BY MAX GREENHALGH
With their 71-67 win over UNLV Sunday, the San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball team is 21-0, standing alone as the only remaining undefeated team in both men’s and women’s NCAA Division I basketball.
As a San Diegan and longtime Aztec fan, this season has been a nostalgia trip. I remember teams led by the prowess of Kawhi Leonard, Xavier Thames, and Jamaal Franklin. I remember fan favorites like the lanky top of the 1-3-1 Dwayne Polee Jr and charge-taking extraordinaire/rapper Tim Shelton. Above all else, I remember Viejas Arena packed with Aztec faithful, noise rocking the house and pushing the team to finish off opponents. This new team hearkens back to Aztec tradition in many ways, and has the talent and heart to make the trip to Atlanta for this year’s Final Four.
These Aztecs are led by a trio of players scooped up from the transfer portal, but one sticks out as a blast from the past. Malachi Flynn, a junior point guard who transferred in from Washington State this offseason, leads the team with 16.5 points and 5.1 assists per game, all while averaging fewer turnovers than steals. His most impressive ability, however, is his ability to utterly take over a game. Game after game, Flynn will pull up from four feet behind the three with a defender draped all over him early in the shot clock. Every single ill-advised shot seems to fall.
Flynn's ability to score and facilitate off the pick and roll, as well as hound opposing guards on the defensive end hearkens back to the play of Xavier Thames, who also transferred to SDSU after spending time at Washington State. These remarkable similarities bring me back to those Thames teams, where the offensive game plan for most nights seemed to be “waste as much clock as possible, then give the ball to X.” While this squad is more well rounded offensively than Thames’ teams, I would be just fine resorting to that plan for Malachi Flynn on most possessions.
While this team’s second unit lacks some of the personality and flair of benches led by Shelton and Pollee, it still houses stacks of talent and potential. Aguek Arop brings similar defensive versatility to that of Pollee, but does so with fewer flashy dunks and dives for loose balls. Junior forward Matt Mitchell was the team’s second-leading scorer while coming off the bench, but has been elevated to the starting lineup after center Nathan Mensah was sidelined with a reported blood clot in his lungs. Backup point guard Trey Pullian’s promising midrange game and passing have yet to flourish due in part to lack of minutes, and Adam Seiko’s scorching-hot three point shooting has evaporated as the year has progressed. If the team is to make a postseason run, one or more of these bench players will have to grow up fast to hold leads while the talented starting group catches a breather.
However, one of the most important parts of this year’s Aztec success will never step on the court. The Show, the SDSU student section, was once feared like the Cameron Crazies and the Izzone in the early 2010’s. However, in recent years the student section has fallen off in impact. The program’s lack of tournament appearances and overall weakness between the 2015-16 and 2018-19 seasons had an effect on overall noise as well as attendance, with an 80-game Viejas Arena sellout streak snapped in January of 2017.
This season brings hope though. It seems there has been a shift in noise that the student section has provoked. During recent home games against Boise State and Wyoming, it is impossible to ignore the effect that crowd energy had on second half runs that extended Aztec leads. Viejas Arena might just be feared like it used to be if The Show can keep up their work.
While the Aztec crowd won’t make an impact on the NCAA Tournament this year, its revitalization is an important sign for the Aztecs program. San Diegans have a reputation for being fair weather sports fans, and to be fair, that’s been earned over the years. That being said, when the team gives spoiled San Diegans something to cheer for, the Aztecs have a city lacking in professional teams (outside the Padres) behind them. With a deep postseason run this season, the Aztecs could start another period of growth and prosperity for the basketball program, and make some new memories on Montezuma Mesa.