The season is over, once again ending in disappointing fashion. The Aztecs had a 9 point lead with about 3 minutes left to go against Creighton, and ended up losing in overtime, breaking a streak of 30+ games where the Aztecs won when leading with five minutes left.
As disappointing as that loss was, the coaches and players can not dwell on it for too long. They need to start preparing for the next season. Looking back at this past season, not just the Creighton game but the season as a whole, will help guide them as they look to improve the team. They will want to try and preserve the things that worked well, while also addressing the weaknesses the team showed.
What went well –
The most obvious take here is the defense. The Aztecs finished the season with the second best defense in the country. It was arguably the best defense in the Fisher/Dutcher era, which is saying a lot.
The defense worked for a couple of reasons. The first is Nathan Mensah. Having a 6’10” player who can viably guard anyone on the floor let the Aztecs switch ball screens whenever they wanted, which is something most teams aren’t used to playing against. Mensah also served as an excellent rim protector, collecting 2.2 blocks per game on his way to earning Defensive Player of the year in the Mountain West. The ability to switch everything while still protecting the rim helped the Aztecs force a lot of tough shots, and as a result a lot of misses. That is, if they didn’t take the ball away first.
The Aztecs forced turnovers on about 22% of their opponents possessions, good for 27th in the nation. It was their second year in a row with a top 30 rate in forcing turnovers. The Aztecs play a defensive style that encourages guards to jump driving lanes and poke balls free to get steals. The best defense is one where the opponent does not even get a shot off, and the Aztecs did that about as good as anyone this season.
The Aztecs can be expected to continue to play their pack line defense, and it will continue to be good. Nathan Mensah is expected to leave the team though, and losing a player like that will hurt the defense. The Aztecs will still be a good defensive team, but staying in the top-10 will be tough without someone like Mensah on the back line.
The 3-point shooting should also get a mention here. The Aztecs connected on 35.4% of their shots from deep, which is well above the average rate. It’s not bad for a team that essentially had only three shooters all season. The shooting gets a bit of an asterisk, because despite the good number, it wasn’t enough to help the offense in the sense of providing spacing in the middle of the floor. Opposing defenses still packed the paint and dared the Aztecs to beat them over the top. With all the shooters returning though, the Aztecs can at least replicate what they had this season. Butler being healthy should improve his shooting, and adding another shooter in the portal is a very real possibility.
Ultimately, the team met expectations. A sweet 16, while mathematically possible, was never realistic. Coming into the season the most likely outcome seemed to be a first round exit in the tournament, and they did that. Doing it by giving up a 9 point lead in the last 3 minutes hurts, but in the big picture they still met the expectation. As fans we always want more, but the team accomplished what was realistic for them to accomplish this season.
What needs improvement –
There are always things that can be improved, even the things mentioned above could be improved. These areas of the game should take precedence though.
First, the Aztecs need to finish better at the rim.
Bradley and Butler make up two likely starters for next season. Bradley was about average at the rim while Butler really struggled amongst the trees. The problem was widespread through most of the team.
Taking an action like adding a better shooter, or a big man that is more proficient in the post if Nathan leaves, are two things that can help. Adding a shooter should help provide better spacing, opening driving lanes for guards, or giving bigs like Jaedon Ledee more room to operate. In Butler’s case specifically, he needs to learn to shoot layups high off the glass rather than rolling them over the rim.
Free Throw shooting is another area that needs to be improved. Much of the free throw struggles this season can be attributed to personnel. Guys like Mensah and Johnson drew a lot of fouls, but were never expected to be good at the line. Johnson has improved a lot over his career, so expecting some improvement from him is not out of the question, but expecting him to be better than a 70% shooter is a bit much. Chad Baker-Mazara is an excellent free throw shooter, but his style of play prevents him from drawing many fouls.
Matt Bradley draws a lot of fouls, and hits them at a good rate overall. He struggled in the clutch situations though. His 78% from the charity stripe can be a bit misleading, as their were multiple games where he missed either one or two free throws at the end of a close game that could have changed the outcome. Bradley specifically could benefit from seeing a sports psychologist to get to the root of whatever ails him at the line towards the end of games.
And once again, adding another player or two who are better at making free throws would be beneficial. Trey Pulliam, for example, hit 68% of his free throws; getting a guard that shoots 75% or better from the line would be a significant improvement.
There were two other problems that arose at inopportune times during the season. They weren’t consistently problems, but they showed up in many of the losses, especially the Creighton game. Those issues were defensive rebounding, and turnovers.
Multiple times this season the Aztecs would give up three or four offensive rebounds during a single possession. Forcing a miss does not do much if the opponent can keep taking shots until they make one.
The other issue was turnovers. Over the whole season the Aztecs ranked 244th in the nation in turnover percentage. The issue reared it’s head at the worst possible time when the Aztecs had four turnovers in the last two and a half minutes of their game against Creighton.
Turnovers hurt the offense, seeing as a team can not score if they do not get a shot off. It also hurts the defense, as it gives the other team transition opportunities.
How do the Aztecs improve for next season?
Some specific things have already been mentioned. The defense will likely take a step back if Mensah leaves (which seems likely), but the coaching staff has shown that they can coach a good defensive team with different types of personnel.
Individual player improvement will be key. Butler’s finishing at the rim, Bradley’s clutch performances, and Johnson’s free throws were all mentioned. Chad Baker-Mazara showed a lot of promise, but was not the most consistent. There were too many times where he seemed to not be able to decide what type of shot to take during his pull up. He has a great skill set, and with more consistency will be really dangerous.
Then there’s the matter of adding new talent. On a team level, scoring at the rim and the free throw line, while limiting turnovers and rebounding better, will help the Aztecs.
Getting a drive and kick guard, someone who can finish at the rim, hit free throws, and hit open shooters when they draw defensive help, should be the priority.
In an absolute ideal situation, it’s a guard that can do all that while also adding floor spacing would be the goal. Otherwise adding another pick and roll guard who can’t space the floor will make things hard for Butler due to role replication.
Adding a big to replace Mensah will be needed if he leaves. Getting someone as dominant as he is likely is not possible. He is just too good on that end. The Aztecs will need to find someone who is still good on that end, but can make up for any drop off with extra offense, especially around the rim.
Lastly, another 3&D wing is always a good addition. Someone who is between 6’5” and 6’8”, can play good defense, and can it enough shots to make defenders hesitate to help on drives or post ups.
Adding those three player types should help balance the Aztecs out.