Column: Can Aztecs lock up a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament?

Junior+guard+Malachi+Flynn+dribbles+past+Utah+State+sophomore+center+Neemias+Queta+during+the+Aztecs%E2%80%99+59-56+loss+against+Utah+State+at+Thomas+and+Mack+Center+on+March+7.

Kareem Jones

Junior guard Malachi Flynn dribbles past Utah State sophomore center Neemias Queta during the Aztecs’ 59-56 loss against Utah State at Thomas and Mack Center on March 7.

by Michael Cline, Assistant News Editor

Fans were still exiting the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas after Saturday’s Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament final when bracketologists began to calculate the implications of San Diego State’s defeat to Utah State.

A consensus among experts quickly developed.

Dayton, for the time being, would unseat SDSU (30-2, 17-1 MWC) as the final 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, moving the Aztecs from the top of the East Region to the second seed in the West.

And although SDSU no longer controls its own destiny ahead of Selection Sunday, the loss in the tournament final still has the team in position to match its best seeding in program history.

Others argue the Aztecs have the résumé to be a top seed.

“I want to be a 1 seed in the west, so we’ll see what happens,” Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher said Saturday after the loss. “I think we’re good enough.”

But can the Aztecs convince the committee they deserve a top seed over programs like Gonzaga and Dayton?

SDSU boasts a strong résumé, with wins away from Viejas Arena against four tournament teams: BYU, Creighton, Iowa and Utah State. Aside from losses by a combined six points to UNLV and Utah State, the Aztecs would have a perfect record through 32 games.

The Aztecs now find themselves fourth in the NCAA’s NET rankings — a key factor in how tournament teams are seeded.

But SDSU has company in the West Region.

Gonzaga (31-2, 15-1 West Coast Conference), a powerhouse in the WCC, is ranked third in the NET. The Bulldogs were so dominant against conference opponents that they had a bye heading into the semifinals of the WCC tournament, where they narrowly defeated San Francisco by an 81-77 margin.

Gonzaga is led by WCC Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist Filip Petrusev, a 6-foot-11 forward who averages 17.5 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game. Due to his efficiency on the floor, Petrusev is a finalist for three other national awards. 

And in addition to Petrusev, Gonzaga has two 3-ball threats in forwards Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert, with another in guard Ryan Woolridge.

The trio has the capacity to dramatically change any game with one shot.

In part due to its dynamic offense, Gonzaga has, once again, made a strong case for a top seed in the tournament, and the team presents as the largest hurdle in SDSU’s bid for a 1 seed in the West Region.

Gonzaga lost just two games this season — once on a neutral floor in the Bahamas against Michigan and the other on the road against BYU.

But with their win against Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament final, Gonzaga is assured a 1 seed in the West Region.

So if the Aztecs want a top seed, they’ll need to shift their focus to the East Region.

Dayton (29-2, 18-0 Atlantic 10) has been perfect in conference play. An undefeated record against A10 competition has launched the Flyers into the national conversation by being ranked second in the NET, two spots ahead of the Aztecs.

Dayton still has three games left to survive against A10 competition in the conference tournament to lock down the top seed in the East.  

Perhaps the only big man that can match Gonzaga’s Petrusev is Dayton’s Obi Toppin, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward who averages 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. His electric dunks and shot-blocking have earned him SportsCenter Top 10 honors and national acclaim.

Toppin could use a deep run in the tournament to showcase his talents and make a case for numerous national individual honors.

But unlike the Aztecs, the Flyers have just one standout, signature victory: a 10-point win against Saint Mary’s on a neutral court.

Dayton does have wins against conference rivals Richmond, Rhode Island and Saint Louis. But unless a team other than the Flyers wins the conference tournament, Dayton appears to be the only A10 program that will play in the NCAA Tournament.

And if the Flyers do lose in the A10 tournament, the case for Dayton over SDSU as the final 1 seed will evaporate.

As for the Aztecs, Dutcher isn’t worried about the résumés of any other program. 

“I think at the end of the year, we’ll have the best record in the country,” Dutcher said. “I don’t think anyone can pass it. No one is going to have fewer than two losses.”

For now, the Aztecs appear destined to be the second highest ranked team in the West, meaning the team will play opening round games in Sacramento. If the Aztecs win there, they’ll punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

The venue?

Staples Center in Los Angeles. 

Michael Cline is a second-year grad student studying Rhetoric and Writing Studies. Follow him on Twitter @michcline.

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