Fall Camp update: Aztecs play five-on-five, non-conference schedule and status of Mensah

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Then-sophomore forward Nathan Mensah attempts a one-handed shot over a Tennessee State defender during the Aztecs’ 62-49 win over the Tigers on Nov. 25, 2019 at Viejas Arena.

by Kyle Betz, Sports Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst that cut San Diego State men’s basketball’s season short in March, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to health and safety concerns.

Seven months later, the Aztecs are trying to start a new season amidst the pandemic.

On Oct. 9, the NCAA announced men’s and women’s basketball would begin Nov. 25 and include an 18-game Mountain West Conference schedule. Although the Aztecs are still waiting to finalize the non-conference portion of that schedule, the team returned to full practice for the first time in about seven months Monday.

Here’s what the team is up to in Fall Camp.

1. Aztecs back at full speed

The men’s basketball team has been on campus and practicing since the summer but in limited capacities due to safety protocols.

On Oct. 19, however, the team played in full-contact, five-on-five competition for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Head coach Brian Dutcher said he liked what he saw from the team considering the lack of full-speed practice the team has had together this offseason.

“It felt like basketball yesterday because it was five-on-five,” Dutcher said. “Obviously, we’re a long ways away from being where we want to be as a team, but I like the enthusiasm, I like the talent and hopefully we are on the right track to be able to play basketball here at the end of November.”

Aztec fans were even able to see a play from the practice showing an alley-oop from freshman Keith Dinwiddie Jr. to sophomore forward Keshad Johnson.

“I liked the way they played unselfishly,” Dutcher said of the five-on-five practice. “As we start to play more five-on-five we’ll be able to piece a starting lineup together.”

The Aztecs had two graduate transfers — guard KJ Feagin and forward Yanni Wetzell — depart from the team last season, but two others could step in to fill the void.

One of those players is senior guard Terrell Gomez, a fifth-year senior transferring from Cal State Northridge.

Dutcher said he thinks Gomez, who averaged 19.8 points per game last season, disregarded field goal opportunities during the five-on-five to rather create plays for his teammates.

“I think he’s turning down some shots that he normally would have taken at Northridge just because he wants to fit in,” Dutcher said. “I think as he gets more comfortable, he’ll let the ball go more and shoot the three that we all know he can do.”

Senior forward Joshua Tomiać (Maryland transfer) is the other fifth-year senior. Dutcher said his experience — similar to the role Wetzell had last season — will be key at his position.

“(Tomiać) is trying to get a rhythm. The hardest position on the floor is being that pulse player, that five man, especially at the defensive end where you’ve got to help on everything,” Dutcher said. “Josh is doing a good job showing me that the experience he’s gained over his college career is gonna pay dividends for us at both ends of the floor.”

Dutcher said translating individual work into a team setting is important when preparing for a new season.

“We’ll continue to work five-o, we’ll work shooting, where it’s just a coach and a rebounder and a player,” Dutcher said. “We just build the team so we don’t play all five-on-five, but it’s nice to have stretches where we can start taking all this individual work we’ve done, all this small group breaking down, and then putting it together into a five-on-five setting.”

2. Trying to piece the non-conference schedule

SDSU’s in-conference schedule begins Dec. 29 against New Mexico at Viejas Arena, meaning the window for non-conference games stretches from Nov. 25 to Dec. 28.

One of Dutcher’s biggest concerns regarding the non-conference schedule was assembling the Aztecs’ multi-team event at the beginning of each college basketball season. Last season, SDSU competed in the Las Vegas Invitational, where it defeated Creighton and Iowa, respectively, en route to hoisting the tournament trophy on Nov. 29, 2019.

To start this season, Dutcher said it appears the team will be featured in an exempt event in Orlando.

So far, Dutcher said he’s received commitments to play teams, but not set dates.

“I don’t want to release who we’re playing yet — that’s still a work in progress as teams still continue to decide if they’re going or not,” Dutcher said. “When we get the teams I think we’re going to get, it will be a great way to start the season.”

Dutcher did, however, reveal that the Aztecs are slated to play a Pac-12 team and two West Coast Conference teams.

“We’re playing less games, so I thought it was important we played as many Quad 1 and Quad 2 games as we possibly could to put ourselves in a position to be in an at-large conversation at the end of the year if we don’t win the conference tournament,” Dutcher said. “I think our schedule is going to be challenging and it’s going to be here in a hurry, so we have work to do.”

3. Status of Nathan Mensah 

Junior forward Nathan Mensah has been cleared to resume basketball activities after suffering from a respiratory illness last season. His last appearance was Dec. 28, 2019 in a 73-57 win over Cal Poly.

Dutcher said Mensah participated in the team’s five-on-five Monday.

“You’d think he hasn’t played live action since I’m not sure when he went out, December of last year.” Dutcher said. “So it’s good to have Nathan out there competing at a high level and he’s a difference maker.

The absence of the 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward during the second half of last season proved notable as the Aztecs ventured towards a smaller starting lineup. The Aztecs finished seventh in conference play in offensive rebounds.

Despite his injuries, Dutcher said Mensah adds an extra presence underneath the net when healthy and expects him to have a strong season.

“Obviously, Nathan’s had injuries in all his years at San Diego State, whether it was the broken thumb or finger that he had to deal with, then last year with the respiratory issue,” Dutcher said. “It’s good having Nathan back out there and he has a presence on the floor and will make a huge difference for us this year.”

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