San Diego State finds offense to go with its defense, blows out No. 20 Colorado State
SAN DIEGO — The denominator always stays the same: tough, gritty, switching, suffocating, stifling, nasty defense.
It's the numerator — offense — that is the variable in the San Diego State basketball equation. If the Aztecs can't score, they hang in games with their defense.
And if they can?
They blow out No. 20 Colorado State and hand the Rams their first loss of the season before a national television audience on CBS despite missing a starter and a key backup.
The final score Saturday afternoon at Viejas Arena was 79-49, and the exclamation points came with back-to-back uncontested dunks and a 3 by Chad Baker-Mazara. But this game was won in the opening eight minutes of the second half, when the Aztecs — yes, the 2021-22 Aztecs — made seven of their first eight shots to build a 15-point lead that ultimately grew to 30.
Of course, the Aztecs (10-3, 2-0 Mountain West) have history with Colorado State and big leads. Almost exactly a year ago on this same floor, although without any fans, they led by 26 and lost, 70-67.
They have played 16 games in Viejas Arena since.
They have won all 16.
The timing of this game wasn't ideal, CSU serving as a late replacement for Nevada after the Wolf Pack went on COVID-19 pause. Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher admitted he would have preferred to make up Wednesday's missed home game against Fresno State instead of moving up the March 1 home meeting with the Rams — and doing it without Adam Seiko or Joshua Tomaic, both under COVID-19 protocols.
Including redshirts, walk-ons, managers and staff, sources said the total number of COVID-19 cases is approaching 10, and when Dutcher went to empty his bench he had only two walk-ons left. On Friday, they were down to seven healthy scholarship players at practice and a patched-together scout team.
But Dutcher got two players back, rolled the dice by playing through early foul trouble and wore down the Rams with a defense ranked ninth nationally in the Kenpom metric and playing like it's No. 1.
It was just a question of whether they'd be able to score.
They didn't make a basket for the first seven-plus minutes, missing their first six attempts, but finally found some offensive rhythm late in the first half and really got rolling at the start of the second.
Or, more specifically, Matt Bradley did. The Cal transfer has had some big first halves, but regularly disappeared early in the second. Not Saturday. He made a pair of quick 3s, then a step-back, then a fallaway, giving him 24 points through the game's first 27 minutes.
The Rams countered by going small, with 6-foot-6 David Roddy and four guards. The Aztecs countered by going big, with three posts, and pounded the ball inside to deter any designs on a comeback by a Rams team that three times this season had erased double-digit deficits en route to an 11-0 record.
The crazy part: Trey Pulliam and Nathan Mensah combined for … two points.
But Bradley compensated with 26 points, and Baker-Mazara finished with a season-high 14 in 21 minutes off the bench. Playing his first game since Nov. 30, Lamont Butler had 11. Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop, both with 10, gave the Aztecs five players in double figures.
After shooting 40.7% in the first half, just under their season average, the Aztecs erupted for arguably their best half of the season — shooting 54.8%, making 5 of 10 behind the arc and outscoring the shell-shocked Rams 43-17.
Colorado State's two preseason all-conference players, Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, combined for 36 of the Rams' 49 points. But CSU shot 27.9% and finished 32 points under its season average.
The game matched the Mountain West's best offense against its best defense, which meant at its essence it was a battle of tempo. Speed it up versus grind it out.
In the first half, at least, the Aztecs won. They got back in transition, got their feet set and forced the Rams to slog their way through half-court offense.
The visitors didn't score a basket inside the 3-point arc for 11 minutes and finished the half with a mere seven baskets. They would have trailed by more than 36-32 had they not got to the line 17 times and made 15.
The Aztecs had their own struggles on offense, but then figured they'd just give the ball to Bradley and get out of the way. Bradley had 14 points by intermission with a variety of Rams covering him, many on iso sets that gave him freedom to operate.
SDSU entered the day ranked 292nd in Division I in two-foul participation, which is another way of saying if you get two fouls in the first half under Dutcher, you're probably not playing the rest of it.
But with a depleted roster and whistle-happy officials, he didn't have much choice. Five players got two fouls, and four of them returned to the game (only Mensah did not). Other than backup center Tahirou Diabate, none picked up a third before the end of the half.
No one fouled out, and the Aztecs finished with a 34-14 edge in points in the paint and 30-11 in bench scoring.