On Saturday evening, San Diego State completed a perfect first half of conference play by going into the Thomas & Mack Center and coming away with a comfortable 15-point win over UNLV. As usual, the Aztecs earned the win not on the basis of amazing offense, but on athletic, grinding, demoralizing defense. Steve Fisher‘s team blocked seven shots, challenged seemingly every jumper and held UNLV to a mere 0.83 points per possession. The Aztecs played slowly (34.7 percent of their possessions ended with five seconds or fewer on the shot clock), deliberate and, yes, maybe a little ugly. But none of this is new. Fisher’s heyday on Montezuma Mesa has been marked by defense-first teams, and increasingly, a slow tempo has corresponded with that. Perhaps unbelievably given how defensively-oriented his teams have been, this year’s group is more reliant on that defensive identity than any previous team in the Fisher era.
First, let’s look at the history. In each of the Aztecs’ last 10 seasons, the team has ranked higher nationally in defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency (per KenPom). Furthermore, the Aztecs have been among the top 10 defensive teams nationally four times, and their adjusted defensive efficiency has checked in below 90 points per 100 possessions three times (including this season). In seven of those 10 years, the Aztecs have played at a bottom-half tempo nationally. As a result of all these numbers, San Diego State has gone 250-85 (74.6%) overall, 113-42 (72.9%) in the Mountain West, taken six trips to the NCAA Tournament, notched the only five NCAA wins in program history while there, and earned two Sweet Sixteen appearances.