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Scouting the Contenders: San Diego State Aztecs

Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
As March Madness slowly inches closer and closer, "Scouting the Contenders" takes a look at some of the nation's best teams in a chaotic race, scouts their strengths and weaknesses, and takes a best guess on just how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament. We continue with the nation's lone undefeated remaining, the No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs.

Track Record

  • 26-0 overall, 15-0 in the Mountain West Conference (lone undefeated remaining in Division I basketball)
  • Notable Wins: 76-71 over BYU, 83-52 over Creighton, 83-73 over Iowa, 80-68 over Utah State
  • Highest ranking since 2010-2011 season, when they advanced to the Sweet 16
Scouting Report
The San Diego State Aztecs have been one of the country's most notable surprises in 2019-20, coming out of nowhere to become the lone undefeated remaining in Division I basketball. That success has given the school their highest ranking in a decade, when some guy named Kawhi Leonard led them to the Sweet 16. The chances of them completing an undefeated season are slim, but that doesn't mean this Aztecs team doesn't have the tools to do some damage come March.
Strengths: The makeup of this particular San Diego State squad represents a reality of modern college basketball: the importance of transfers. Three massive pieces on this Aztecs team began their college careers elsewhere, including leading scorer Malachi Flynn. Flynn is a former Washington State Cougar, Yanni Wetzell is from Vanderbilt, while K.J. Feagin came over as a grad transfer from Santa Clara. This creates an interesting mismatch of pieces, but also brings a lot of experience and versatility to this SDSU team. Flynn in particular is used to playing high-level basketball in the Pac-12, and he has looked extremely comfortable running the show for head coach Brian Dutcher. It wouldn't be surprising if that experience and variety ends up being a massive asset come March Madness... I've mentioned before how important I think great defense is to NCAA Tournament runs. Of course, teams that get hot offensively are common during the month of March, but defense carries you through even on off-shooting nights. The good news for San Diego State is that they have quite a strong defense, coming in fifth nationally with 58.2 points allowed per game. They also rank Top 10 in defensive efficiency, showcasing a defense that plays great in straight up man-to-man and rotates incredibly well. It also helps that Flynn really sets the stage on the perimeter; he averages nearly two a game and can attack an offense the length of the entire court. It isn't like those numbers are boosted by completely terrible opponents, either. The Aztecs held Creighton, a Top 15 team, to just 52 and also held an explosive Iowa Hawkeye offense to 73. Nobody is going to get out of a game with SDSU without a fight for the entire 40 minutes, and I think it will be something that can carry them through the rigors of late season college basketball... Playing in the Mountain West, people are going to argue against SDSU's strength of schedule, but they have a bonafide resume. Wins against BYU, Creighton and Iowa in the non-conference are all against likely Tournament teams and inside the MWC, the Aztecs swept preseason favorite Utah State. They also have been absolutely dominating inferior foes; of their 26 wins, 23 of those have been by nine points or more. This isn't some mediocre team squeaking by against weak competition, they legitimately outplaying all competition in a very underrated conference.

Weaknesses: Even with Flynn leading the way and four players currently averaging double-digit points per game, you still wonder if the Aztecs have that guy that can completely take over when needed. Perhaps with their balance on offense, they don't quite need it, but we've seen in the past how important have an alpha (or two) is when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. That isn't to disrespect any of their top scorers, but do they have that killer mentality? Maybe that's something we will have to wait and see on... On the sideline, Brian Dutcher has already had a lengthy coaching career and spent time under Steve Fisher at Michigan during the Fab Five era. He has seen and coached plenty of successful teams, but it's also important to note that this is just his third season as head man of the Aztecs, his first head coaching job. He has been the head coach in the NCAA Tournament just once, which ended up with a heartbreaking loss to Houston. That doesn't mean he is a bad coach, and anybody who has followed his career knows this guy is an excellent basketball mind, but winning in March is just so difficult. Can he make the right adjustments during big moments, on a stage he isn't very used to? It isn't unreasonable to have some concerns there... Past NCAA Tournament success shouldn't change your perception of a current basketball team, as I mentioned in my "Scouting the Contenders" writeup of Baylor earlier this month. However, San Diego State basketball has never gone past the Sweet 16 in program history, even when they had Kawhi Leonard on their roster. When you aren't a program as accustomed to the bigger stages, it is much easier to tense up, or really feel the pressure. Now, this might just be the team to finally reach the Elite Eight and beyond, but it's always much more difficult the first time around.

Bottom Line: Assuming they're able to hold on to a No. 1 seed, San Diego State will be a popular pick to be the first top seed out of the NCAA Tournament, due to the fact they aren't as proven as other top teams, or as consistently good as Gonzaga. I think that may actually lead to the Aztecs being a little bit undervalued come Tournament time; they've proven they can beat legitimately good basketball teams and to win 26 straight at any level of Division I basketball is incredibly impressive. I'd still be interested to see what they do down the stretch in the regular season and during the MWC Tournament, but underestimate this team at your own risk. They shoot the ball well, don't turn it over and play both ends as well as anybody in the country. I really do believe a deep postseason run could be in store, but we'll see how the bracket shapes up. Right now, they're likely to be the No. 1 out East, which could set up an Elite Eight meeting likely with Duke, a chance to really show what they can do. 

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