the Lopes on Nov. 13, 2019 at Viejas Arena.

by Kyle Betz, Sports Editor

Believe it or not, it’s been only about eight months since San Diego State men’s basketball’s 2019-20 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team had aspirations to make a run in the NCAA tournament until the entire sports world was put on pause.

With the pandemic only worsening as winter approaches, the beginning of this season will look much different from the last.

Instead of fans, cardboard cutouts will fill the empty seats of Viejas Arena as the Aztecs prepare for their season opener against UCLA on Nov. 25.

Head coach Brian Dutcher said not having a home crowd inside their arena will be a drastic change.

“We’ve won titles because we have the best crowd in the west, the Mountain West and maybe the country,” Dutcher said. “This is going to be a real challenge not having The Show, not having our Aztec fans in the building… It’ll be a big adjustment for us.”

The game against the Bruins will be the first of two multi-team event games the Aztecs will play to tip off their season.

Here are three observations entering the 2020-21 men’s basketball season.

1. Uncertainty with COVID-19

Winning 26-straight games, the Mountain West Conference regular season title and an NCAA tournament berth is clearly no easy task to accomplish.

Senior forward Matt Mitchell said he’s using last season’s sudden disruption as motivation entering 2020-21.

“I know it was our right to be (at the NCAA tournament) and we would’ve made a lot of noise,” Mitchell said. “But to a certain extent, also, you’ve got to let it go because it’s not the same team. So it’s kind of that looming factor of keeping that chip on your shoulder and knowing that you were there and having that determination to get back there.”

The journey to potentially claim another NCAA tournament starts with the team’s multi-team event Wednesday versus UCLA and Nov. 27 against UC Irvine. Although games are set on the schedule, nothing is guaranteed during a pandemic.

College football has already seen the effects of COVID-19 within programs across the country. Four games scheduled to be played this weekend, including SDSU football’s contest against Fresno State on Nov. 27, have already been canceled or postponed.

Dutcher said he is preparing for the worst in terms of getting through the season safely.

“I’m concerned with getting through the beginning, the middle and the end,” Dutcher said. “We’re all going to face a pause at some point, whether it’s our own program or someone we’re playing. And so we’ll remain flexible, try to live the right way we avoid it, but we all know the numbers are going up around the country.”

Turns out, the pandemic has already affected the men’s basketball program even before the season opener. The Aztecs’ series against Colorado State on Dec. 3 and Dec. 5 at Viejas Arena was postponed due to COVID-19 earlier this week.

At this point, the team is considering adding “a couple of non-Division I teams” to fill the remaining void, according to Dutcher.

Dutcher emphasized the importance of the team finding another program to play rather than having almost two weeks off.

“We want to keep our game timing up,” Dutcher said. “So maybe the opposition won’t be what we hope for, but I think game timing is everything, and to have a chance to just play game minutes is important.”

2. Dutcher to rely on transfers, depth

Despite losing three starters in Yanni Wetzell, KJ Feagin and Malachi Flynn, the Aztecs now have other options to support their starting five and bench.

Senior forward Joshua Tomaić, who transferred from Maryland during the offseason, adds a cushion at the forward spot following the departures of Wetzell, Nolan Narain and Joel Mensah.

Tomaić said he’s been studying film from practice and last season to see how his game fits in.

“That gives me a better feel, and with Yanni, I can kind of (better) understand the offense and the defensive schemes,” Tomaic said. “That allows me to kind of model my game after what the coaches are asking.”

Senior guard Terrell Gomez, a transfer from Cal State Northridge, is expected to start at point guard to replace Feagin. He averaged 19.8 points per game while shooting at a 43.9% clip.

Senior guard Jordan Schakel said newcomers like Tomaić and Gomez have the talent to contribute similarly to players like Wetzell and Flynn.

“We have a lot of guys this year that can do the same things and can have similar roles to what those guys did,” Schakel said. “I remember last year, nobody knew what to expect with the newcomers and this year is kind of the same thing. We’ve just got to make the best of it and have another special year.”

One piece of the Aztecs’ bench last season was guard Trey Pulliam. Pulliam came off the bench and averaged 17.5 minutes, 3.3 points and 1.9 rebounds and assists per game.

Now a senior, Pulliam is looking to take the next step after playing behind Feagin and Flynn last season.

“It’s kind of to an advantage, especially with the two guards I was playing behind, because I got to just sit back and watch it all happen,” Pulliam said. “I can step into the role, know what it takes and know what’s required of me.”

Depth will remain important to the Aztecs yet again this season.

Dutcher plans to use at least 10 total players Wednesday against UCLA. During the team’s preseason intrasquad scrimmage, Dutcher said the team’s depth stood out to him.

“We have so much depth,” Dutcher said. “There’s not a lot of separation between the first unit and the second unit and I hope that plays out during the season — that there’s not a lot of drop off when we go to the bench, that actually we may be better at times.”

3. Defense remains the team’s “trademark”

Through the years, defense is what’s always seemed to be SDSU’s reliable formula in late-game situations.

Dutcher said he wants defense to continue to elevate the Scarlet and Black on the court, even when shots aren’t falling.

“Hopefully it’s a defensive-minded team, and that’s what we’ve always preached here,” Dutcher said. “If we have an off-night shooting… the defense can carry the day. We’ve always been tough-minded defensively. I want to continue to be that, to have that be our trademark.”

One of the returning defensive pieces is junior Nathan Mensah. He’s cleared for full participation for Wednesday’s season opener after suffering from a respiratory issue earlier this year.

The 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward is now arguably the Aztecs’ best defender following the loss of Flynn, the 2019-20 MWC Defensive Player of the Year. In 13 starts last season, Mensah averaged 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per contest last season.

Mensah also offers himself as a rim-protector, averaging 1.1 and 1.7 blocks per game during his first two years on the Mesa, respectively.

“He’s a great defensive presence,” Pulliam said of Mensah’s return. “He’s a big body and we’re just glad to have him back.”

Junior Aguek Arop is another name that will be often called on by Dutcher. Often referred to as a ‘Swiss army knife,’ Arop’s physicality makes him stand out. The 6-foot-6 forward showed his durability after lining up at center throughout the Mountain West tournament in March.

Arop should look to have an expanded role in 2020-21 after putting up 3.1 points and 2.3 rebounds per game last season. In 22 games, Arop totaled eight steals and five blocks.

Dutcher said the team’s depth and defense could go hand-in-hand depending on game situations.

“I like the fact we’re deep, because I think we can survive foul trouble if it comes up,” Dutcher said. “(Junior guard) Adam Seiko’s an elite defender, (guard) Lamont (Butler) for a freshman is a very strong, tough defender. We’ve got good defenders coming off the bench, and those that are starting will be good defenders, so I like the defensive identity of this team.”

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