After winning both the Mountain West Conference (MWC) regular season and tournament championship, the San Diego State Aztecs (23-4, 14-4 MWC) will head to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed where they will meet the Syracuse Orange (16-9, 9-7 ACC), in their first round matchup.
The Aztecs are riding a 14-game winning streak entering the tournament, the hot streak by San Diego State was likely crucial for the Aztecs to move up to the No. 6 seed line, when many bracketology predictions had them as either an eight or nine seed. They defeated the Utah State Aggies in the MWC Championship Game 68-57 to claim its first conference tournament championship since 2018, which is the last time they made the NCAA Tournament.
The Orange had a close loss to ACC regular season champions Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, 72-69. Syracuse was living dangerously on the bubble, as they have been for almost the last decade, on many bracketology projections as one of the last teams in. But big wins against NCAA Tournament bound teams, Clemson and North Carolina, in the final week of the regular season propelled the Orange into the tournament.
San Diego State enters the NCAA Tournament as one of the top defensive teams in the country. The Aztecs are a top-10 scoring defense averaging only 60.6 points allowed per game this season. They are also top-10 in opponents field goal percentage at 38.7%. The Orange are known for their tough 2-3 zone defense, something San Diego State has not seen this season.
The key for San Diego State is to be able to get in the heart of the defense, but getting the ball inside and making sure to move the ball around to get defenders out of place. This will help create holes in Syracuse’s defense and open up lanes to attack and free up space for Aztecs shooters. With forwards Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Joshua Tomaic, playing inside, it gives San Diego State a lot of options to go inside. Also, with four shooters that shoot better than 34% from 3-point range, the Aztecs are capable to out shoot the Orange if the game goes that way.
One of the biggest advantages San Diego State has over Syracuse is depth. The Aztecs go 10 deep, with 10 players who average at least 12 minutes played per game and six guys playing over 20 minutes per game. More notably, nobody averages more than 30 minutes played per game. Certainly, in a tournament game some guys will play more minutes than others to win the game, but San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher has been confident in his depth all season.
Syracuse on the other hand has a fairly shoot bench. The Orange only have seven players that average at least 10 minutes and six of those play at least 20 minutes, four of which play more than 31 minutes per game. With having so many fresh bodies, San Diego State needs to wear down Syracuse which could open up space against the zone to get open shots and allow San Diego State to drive and penetrate into the zone.
Looking at player matchups, the one everyone will be watching will be Matt Mitchell and Buddy Boeheim. Mitchell, the MWC Tournament MVP and Conference Player of the Year, averages 15 points per game and five rebounds. Boeheim averages over 17 points per game and shoots better than 37% from 3-point range. Not only are both players their respective team’s leading scorer, but they are key in the success on the defensive side of the ball.
San Diego State is roughly a 2.5 point favorite and should win this game as long as they are able to knock down some outside shots and get penetration inside against the Syracuse zone. Their depth should win out and having so many options that can score the ball should wear down Syracuse and San Diego State will advance to the second round. Prediction: San Diego State 65, Syracuse 59.
How To Watch
No. 11 Syracuse Orange vs No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs. NCAA Tournament First Round, Midwest Region
Friday, March 19 at 6:40 p.m. PT. Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Television: CBS (KFMB Channel 8 in San Diego)
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