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Scouting San Diego State: Bring Your Rocks

San Diego State will be the best defensive team UConn has faced all season

Florida Atlantic v San Diego State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The last time UConn mens basketball took on the San Diego State Aztecs, basketball shorts looked like this:

UConn has torched a whole cadre of teams with unique styles on the way to a shot at title No. 5. Whether it’s Iona’s press, St. Mary’s slow tempo, or Miami’s free-flowing offense, the Huskies have adapted to whatever style their opponent plays. Remember those Cincinnati teams coached by Mick Cronin in the dog days of the AAC? Physical, tough, but gross offensively? That’s the type of test UConn faces tonight.

The title-favorite Huskies will have to be prepared for another iteration of the 2011 national championship, the Butler eyesore that set college basketball back decades. San Diego State has stormed its way to the title making by slowing games down to a grinding halt and making them as ugly as possible. They may not have the NBA talent of Alabama or the shot-making of Creighton, but their ability to muck a game up and win in that mud has proven effective.

Choose your cliché: gritty, #grindset, lunch pail, blue-collar, scrappy. San Diego State is the anti-Miami. If the Canes were all gas no brakes, the Aztecs are brake tapping in a traffic jam. With an elite fourth-ranked KenPom defense that dictates the tempo of the game, San Diego State has relied on enough shotmaking and timely putbacks off rebounds to stay with teams. What can Husky fans expect from the Aztecs tonight?

They Defend the Three

Creighton shot 2-17 from three. Alabama went 3-19. Opponents have shot 25-116 (21%) against SDSU’s perimeter defense in the tournament, but those numbers are skewed a bit by FAU’s 9-22 clip on Saturday. UConn is shooting 53% on shots inside the arc. Throwing the ball into Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan inside can spread the floor and give shooters some air.

They Defend the Rim

The Huskies have finally met their rim protector match. Saint Mary’s is a KenPom top 10 defense, while Arkansas and Iona brought ball pressure. But the Huskies have been fortunate so far to avoid a rim presence like Nathan Mensah, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the year. The fifth-year senior has 13 blocks in the tournament. In the comeback vs. FAU, the Owls went only 5-14 at the rim. Mensah is also a monster at hard hedging and can switch and stay in front of a quicker guard.

Fellow senior forward Aguek Arop may not start, but is SDSU’s highest ranked defensive player, per EvanMiya. Mensah, Arop, and Lamont Butler — the buzzer-beating hero from Saturday — are all in the top 25 of Miya’s Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating.

Norchad Omier’s physicality was neutralized by the Sanogo/Clingan pairing on Saturday, with the Huskies pouring in 16 second chance points. But up and down the roster, the Huskies have not faced a beefier team; of San Diego State’s top nine, six check in at 200 pounds or more, with four weighing 220-pounds. These kids won’t be deterred by Sanogo or Clingan screens. The Huskies have outrebounded their opponent 21 games in a row. If they make it 22, there’s not many ways the Aztecs can win.

They Force Stall Outs

UConn’s offense has been unleashed since the January swoon. But we all remember how the Huskies struggled to get anything going during that putrid stretch to start 2023. That’s exactly the type of games the Aztecs excel at; they place in the top 75 nationally in defensive assist rate.

Did I Mention They Defend?

The Aztecs bottled up Brandon Miller, forcing the potential No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft to 19.9% from the field and forced six turnovers. Back in November, Andre Jackson held Miller to five of 15 from the field, but he still got 18 points and nine rebounds. SDSU’s athleticism and switchability one through five bothered Miller the whole game. Jordan Hawkins attacked Arkansas’ ball pressure by turning the corner and attacking downhill. He’ll need to not settle for contested jumpers once more, and be comfortable with contact at the rim and making his living at the free throw line.

But They Also Foul

The potential downside of overwhelming physicality and ball pressure is foul trouble. Mensah racked up four fouls vs. Creighton, and there’s been only one game this tournament where the Aztecs have fouled less than 17 times in a game. Head coach Dan Hurley is already at work to control the hand-checking:

Tristen Newton has put the ‘UConn has no point guard’ narrative on ice, averaging 5.8 assists per game this tournament. Andre Jackson has 35 assists to eight turnovers in the Big Dance. But the rest of the Husky backcourt will also have to be comfortable with someone all up in their grill.

It means smart cutting — paging Alex Karaban — to help create space when a ball handler is in trouble. Or Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan continuing to be master sealers and offering a safety valve down low.

They Don’t Turn the Ball Over

SDSU averages 10.2 turnovers per game in the NCAA tournament. That’s usually what happens when you play as slow and deliberate a style as head coach Brian Dutcher plays, with a tempo that’s 271st in the country per Evan Miya. UConn doesn’t play at a breakneck pace —212th— but we saw in the first half of the St. Mary’s game how an even slower tempo can impact offensive rhythm.

UConn’s defense doesn’t necessarily force turnovers though, with the 12.7 forced per game ranking 142nd. But if the Huskies find themselves in need of more possessions, it will be tough to rattle the experienced Aztecs with six upperclassmen rotation players.

Offense is Hard

Matt Bradley — a Cal transfer and 1,000-point scorer at SDSU— finally got back on track against FAU, putting up 21 points and connecting on four threes. Prior to that, he had shot 3-17 in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups. With a usage rate of 27.4%, he’s the Aztec’s best source of just-enough shot-making to get by.

He’s also the Aztec’s only double-digit scorer on the season, at 12.7 points per game. In the tournament though, 5-foot-10 senior Darrion Trammell and Butler have stepped up and average roughly 10 points per game each. If Andre Jackson can bottle up the 6-foot-4 Bradley, it will force the Aztecs to look elsewhere for scoring, and the hope is that Newton’s size can bother Trammell enough. After that, its Butler, 6-foot-7 Jaedon LeDee, and 6-foot-6 Micah Parrish, all capable scorers but nothing at the level UConn faced against Miami or Gonzaga.

It’s poetic that the nation’s most exciting team faces arguably the most boring for the title. But boring gets it done for SDSU. Their 68th-ranked KenPom offense is the worst UConn’s faced all tournament, by a wide stretch. But UConn has faced just two top-20 defenses since Feb. 18 (Saint Mary’s and Arkansas), so the Huskies will need one last offensive overture to hoist the banner.