Unlv vs colorado state
Photo Credit: Kyla LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

New FSM Feature: What does SDSU’s Final Four birth mean for UNLV

Aztecs become the first team in Mountain West Conference history to reach the Final Four

Franchise Sports Media

 

The Aztecs have reached the pinnacle of college basketball success for the first time in school history. What does that mean for UNLV and its head coach Kevin Kruger?

What does SDSU’s Final Four berth mean to UNLV and Kevin Kruger?

UNLV vs Air Force Kevin Krueger
Photo Credit: Alon Sowell/Franchise Sport Media

In recent history, there has been no better indication that the UNLV Runnin Rebels’ reign as the once most powerful program on the west coast has come to pass than the success of our new arch-nemesis, the Aztecs of San Diego State University. The Aztecs have beaten the Rebels 21 out of their last 25 meetings. Taking a page from the Rebel’s history book, the Aztecs have been overpowering opponents in the Mountain West Conference with a steady dose of pressure defense that disrupted every offense they’ve faced for over a decade. Upon Steve Fisher taking over the program, current head coach Brian Dutcher was on the bench and stayed there for 18 of Fisher’s seasons. Dutcher sat aside Fisher as his Associate Head Coach and coach-in-waiting. In his inaugural season, Dutcher was the only Division I head coach to guide his team to the NCAA Tournament after going 22-10 in the regular season, including winning the 2018 Mountain West Tournament championship.

The strength of Dutcher’s Aztecs this season has been on full display all season long. Known for their tenacious defensive prowess, the Aztecs have often searched for an offensive identity and suffered long offensive lulls only to be bailed out by their ability to defend the entire floor…and by doing so in a variety of ways. Dutcher has developed a program that has garnered a reputation across the country as a team that may not run by you… but one you definitely will not run by in your own right.

The Aztecs have been a top 25 ranked team consistently over the past five years and have maintained a presence as one of the most defensively efficient teams in the nation for just as long. The reputation is written in stone, and with some big wins over some power five schools this season, it appeared that this season’s edition of the Aztecs was even more special than in years past. It’s a team that consists of 5 players that are playing in the fifth year of collegiate basketball.

Jaedon LeDee, Matt Bradley, Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop, and Nathan Mensah are all participating in their fifth year of college basketball, something that UNLV’s leading scorer and all-Mountain West Conference selection EJ Hakless believes is a massive factor for the Aztecs. “They have a really good team, a mature team, people that have been there for multiple years. They don’t care who gets the credit”.

Harkless added, “They all love their role and accept their role, and that’s hard to beat.” Just for good measure, Kruger’s Rebels only have three players on the roster that have played five seasons, Harkless, Jordan McCabe, and Eli Parquet, with a total of only 4 of those years coming in a Rebel uniform. At the same time, the Aztec’s five fifth-year seniors have accumulated a total of 19 years at San Diego State University.

With all of their success in what has been wrongfully deemed a sub-standard, mid-major conference (Mountain West Conference), the Aztecs have had everything except for post-season success (NCAA Tournament). With quality wins over power five schools such as the Ohio State University and Stanford, as well as a backyard brawl in which they lost to the #9 Arkansas Razorbacks in OT, 78-74 in the Maui Invitational, San Diego State continued to show glimpses of a special season.

The parity of the Mountain West Conference often made it appear like they were just another team in a mid-major conference. Still, looking back on the season, the Aztecs were a great team in a very good conference that arguably played as well as anyone in America. You cannot scoff at a team that wins 30+ games, no matter where that is!

Could the Aztecs actually leave Houston as National Champions? Harkless believes so. “They’ve proven they can win on the biggest stage, and now it’s just a matter of getting over the hump and winning two more games. They (San Diego State) have the personnel, they have the depth, they have the heart, and they have the experience. It’ll be exciting to see what they can do in the Final Four“.

So how does an in-conference opponent’s success directly affect the rest of the Mountain West Conference, particularly Kevin Kruger and his UNLV Runnin Rebels?

Can SDSU’s Final Four berth help UNLV?

THE NATIONAL  EXPOSURE: 

UNLV head coach Kevin Krueger needs time to build his roster.

UNLV vs High Point
Photo Credit: TQ/Franchise Sports Media

There’s no question that if there’s one thing that UNLV and the likes of Mountain West Conference heavy hitters Boise State, Utah State, Nevada, New Mexico, and even San Diego State themselves have suffered from is the tendency in the Midwest and on the East Coast to presume the Mountain West Conference and West Coast Conference are sub-standard leagues, with mediocre talent.

However, the Aztec’s ascension to the top of this year’s basketball mountain not only lends credibility to a program that has consistently been competitive with teams across the nation and has been a mainstay in the top 25 rankings but it shows that the parity amongst the top 5 teams in the Mountain West Conference isn’t an indication that the Mountain West Conference is a sub-standard league, but it stakes its claims as a legitimate conference with elite level talent that can compete with anyone on a national scale.

The blueprint was set years ago by Mark Few and his strong Gonzaga teams over the past 20 years that albeit the Zags are in a low-major conference, the Zags (like the Runnin Rebels of the ’80s and ’90s) is an elite program with NBA caliber players such as Drew Timme and Julian Strawther. The Aztecs are slowly becoming this generation’s Gonzaga. The Zags were perhaps a play or two away from beating UCONN in the NCAA West Regional championship and launching themselves into yet another Final Four, and perhaps being the field’s favorite to capture a national title.

