The truth serum of March has arrived for Aztecs basketball - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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  • 6 March 2020

Yanni Wetzell woke up Monday morning and looked at the calendar, and it hit him.

It’s March.

“I felt this little edge about me,” Wetzell said. “I looked forward getting to the gym. I got a great workout in, then I went to the weight room. I don’t know, it’s just this feeling inside me that I’m ready to go. It’s the month we’ve been all working toward, for our whole lives almost.”

Malachi Flynn nodded.

“This is what matters,” he said. “We’ve known that all along, leading up to this. March is what matters in college basketball. That’s where you prove yourself and prove yourself as a team.”

It is the beauty and bane of the college game, rewarding and relentless, that what you did for four months counts less in public opinion than what you do over a few games. San Diego State’s basketball team understands that cruel reality. Embraces it.

Then again, what choice do they have?

Their March begins at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament against a 12-19 Air Force team that it beat by 15 a month ago at 7,000 feet. Win that, and they play in the semifinals Friday night. Win that, and they advance to Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. championship game.

What really matters for the Aztecs, what will ultimately define their season, starts two weeks later in the NCAA Tournament, but there still are enough tangible benefits to keep them engaged in Las Vegas.

At stake is likely whether they are 1 or 2 seed in the 68-team bracket, and where they’d go for the second weekend — two hours by bus to Los Angeles or five hours by plane to New York? There’s the opportunity for a team addicted to winning to continue feeding their habit. There’s also — and don’t underestimate how badly they want this — a possible revenge encounter in the Mountain West semis against UNLV, the “1” in their 28-1 record.

“Definitely,” Matt Mitchell said, “that’s a game we really want again.”

Two things have to happen first. UNLV has to beat Boise State in the 4-5 quarterfinal Thursday, which seems likely considered they played here eight days earlier and the Rebels led by 27 in the second half. And SDSU has to avoid arguably the biggest upset in Mountain West Tournament history, considering the Aztecs have won 12 straight quarterfinals and the Falcons, wait, have they yet to win even one?

“Really pumping me up right now,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said sarcastically after confirming the Falcons are 0-16 in Mountain West quarterfinals.

“Well, they’re a good team, they’re definitely a good team,” Falcons senior forward Lavelle Scottie said of the Aztecs, whom he called the “No. 1 team in the nation” last month. “But they put their shoes on like we put our shoes on. … You never know. Anything could happen.”

Scottie did find one possible edge: the rare a.m. tip.

“For us, we’re used to getting up really early,” he said. “This is an advantage to us. I don’t know if other teams are used to getting up this early and playing. So it’s in our favor, I guess.”

It appeared to be Wednesday. Air Force and Fresno State tipped at noon for their play-in game for the right to face the nation’s fifth-ranked team fewer than 24 hours later. The Falcons, after being swept in the season series, trailed for just 61 seconds, shot 53.7 percent and got a career-high 24 points from sophomore guard AJ Walker to secure a 77-70 win that had Pilipovich so giddy he lugged a giant bag of popcorn into the postgame news conference, plopped it on the table and asked: “Anyone want some popcorn?”

SDSU faced Air Force only once during the regular-season, skipping the game at Viejas Arena in the Mountain West’s unbalanced schedule. The Aztecs won 89-74 at Clune Arena on Feb. 8, but it wasn’t as easy as the score indicates.

Air Force shot 51.9 percent in the second half against the team ranked seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, making 10 of its first 13 shots and closing to three points inside seven minutes to go. It took a contested 3-pointer by Mitchell from the deep left corner as the shot clock expired (and as he fell into the bench) to trigger SDSU’s late surge.

The Aztecs struggled to find a defense that worked, trying a 2-3 zone they had barely played all season (and haven’t played since) until the players begged out of it down the stretch. The 74 points were the most scored against the Aztecs this season until Nevada got 76 in Saturday’s regular-season finale.

Or as coach Brian Dutcher put it: “They scored a lot of points on us.”

