Column: One year later, it’s special for the Aztecs to be back

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Then-junior forward Matt Mitchell pulls up for a mid-range shot during the Aztecs’ 73-60 win over Air Force in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament on March 5, 2020 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

San Diego State men’s basketball is gearing up for the most pivotal moments of the season as it heads into the Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas this upcoming week. 

The Aztecs hope to be back playing in the conference championship game on Saturday, and winning the championship game should leave the Aztecs with a decently high-seeding on Selection Sunday the following day. 

The conference title game was the last game the Aztecs played before COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament in 2020. The Mountain West was one of the few conferences that was able to play through their entire conference tournament. 

Has it really been a year? 

The Aztecs played the conference tournament last season in front of thousands of fans at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the team will return this week to an empty stadium. 

The Aztecs’ 71-62 win over UNLV last week allowed them to clinch the outright regular season Mountain West Conference champions. This is the Aztecs’ eighth regular-season title and the first time in the school’s Division I era that the team has won consecutive outright regular-season conference championships. 

Head coach Brian Dutcher reflected on how special this moment is for his team given everything they’ve gone through during this unique season. 

“What this team accomplished this season was really special because of the circumstances we had to do it in,” Dutcher said. “I told them today, we started back in September or November, one coach in gloves and a mask, one basketball, one player and we couldn’t rebound the ball for the player.” 

There were many questions at the start of the school year on how basketball would be able to play at all. The Aztecs didn’t return to campus until the end of August, which was about two months later than usual. There was a two-week pause in early September because of a spike in campus COVID-19 cases, and the Aztecs weren’t able to participate in contact drills until October. 

“And to think a few months later, we’re celebrating a conference championship,” Dutcher said. “I couldn’t be more proud of a coaching staff and a team that we were able to accomplish our goal of winning a title under these circumstances and it’s a credit to everybody in our program.” 

As a player who’s had to live through the strict COVID-19 protocols, senior forward Matt Mitchell described getting to this point as pure relief.

“It’s a big feeling of relief I can say, and joy and happiness,” Mitchell said. “Being happy for my young guys that haven’t been here before, being happy for the older guys that haven’t been here before, like (senior guard) Terrell (Gomez), coming here wanting to win, the young guys coming here wanting to win wanting to be a part of something special. So I could just say that is a sigh of relief.” 

The Aztecs are heading into the conference tournament on an 11-game win streak. The Aztecs started out the season going 5-0 before dropping their first game to Brigham Young. The next few weeks were rocky with a loss to Colorado State and losing a series against Utah State. 

After losing to the Aggies in early January, the Aztecs came together as a team and started a new mindset of winning out the rest of the season. 

“We locked in as a team,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s all that it is. We locked into the things that are set in place for us as gameplans, the type of team we are getting out in transition, and really spread the ball around. Everybody gets love, everybody gets shots, everybody touches the ball, everybody gets a chance to be aggressive now I think that’s what makes it dangerous.” 

As the Aztecs played out the remainder of the season, they played with the expectation that they would win a conference title. Now, the team is beginning to prepare for tournament games with an even stronger mindset. 

“I think obviously, we wanted to and expected to win a conference title —  we’ve done that,” Dutcher said. “We want to win a conference tournament title so that’s the next task at hand. And then we want to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, so the most meaningful basketball is still ahead of us. That’s the most exciting thing about this season — that we have meaningful games to play together as a team.” 

These games during tournament season come down to what teams have the strongest mindsets and will to win. It comes down to experience, and not necessarily the experience of playing in the tournament before. All that matters is having the mindset like you’ve been there before. 

Out of the entire Aztecs roster, only two players have played in the NCAA Tournament before —  Mitchell and senior guard Jordan Schakel. 

Schakel knows his team has gained experience during these last few games of the regular season that were a must-win for the Aztecs. He says the focus should be on practice always being taken seriously. 

“I mean they got a taste of it as these last few games have been big games, but these younger guys and it just comes with experience,” Schakel said. “There’s not much you can tell except staying on them every day in practice making sure that they’re taking it seriously. These guys do a good job of that.” 

Schakel reflected on his first trip to the tournament and what the headspace was like. The biggest piece of advice for his teammates is to stay focused. 

“It just comes with experience,” Schakel said. “I wasn’t very poised my freshman year when it came to this time of the year —  it’s foreign territory. That’s why (Dutcher) likes to recruit a lot of older guys, and most of the time it’s older guys that win in March. That experience just pays off at this time of the year, so I think we just stay focused and keep doing what we do.” 

The Aztecs patiently await to hear seeding on Selection Sunday where they hope to be in a strong spot headed into the NCAA Tournament. 

One thing will be on the Aztecs’ mind: the hunger they have to continue what should have been done last year in the tournament. 

Schakel knows it’s a special opportunity to play for last year’s seniors who deserved to play in the tournament. 

“It’s nice after everything we’ve been through,” Schakel said. “It’s been a long, long journey. Hopefully, we make it to the tournament, and we’re gonna play for those guys that didn’t get the chance last year — (senior guard) KJ (Feagin), (senior forwards) Yanni (Wetzell) and Nolan (Narain). Really just play for those guys, because it would have been really special last year.” 

In a year where nothing is guaranteed, the Aztecs know how lucky they are to be back in this position. Their hard work has just begun.

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