The success of San Diego State on this next-leveled stage lends credibility to not only the conference but to Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels. Two hard-fought games against the Aztecs this season will prove to be the litmus test for the quality of play of this past season’s Rebels team. Despite their ups and downs, the Rebels were very good at times. As Harkless eluded to, the injuries to Luis Rodriguez and Eli Parquet were catastrophic to their success Against SDSU, coupled with the absence of Isaiah Cottrell, which changed the outcome of both games and perhaps on the Rebels‘ entire season. Standing 6’10”, Cottrell is a hard-nosed rebounder that perhaps would’ve been able to neutralize the Aztecs on the boards and provide the necessary second-chance opportunities that teams need to have against SDSU to be successful.

When SDSU leaves for the Pac-12, UNLV could become a destination for college basketball players. 

CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT:

SDSU making the Final Four helps Kevin Krueger. 

UNLV Kevin Krueger
Photo Credit: Kyla LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

Could the Aztecs actually leave Houston National Champions? Harkless believes so. If the Aztecs are to complete the herculean task of winning a national championship, will it catapult them past simply strengthening the reputation of the Mountain West Conference? Would San Diego State’s success and ultimate departure appear to be a promotion to those looking at the Mountain West Conference from afar? Will this subject the Conference to being forever labeled a sub-standard league by winning the National Championship? Subsequently, the Aztecs were awarded a promotion to a superior league and released from purgatory.

Perhaps it would appear that way to those not familiar with the talent on the west coast (outside of California). Still, for those in the know, the exit of San Diego State would mean that the Aztecs would subsequently have to recruit better players and reach even further into the Midwest, East Coast, and overseas, thus leaving the players that they were once beating out the UNLVs, Nevadas, Utah States, New Mexicos, and Boise States for. Leaving those schools in prime positions to attract those mid-major talented players, and of those schools, Kruger’s Las Vegas attracts those kids much more than Reno, Boise, Albuquerque, and Logan. Instantaneously UNLV becomes a prime location when it no longer has to compete against the top team in the league, which also has an intriguing location. It only takes a kid 5 minutes in the Las Vegas heat to realize that summer on Mission or Coronado beach for a 19-year-old is much better than 110-degree summers on the strip when your not 21!

As the Pac-12 conference is searching for a new TV deal and with no Pac-12 team winning a national title or advancing to the Final Four, a national champion team entering your conference to defend a national title is priceless and more than intriguing for a network!  For many, the idea of the Pac-12 is now a no-brainer. In the era of the “rich-getting-richer,” the emergence of San Diego State on the national scale may enable the Pac-12 to maintain its status as the premier conference on the west coast. For Kevin Kruger and his Runnin Rebels, 2024 may once again have a new-look roster, but it may actually be the absence of the Aztecs in the Mountain West Conference that proves to be the story.

Mark Few’s Gonzaga teams have been able to be what every mid-major team can only dream of growing up to become, which is no longer be a mid-major! However, mid-major programs such as VCU, George Mason, Butler, Florida Gulf Coast, Loyola (IL), and UMBC could never hold on to the luster of their Cinderella NCAA tournament runs. Except for Butler, most teams returned to their everyday lives of mid-major obscurity within a season or two.  There’s something about San Diego State’s decade-long ascension to this year’s Final Four that hints at consistency and clarifies that this Aztec team may be here to stay. If Dutcher and his staff can capitalize on this season’s success on the recruiting trail, sustainability is highly likely.

That sustainability is what will indeed lure Pac-12 officials to San Diego State to offer them the “golden ticket”; a ticket to a more significant share of what will be an enormous pie. And while the Aztecs will undoubtedly take their lumps early on as a member of the Pac-12 (as they did in their early days in the Mountain West Conference), they will, in due time, get a stranglehold on a recruiting area to call their own, perhaps amongst the plethora of talent in the Las Vegas area that sees themselves above UNLV and the Mountain West Conference but familiar with San Diego State and the Pac-12.

There were many glimpses of what the Rebels were on pace to be, what it was that Kruger and his staff were in the process of creating. Did injuries to Parquet and Rodriguez halt it? Could the lack of Cottrell policing the paint have drastically impacted a 19-13 season? Could a deeper run in the Mountain West Conference tournament have led to a conference title and an automatic bid? Could the same #5-seed have been given to the Rebels instead of the Aztecs, and could the Aztecs’ magical journey have been our pathway to return to prominence? Who’s to say?  What is known is that the credibility and strength of schedule will now have relevance nationally, and perhaps wins and losses within the Mountain West Conference will begin to have weight, and that’s all due to San Diego State’s success.

All of this is perspective. And whether or not it’s contingent upon the Aztecs cutting down the nets in Houston is yet to be determined. Nonetheless, what is factual, what is actual, is; the Aztecs were the “real deal” this season, and they, along with the likes of Boise State, Utah State, New Mexico, Nevada, and our Runnin Rebels so were the Mountain West Conference!

The Mountain West was a solid conference all year, and SDSU is showing why it remains a basketball powerhouse. 

-Che Jones – Franchise Sports Media

Follow Che on Twitter and IG @CoachCheJones

Follow The Franchise on Social Media

https://twitter.com/TheFranchiseLV

https://facebook.com/TheFranchiseLV

https://instagram.com/TheFranchiseLV

 

 

points