Column: Who could start for the Aztecs in 2020-21?


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Then-junior forward Matt Mitchell attempts a jump shot over a Colorado State defender during the Aztecs’ 66-60 win over the Rams on Feb. 25 at Viejas Arena.

by Jason Freund, Staff Writer

The deed of replacing three starters from arguably the greatest team to don a San Diego State men’s basketball jersey is an unenviable one.

For head coach Brian Dutcher, such a task has been given to him after the graduation of three seniors, Malachi Flynn’s departure to the NBA and Joel Mensah’s transfer to James Madison.

What makes Dutcher’s task easier is the 14 players that make up his squad, with eight returning from the 2019-2020 squad.

Nobody knows who will be on the court for the first tip-off of the 2020-2021 season. In the coming months, a breakout star can emerge during practice, injuries might happen, or the season might be canceled entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it can be assumed that Dutcher will stick with the same formula that worked so well in the 2019-2020 season: two forwards to defend the post with three guards shooting from beyond the arc.

Here is what the starting lineup could look like this upcoming season.

PG/SG: Terrell Gomez (Graduate Transfer)

At 5-foot-8, the graduate transfer from Cal State Northridge is certainly not the tallest player on the team. What he lacks in size, however, he makes up for in sheer skill.

Gomez currently holds the CSUN record for 3-pointers made with 293. Last season, he averaged 19.8 points on 43.9% field-goal shooting and shot 44% from beyond the arc.

Now, compare those numbers to Flynn. Flynn averaged 17.6 points on 44.1% field goal shooting and made 37.1% of his 3-pointers. In terms of time spent on the hardwood, Gomez played for 37.1 minutes while Flynn posted an average of 33.4.

While Gomez may not post the same amount of assists and rebounds as Flynn, he won’t have to with the team he is surrounded by — meaning he can focus more on his scoring ability.

With the numbers Gomez posted at CSUN and his desire to win, expect his name to be slotted into the starting five.

PG/SG: Trey Pulliam (Senior)

Last season, Pulliam was normally the first guard to come off the bench.

With Feagin and Flynn out of the equation, now is his chance to entrench himself in a starting role.

Pulliam will never be the player who dominates the box score, evidenced by his 3.3 points per game and 33.3% 3-point shooting.

It’s what he does off the scoring books that makes him a valuable weapon.

By spreading the ball around the court, the offense can run through Pulliam through his selfless demeanor.

His 1.9 assists per game ranked third-best on the team, right behind Feagin’s 3.0 assists and Flynn’s 5.1 assists. His 60 total assists ranked third on the team as well.

This doesn’t mean opposing teams can leave him unchecked. Pulliam went 6-for-6 from the field with a season-high 18 points against UNLV on Jan. 26. That performance was integral for the Aztecs to escape the Thomas and Mack Center with a victory to remain undefeated at 21-0.

The top shooters on the team will need space to get open looks. Through Pulliam’s passing ability, they will have the opportunity to do so.

SG/SF: Jordan Schakel (Senior)

An integral part of last season’s team, Schakel is in his final season and is all but guaranteed a starting role.

The 6-foot-6 guard had some memorable moments last year. Schakel posted 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting against Iowa, and it was his 19 points and five 3-pointers that spurred the Aztecs to a road victory over BYU.

While he only averaged 10 points a game, he did so shooting 45.3% from the field and his 43.6% from 3-point range led the team.

There was also nobody more reliable from the free-throw line than Schakel, as he led the team by shooting 92.7%.

SF/PF: Matt Mitchell (Senior)

While he has declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft, Mitchell did so without hiring an agent to represent him.

Mitchell is a talented basketball player with enough skill to play in the NBA, but it is unlikely he will hear his name called in the 2020 NBA Draft.

What Mitchell will hear, however, is advice from NBA scouts and coaches on how to improve his game and take that next step in his career.

Mitchell began the season as the sixth man off the bench but stepped into the starting rotation after Mensah’s health issues ensued.

Mitchell proceeded to set career highs in field-goal percentage (46.8%), 3-point shooting (39.3%), free throw percentage (87.5%), rebounds (4.8) and points per game (12.8).

Whenever the Aztecs were in a hole, the 6-foot-6 wing stepped up to lead his squad to victory.

With Kawhi Leonard in the building, Mitchell put up 24 points in the second half of a Feb. 1 game against Utah State to put away the pesky Aggies.

He also went viral after his explosive dunk against New Mexico, a game that also saw him post a double-double after scoring 22 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

If Mitchell does return for a senior season, there is little doubt he will return as a starter.

C: Nathan Mensah (Junior)

A premier defender, the 6-foot-10 Mensah adds size and strength to an already strong defensive team.

Before his season was cut short due to a respiratory issue, Mensah averaged 1.7 blocks per game to go along with 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds.

Statistically, the Aztecs were a better defensive team with Mensah in the lineup.

In the 13 games he played in, the Aztecs allowed an average of 56.3 points per game. Post-injury, the Aztecs allowed an average of 61.63 points per game.

What’s holding Mensah back is his health. If he reports to practice with a clean bill of health, he is a starter. However, Maryland transfer Joshua Tomaic can fill the position if Mensah cannot return to the court.