So what should we make of San Diego State, which is 24-0 overall and 13-0 in the Mountain West? The Aztecs have experience in the NCAA tournament. They have made seven of the past 10 tournaments, with Sweet 16 appearances in 2011 and 2014, their best showings in the past decade. They are the fourth-most efficient team in the nation this season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball ratings, and one of the most balanced teams in the country.
San Diego State’s offensive efficiency rating is the ninth best in college basketball (116.1 points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent) and its defense is 11th (89.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Aztecs don’t commit many turnovers (16 percent of possessions, which ranks 23rd) and they don’t allow many offensive rebounds (25 percent of an opponent’s missed shot opportunities result in a second chance, which ranks 50th). Plus, opponents are shooting 52 percent around the basket against San Diego State (in the 75th percentile, per Synergy Sports) and less than 28 percent from beyond the arc (in the 97th percentile).
And yet there are reasons to doubt San Diego State and Coach Brian Dutcher, who took over the program after Steve Fisher retired in 2017.
San Diego State’s lack of aggressiveness on offense, coupled with perhaps too much aggressiveness on defense, could hurt the Aztecs. They draw a foul on just 29 percent of field goal attempts this season (which ranks 263rd out of 353 Division I teams) and commit a foul 33 percent of the time on defense, which ranks 189th. In other words, they don’t draw many fouls and foul their opponents too much, a dangerous combination.
The Aztecs are also not very tall; the roster’s average height is 76.8 inches, which ranks 181st. Research in 2013 showed an extra inch in the average playing height of a team resulted in winning two more games than expected. (That research encompassed playing time, not just roster height.) In 2017, Pomeroy found a one-inch height increase from one season to the next improved a team’s adjusted defensive efficiency by 3.2 points per 100 possessions. And yet the Aztecs are shorter than the three other top seeds in their projected bracket.
There’s also reason to be concerned about San Diego State’s strength of schedule. According to Pomeroy’s ratings, the Aztecs have played teams that are collectively 1.6 net points per 100 possessions better than their opponents (the 117th hardest schedule in the country), with an even easier nonconference schedule (minus-0.9, ranking 205th). To put the former in perspective, that’s equivalent to playing Toledo (11-13, 3-8 MAC) 24 times.
Sports Reference’s simple rating system is in agreement. That formula has the Aztecs playing against opponents that are collectively 2.8 points per game better than an average team, placing them 103rd in terms of strength of schedule. That would be on par with an entire slate of games against an opponent like Southern Utah (14-9, 7-5 Big Sky).
And Mountain West teams have been disappointing in past NCAA tournaments. The conference ranks last in BartTorvik.com’s Performance Against Seed Expectation metric since 2000 (17 wins fewer than expected based on seeding over 47 tournament appearances) and has been the third-worst conference since 2011 (nine wins fewer than expected based on seeding over 21 tournament appearances). San Diego State has six tournament appearances since 2011 and had a 31 percent chance of making at least one trip to the Final Four based on its seeding. The Aztecs haven’t even made the Elite Eight.
A less-than-impressive résumé probably pins San Diego State’s hopes of landing a No. 1 seed on its unbeaten record, giving the Aztecs a roughly 50/50 chance of remaining on the top. Why 50/50? That’s how often the Aztecs are projected to go undefeated over their remaining five games, according to Pomeroy’s college ratings. San Diego State would then have an 80 percent chance to win its sixth conference tournament, using estimated scores for the entire field derived by multiplying each team’s expected possessions by the team’s adjusted offensive rating found at Pomeroy’s site.
Is it impossible for San Diego State to earn a No. 1 seed and go on a deep March run? No, but that’s a lot of history to reverse for a team and a conference that disappoints when it matters most.
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