Final Four notebook: San Diego State arrives to VIP treatment, then finds NRG Stadium court is a giant stage

Tribune Content Agency

HOUSTON — It didn’t take long for San Diego State’s basketball team to learn this is not an ordinary road trip.

They got off the plane Wednesday night … and a deejay was playing music while they walked down a carpet to cheers from workers.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” senior Matt Bradley said. “I didn’t picture my last week of college basketball being like this.”

The biggest difference came Thursday morning, when they arrived at NRG Stadium for practice and stepped on the court. Or, more accurately, stepped up onto the court.

At Final Fours in domed NFL stadiums, it is raised 27 inches. “Like you’re a stage,” Aztecs forward Jaedon LeDee said.

The NCAA used to push it the corner of the football field footprint to maximize sight lines from permanent seating areas. About 15 years ago, it experimented with the pedestal idea in the middle of the field, liked it and has stuck with it. Benches are in pits below the court, with the heads of players poking above the hardwood. The head coach gets a lone stool on the sideline while the assistants sit below.

The biggest adjustment is with perimeter shooting, since there is no immediate backdrop behind the baskets like in a traditional arena. It’s a good 40 yards before any fixed seating areas, messing with depth perception.

To that end, and after a few years of dreadful shooting, the NCAA added a Thursday practice to give teams three chances to adjust. There’s a mandatory open practice Friday that fans can watch for free, plus an optional shootaround Saturday morning.

“It feels like you’re outdoors at the park,” Bradley said. “Even though you’re in an enclosed space, it’s so big that the sound doesn’t really transfer like a usual indoor space. You have to alter your mind a little bit, think that you’re outdoors playing. You have to start in close and work your way back, instead of start pulling 3s right away. Find the rim and get familiar with it, then work your way out.”

In that regard, Bradley has an advantage. He grew up playing at Andulka Park in Riverside, as did Lamont Butler.

“Even sometimes in college,” Bradley said, “if I have to get back to my roots and find myself, I’ll go outside and shoot some hoops.”

Micah Parrish welcomed the new surroundings, too. He struggled inside Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center last week, shooting 2 of 14 (and one of those was a banked-in 3).

But he grew up shooting on a portable outdoor hoop in Detroit that they moved into the street for impromptu games, even neighborhood tournaments. He was out there in the rain, even in the cold and snow, bringing a pump to reinflate the ball after the frigid temperatures flattened it.

“I think I like it more than the last couple gyms we were in,” Parrish said of 72,000-seat NRG Stadium. “It doesn’t really bother me as much.”

Coach Brian Dutcher is optimistic.

“We don’t shoot it well in smaller arenas sometimes,” he said. “We’ll see what it is. Maybe this will help us.”


It couldn’t have worked out better for LeDee. His winding college basketball journey — Ohio State to TCU to SDSU — has led him back home to Houston. He grew up just north of the city and attended The Kinkaid School.

“I haven’t been home since the summer,” LeDee said. “It feels good to be home. A lot of familiarity, brings back a lot of memories.”

He’s the only member of the team to have been inside NRG Stadium before, attending some Houston Texans games. “But,” he cautioned, “I’m a (Dallas) Cowboys fan.”

Bradley was randomly a Texans fan growing up but “organizational changes” have led him to switch allegiances. He’s a Cowboys fan now, too.

Nearly a Torero

Former USD head coach Sam Scholl and starting guard Joey Calcaterra are at the Final Four, Scholl as a special advisor for SDSU and Calcaterra as a rotation player for UConn. There’s another USD connection as well: Bryan Greenlee of Florida Atlantic.

The 6-foot guard played his freshman year at Minnesota, decided “it just wasn’t the right fit” and entered the transfer portal. USD was those called, and a long-distance recruitment was spawned because of the pandemic restrictions on campus visits.

USD liked him. He liked USD. He orally committed and began to meet his new Toreros teammates via Zoom.

Then Florida Atlantic called. Greenlee grew up in Gainesville, Fla., and knew coach Dustin May from high school. Traveling across the country during the pandemic was a daunting prospect, especially with an offer from an in-state school now.

“When I committed to San Diego, I didn’t have the FAU offer yet,” Greenlee said. “I got a call. I just talked it over with my parents, and it was the right fit. It was definitely a hard choice. San Diego and FAU are both beautiful campuses, close to the beach. Good ball. But I just ended up going with my gut.”

It’s worked out. Greenlee has started 87 games in three seasons with the Owls, averaging 8.8 points per game while shooting just under 40% on 3s.

Fair and square

Bradley has a message for fans who are disappointed the Final Four has three newbies and only one blue blood in Connecticut. Miami knocked off both of the state’s top teams: No. 1 seed Houston in the Sweet 16 and No. 2 seed Texas in the Elite Eight.

“For somebody to make that statement,” he said, “you can’t be a true March Madness fan, you can’t be a true basketball fan. Because at the end of the day, everybody has a chance to be here. These teams they wanted here, they’re not.

“We got here fair and square. We beat some really good teams. So have the other teams in the Final Four. Everybody had a chance to participate in the Final Four. And if they didn’t make it, better luck next year.”