Aztecs advance to the National Finals after shot by Lamont Butler at the horn. Will face UConn, winners against Miami 72-59.
While many fans may either be still partying or recovering from excessive imbibing, the
Aztecs realize they have one more game to play. No time for celebrations. Those will have to wait. There is work to be done in a very short period of time. Instead, the Aztecs quickly left NRG stadium to return to their hotel to work on recovery and game planning for what looks to be their toughest test of the season Monday night against UConn. The Huskies are an early 7-point favorite to win their fifth men's basketball championship. For comparison, the Aztecs were a 6.5-point underdog against Alabama. As underdogs, San Diego State is 3-1 so far this season. Note: the betting line started at 6.5, then went to 7.5 and is now at 7 as of this writing.
Respect for the Mountain West
The Aztecs 32-6) winners of the Mountain West Conference tournament, have brought immediate and long-awaited respect to the conference. Long lacking credibility, the MWC had an 11 game losing streak before the Aztecs finally broke through with their Round of 64 win against Charleston. The list of victories has grown with wins over Furman, Alabama, Creighton, and most recently, Florida Atlantic. Standing squarely in front of them will undoubtedly be their toughest test in UConn. The ultimate question remains: Can the Aztecs parlay a successful season and tournament appearance into one final, explosive victory? For respect to be given, it must be earned. Speaking of earnings, the NCAA offers unit share payouts to conferences and their teams. When the dust settles, the conference will have about $2.7 million to share with its members over a six-year annuity. Next year, the eight units the Aztecs will have earned this year are added to the payout which will be about $600,000 per school. The key to these financial bumps are getting into the tournament and winning games.
Everyone has seen or heard Lamont Butler’s dramatic game-winning shot against Florida Atlantic (35-4). It will live as one of the most dramatic moments in NCAA Final Four history. First, kudos to a fantastic Florida Atlantic team. They are good and exciting and everyone hopes this team can continue to build their program in the years ahead. Secondly, the Aztecs would not have been in a position to win this game without the dynamic playing of the bench. In the second half, the bench outscored the starters 20-19. An ongoing season strength is a talented depth. Jordan Ledee scored 12 points and Aguek Arop added nine in a support role. For starters, Matt Bradley scored 21 and Lamont Butler added nine. Bradley started off on fire, but cooled off later in the first half. Step up the bench. The Aztecs shot 44% from the field but 50% from beyond the arc. This cold shooting contributed to trailing 40-33 at halftime, but as the Aztecs has done all year, other players stepped up to fill in. They are a complete team, despite lacking a consistent single scorer. Instead they rely upon the entire cast.
Connecticut (30-8), meanwhile, played an upstart Miami Hurricanes (29-8) team, with eyes on continuing their upset string. They recently knocked off both Houston and Texas on their way to the Final Four matchup against the Huskies. Unfortunately for Miami, they played against a Huskies team that was firing on all cylinders. Miami looked slow and lost at times trying to defend against the Connecticut press break and fast break. They had no answer for 6’10” center Adamo Sanogo who dominated at both ends of the court, scoring 21 points and 10 rebounds. Jordan Hawkins added 13 points, helping the Huskies shoot 50% from the field. They also had a 41-32 rebound advantage including five blocks. Connecticut easily broke Miami’s full-court press time after time, even getting behind defenders for easy baskets. The Huskies played like the seasoned veterans they are. Heading into the final, it is easy to see why they are favored to win against San Diego State.
Can the Aztecs pull off the upset?
The Aztecs have shown they can play on the big stage with anyone. The victory against Alabama was textbook Aztecs basketball. Focus on defense and let someone step up and lead the way, as Darion Trammell did against Alabama. UConn will stretch the Aztec defense with their quickness, sharp passes, and effective screening. The Aztecs will do well to stick to their half-court defense. Miami found full-court presses ineffective against the Huskies. Sanogo will be key for the Aztecs to contain. Nathan Mensah has done a remarkable job against other big men, but Sanogo is in a class all his own. He shoots over 60% from the field and is not afraid to shoot the occasional three. He is also not prone to fouls, so expect him to play his usual allotment of 26 minutes. The Aztecs will need to ride whoever has the hot hand, stick to their aggressive defense, control the time, and please make more free throws. I’ve written extensively about this being a potential weakness. They shot 59% from the line against FAU, missing three of four in the last two minutes. They will need to do better than 13-22 from the line if the game is close and they hope to win. Every point will matter. The Aztecs struggled with some easy in-the-paint shots as well as rebound follow-ups. Connecticut will not be afraid to foul the Aztecs knowing they struggle. This is the game to break out and add an extra 6 or 7 points to the bottom line.
This has been a remarkable run, despite what Monday will bring. Can the Aztecs win a national title? Yes, they are capable of doing so but will need a few breaks to go their way. This has been a Cinderella story, one that has led the Aztecs to the promised land. Will we see another miracle? Or will the tradition and talent of Connecticut hold off the upstarts from the west? The Aztecs are trying to become the only west coast team besides UCLA to win a national title. The city of Houston has embraced FAU as the underdog darlings. After last night, there was a seismic shift in support of the Aztecs. The announced attendance was 73,860 but there were quite a few empty seats, even more after the conclusion of the first game. If the Aztecs pull off this upset, there will probably be twice that many people who will say they were at the game. Respect is on the line. It must be earned and there is one more work day required to achieve that goal. I am going to follow the momentum of the Aztecs and predict a victory, 74-72. One has got to ride that sweet feeling. Game On.