That memory will help in terms of focus and motivation, but the Aztecs have had little dedicated practice time for Air Force’s sets if they choose to play man defense. They alternated between preparing for the basics of Air Force and Fresno State all week, and it was more of the same Wednesday because practice was in the morning — before they knew their opponent — on account of flight logistics.

SDSU’s biggest advantage will be talent, of course, and rest — 113 hours since their last game versus 21½ for an Air Force team that played its starters 29, 33, 34, 35 and 38 minutes Wednesday.

And history, too. The Aztecs have reached the Mountain West final in five of the last six years and nine of the last 11. The Falcons have never reached the semifinals and haven’t defeated SDSU outside of Colorado (and altitude) since 2005.

And purpose.

It’s March. It matters.

Before every practice, Dutcher recites a thought of the day. Tuesday’s was a quote describing championship teams that waxed poetic about intestinal fortitude and mental toughness and a bunch of other sports cliches. Dutcher asked his team what it meant.

Senior guard KJ Feagin put up his hand.

“It means,” Feagin said in a booming voice, “that we’ve got everybody’s best shot. Now it’s time to show everyone our smoke.”

No. 5 SDSU vs. Air Force

Thursday: 11:30 a.m. at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

On the air: CBSSN; 1360-AM, 101.5-FM

Records: SDSU is 28-1, Air Force is 12-19

Series history: SDSU leads 58-24 and is 19-4 in the last 23 games (and all four losses were at Air Force). The Aztecs won the only meeting this season 89-74 on Feb. 8 at Clune Arena.

Aztecs update: Their mojo back after coming from 13 down to win at Nevada last Saturday and end the Mountain West regular season at 17-1, the Aztecs now enter the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed and prohibitive favorite. The Kenpom metric gives them a 74.7-percent chance of reaching Saturday’s final and a 58.6-percent chance of winning it. Utah State is next at 19 percent. No one else is above UNLV’s 7.1 percent. SDSU reached the Mountain West final the previous four times it was the top seed but won only once, in 2006. The Aztecs have the most wins (32) and highest winning percentage (.681) of anyone in the tournament’s history. Nathan Mensah remains out, but coach Brian Dutcher reiterated his hope to have him for the NCAA Tournament in two weeks “if he can clear some medical hurdles.” KJ Feagin hasn’t participated in live drills since rolling his ankle at Nevada but had his sneakers on and shot on the side without difficulty. “If it was up to me, I’d say 100 percent,” Feagin said of his chances of playing in Las Vegas. “But being realistic, it’s up in the air. … It’ll be a collaborative decision.” SDSU is fourth in both NET and Kenpom, seventh in both the Sagarin ratings and ESPN’s BPI.

Falcons update: The ninth-seeded Falcons are the conference’s most bipolar team, ranking 73rd nationally in offensive efficiency and 319th (and last in the Mountain West) in defensive efficiency. That was on display in Wednesday’s 77-70 win against Fresno State in the play-in game, shooting 60 percent in the second half and outscoring the taller Bulldogs 30-10 in the paint and 14-2 on fast breaks. But they also struggle to stop anyone, and the Bulldogs overcame a double-digit deficit to briefly take the lead after making four 3-pointers in just over two minutes. AJ Walker had a career-high 24 points after going 5 of 7 beyond the arc. Lavelle Scottie added 21 points, most coming in the paint. The Falcons are 6-20 overall in the Mountain West Tournament, with all six wins coming in the play-in game. Here’s what Coach Dave Pilipovich said when asked how he’d get his team fired up to face the Aztecs: “If that group’s not motivated and excited to play in the quarterfinal, which we’ve never advanced past, and playing a top-five team in the country, then we’ve got the wrong guys. And I know we don’t have the wrong guys because our institution doesn’t have those type of people.”

Next up: Mountain West semis against UNLV or Boise State on Friday (6 p.m., CBSSN)


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