The 2023 NCAA Tournament has been a landmark entry in March Madness, with plenty of stunners and star-making performances. All of that has culminated in a unique, historic and quite intriguing Final Four.
The UConn Huskies have officially restored a proud basketball tradition. Miami head coach Jim Larranaga has now taken two non-blue chip programs to the final weekend and could solidify himself as an all-time great with a National Championship win. Dusty’s Darlings in Florida Atlantic have been winning all year long, but have unmistakably been a compelling Cinderella now on the cusp of true national stardom.
In many ways, San Diego State basketball is the odd team out in this Final Four. They lack the potential NBA talent that is rife on UConn. They don’t sizzle like Miami. Their Mountain West residence makes the Aztecs a mid-major, and by extension an underdog. But 10 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 13 years does not give them nearly the same luster as Florida Atlantic.
For most of those who will venture into the madness Saturday night, San Diego State offers the least satisfying narrative. Defensive-minded college teams do not have far-reaching appeal. Brian Dutcher’s Aztecs have never been well-suited for a Hollywood script. They don’t need to be. This team is poised to seize their own, gritty and unglamorous feel-good ending.
College basketball fans have been warned. Though, you shouldn’t be worried. The Aztecs would be more than satisfying champions and keen reminders that even in this modern era of college basketball, old-school philosophies can still rule the bracket.
Here are the three reasons why San Diego State basketball will break the system and win the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
“After a 24-year journey, here we sit at the Final Four representing San Diego State University.”
Jim Nantz speaks to @Aztec_MBB head coach Brian Dutcher ahead of his team’s Final Four matchup with FAU. pic.twitter.com/zWgoWP9KzF
— CBS Sports College Basketball (@CBSSportsCBB) March 31, 2023
Being labeled as a defensive team can translate into being a trendy pick for a first-round upset. That is what SDSU had to contend with in the South Region in the form of double-digit seeds Charleston and Furman. Not advancing past the first round since 2015 will make a program a punchline during March, regardless of the current roster. It is safe to say by just playing up to their No. 5 seeding, the Aztecs busted many brackets.
Of course, they more than exceeded that designation in the past couple weeks. San Diego State held opponents to under 63 percent shooting and 28 percent from 3-point range during the regular season. That has carried through into the Tournament, with no team scoring 65 points against this concrete fortress. That includes the high-powered Alabama Crimson Tide, whose star player Brandon Miller ( 3-of-19 shooting) was absolutely stifled in the Sweet Sixteen.
Florida Atlantic packs quite the offensive punch, averaging 78 points per game, but the Aztecs will be all over the perimeter preventing high-percentage looks. They may have their own shooting struggles, but their suffocating pressure outside and inside- thanks to Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah and his three blocks per game during March Madness- will be too much.
Defense has gotten this team this far, and it will allow them to be the last one standing.
2. San Diego State’s Experience
I said earlier that the Aztecs would break the system if they went all the way. That was not entirely true, as there is actually a championship blueprint tailor-made for their style that has already been printed by the Virginia Cavaliers. After years of unmet expectations, which culminated in a historic loss to No. 16 seed UMBC in 2018, the Wahoos won the National Championship in 2019. They played a slow-paced offense with an unyielding defense and survived. Why can’t SDSU follow suit?
San Diego State has endured their own disappointment before now finally breaking through. That is not a coincidence. These guys, head coach Brian Dutcher included, have faced a lot of adversity and are stronger for it. Guard Matt Bradley leads a lineup that starts four seniors and averages 12.5 points per game. He may not be flashy, but he is crafty and battle tested.
When he has an off night, which he did the last two games, Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler have proven capable of picking up the slack. With four bench players logging 14 minutes or more in their 57-56 Elite Eight victory over Creighton, the Aztecs are a deep team who fully embody the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
1. HC Brian Dutcher
Brian Dutcher learned from one of college basketball’s most underrated coaches of all time, Steve Fisher. Fisher took over as an interim head coach late in the 1989 season for a Michigan team who would win the title. He made his own bones, though, leading the Fab Five team that captivated the country before laying the foundation of a successful program in San Diego State.
He handed the keys over to Dutcher, who has left his own unique and indelible mark in Viejas Arena. He has had an ironclad grip on the conference the last few years and has helped establish more of an offensive identity. There are not a ton of high-end talents coming through those doors (Kawhi Leonard played under Fisher). Nevertheless, Dutcher melds together a bunch of good and hard-working players into a well-oiled machine.
That engine has sputtered many times before, but 2023 feels different. They have finally reached the Final Four and have no dark clouds hanging over them anymore. No player, coach or storyline should rattle them at this point.
No longer a punchline, San Diego State basketball is ready to cut down the nets Monday night.
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