As we wade through the aftermath of a hectic February that brought the Super Bowl, the NBA and NHL All-Star games, and the start of spring training in Major League Baseball, the rollercoaster that is being a sports fan is approaching yet another peak. With March comes madness — March Madness, to be exact. The NCAA college basketball tournament covers sports landscapes better than clover covers a field. With 68 teams filling out the competitive field, or brackets, it’s a chore to figure out who will stand alone as the national champion when all is said and done.
A dark-horse candidate to win it all has emerged in the form of Mountain West leader San Diego State. The Aztecs sport a healthy 26–1 record at the moment, with their lone loss a 3-point defeat at the hands of UNLV. San Diego State has suffocated opponents with a stifling 58.4 points-per-game average… the second fewest in the nation. Thanks to the Aztecs’ stifling defense that has allowed just 1,714 points — third fewest in the nation — many are wondering if the team could run the gauntlet to the Final Four.
The Aztecs are on pace to earn a high-seed and favorable path in the NCAA tournament. This 2019-20 team has been the best version of the program under head coach Brian Dutcher’s tenure. Dutcher, in his third season on the sideline, has earned one tournament appearance with the Azetecs since taking over for former head coach Steve Fisher who retired following the 2016-17 season. Dutcher served under Fisher during his early coaching days at Michigan, from 1989-1998.
Dutcher’s roster is made up of recent acquisitions who are leading the Aztecs to a record-breaking season. A trio of transfers have completely reconstructed the outlook and expectation of the roster. Forward Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt), guards Malchi Flynn (Washington State) and KJ Feagin (Santa Clara) are credited as the catalysts for the San Diego State’s impressive showing. In fact, the start is so impressive, it has led some to compare this team to what many consider the best team in program history — the 2010-2011 team spearheaded by NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. However, not even Leonard was enough to get the Aztecs to the Final Four, coming up short against eventual national champions UConn. This time around, the path to the big dance is clear for the Mountain West upstarts.
The Aztecs are being helped out on multiple fronts. Most of the top NBA-eligible talent will not take part in March Madness due to their team’s woeful records. Uneven play from fellow high-ranked opposition gives San Diego State more confidence as they pull closer to the tournament too. After all, the Aztecs have been the most cohesive team in 2020. Aside from their narrow loss to the Runnin’ Rebels, the Aztecs’ closest game was a 59-57 win against San Jose State. The remainder of their wins have come at a comfortable margin as the team has run roughshod over the Mountain West. It’s a rare feat to see San Diego State not dialed in, ready to claw out a win.
While showtime highlights are a staple of other programs, the Aztecs prides themselves on a defense-first mentality. San Diego sits in the middle of the pack in the country (68th) averaging 75.4 points per game. Yet, that suits the players just fine. In a USA Today interview, KJ Feagin stated, “We all know how to play basketball. We know our roles and we fit our roles perfectly. We come without egos, knowing that we come from losing programs. We have to sacrifice certain personal needs for the team. So we knew what it was coming in. We stuck to the script and everything came along rather seamlessly.”
Sceptics of the Aztecs will immediately point to their lack of wins against ranked opponents. None of the Aztecs’ opponents are ranked in the top 25. In fact, it’s unlikely that San Diego State will face a Top 25 team until the tournament. It’s a problem that the team has no control over. The team can’t change their schedule or conference in the middle of the season. They have to make the best of who they’re playing now. So winning, regardless of the opponent, is what matters most. Considering some of the losses by fellow Top 10 mates Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga, SDS has a puncher’s chance of making it to the big dance at the end of March.
Whether San Diego State can exceed previous program highs remains to be seen, but the Aztecs are in an excellent position to turn in their best season yet. They’re a veteran-led group that sacrifices individual accolades for team success. Has the team peaked before the tournament? They don’t believe so. Wetzell stated “I think we’re as good as anyone in the country. I still don’t think we’ve reached our potential as a team. We can tell because every game we keep getting better defensively and offensively. It’s just a matter of being on the court together, playing those games and hopefully by March we’ll be the best team we can be.” The road to national recognition begins in earnest in the weeks to come.