LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Brian Dutcher lays out San Diego State’s mission in plain talk to avoid any confusion.
“We’re a defensive-first team,” the sixth-year coach said after the Aztecs muscled past Creighton 57-56 on Sunday and into their first Final Four. “Everybody knows that about us, and our defense carries us.”
The challenge for Florida Atlantic, UConn or Miami this weekend in Houston is solving the disruptive mix of quick hands and physicality the experienced Aztecs have used to wear down opponents.
Only New Mexico, Nevada and Boise State have cracked that defensive code since the year started, the last setback coming nearly a month ago. Fifth-seeded San Diego State (31-6) is 14-1 since Feb. 3 and it has ratcheted up the resistance in March Madness triumphs against overall top seed Alabama, No. 12 College of Charleston and No. 13 Furman.
All three teams shot just 32% against a rotation of veterans and transfers who have bought into Dutcher’s philosophy. Alabama committed 14 turnovers, had eight shots blocked and was held 18 points below its season average in the 71-64 Sweet 16 loss.
Sixth-seeded Creighton shot 40% in the South Region final, but just 28% while missing all 10 long-range attempts during a pivotal second half. The Bluejays finished 2 of 17 from deep, and San Diego State opponents have made 16 of 94 attempts (17%) in the tournament.
The Mountain West Conference’s first Final Four participant, the Aztecs will face FAU on Saturday.
San Diego State had to wait a few minutes before it could celebrate its win over Creighton. Officials needed the time to review a last-second court-length inbounds pass by Creighton that was deflected out of bounds. Aztecs forward Aguek Arop jumped for the ball with Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma, a fitting example of a team that embraces physical play.
“They play a brand of basketball that’s built on toughness, built on intelligence,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They don’t take many bad shots, and they’re very physical when the ball goes up in the glass.”
Alabama coach Nate Oats said after Friday night's loss that San Diego State’s physicality bothered his team and got them off their drives. He added, “They’re a tough, physical, big, strong experienced team, and especially in the first half we didn’t come out prepared.”
San Diego State is also patient, owing to its maturity.
Seven seniors are among nine upperclassmen that include four transfers. While offense matters, Dutcher stresses says playing defense creates opportunities at the other end.
The numbers demonstrate that everyone’s good with that.
The Aztecs rank 35th nationally in field goal defense at 41% and are tied for 70th with 4.0 blocks per game. Creighton was their 16th opponent held below 60 points, nearly 10 below its average coming in.
“We make sure any time we play against a team there’s five guys all on one guy,” 6-foot-10 senior forward Nathan Mensah said. “We don’t take that for granted, and we know our defense will always play out as the game goes.”
That faith in defense has been key in overcoming second-half deficits against Alabama and Creighton.
San Diego State’s halftime lead became a nine-point hole against the Crimson Tide before it scored 12 straight points to take the lead for good with 8:43 remaining. The Aztecs rallied from a 43-37 deficit against Creighton and never trailed again despite five ties over the final 6:23.
One of the happiest San Diego State players after the game was leading scorer Matt Bradley, who was held to eight points over the weekend after averaging 12.8 coming in. While he was off, he saw the Aztecs get big stops and timely contributions from Arop and Mensah.
“We’ve got seven, eight dudes that could just get a bucket for us, get a big stop and just make a game-winning play,” Bradley said. “That’s a testament to what this team has personnel-wise.”
Combine that depth with the defense, and San Diego State is in a place it could only dream about before the season.
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