NCAA women's tournament • Analysis
What comes next for Caitlin Clark is the hardest part
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With depth and defense, San Diego State keeps surprising

South Region final: No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 6 Creighton, 2:20 p.m. (CBS)

San Diego State's Matt Bradley, right, had plenty of help defending Rylan Griffen and Alabama in a Sweet 16 game Friday in Louisville. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
5 min

LOUISVILLE — If you’re looking for a San Diego State star, an individual hero with the defining performance in all these important games, you won’t find one. The Aztecs don’t lean on a dominant, towering center. And they don’t have an electric point guard who racks up points and plays nearly the entire game.

San Diego State instead has a group of veterans — nine of them in the regular rotation — who each contribute a bit and together accomplish a lot.

The fifth-seeded Aztecs have made it this far — to the Elite Eight, a first for the program, and now have a chance to extend that history-making run to the Final Four if they beat No. 6 seed Creighton on Sunday in the South Region final — because of their depth. And that depth enables San Diego State to play with the frenetic defensive intensity that took down top-seeded Alabama in the Sweet 16.

“We watched their film, and they hadn’t really faced anyone like us,” said Aguek Arop, a fifth-year forward who comes off the bench. “The more we watched film, the more excited we got.”

The Aztecs describe their defense not as a one-on-one effort but instead a one-on-five attack. It’s relentless. And it forced the Crimson Tide into a dreadful three-point shooting performance (3 for 27) and a quiet evening from star freshman Brandon Miller, who had nearly as many turnovers (six) as he had points (nine).

These San Diego State players must embrace defense before they arrive on campus because if “you can’t play defense, you’re not going to play,” said Adam Seiko, another fifth-year bench player. It’s part of the Aztecs’ DNA — and they hope it’s also the identity of a national title-winning team.

The Aztecs can maintain that defensive fervor because of their makeup. No member of the rotation plays more than Darrion Trammell, who averages just 27 minutes, and everyone in the crew of nine contributes at least 15 minutes per outing. Fresh legs are always available.

“We play 94 feet all game,” Seiko said. “We press you all game. Once the starting point guard’s still in while our bench is coming in, you can see him getting exhausted.”

That fuels the Aztecs. In timeouts, Seiko said they’ll remind one another: “They’re tired. They’re gassed. Just keep going.”

Seiko, who has started just 15 games but logged more than 2,600 minutes in five seasons, hears comments about how he could transfer and find a starting role elsewhere. But he likes winning, and this season alone, the Aztecs (30-6) have Mountain West regular season and tournament titles with a chance for more. Ask any of these bench players about their role, and they’ll explain. They know their value and what they bring to this team on a run.

“It’s easy to say you’re going to play nine or 10 guys,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “It’s having a team that’s willing to accept that and not pout when they come out of a game.”

The only other team in the Elite Eight that can match San Diego State’s depth is Florida Atlantic, the ninth-seeded squad that made a surprising run in the East Region. The Owls have a strikingly similar rotation — nine players averaging between 15 and 27 minutes.

Five of the teams in the Elite Eight have at least two players logging 30 or more minutes. Creighton, the Aztecs’ upcoming opponent, has four players who take on a load that large. The Bluejays lean heavily on their starters — one of whom, Arthur Kaluma, is Seiko’s brother — and not much on their bench.

For Creighton, that group of five starters has been excellent. Ryan Kalkbrenner, a 7-foot-1 center, is super efficient around the rim (70.8 percent from the field). Trey Alexander shoots 42.3 percent from beyond the arc on four attempts per game. Baylor Scheierman, previously a sharpshooter at South Dakota State, offers an additional scoring option. Ryan Nembhard has been a crafty point guard who can score and distribute. For Creighton, this works. But San Diego State may try to turn that short rotation into a vulnerability.

“At this point of the season, we’re pretty used to the wear and tear on our body,” Scheierman said.

Beyond their trademark defense, the Aztecs are less predictable. Different names appear as each games’s statistical leaders — a carousel of contributors that is “unheard of,” Seiko said. Trammell, a 5-10 starter who had scored seven points or fewer in roughly half his appearances this season, erupted for a 21-point performance against the Crimson Tide. Nathan Mensah, a defensive force, swatted away five Alabama shot attempts. The bench provided another 28 points in the Sweet 16 victory.

Miami sends Houston packing along with the rest of the No. 1 seeds

San Diego State only has one player who averages at least 10 points — Matt Bradley at 12.8 — but he had two early fouls against the Tide. He missed his first seven field goal attempts before finally making a pair of baskets in the final few minutes of the game. It didn’t matter, because the Aztecs had Trammell, plus significant production off the bench from Jaedon LeDee (12 points) and Micah Parrish (nine points, eight rebounds and a key late three-pointer, after which he shouted, “Boom!”).

“They pick up the slack,” said Bradley, who played just 19 minutes and had six points. “Being that deep means a lot, because when you have a little lineup, if someone’s not going, you’re very limited and you’ve got to stick to that one guy and hope he gets going. They sat me down, and I was cool with it.”

All Bradley wanted was for his fifth season of college basketball not to end just yet. The options around him ensured the Aztecs would survive for at least one more round, and that depth, Dutcher said, has been “the beauty of our season.”