Men’s basketball looks to remain at the peak of the Mountain West

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Jason Freund

Trey Pulliam (4) pulls up for a shot against Colorado State while Adam Seiko (2) watches on.

by Jason Freund, Sports Editor

Last year could’ve been seen as either a success or a disappointment for the San Diego State men’s basketball team.

A 23-5 record. First place in the Mountain West Conference. Ranked as high as No. 16 in the AP Top 25. Winners of the Mountain West Tournament and granted a six seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The same SDSU squad only lasted one game in the NCAA Tournament, getting thoroughly beaten 78-62 by the Syracuse Orange in the first round.

But, it is a new season filled with new expectations.

There were losses in the offseason, but there were plenty of additions to strengthen the team.

With a blend of old faces and fresh blood, the Aztecs are once again looking to remain at the peak of their conference.

However, the Aztecs will regain the top weapon that was taken from them last season.

No, it’s not a new player coming off the bench. It isn’t an old scheme that head coach Brian Dutcher can properly utilize.

It is the crowd.

Gone are the cardboard cutouts of last year and in is a rabid fanbase led by one of — if not the most — passionate student sections who will watch each game with great interest: The Show.

With their season opener against UC Riverside coming up on Nov. 9, here are three plot points for the upcoming season.

Replacing lost production

Believe it or not, nearly 50% of SDSU’s offense is no longer with the team.

Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez have all graduated onto the greener pastures of professional basketball.

Last season, SDSU scored 2062 total points. The trio of Mitchell, Gomez and Schakel combined for a total of 1028 points on 44.6% field goal shooting.

Even with those three gone, Dutcher has a plethora of options to fill the void. 

Seniors Trey Pulliam and Joshua Tomaić are back thanks due to an extra year of eligibility granted to all athletes by the NCAA.

Seniors Adam Seiko and Nathan Mensah both enter their senior season after averaging 4.2 and 8.1 points per game, respectively, while sophomore Lamont Butler has nowhere to go but up after a promising freshman season.

All of the above players bring different scoring capabilities to the team with one exception: three-point shooting.

Last season, Schakel was the main shooter behind the arc, shooting 46.1% from the three-point line. That is six points higher than the second-highest three-point shooter Gomez, who posted a 40.2 three-point percentage.

Enter senior transfer Matt Bradley and sophomore transfer Chad baker-Mazara.

From Cal comes Bradley, who averaged 18 points per game and connected on 38.1% of his shots from three-point land. He also notched the second-most 20-point performances in the Pac-12 Conference with 11, while finishing in double figures in 21 of his 22 appearances.

Baker-Mazara, meanwhile, set the freshman record for three-pointers at Duquesne University with a sterling 41.7%. One of his best performances came against Fordham University, where 21 of the 23 points he scored came from beyond the arc.

Pulliam, who has spent time in practice going one-on-one with Bradley, likes what he sees so far in the Cal transfer.

“He’s a guy that can help bring up that scoring that we are losing,” Pulliam said. “He’s just a guy that can come in and we can rely on.”

Plenty of depth, but who gets the starting nod?

So Dutcher has options, which is always a good thing in a team sport such as basketball.

But here’s the thing — there can only be five players on the court at a time. Someone will have to come off the bench. 

For now, the starting five has been revealed as Pulliam, Bradley, Mensah, Butler and sophomore Keshod Johnson will take the court to start the season against St. Katherines.

However, they are just the starters for the first game. Dutcher has been tweaking around the final two starters during practice and can change his mind at any time.

If those two spots were to change for any reason, plenty of Aztecs can step in and compete. Any combination of Seiko, Baker-Mazara or Butler can fit into the lineup to add versatility and offensive opportunities.

SDSU could also go with an extra big man and slot one of Tomaić and senior transfer Tahirou Diabate Tomaić served as Mensah’s primary backup last season but — after averaging 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in just 15.7 minutes per game — he may have earned him a starting role in 2021.

It is a good problem to have and one that can be tinkered with. Perhaps the Aztecs choose to load up on the defensive side of the ball and stack Seiko with Tomaić to create an imposing wall.

Maybe the Aztecs want to come out of the gate with guns blazing by placing Baker-Mazara on the wing with Butler serving as a guard.

With so many options, the Aztecs can essentially run two lineups off the bench while keeping each player rested for the next rotation.

A good defense is a good offense

Ever since Steve Fisher served as the SDSU’s head coach, the Aztecs have been known for their defense.

Last season, they finished the season with the 21st ranked defense according to KenPom. This year, KenPom places the Aztecs as the 10th best defensive team in the nation.

They were certainly one of the best in their conference. Last season, the Aztecs were at the top of the MWC in both average points against (61.2) and steals (8.18). SDSU also placed within the top five in both offensive (279) and defensive (724) rebounds.

Mensah was the overall leader in terms of rebounds with 170. He led the team in offensive rebounds with 56 while his 114 defensive rebounds were two less than Mitchell.

“To be a great defensive player comes from your teammates. With the frontcourt defensively, a big man struggles a lot with all the foul troubles you get when you drive to the paint,” Mensah said on his defense. “All credit goes to my teammates.”

Staff writer Austin Tarke contributed to this column