The starting lineup for the game against St. Katherine, and presumably for the season, was announced early. it consists of Trey Pulliam, Lamont Butler, Matt Bradley, Keshad Johnson, and Nathan Mensah.
Pulliam, Bradley, and Mensah were locks from the start. Johnson wasn’t a lock, but was a favorite entering training camp. It seems there was quite a battle for the last spot, and Butler won out.
It is still really early, and only the coaches know exactly how players have improved, what they’ve been working on, and what groupings worked the best in practice. Based off of what little we’ve heard, and how the players looked last season, here are my initial reactions.
Defense: This looks like an absurd lineup defensively. Starting with the anchor, Nathan Mensah. Rob Dauster recently touted Mensah as a top-5 defensive center in the country, and he should be the favorite for defensive player of the year.
Keshad Johnson showed a lot of improvement defensively last season, and has the athleticism to guard any position. He may be used in late game situations to guard the opponents best perimeter player.
Lamont Butler is a very disruptive defender, as shown by his 4.1% steal rate as a freshman. He’s quick enough to stay in front of ball handlers and strong enough to not get bullied.
Trey Pulliam led the team in Defensive Points over Expectation last season. He is underrated on the defensive end, using his quick first step to cut off driving lanes and boasting a steal rate of 3%.
Matt Bradley is the weak link defensively, but he should still be at least an average defender. All the other strong defenders should make it easy to hide him on defense if needed. There’s also a lot of positional versatility, which will allow to team to switch ball screens when they want to.
Shot Creation: This lineup has all of the teams’ shot creators in it. Pulliam, Butler, and Bradley have all shown the ability to create shots for their teammates. Coach Dutcher has shown he likes lineups with multiple shot creators on the floor at the same time. At any point any of those three players should be trusted to handle the ball in the pick and roll and find the best outcome.
Athleticism: This lineup looks like a lineup that’s built to run. The easiest points come in transition, and this team should be able to force misses and turnovers, get rebounds, and run. There’s been reports that the offense isn’t all the way out together yet, which isn’t out of the ordinary for this type of year, but getting easy points in transition is a good way to counter that.
Floor spacing: This lineup has plenty of shot creators, but does it have enough shooters? If Pulliam passes to a wide open Butler on the wing, will Butler be able to drain the shot? Bradley is the only proven shooter in this lineup. Pulliam shot about 35% as a JuCo player, but hasn’t shot well at the D1 level. The four starters not named Matt Bradley shot a combined 29% on 100 attempts last season. Defenses will pack the paint and dare the Aztecs to shoot over them until the Aztecs prove they can do it.
It’s not for a lack of shooters on the team either. Adam Seiko, Chad Baker, and Keith Dinwiddie are all good shooters who will be coming off the bench. Joshua Tomaić has reportedly looked good as a stretch 4 as well.
Coach Dutcher has been a coach that has embraced the 3-point shot in recent years, so it’s surprising to see him start players who haven’t shot well to this point. It must be noted that players may have improved their outside shooting over the offseason, and if that’s the case the starting lineup makes much more sense from a spacing standpoint. Until then, for a team that’s been as reliant on the 3-ball as the Aztecs have the last few years, to only have one shooter in the starting lineup is a bit of a head scratcher.
Size: Over the offseason Coach Dutcher mentioned that his team looked more like a football team. The roster makeup suggests that this team should be able to beat up on opponents with size and strength. This lineup is one of the smaller iterations Dutcher could’ve gone with. Starting Butler instead of Seiko gives up about three inches. Bradley will face more 6’6” and 6’7” players when he plays at small forward rather than shooting guard.
The construction of the lineup may hurt them when they play teams like Nevada, who start two 7’ players. Or, it may help them run Nevada off the floor.
This lineup should be really disruptive and hard to score on. Four of the five players are above average to elite defenders. The Aztecs seem to be at their best when they focus on defense first, so it’s a great foundation.
On the offensive end scoring points may be tough to start games. The opposing team can just pack the paint and force jump shots.
Luckily, this team is deep and versatile enough that the bench players will be able to gloss over some of those weaknesses when they enter the game.
Coach Dutcher has also shown the willingness to change the rotation depending on who’s playing well. He likes to keep the starters the same as much as possible, but will give bench players more minutes if they’re playing well.
No matter who started there was going to be pros and cons. The primary takeaway is that the team is talented and deep enough to win another conference title. Let’s enjoy the ride Aztec Nation!