LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This amounts to unfamiliar territory for San Diego State’s basketball team, the whole underdog thing. The No. 18 Aztecs are used to being the pursed, rather than the pursuer.
Not this time.
Not on Friday against No. 1 overall seed Alabama during the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at the KFC Yum! Center. The roles switch for a team that has been the favorite in 28 of its last 30 games.
Minus being slight road ‘dogs at perennial thorn Utah State and Boise State, desperately trying to breathe life into NCAA hopes after the Aztecs locked up the Mountain West Conference, you have to rewind to Arizona on Nov. 22 to match something that felt anywhere close to this.
Normally, the Aztecs are the punch throwers. The stretch run to this point has snaked through the comfy confines of the Mountain West, NCAA 12 seed College of Charleston and 13 seed Furman.
Can the bully handle being bullied?
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher insisted that underdog is an eight-letter word, but little more.
“Like (former coach Steve) Fisher said, we’re not a one-hit wonder,” said Dutcher, who will attempt to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. “We have a program. We have a culture. So I don’t care what game we go into. We don’t consider ourselves an underdog.”
Well, Las Vegas does.
Alabama is favored by 7 ½ points, which amounts to the widest spread among the 16 remaining teams not named Princeton. The Crimson Tide are the fifth-highest scoring team in the country at 82.3 points per game. The frontline soars to an average of 6-foot-10 and change.
This is not Wyoming in January.
This will test a dusty headspace, doubted by oddsmakers and off guards alike. Do you have the ability to make the clutch shot when the lights shine brightest? Can you make stops when Alabama’s offense threatens to hit hyperdrive?
“We’ve had games where we were picked to lose and I think we came out on top or gave them a good battle,” Aztecs senior Matt Bradley said. “… We know it’s the Sweet 16, so anybody can beat anybody.”
As former boxer Mike Tyson famously said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Throwing haymakers could be a two-way street, however, in the arena fast food built.
The Aztecs are uber-experienced, without a single underclassman in their nine-man rotation. The Crimson Tide lean on Brandon Miller, the best freshman in college basketball, with another freshman (Noah Clowney) and sophomore (7-foot Charles Bediako) among the starters. Freshman Rylan Griffen one of the first players off the bench.
“They’re an older group,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “We’re younger. We don’t have near the experience they have, which with most groups, I think that worries you. I think this group has shown how much maturity we have. And the fact that we’re young doesn’t mean that we’re immature.”
San Diego State also is one of the most physical teams in the country. On one hand, the SEC provides an ample testing ground for sharpened elbows and meaty shoulders.
The Aztecs, though, get under your offensive skin in ways few in the country can. They’ve held their last three opponents — Utah State (57), Charleston (57) and Furman (52) — to their lowest scoring outputs of the season in meaningful games.
“We hang our hat on defense,” San Diego State guard Darrion Trammell said. “I feel like we have the DNA and the characteristics of a team who makes a deep run in March.”
Alabama has been a beast at home, going 15-0. Away from Tuscaloosa, it’s a less intimidating 16-5.
“That’s the best thing about this tournament, that anyone has a chance,” Dutcher said.
Under Dutcher, the Aztecs have mined basketball’s open market for this type of moment. Bradley, a Cal transfer who is built like a linebacker, has the strength to play through contact and finish at the rim. Jaedon LeDee, via Ohio State and TCU, has grown into a late-season paint predator.
They might be out-shot. They rarely if ever are out-muscled.
“It’s not one against one,” Bradley said. “It’s one against five against us in the half court. We have each other’s back. We make multiple efforts, second, third, fourth efforts to stop somebody. … In other to beat us, it’s going to take a group effort.”
Alabama’s Miller: “We don’t overlook any team. We know this team is here for a reason.”
Underdog? On paper, yes. In the minds of most, yes.
In a newsletter published by The Athletic, it called the lack of top seeds in Louisville as “A gift for the Tide” while adding, “Presser’s on not to screw it up.” When the presser ramps up for one team, it lessens for another.
In 2023, the dogs not only bark, they bite.