The Aztecs will build around their defense in the ’22 season. This isn’t a surprise, it’s the same thing they do every season. Depending on who the Aztecs are able to bring in over the offseason, it will be really important to have a good defense. As the roster currently stands, there aren’t any super great offensive players. There are a number of good defenders though. Lamont Butler showed a lot of defensive promise during his freshman season. Adam Seiko has been one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference for 2 years in a row. Aguek Arop is a swiss army knife defensively and can guard just about anyone decently. Keshad Johnson improved greatly on the defensive end over his sophomore season, and made a number of highlight reel blocks as a weakside defender.
Defense starts at the rim though. It is the first priority for every coach when scheming out their defense. That is why the best defenses in basketball always feature a dominant big man on the inside. The Aztecs have a long list of defensive anchors over the last 20 years. Most recently, Malcolm Thomas anchored a defense that was second in the nation (according to KenPom), on a team that went to the sweet 16. Similarly, Skylar Spencer anchored the Aztecs offense for the better part of four years, and they never finished lower than 13th in the nation defensively (also according to KenPom) with Spencer on the roster, the highlight being the teams’ other sweet 16 in 2014.
Is Nathan Mensah that level of defensive anchor? Lets take a look at the numbers.
First off, team success. Nathan Mensah just finished a season where he was the defensive anchor for a team that finished 20th in the nation defensively. That’s really good. Not quite Skylar Spencer level, but really good. He missed most of the ’20 season with a pulmonary embolism. That team finished the season ranked 10th in the nation defensively, and the defense got worse once he left. With him on the team they likely finish higher than 10th. When a top 10 defense gets even better with a certain player, that player is elite.
Judging a player by team success can be tricky though, because how much of the success is attributed to the player vs their teammates? It’s a tough question. One that individual accomplishments and numbers can help answer.
Nathan Mensah had a block percentage of 9.3% last season. That means he blocked almost 1 in 10 2 point shots the opposing team took. That number was good for 30th in the nation, better that 99% of division 1 basketball players. That is absolutely elite. Defense is about more than blocking shots though, it’s about preventing points, and there are many ways to do that. Blocking shots is one of them. Altering shots is another, deterring shots altogether works, as does forcing a turnover before the team can even attempt a shot. Most of these factors aren’t measured directly, but there are a couple numbers we can use.
PIPM measures a player’s impact while on the floor. It also has a defense specific component that can be used to compare which players are the most impactful defensively. Mensah had a score of 5.82, meaning the defense was 5.82 points better per 100 possessions while he was on the floor. It was the second best mark in the conference last season (behind defensive player of the year Neemias Queta.) What’s more impressive is that dating back to the 2009-10 season, it is the 18th best mark of any player season in the conference. That is once again in the 99th percentile as there are 1639 player seasons counted in that time frame.
One last stat to consider is POE, or Points over Expectation. This stat accounts for the amount of points a player scored and prevented compared to what an average player would’ve done given the same number and type of shots. Once again, we’ll look specifically at the defensive component. In 75 career games (about two and a half seasons) Mensah ranks 5th in the conference among all player careers dating back through the 2010-11 season.* Think about it for a second. In essentially two and a half seasons, Mensah has prevented more points over the course of his career than all but four other players in the conference over the last decade. You’re looking at an elite defender. An average defender would’ve allowed 88 more points over those 75 games. The record in the conference during that time frame belongs to Xavier Thames, who prevented 105 points over the course of 97 games with the Aztecs. Mensah is currently on pace to break that record during his senior season.
What does all this mean? It means Mensah prevents opponents from scoring, his presence helps teammates prevent opponents from scoring, and it results in great team defense that helps the team win games. What more could you want from a defensive anchor? Is Nathan Mensah the best defensive big man to ever play for the Aztecs? That remains to be seen. He has one more season to determine that. The defense is in good hands with him on the back end protecting the rim though. As long as Nathan is playing opposing teams will have trouble scoring points, and that’s how the Aztecs have always won.