Coming off a national championship run can certainly lead to high expectations, but coach Brian Dutcher has always maintained, “It’s the joy of competing and winning”.
The Aztecs appear to embrace that philosophy as they are on a break until next Tuesday when they host NAIA Saint Katherine’s Firebirds (8-2, 3-1 Cal Pac).
The Aztecs have notched impressive wins against St. Mary’s, Washington and California while enduring losses against Grand Canyon and BYU. The future schedule includes games against Stanford and Gonzaga before heading into conference play. The Mountain West looks to be a daunting labyrinth of competitive teams, willing to take the Aztecs off their lofty perceived perch. How will the Aztecs navigate both internal and external expectations? Under the stewardship and superior leadership of Dutcher, the team looks to be a mainstay of the basketball landscape. So far the Aztecs, while dropping out of the AP top 25, still show an impressive 33 in the Kenpom metrics. They show no ‘bad’ losses, while they have gained valuable experience, especially in the close, one-possession games. A case in point is Saturday’s 63-62 last-second victory against UC Irvine. The Aztecs had built a comfortable 16 point lead into the second half and then silence for fourteen minutes without a basket. That lead turned into a five-point deficit with less than a minute to play. Some fortuitous missed shots by the Anteaters and key-winner mentality plays that allowed the Aztecs to escape with a win. The losses have been by nine to BYU and six to Grand Canyon, but the wins were impressive. A 12-point victory against Long Beach, who recently beat USC followed by a 25-point rout against St. Mary’s. Add in two more victories against Pac-12 opponents and the Aztecs looked strong heading into December. Two single point wins sandwiched around the Grand Canyon loss have the Aztecs sitting in a position of potentially being 10-3 heading into Mountain West Conference play.
Issues at Hand
The Aztecs are looking to establish some consistency while they nurse their injuries. Leading player Jaedon LeDee is out for the foreseeable future with an elbow injury. He is one of the dominant players on the West Coast with 22.8 points per game to go along with 10.3 rebounds. Coach Dutcher was not anxious to play him after getting injured, and wondered who might step up in his absence. Enter into the equation, Campbell transfer Jay Pal, a 6’9” senior. While he doesn’t have the same 240-pound body that LeDee has, he does possess 185 pounds of quickness and slashing that give the Aztecs a different dimension. Against UCI he played 24 minutes and contributed 15 points and 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. His early season maturation and potential bode well for the Aztecs, who want to replicate last season's successes.
The offensive malaise continued shooting only 38.3% against the Anteaters. Team leader and final shot miracle maker from last year's NCAA tourney Lamont Butler continues to struggle offensively. He is shooting less than 35% from the field and a disturbing 37.5% from the charity stripe. Much is on this young man's shoulders, and one wonders when he will awaken. Of course, the Aztecs must contain the loss of key contributors from last year's team including Keshad Johnson, Adam Seiko, Matt Bradley, Nathan Mensah, and Aguek Aroup. They will need to find consistent offense that improves upon their team 43% shooting percentage from the field. In addition to LeDee and Butler, the Aztecs feature returners Darrion Trammell, Micaeh Parrish and Elijah Saunders. Adding new faces include Pal, freshman Miles Heide ane USC transfer Reese Waters. All have played significant minutes with Heide, Saunders, Parrish, Waters and Butler all starting against UCI.
The Aztecs will have what amounts to a scrimmage against NCAI Saint Katherines. They then host Stanford and travel to Gonzaga to end up the 2023 year. Once 2024 starts, they will begin conference play hosting Fresno State on January 3. The rest of the conference has 10 of the 11 teams all above .500. Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, and Nevada are all with only one loss. The MWC looks to be one of the strongest non-power conferences, but once they start playing each other, expect a strong amount of cannabilism to occur. After that group are the Aztecs, Boise State and Wyoming all with decent pre-seasons and followed up by question marks Fresno State, San Jose State and UNLV. So far the conference has had a good showing with the Rams holding an AP 17 ranking and featuring signature wins over Colorado, Creighton and Washington. The only blemish is a 3 point loss to St. Mary’s and convincing wins over Santa Clara and New Mexico State. Utah State only has a loss to Bradley among its games played. UCI is a common opponent with the Aztecs and the Aggies beat them by 10. Rounding out the top 5 is Nevada who has shown they can score. They have a quality win against Washington, while they lost their most recent game against Drake. Really, the most interesting benchmark for the Aztec season will be their December 29 matchup against Gonzaga in Spokane. Gonzaga has a predicted 83% chance to win outright. This will be broadcast on ESPN2. The Bulldogs share the same record, but also have lost to Washington and Purdue with wins over Syracuse, UCLA and USC. Obviously the Bulldogs have built their national brand, one the Aztecs seem to be on the road to emulating.