Why San Diego State Has a Great Chance to Upset UConn Tonight

The Aztecs play a team-oriented, defense-first game that the sport of basketball is sorely missing. It may bring them an NCAA title.

A Wilson brand basketball with "Mach Madness" scrawled on it, sits in an aluminum ball rack
When you play as a team, you win as a team.
Todd Greene / Unsplash

The San Diego State University Aztecs’ trip to what was predicted to be a “wide open” March Madness got off to an inauspicious start. In fact, it didn’t start at all until President Joe Biden’s plane, Air Force One, left Southern California airspace.

Biden’s aerial presence delayed the Aztecs’ flight to Orlando, the site of their first game, by two hours. While the Aztecs were technically late to the Big Dance, per the team’s own itinerary, their attendance has proven well worth the wait. The number-five seed has made it all the way to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final, where tonight they face the University of Connecticut’s four-time national champion Huskies.

The Aztecs are a prohibitive underdog. The betting line is 7.5 points in favor of their opponent, UConn, but SDSU have overcome the odds many times over already. They’ve done so by adopting an old-school approach to basketball play, prioritizing “team” over any individual — something the sport on both the amateur and professional levels has shifted away from.

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“You have to want to play defense because that’s our culture,” said Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher last week, per a Wall Street Journal profile of the team. “If you play defense, then I’ll let you play free offensively.”

As noted in other outlets, the SDSU defense is “elite” with a “suffocating” scheme. It is, the Journal wrote, “exhausting” for Aztec opponents to play against.

“[I]t’s designed to wear opponents down over 40 minutes — and works best when Dutcher’s rotation is eight or nine players deep,” added the Journal. “On the flip side, rotating through so many athletes in a game means that none of them racks up gaudy minutes or stat lines.”

It’s becoming increasingly rare to see a basketball team play like this, especially on a championship level. Because there are only five players on the floor at any given time — and who stay there for long periods, as opposed to hockey players that take one- or two-minute shifts — basketball is the sport where teams most rely on the talent of individual players. From Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo, star players have carried their teams to titles often. Some NCAA schools placed their March Madness hopes primarily in single players, too, including Purdue with Zach Edey, the Associated Press Player of the Year winner. But they’ve all been eliminated.

SDSU’s defense kept the tournament’s overall number-one seed from advancing, forcing 14 turnovers and blocking eight shots in a Sweet 16 victory over Alabama. It has also held opponents to roughly 63 points per game, and has made room for “unselfish play” on offense, as the Journal put it, which led to a Final Four buzzer-beater shot taken by an arguably unlikely player, Lamont Butler. He was third on the team in scoring during the college basketball season, at just 8.7 points per game. But Butler sunk the shot and sent his Aztecs — hardly a “super team” like those others we see in basketball these days, which play to less-than-super results while not exactly being a “team” — to the NCAA championship game.

Perhaps the only problem with this Cinderella story — though the Aztecs were acknowledged as a solid squad pre-tournament, no five-seed has ever won March Madness and on many occasions they’re upset in the first round by 12 seeds — is the fact that SDSU are about to play UConn.

UConn rolls into the final having scored 78.6 points per game throughout. (SDSU has scored 71.5.) And the Huskies’ defense has held its opponents to only a little more than a point higher than that of the Aztecs. During the regular season, the UConn defense was ranked 12th in the nation in terms of efficiency. SDSU came in at 16.

Even if they don’t cut down the net and raise the trophy tonight, the Aztecs will already have proven that team play remains a tried-and-true means of accumulating victories in sports. Their neighbors in Major League Baseball might learn that the hard way this year. After two games this season, both of which were losses, the San Diego Padres were booed at home. They’ve since recovered and won two straight games, but one has to wonder how a team that’s asking “seven shortstops to play all over the diamond,” as MLB analyst Mark DeRosa described their lineup last month to InsideHook, will fare over 162 games.

The San Diego Padres front office may have built the MLB equivalent of a super team, but the Aztecs of San Diego State University are a team that’s super — and nobody’s booing them.

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