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How a loss to Arizona helped move San Diego State to the brink of the Final Four

How a loss to Arizona helped move San Diego State to the brink of the Final Four

San Diego State’s basketball team spent Thanksgiving in the islands after the Maui Invitational. It flew home Friday, and most players quickly fell asleep on the plane, exhausted from three hard games in three days against some of the nation’s best teams.

The Aztecs coaches flipped open their laptops and started watching film from the tournament, in particular the 87-70 loss against Arizona.

There, flickering before their eyes 38,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, were both questions and answers about their team, hyped in the preseason like none other in school history, that had gone 1-2 in the tournament — a veritable gift from the basketball gods. A cheat code.

At one end of the floor, Arizona offered a blueprint to SDSU’s opponents of how to defend its offensive schemes, switching pin-down screens, keeping the Aztecs’ bigs rooted in the paint, preventing ball swings from side to side. At the other end, the Wildcats presented the solution — an antiquated offense with three out and two in, with posts aggressively “ducking in” on the low blocks, with more space on the perimeter, with two rebounders in prime position to gobble up errant shots.

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Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) makes a slam dunk over San Diego State during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

“They hurt us with that,” coach Brian Dutcher said.

“Killed us,” senior forward Aguek Arop said.

“The Arizona game,” assistant coach Chris Acker said, “made us better.”

It was the first of two seminal moments that altered the trajectory of what has become a magical season for the 30-6 Aztecs, who defeated No. 1 overall seed Alabama 71-64 in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 Friday and now sit just one win from the Final Four.

SDSU faces Creighton, another team Arizona defeated in that early-season tournament, on Sunday for a ticket to Houston.

Maui fixed the offense, once the coaches had time to implement some of Arizona’s tactics that better suited a roster stacked with big, powerful posts. The defense was mended a couple months later, after a stinging loss at Nevada, when Arop called a rare players-only meeting to clear the air and reset their hard-hat, lunch-pail culture.

One was between the lines, the other between the ears.

Both pieces gloriously came together last Saturday in Orlando, Fla., to send the Aztecs to the third Sweet 16 in program history and the first since 2014. The victim was Cinderella, a 13th-seeded Furman team that had shocked Virginia two days earlier in dramatic fashion and instantly became the nation’s lovable pet underdog. The Aztecs ran Cinderella’s carriage off the road, bullying the Paladins to a 75-52 defeat with a dominant offensive and defensive performance.

San Diego State guard Micah Parrish (3) chases Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Something borrowed

Basketball has changed in the era of space-and-pace offenses that exploit the 3-point line, with teams preferring four- and even five-out alignments. Sticking two bigs on the blocks is certifiably old school, unorthodox, so 1990s Michigan State, but it made sense for a team struggling to find an offensive identity.

“It’s good stuff,” Dutcher said. “Obviously, you have to have guys who can do it and you have to have depth, and we do. We’re deep at that position. We keep fresh legs in there all the time. Maybe that’s the story of our year, our depth — meaningful depth — and how we use it.”

The primary feature is the weak-side “duck-in,” where you casually walk toward a defender, then forcefully attack his body and pivot to establish deep, inside position as the ball swings. Guards then enter the ball with a bounce pass.

“I hadn’t really gone against it,” Arop said, “and I remember (Azuolas) Tubelis from Arizona, he just snuck behind you and the next thing you knew, you were pinned in. It was smart. It was something I hadn’t seen before, and it was very effective. You were just neutralized.”

They couldn’t implement it immediately, with four games in the first 12 days of December. But then came a stretch of one game over 18 days, which meant a series of practices without worrying about game prep. The duck-in went in.

It worked, almost instantly. Over a six-week stretch following the Dec. 10 loss against Saint Mary’s through January, the Aztecs ranked 12th nationally in offensive efficiency, according to the T-rank metric that filters data by date. Their offensive-rebound rate went from 26% (266th nationally) to 34.5% (39th) with two bigs already positioned under the basket. Their 3-point shooting went from 28.4% to 40% as teams helped inside and created cleaner looks from the perimeter.

And they needed it. The vaunted defense suddenly, inexplicably slipped. But the Aztecs flipped the script and won games with their offense.

Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa (25) makes a layup over San Diego State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

At Wyoming on Jan. 7, the Cowboys recorded a 119.7 single-game offensive efficiency rate (or nearly 120 points per 100 possessions, 15 above the national average), the highest by an opponent in an SDSU victory in the 22-year history of the Kenpom metric. That’s because the Aztecs’ offensive efficiency was 127.7 after being 92.7 and 89.7 in their last two games in Maui, both losses.

Maybe the greatest benefit? It wore teams out, ground them to a pulp, with duck-ins on both sides of the floor for the entire possession, for 30 seconds of the shot clock, for 40 minutes, from starters Nathan Mensah and Keshad Johnson, then Arop and Jaedon LeDee off the bench — 920 pounds of heft.

“Their willingness to pound the paint, to get it in there over and over again, physically duck us in,” Utah State coach Ryan Odom said after losing to the Aztecs in the Mountain West Tournament final, “you know, that takes a toll on your body in terms of fatigue.”

“The duck-ins,” Furman coach Bob Richey said, “clearly were bothering us.”

Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) reacts with guard Cedric Henderson Jr., after he scored against San Diego State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

‘Back to who we are’

The offense tailed off in February, as opponents focused their defense on protecting the paint and SDSU’s shooters went cold from the perimeter. But then the defensive cavalry rode over the hill.

The turning point came after a 74-65 loss at Nevada and another unconscionable offensive efficiency figure by an opponent: 119.1.

Two days later, the coaches emerged onto the Viejas Arena floor for practice following a film session. The players stayed in the locker room.

One after another, they stood and spoke, walk-ons included.

“We obviously weren’t playing to our potential,” Arop said, “and I think some guys were facing frustrations about how the season was going for them individually. It was kind of bleeding over into how the team was playing. That’s why I wanted to call a meeting, to speak what’s on our mind. Having that out, it brought us together as brothers.”

The next night, the Aztecs streamrolled Boise State 72-52 in a battle for first place. The Broncos’ offensive efficiency: 78.2.

“We got back to who we are in terms of consistently not taking possessions off, of raising the bar, of a higher standard, of not trying to just outscore teams,” said assistant coach Dave Velasquez, who oversees the defense. “Our mentality got better. We were way more connected.”

Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) reacts after drawing a foul after scoring against San Diego State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

During the month of January, the Aztecs ranked 93rd nationally in defensive efficiency after allowing teams to shoot 56.8% (334th) on 2-point attempts.

Since Arop’s meeting, they are No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They entered Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with the Crimson Tide allowing 15.6 fewer points per 100 possessions and 45.4% on 2-point attempts.

Then came the Furman game, all duck-ins and defense, two pieces of a glorious picture coming together.

“When you study really good teams, they’re complete,” Richey, the Paladins coach, said Saturday in Orlando. “It’s not really an offensive team or defensive team. Great, championship-level teams are complete. The reason they’re complete is because the two ends affect one another.”

Day 1 of the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 delivered some incredible action including a historic performance by Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell in Madison Square Garden and another unforgettable finish between Gonzaga and UCLA. Check out the best moments of the March Madness Mania here.

Copyright 2023 Tribune Content Agency.

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