No. 6 Aztecs hope for rest, not rust, during long layoff

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              Utah State's Sam Merrill looks to pass as San Diego State's Malachi Flynn defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
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SAN DIEGO (AP) — The sixth-ranked San Diego State Aztecs are eager for some rest and are not at all worried about rust with a week and a half to go before their first-round NCAA Tournament game.

SDSU (30-2) is looking to move on from the sting of its 59-56 loss to Utah State in the Mountain West Conference championship game on Saturday. The Aztecs had been projected as the No. 1 seed in the East but the loss might move them to the No. 2 seed in the West, which their fans would prefer since the regionals are at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

They won’t know until Sunday, but vow to be as prepared as possible for their opening game, which is expected to be in Sacramento on March 20.

The MWC tournament was a week earlier than normal this year and coach Brian Dutcher is OK with the additional time off.

“Right now I like the downtime,” he said Monday. “I think it’s going to serve us well. I think it’s an advantage. I mean, can you imagine playing the three games we just played in three days and have to play on Thursday? We’d have to get ready for the team we’re playing and still try to rest legs. But as coaches, we’d be out on the practice floor right now going hard as heck getting ready for a game. This almost forces us to do what’s in the best interest of the kids, which we want to do anyway, is to rest their legs and get them fresh again.

“I think it’s a great thing for us. Time will tell, but I think this will be a huge advantage for us.”

Once they’ve rested up, the Aztecs will do some self-study and try to remedy a few things on both ends of the court. Late in the season, the Aztecs struggled in the first half of games before coming on strong behind their defense in the second half.

They rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Boise State 81-68 in the tournament semifinal before blowing a 16-point lead against Utah State in losing the championship game.

Dutcher doesn’t think this is a different team than the one that started 26-0 and was the nation’s last unbeaten team before losing 66-63 to UNLV at home on Feb. 22. In both losses, the Aztecs had shots to tie or win.

“We’ve got a good basketball team. I’m hoping these close games have us more prepared for March,” he said. “How would we be served if we won every game by 12 or 14 points and then in the first NCAA Tournament game, we either have to come from behind, like Boise State, we came from 16 down; or Utah State, had the lead, lost it, then built it back up. Those are all moments that you learn from. We’ve had every possible scenario to prepare us for March.”

Dutcher said he hopes to have a scrimmage against some former Aztecs players on Saturday, mentioning Trey Kell and Jamaal Franklin as former players who might help out.

“That’s one thing I want is a game feel,” Dutcher said. “They don’t like practicing against each all the time anyway.”

Guard Malachi Flynn, the MWC Player of the Year, agreed.

“I definitely think it will help,” said Flynn, whose desperation half-court shot rimmed out at the buzzer Saturday. “We’ve been practicing against each other since summer so at times it can just be the same thing over and over. Going against older guys, more physical guys, it will probably help us.”

Dutcher said he hopes 6-foot-10 forward Nathan Mensah will be able to play for the first time since asking out of a game against Cal Poly on Dec. 28. SDSU has said only that Mensah has had a respiratory ailment.

Dutcher said Mensah had a doctor’s appointment Monday and has another one Tuesday. Mensah has looked good in individual workouts and has been lifting weights, but he can’t do anything where’s there’s a risk of contact, Dutcher said.

“He’s in the medical protocol to check all the things to make sure he gets cleared. Whether that happens or not, I’m not sure. I don’t have control over that. But I’m holding out hope that when we take the floor in our first NCAA Tournament game, Nathan will be in uniform and playing,” Dutcher said.

If he is cleared to play, “We’ll throw him out there and see what he’s capable of doing. I know one thing, we don’t have anybody else on the team with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. If he just comes out and puts his arms up, that may be enough. … I think his timing will be good. I think he’ll be ready to go if he can play.”