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A look at San Diego State’s Sweet 16 berth and how it affects the conference

The Aztecs made history Saturday, and have the potential to make more this weekend.

Furman v San Diego State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

On Saturday, the San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball team made history.

San Diego State was one of four Mountain West to make the NCAA Tournament, the second consecutive season the conference put four teams in the tournament. San Diego State, the highest seed of the quartet (No. 5), showed out emphatically. Roughly 48 hours after its six-point victory over Charleston, with a Sweet 16 berth on the line, the No. 5-seeded Aztecs dominated No. 13 Furman Paladins, 75-52, who pulled off a remarkable upset victory on Thursday against No. 4 Virginia.

SDSU’s 23-point victory was the largest win in any NCAA Tournament game the program has played in throughout its history. Not only that, but it was also the largest margin-of-victory for any Mountain West school since the conference’s inception in 1999-00.

With head coaches Steve Fisher, who turned the program around after it was a bottom-feeder in the WAC, and Brian Dutcher, the Aztecs have established a ruthless defensive identity — one that has buoyed SDSU into a mid-major powerhouse with 12 NCAA Tournament appearances since the turn of the century.

That didn’t change last weekend, even against two top-80 offenses in Charleston (78 in KenPom ORTG) and Furman (35).

SDSU held Charleston and Furman to its worst scoring outputs of the season at 57 and 52 points, equating to 82.9 points and 82.4 points per 100 possessions (per KenPom), respectively. They held their two foes to a combined 27.5 percent from 3-point range and 41.1 percent from inside-the-arc.

As they do so well, the Aztecs relied on their physicality and switchiness defensively. Even with 6-foot-10 big Nathan Mensah on the floor, the Aztecs typically switch 1-5 with occasional blitzes/traps.

For what they lack in collective height, they make up for in versatility and length with Jaedon LeDee, Keshad Johnson, Micah Parrish, Aguek Arop and Matt Bradley, who made life miserable for the Furman’s trio of Jalen Slawson (who battled foul trouble), Mike Bothwell and JP Pegues.

San Diego State’s offense wasn’t always the prettiest, but posted an offensive rating north of 118 against the Paladins with an effective field goal percentage of 55.2, its highest eFG% since Feb. 11 against UNLV (61.7).

On Friday, additional history will awaits — and it comes with a very tall task against No. 1 overall seed Alabama.

How does this affect the conference?

Prior to San Diego State’s win over Charleston, the Mountain West had not won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2018, having gone 0-11 since then.

The Mountain West didn’t further help its case Thursday night with Boise State’s loss to Northwestern, leaving San Diego State as the only MW team standing heading into the second weekend.

Nevertheless, the Mountain West secured at least six units this time around, its most since it logged seven in 2013. The Mountain West had not secured five since then, either.

The Mountain West has also not had a team make the Sweet 16 since Nevada in 2018, when it went on a chaotic run as a No. 7 seed with two comeback wins over No. 10 Texas and No. 2 Cincinnati.

Previous to the Wolf Pack, the conference had five teams survive until the second weekend:

  • Utah (2005)*
  • UNLV (2007)
  • BYU (2011)*
  • San Diego State (2011, 2014)

* - formerly of the MW

It has never made the Elite 8, going 0-6 in those previous six games. The Wolf Pack lost to No. 11 Loyola Chicago by one point (69-68); No. 4 SDSU lost to top-seeded Arizona by six in 2014; No. 7 UNLV narrowly lost to No. 3 Oregon by four. Only a few nail-biting losses.

Can San Diego State snap that streak and beat Alabama?

All I’ll say is that it’s definitely possible — have we forgot what month it is?

The Aztecs are a top-5 defense, while Alabama is a top-20 offense and a top-5 defense. Alabama has a surefire top-5 pick in next year’s NBA Draft in wing Brandon Miller, who’s an elite blend of catch-and-shoot ability and off-the-bounce chops, despite being a little shaky around the rim.

The Tide also have a formidable playmaking backcourt in Jaden Bradley, Jahvon Quinerly and Mark Sears, who spearhead Alabama’s fast-paced attack. They have an elite interior presence in Charles Bediako — similarly to Mensah, a very good defensive-minded big — and Noah Clowney.

Once again, San Diego State doesn’t have the prettiest offense, but as long as Bradley, Lamont Butler, Adam Seiko and Micah Parrish knock down shots, the Aztecs could possibly keep pace for 30-35 minutes. Its incredibly deep, but so is Alabama, who, like SDSU, will bruises opposing offenses with its physicality.

If San Diego State can score — especially in transition of live-ball turnovers — they can beat Alabama. The overall odds won’t be in their favor, but at this time of year, anything’s possible.