What San Diego State’s Win Over New Mexico Says About Their Postseason ChancesPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014
By now, if you care, you know already: San Diego State put together an impressive late-game run to overcome a 16-point deficit to knock off New Mexico on Saturday night, earning the Mountain West conference regular season title and thrilling the capacity Viejas Arena crowd. It was a great game, a great scene and a great encapsulation of all that we love about college basketball.
For San Diego State, the run at the end of the game was indicative of what they’ve done all year. Back in February, we wrote that what made this team special was their ability to do what they wanted to do on the court and prevent their opponents from doing what they wanted to do. However, for most of the middle part of the game, it was New Mexico that was having their way. They were pounding the ball inside with big guys Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and with 12 minutes remaining in the game, that duo had outscored the Aztecs 33-25 by themselves. And then came the 1-3-1 zone, a last resort from Aztec head coach Steve Fisher to prevent those Lobo bigs from doing them in. And it worked to a T. Bairstow had only a single free throw after that point, New Mexico only scored seven points the remainder of the game (three of which came on a meaningless Kendall Williams three at the buzzer) and the Aztecs finished on a wild 26-7 run to earn the title. There were 18 possessions when the game was still in doubt after the Aztecs switched to a 1-3-1 zone; in those 18, they forced eight turnovers and five missed threes (for completeness’ sake, the other five possessions included a pair of missed two-point jumpers, a total of one-for-four from the free throw line and – the lone bit of good – a Deshawn Delaney corner three).
So, that’s a wrap on the regular season, and as good of a game as that was, and as great of an accomplishment as the Aztecs’ earned in winning the regular season title, the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament loom and both teams will need to put Saturday night in the rear view mirror and more forward. So, what did we learn about these two teams on Saturday night that can inform what’s going to happen in the coming weeks? Or, perhaps, more accurately, what did Saturday night confirm about these teams?
For San Diego State, it’s clear that the great strength of this team (aside from length and athleticism) is adaptability. Oh, so you’re getting killed in the paint by a pair of opposition bigs? Well, let’s shift to a 1-3-1 zone, force turnovers and get out in transition. Still, completely flipping the script and outscoring your opponent by 22 points over a 12-minute stretch is not exactly the thing you can count on in March. But it did highlight the fact that the Aztecs need to be able to force turnovers and score in transition (SDSU outscored the Lobos 16-4 in fast break points and 22-8 in points off of turnovers) in order to score points. In the halfcourt, we’ve known all year that there are enough weaknesses shooting the ball that opponents are able to pack it in on defense and make everything difficult in the halfcourt. However, there is some good news in that Matt Shrigley and Aqeel Quinn have been opening up the interior a bit with their three-point shooting (they’re a combined 11-of-26 from three in the past five games). However, despite their offensive struggles on Saturday night, the big takeaway concern had to be their complete inability to deal with the New Mexico bigs in a man-to-man setting. Really, it wasn’t even close. Skylar Spencer and Josh Davis were repeatedly overpowered by Kirk and Bairstow, the perimeter defense did little to dissuade entry passes and, should the Aztecs run up against a team with good size from here on out, they could be in significant trouble.
Of course, there are few teams with post play as fearsome as the Lobos. And really, the takeaway for New Mexico is pretty positive. Bairstow and Kirk are capable of dominating and there aren’t a ton of teams that are going to be able to match that type of post play. And even on a night where the team got almost nothing from anybody else (the other eight Lobos who played combined to shoot 6-of-24 for 14 points), they had a 16-point lead against a top ten team in one of the most fearsome road environments in the country. Obviously, priority one is to spend some time googling “How to Attack the 1-3-1 Zone” in advance of maybe seeing the Aztecs again on Saturday afternoon. But once again, one of the big concerns that had cropped up all season, bit them in the butt on Saturday: other than the big three of Bairstow, Kirk and Williams, can anybody consistently score even a handful of points for you? And, with a first-year head coach in Craig Neal, does he have enough experience in big games to be able to help his team over the hump in close ones like this. Still, in the grand scheme of things, while Saturday night certainly will leave a bad taste in their mouths, these Lobos are still very capable of big things in the remainder of this season.