The beginning of each season is an exciting time. Hopes run high as fans expect the world of the new team. The shiny new toys have arrived and we hear all sorts of good things coming out of off season workouts.
It is important to try to temper those expectations, and so before each season I try to find reasons why the team won’t live up to the expectations given to them. Last season all three of the concerns I pointed out in the preseason showed up in the march madness game against Syracuse in one way or another (Lack of playmaking, lack of big men/size, perimeter defense issues).
I also want to look at the reasons the team will surpass some expectations. There are some legitimate reasons to get excited, and so let’s dive into them. First though, let’s start by checking our optimism bias.
Reasons SDSU won’t live up to expectations:
Lack of established perimeter shooting – Last years team had shooting at almost every position. It even boasted two of the nations top shooters in Terrell Gomez and Jordan Schakel. This years team doesn’t have the same amount of long range firepower. The best shooter is Chad Baker, who shot almost 42% on four attempts per game last season as a freshman. He only took 60 shots total though, so it’s a small sample size, and being new his ability to learn the defense may limit his playing time.
Matt Bradley also has some shooting ability, and comes in as a career 40% 3-point shooter. His percentage from deep has dropped every season he’s played though, from 47% as a freshman to 36% last season. If that trend continues he may not be a reliable shooter from deep.
Even if he bucks that trend, there isn’t much besides those two players. Adam Seiko started off last season hot, but couldn’t buy a basket when the season mattered most (41% from deep in the first 17 games, 18% in the last 10). He’s been playing very well for the Ugandan national team though, so hopefully he can stay consistent with his shot this season. Keith Dinwiddie is a shooter, but has been inefficient in Swish league play and may be buried on the depth chart anyway.
Outside of those four, no one has shown the ability to shoot consistently at the Division 1 level. There is hope that guys like Lamont Butler and Keshad Johnson can add some range, but there are no guarantees. There is a chance that this team finds itself lacking spacing, and that would really hold the team back offensively.
Lack of true wings – This team may have some trouble on the wing, specifically the small forward position. Ideally a small forward can handle the ball, attack the rim, shoot, and defend at a high level. The Aztecs have a number of candidates, but they all seem to have a deficiency in a key area.
The most obvious solution would be Matt Bradley. He is used to having the ball in his hands, he can attack the rim and draw fouls, he’s a good shooter. His defense may need some work but should be serviceable at the least. The issue with playing Bradley as a small forward is that it takes him out of his more natural shooting guard spot. At 6’4, 220 Bradley is big enough to play up a position, but it would negate some of his strengths. For example, look at Colorado State. Their starting small forward will either be 6’5, 250 lbs, or 6’6, 210 lbs, depending on how you look at their roster. Their starting shooting guard will be 5’10, 150 lbs. Bradley will be able to bully the smaller defender, whereas the larger defenders would make him spend much more energy on both ends of the floor. If you think of it in terms of 2K ratings, Bradley would be an 80 at small forward, but a 90 as a shooting guard. So it would work, but hopefully another player can step up and start at small forward.
Chad Baker is the other transfer who will be vying for the starting small forward spot. Baker shot the lights out last season, and generally is a good offensive player. His defense at Duquesne looked a little shaky on tape. He let guys blow by him a few times. If he can improve defensively then there’s no reason to not start him at small forward, but that’s a big if. If he can’t keep up on the perimeter he’ll have to slot in as a stretch 4.
There are also two returning players who will try to fill the hole on the wing.
The first is Keshad Johnson. Johnson has spent the last few years as a power forward, but that hasn’t been due to a lack of athleticism. He is the most athletic player on the team, and the coaches have said he’s the most athletic player is SDSU history. He stands at 6’7″, 210 lbs, and so he has elite size for a college small forward. The issue has been his lack of perimeter skills. He hasn’t been the best ball handler or shooter during his time as an Aztec. Should he improve his offense he’ll see a large increase in minutes as the coaches will be able to play him at multiple positions. For what it’s worth, Keshad has looked much improved at swish league this summer. That is by no means definitive though, and he’ll need to continue to improve to earn the starting spot.
The last option is Che Evans, who reportedly has been looking real good in practices. Moving from last guy off the bench to starter in one offseason would be a major leap though, so it’s hard to believe it as a real possibility. Still, even if he only improves to rotation quality, it will add depth to the wing rotation.
Time will tell what the coaches decide to do at the wing. If no one steps up it could cripple the team and cost a couple of wins.
