The San Diego State Aztecs have flown onto the radar, joining Auburn as one of two remaining undefeated teams in college basketball. The Aztecs are 15-0, and 14-0 against Division I competition. The seventh-ranked team in the AP Poll is also ranked first in the NCAA NET ratings. While many may dismiss San Diego State due to their conference affiliation, the Aztecs have a realistic chance to finish the regular season undefeated.
San Diego State Can Finish Undefeated
While many people focus on NET and the polls, there are other metrics used to determine the strength of a team. San Diego State has a strong showing in many of those as well. The Aztecs are ranked first in strength of record. They are also ranked 15th by KenPom.
Furthermore, San Diego State is 5-0 in their quadrant one games this season, with all occurring away from home. Those wins are against Creighton, Iowa, BYU, Utah and Utah State, all potential tournament teams. They are just the fourth team in 24 seasons to defeat BYU, Utah and Utah State. However, they were the first to do it with all the games occurring away from home.
As good as 15-0 sounds, it’s not the best start in school history. The 2010-11 version of the Aztecs started the season 20-0. That team was led by current Los Angeles Clipper Kawhi Leonard. That team finished 34-3, easily the best season any Aztec team has had. That’s a pretty good measuring stick to use and this year’s edition of San Diego State basketball has a lot of similarities to Leonard’s college squad.
The 2010-11 team played fantastic hard-nosed defense under Steve Fisher. That team gave up just under 60 points per game, good enough for a top 15 finish among all teams. Current head coach Brian Dutcher was an assistant on that team, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that defense is the calling card this season. This year’s team is giving up just 56.8 points per game, fifth-best in the nation. They are also holding opponents to 36.5 percent shooting, including just 26.5 percent from the three-point line. Extrapolate to 100 possessions and San Diego State would only be giving up 83.5 points.
Not only does San Diego State keep teams from beating them from behind the arc, but they also force you to take tough shots inside of it too. Every shot is contested, and they make teams exhaust the shot clock. An opponent’s average possession is 18.2 seconds. You could almost think of them as the West Coast version of Virginia. You have a better chance of outscoring your opponent if you keep them from scoring. This Aztecs team is great at that.
Just like the 2010-11 team, this unit has four players averaging double-figure scoring. Junior guard Malachi Flynn is the unquestioned leader of the Aztecs. The Washington State transfer is picking up where he left off after sitting out last season. Flynn averaged 15.8 points per game in his last season as a Cougar and is currently averaging 15.9 this year. Flynn also dishes out five assists per game and shoots 43 percent from behind the arc.
Yanni Wetzell and Nathan Mensah provide the post presence for the Aztecs. Wetzell, a native New Zealander, and Vanderbilt transfer, is averaging 10.7 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game. Mensah, a native of Ghana, averages 6.9 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. Matt Mitchell is the sixth man off the bench, rotating in with Wetzell and Mensah. He’s been starting in place of Mensah while he battles an injury. The first man off the bench for Dutcher is their second-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game.
Jordan Schakel starts opposite of Flynn at the guard spot. He’s averaging 10.2 points per game, but he can also be San Diego State’s lethal weapon. Schakel shoots 45.7 percent from long-range and 85 percent from the free-throw line, with both leading the team. If teams look to double Flynn in key situations, Schakel is there to pick up the slack.
Outside of these key contributors, San Diego State has four other players who have played in at least ten games. That kind of depth can travel anywhere, especially in March.
According to KenPom, the two toughest remaining games on the Aztecs’ schedule are road contests at Nevada and New Mexico. They’re given a 66 percent chance to win in Reno and a 69 percent chance in Las Cruces. Many believe that San Diego State just played its toughest remaining game, coming out victorious on the road against Utah State. They still have to face the Aggies at home, and they were the conference preseason favorites for a reason. On top of that, the Mountain West is always a tough conference. San Diego State’s remaining conference schedule will test how they can handle the pressure of having the target on their back.
The last mid-major team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated was the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers. The last team to run the table and win a national championship was Bob Knight’s 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. It’s a difficult task to play at a high level consistently for 30 or more games. However, with half of its regular season already over, San Diego State has the makings of the next team that can end with a zero in the loss column.
Should this team make a deep run and come up short, Aztec fans should feel good in knowing that there are only three seniors on this team. Assuming everyone returns, this will be a scary team next season too.
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