NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State basketball

One of the positives of the NCAA Selection Committee’s Top 16 reveal last Saturday was it presented a clear line of demarcation for tabbing teams that will be tournament sleepers for sports wagering purposes. Of the five teams previously profiled in this US Bets series, four found themselves in that Top 16, though none higher than the No. 3 seeds Iowa State and Kansas State were given. Saint Mary’s, the lone team to not crack the list, is likely lurking right outside the group.

With these new parameters in place, it’s back out west for this week’s selection: the 22nd-ranked San Diego State Aztecs. Currently 22-5 and in charge of their destiny atop the Mountain West Conference, the Aztecs will be in the field of 68 for the third straight year but have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2015. That round-of-32 exit capped a run of five straight years with at least one victory and included a pair of regional semifinal appearances.

Those tournament wins also came while current coach Brian Dutcher was an assistant to Steve Fisher. Dutcher is 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament in charge of San Diego State, suffering narrow losses to Houston in 2018 and Creighton last year bracketing the 2021 loss in which the team was flummoxed by 11th-seed Syracuse and its 2-3 zone.

There is understandable reticence by some to jump on the Mountain West Conference bandwagon. The Aztecs were part of a quartet that went 0-4 in NCAA Tournament play last year, raising questions of how good the conference really is and how much teams are able to game the metrics used by the selection committee to burnish their profiles.

But with five straight victories heading into a key two-game road swing at New Mexico on Saturday and Boise State on Tuesday night, this may also be the best chance to buy low at sportsbooks on San Diego State making a Final Four run.

An offense that takes the pressure off the defense

Mensah on the big screen 📺

Nathan Mensah’s dunk was a part of SC’s Top 10 last night coming in at No. 5.#TheTimeIsNow

— San Diego State Men’s Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) February 22, 2023

San Diego State’s calling card continues to be its defense, though its baseline numbers in terms of points allowed and opponents’ field goal percentage are off compared to previous seasons. That said, allowing 64.6 points per game still ranks in the top 50 among Division I teams. The Aztecs are still an elite perimeter defensive unit, ranking ninth in opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage at 28.8%.

The offense, however, is light years better than last season at 73.6 points per game, more than eight points better than 2021-22. Much of that can be attributed to better finishing at the rim and better free throw shooting. San Diego State is making 50.8% of its shots from inside the arc, an increase of 4.1 percentage points from last season, and sinking 73.1% of its foul shots, nearly four percentage points higher.

Some of that can be traced to a more balanced offense. Matt Bradley still leads the Aztecs in scoring at 13.0 points per game, but that is nearly four points below his 2021-22 average. Lamont Butler has been a much better finisher than last season, with his shooting percentage climbing from 39.1% last season to 55.1% while increasing his scoring from 7.3 to 9.0 points per game. Keshad Johnson’s shooting percentage is virtually unchanged from last season at 54.8% while his scoring average has ticked higher to 7.8 points.

Bradley is connecting on 37.6% of his 3-pointers, but San Diego State has multiple options on the perimeter to hurt opponents. Supersub Adam Seiko is the best of the bunch, connecting at a 48.9% clip (45-for-92) while one of four players with at least 30 made treys. The Aztecs are connecting at 35.8% from deep while taking more 3-pointers this season — their 200 3-pointers are already eight more than they had in 2021-22.

In terms of metrics, the Aztecs have no glaring weaknesses, but they also do not do anything at an elite level save that perimeter defense. San Diego State has a solid average rebound margin and turnover margin at plus 4.7 and plus 1.6, respectively, and it does an above-average job keeping opponents off the offensive glass.

Why seeding matters

DT making it look easy 🤷‍♂️

📺: @CBSSportsNet

— San Diego State Men’s Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) February 22, 2023

An AP Top 25 ranking does not matter much in the way of seeding, given that the selection committee uses multiple metrics in constructing the field. In this instance, San Diego State’s middling results in non-conference play could wind up being a useful hindrance that keeps them in the bottom half of their draw as a No. 6 or 7 seed.

That Aztecs’ best win came against Ohio State — a metrics darling that currently sits 13th in the 14-team Big Ten. It is the same story for San Diego State’s best non-conference road win, which came against a Stanford team in the bottom quarter of the Pac-12. The Aztecs are 0-3 in non-conference play against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, losing to Arizona, Arkansas, and Saint Mary’s in games all played on neutral courts.

That is what makes their next two games so important. Even a split, with the win preferably at Boise State compared to a New Mexico team currently on the wrong side of the bubble, should keep the Aztecs, at worst, in the top half of the field.

Lose both, and a slide to the dreaded 8-9 game is a possibility that would render all of this moot. Win both, and while a No. 5 seed comes into play and a likely tougher road against a No. 1 seed in the regional semifinals, it would also be near-impossible to drop San Diego State below those 6 or 7 lines.

Scanning the marketplace

Taking a responsible flyer on the Aztecs means picking them only as a Final Four team versus projecting them to cut down the nets in Houston. But for those with a dollar and a dream, Caesars Sportsbook offers the best title play at +9000, followed by DraftKings, Betway, BetMGM, bet365, and PointsBet all at +8000.

For Final Four plays, FanDuel has the best listing at +1900, followed by Betfred at +1800. The most common offering of +1600 can be found at BetRivers, Barstool Sportsbook, bet365, and Hard Rock, while PointsBet, WynnBET, and DraftKings all have the Aztecs at +1500.

Previous NCAA Tournament sleeper picks: Saint Mary’s; Iowa State; Xavier; Kansas State; Marquette.

Photo: Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales