AP NEWS

Dutcher’s Aztecs look to bounce back, get NCAA berth

October 25, 2019

SAN DIEGO (AP) — San Diego State’s basketball program has gotten to the point where it’s a big deal if the Aztecs don’t make the NCAA Tournament.

The Aztecs failed to live up to their lofty expectations last year. That will provide plenty of motivation as third-year coach Brian Dutcher molds a new-look team that has plenty of experience thanks to three key transfers and could be better than his first team, which did make the NCAA field.

“It’s not acceptable,” Dutcher said of last season, which ended with a loss to Utah State in the Mountain West Conference tournament. “We’ve been in the NCAA Tournament seven of the last 10 seasons. We’ve set a standard. We want to find ourselves a way back into the NCAA Tournament.”

The Aztecs lost three of their top four scorers from last year: the senior backcourt of Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley, and forward Jalen McDaniels, who opted for the NBA draft and was picked by Charlotte.

They do have three of their top six scorers back: junior forward Matt Mitchell, junior guard Jordan Schakel and sophomore forward Nathan Mensah.

The most heralded of the team’s newcomers is guard Malachi Flynn, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington State. Other experienced newcomers are graduate transfers KJ Feagin, a guard from Santa Clara, and New Zealander Yanni Wetzell, a 6-10 forward from Vanderbilt.

“I think we’re more mature and older,” said Dutcher, who came to SDSU with Steve Fisher in 1999 and succeeded him prior to the 2017-18 season. “Obviously Utah State poses a huge hurdle for everyone in the conference. They won 28 games and have everyone back. We have to up our game and see if we can fight them and others for a conference title.”

“When you lose two senior guards and Jalen to the NBA, that’s a bit to replace. The only comfort as a head coach is to do it with experienced players.”

Flynn averaged 15.8 points as a sophomore at WSU.

“He’s a high-level scorer,” Dutcher said. “He can shoot the 3, he’s good off the dribble and he’s a good passer. He averaged 16 points per game in the Pac-12. Those are transferable numbers. Sometimes with freshmen you project what they’re able to do, but with transfers, you’re able to see what they did before. It’s a good indication they’ll do the same things for you in your program.”

Flynn said he transferred because he liked SDSU’s winning culture.

“They’ve won recently. They go to the tournament pretty consistently,” Flynn said. “That was the biggest thing. All the other things, like the weather, obviously is a bonus. I’d probably be in snow right now if I was still at Washington State.”

Flynn said the Aztecs have what it takes to get back to the NCAAs.

“Our limit is really on us: how much we’re willing to play for each other, how much we’re willing to do the little things. I think definitely we can make the tournament. It’s going to be on us and not anybody else if we don’t.”

Feagin played only two games last year before getting hurt. As a junior in 2017-18, he averaged 17.5 points and four assists, and was named first team All-WCC. Wetzell started 10 of 32 games last year at Vanderbilt and averaged 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds.

Last year, Dutcher had five freshmen and three sophomores. This year there’s only one scholarship freshman on the roster.

The Aztecs were wildly inconsistent in nonconference play. They lost by 12 on their home court to crosstown rival San Diego, beat former conference rival BYU and then were stunned by Brown, losing by 21 to the Ivy League school.

It takes a lot for an MWC team to earn an at-large NCAA berth, and the Aztecs were left lacking.

“We’re not young,” Dutcher said. “We have super-experienced players who hopefully will allow us to get off to a better start. We played well down the stretch. But the start of the season, we’ll have to tweak things. Hopefully this year with veteran players, we’ll get off to a better start.”

The Aztecs will have four big nonconference games, all away from Viejas Arena, starting with a trip to BYU on Nov. 9. They play Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 28, and the next day will face either Texas Tech or Iowa. They play Utah of the Pac-12 at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Dec. 21.

“We didn’t do enough in nonconference to give ourselves a shot at an at-large berth,” Dutcher said. “We have some games on the nonconference schedule that will give us a boost if we play well.”

Mitchell, who has lost 25 pounds this offseason, was a freshman on the Aztecs team that lost by two points to Houston in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.

He said the Aztecs “can definitely get to the tournament. Not only get to the tournament, but win games.”

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson