By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
Editor’s note: John Fanta is counting down his top 15 college basketball teams at regular intervals leading up to the start of the 2022-23 season. Checking in at No. 15 is San Diego State.
Over the past three seasons, San Diego State has a combined record of 76-16.
We can only wonder what could have been for the Aztecs in 2020 had the NCAA Tournament not been canceled. They were 30-2 at the time and filled with potential for a deep run.
Entering his sixth season at the helm, coach Brian Dutcher will enter this campaign with just about every box checked for the Aztecs to play deep into March. Think about this: Dutcher is the only coach in program history to win at least 20 games in each of his first five seasons. He’s also been to the Mountain West Championship Game each year he’s been on the sideline, winning it twice.
Despite all the regular-season success, Dutcher and the Aztecs have yet to break through in March. After collapsing last year against Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, there’s plenty of motivation to flip the script on the big dance floor this year.
Here’s why the Aztecs are poised for a big 2022-23 season, and why they’re No. 15 in my preseason rankings.
There’s no shortage of experience—it will be the best trait of this team.
The Aztecs return four of their five starters from last year’s 23-9 team, with fifth-year senior Matt Bradley leading the way. The 6-foot-4 guard transferred from California following the 2020-21 season and made an instant impact, being named an all-conference first-teamer and the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year.
Matt Bradley drops 26 points on Colorado State
Matt Bradley scored a season-high 26 points in a 79-49 victory over Colorado State last season.
The team needed someone to steer the ship offensively, and Bradley took the role and ran with it. He averaged 16.9 points and 5.4 boards per game, shooting 44% from the floor and 40% from 3. Bradley’s return to the program is huge for scoring stability, and he is on track to be one of the best guards in the country outside the Power 6.
Junior Lamont Butler will join Bradley in the backcourt and run point for the Aztecs. He averaged 7.3 points and 2.1 assists last season, but really made an impact on defense, where his 46 steals ranked second in the Mountain West and landed him a spot on the conference’s all-defense team.
Sixth-year senior guard Adam Seiko, a solid role player who averaged 23.5 minutes per game and will likely come off the bench, is back for one last season.
The big piece of news in the Aztecs’ offseason came when 6-foot-10 star Nathan Mensah, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, announced he would return for his senior season. Mensah’s 71 blocks led the conference and ranked 30th nationally last season, and his aggressive presence gives the Aztecs game-changing rim protection and defense on the interior.
Nathan Mensah throws down NASTY slam
Nathan Mensah provided the San Diego State Aztecs with a spark against the Colorado State Rams during a contest last season.
Mensah was reportedly leaning toward going pro following discussions with several NBA scouts, agents, front office personnel and draft experts, but changed his mind after he was not one of the 120 invitees to the NBA and G League combines in Chicago.
Mensah’s presence makes the Aztecs one of the toughest opponents for an offense to match up against. In addition to making an NCAA Tournament run, the senior will also be looking to evolve his offensive game after averaging 7.0 points and 6.9 boards last season.
Joining Mensah among the returnees in the frontcourt is 6-foot-7 senior Keshad Johnson, who started all 32 games last season and averaged 7.2 points and 4.5 boards in 23.8 minutes.
Aguek Arop, a 6-foot-6 wing who’s been with the program from the start of his collegiate career, is also returning for a fifth season. Cade Alger, a 6-foot-9 forward, returns for his junior year.
The offseason goal: Find. Scoring.
San Diego State can defend as well as anybody.
In fact, the Aztecs finished at No. 2 in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last season.
For this team to make a major run, it will need more than just Bradley to piece together big scoring efforts.
Who’s new on the roster?
Dutcher hit the portal seeking offense, and he found it through Seattle University transfer Darrion Trammell.
Trammell averaged 18.7 points and 5.1 assists over the past two seasons and is one of only two players listed at 5-foot-10 or shorter to score more than 1,000 points in that span. Two years ago, his 20.5 PPG led the WAC and ranked in the top 20 in the country. He’s also particularly tough to stop in pick-and-roll situations. According to Synergy Sports, he averaged 6.9 PPG in those situations last season, the fifth-best mark in the country.
It will be interesting to see how these numbers translate to the Mountain West, but Trammell does not need to light it up for this Aztecs team. He just has to be able to deliver a consistent scoring spark, and he will likely be a starter this season.
A potential X-factor for the Aztecs is two-time transfer Jaedon LeDee, who started his career at Ohio State before heading to TCU. After sitting out for a redshirt season due to NCAA transfer rules, LeDee could give SDSU a different dimension offensively with his physical 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame.
He averaged 5.8 points and 3.9 boards in 15.2 minutes for TCU in 2020-21. The question will be just how much he can benefit from the move to San Diego State, and a year of development with Dutcher and his staff.
The other key transfer portal acquisition is 6-foot-5 wing Micah Parrish. The former Oakland standout averaged 12.1 points and 6.0 boards, including 15.3 points over the final 11 games of his sophomore season. Shooting 35% from beyond the arc this past season, Parrish could serve a perimeter role in the Aztecs’ offense.
Projected starting five
— G: Lamont Butler, 6-foot-2, junior
— G: Darrion Trammell, 5-foot-10, senior (Seattle University)
— G: Matt Bradley, 6-foot-4, senior (fifth year)
— F: Keshad Johnson, 6-foot-7, senior
— F: Nathan Mensah, 6-foot-10, senior (fifth year)
San Diego State has experience, toughness and an extra source of motivation. The Aztecs will be battle-tested in non-conference play, which is highlighted by a trip to the Maui Invitational.
This team certainly has that psychological hurdle of NCAA Tournament struggles to get past. But with so many returning players, not to mention three key transfers who are projected to lift the team offensively, Dutcher has assembled a roster that could dominate the Mountain West.
What will determine this team’s ceiling? Offensive progression. The Aztecs were ranked No. 162 in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency last season and finished dead last in the Mountain West with 192 3-pointers (6.0 per game).
For a 23-win team that was on the cusp of making the second round of the NCAA Tournament, that’s a testament to how strong they were on the defensive end. If Dutcher can get this team to be less predictable offensively, the Aztecs could absolutely get to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
Get more from College Basketball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.