Politics – Historically, Brian Dutcher prefers to use a 9 man rotation. Doing so allows the best players to play the most minutes, and allows everyone who plays enough time to get into a game rhythm. For the second year in a row, this team looks deep enough to use a 10 man rotation. That should help make more players happy. However, this team has more than 5 players who have been starters before. Trey Pulliam, Matt Bradley, Nathan Mensah, Tahirou Diabate, and Chad Baker were all starters in their last seasons. Throw in Aguek Arop and Adam Seiko, who started in spurts for the Aztecs last season, and even Lamont Butler started a couple of games. They can’t all start the game. Will that cause tension in the locker room? There’s no way to know for sure.
To their credit, the coaching staff does their homework on players. They likely wouldn’t pursue someone if they thought the player would cause issues in the locker room over starting spots. No one is perfect though, and the coaches have missed before (Montague Gill-Caesar anyone?).
This isn’t something I expect to affect the locker room this season. That being said, if the Aztecs falter somewhere along the way, the locker room dynamic will have to be considered as a possible cause.
Reasons the team will surpass expectations:
Size – This year’s team is substantially bigger than last year’s team. Last year the starting lineup heights were 5’8″, 6’3″, 6’5″, 6’6″, 6’10”. This year there are a number of different options, but the one that seems the most likely (to me at least) at the moment is 6’3″, 6’4″, 6’7″, 6’9″, 6’10”. That is a substantially bigger team. 13 combined inches to be exact. The additional size will help the Aztecs be more versatile, as they will have personnel that can play small, or play big as the situation requires. The Aztecs started off their 2020 season starting two bigs, so the coaches know how to get two bigs to play with each other. They went 13-0 in that stretch before Nathan went down with injury, and beat some teams that looked better on paper because they were able to throw waves of size at them. Creighton and Iowa specifically, had starting centers that measured 6’7″ and 6’11” respectively, and no other starter taller than 6’6″. They were both good teams but both struggled against the Aztecs’ size and physicality. Returning to that style of play will be beneficial, especially in the mountain west conference tournament, where making 3’s is hard to do.
Matt Bradley – Yes, Matt Bradley is a reason for excitement all on his own. This guy scored 18 points per game in the Pac-12. Going up against elite 8 and final 4 teams, he scored 18 points per game. The worst team in the Pac-12, according to KenPom, would’ve been the 6th best team in the mountain west, and Bradley was basically scoring at will. So imagine what Bradley might do to the bottom feeders of the mountain west.
Defense is a constant at San Diego State. We know the defense will be good year in and year out. The question is usually, where will the offense come from? The answer is Matt Bradley. This guy is a career 40% shooter from deep, knows how to operate a pick and roll and hit open teammates, is efficient in the mid range and at the rim, and when all else fails, he’s one of the best in the league at drawing contact.
This isn’t to say Bradley will score 18 points a game for SDSU. He won’t need to, because he’ll have more help than he did at Cal. In 21 games for Cal last season though, he scored 20 or more points 11 times, and that’s that he missed 3 of the 4 easiest games on Cal’s schedule. So if the team ever needs him to pick up the scoring load, he is more than capable.
Add to that his passing. He only averaged 1.8 assists last season, but his 5.68 shots created would’ve been the best for SDSU last season among players who played at least 50 minutes (Butler would’ve been a close second at 5.56.)
The last pac-12 player to transfer to SDSU was Malachi Flynn. Bradley isn’t the same type of player, but should have a similar impact for the Aztecs.
Internal Improvement – To a certain extant, internal improvement is key for every team in the nation. To be better than the year before, a team needs their returning players to improve over the off season. Even on transfer heavy teams like the Aztecs, internal improvement is important.
It is a reason for optimism this year because the Aztecs have a couple players who are poised to make major strides.
First is Keshad Johnson. For two years coaches and media have been touting his potential. His freshman season he didn’t get much playing time because the team was loaded with stars. Last season he more than doubled his minutes on the floor, shot a better percentage from the field, and improved his defense dramatically. To top it off he’s looked pretty good in swish league, adding perimeter skills such as shooting and ball handling to his bag.
Fans and coaches alike are expecting a leap from him, and it looks like he is answering the call. Keshad is on pace to challenge for one of the starting forward spots, and if he gets one it will infuse the lineup with size and athleticism.
The other player is Lamont Butler. Butler showed flashes of greatness as a freshman. Jumping passing lanes, driving to the rim, etc. If he makes a jump it could force Coach Dutcher to play three guards for stretches, as Coach Dutcher likes having multiple shot creators on the floor. Butler has been putting in a lot of work, as seen on his twitter page and through the results at Swish league. Similar to Keshad, he seems poised to make a leap.
Both of these players taking leaps will help propel the Aztecs to a greater season than fans currently expect.
Leave a comment about what you think the greatest strength and/or weakness is.