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Aztecs need to run table in Vegas to get back to NCAAs

March 6, 2018

San Diego State forward Malik Pope (21) looks to pass as Nevada guard Jordan Caroline (24) and forward Cody Martin (11), right, defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 3, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Going to the NCAA Tournament used to be almost a birthright at San Diego State, starting with Kawhi Leonard’s freshman season.

SDSU made it to six straight NCAA tourneys, including its first two Sweet 16 appearances.

Then it stopped.

Two years removed from their last go-round with March Madness, the Aztecs need to win the Mountain West Conference tournament this week in order to secure a bid in Brian Dutcher’s first year as coach.

The heralded freshman class of 2014-15 has experienced the NCAAs only once, in its first season. SDSU was relegated to the NIT two years ago, making it all the way to the semifinals, and then was shut out of postseason play altogether last year, which was coach Steve Fisher’s final year leading the Aztecs.

“It’s been a couple of years, so leave it at that,” said forward Malik Pope, part of that highly regarded freshman class. “Not having that feeling a couple of years after kind of gives you a certain drive as you get to your senior year. Not only personal reasons, but for your brothers as well, your coaches, your city. A lot of different reasons.”

The Aztecs (19-10, 11-7 MWC) are the No. 5 seed and face No. 4 seed Fresno State (21-10, 11-7) on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas.

They go in as the league’s hottest team. Included in their six-game winning streak were home victories last week against the top two seeds, No. 22 Nevada and Boise State.

Dutcher, who replaced Fisher in April, thinks seven or eight teams are capable of winning the tournament and getting the automatic NCAA berth, including the Aztecs.

“Yes, we’re more than capable. But we know how this works. It can come down to a call or two,” said Dutcher, who cited last year’s semifinal game, when two calls went against the Aztecs in a 71-63 loss to Colorado State that ended the Aztecs’ subpar season.

“When you get to a one-and-done scenario, somebody makes a big shot, somebody gets a charge instead of a block and games turn like that. That’s the excitement of March basketball, that every possession matters and you can either be advancing or going home on one shot, one play.”

SDSU’s winning streak coincides with the return of guard Trey Kell, the only other member of that hotshot freshman class to make it to his senior season with the Aztecs. Kell missed three straight games with an ankle injury, including the loss at Fresno and a loss at Nevada in which the Aztecs were tied at halftime but lost by 25 points.

Fresno State beat SDSU twice this season, by four points in San Diego in mid-January in a game in which Pope missed the last five minutes after getting kneed in the groin, and by 18 points at Fresno in early February.

“They ran us off the floor in the second half. Looking back that might have been a good thing,” Dutcher said. “That’s where the streak started. After we went to Fresno and Nevada and got beat by double digits in both games, we kind of came back and retooled and refocused and we’ve had a nice win streak since then. There are no magic answers. We just have to do a few things better. We have to take care of the ball, we have to make the right plays and we have to guard at a high level.”

Since he returned, Kell has 42 assists and just six turnovers.

“You put the ball in his hands and he makes the right play,” Dutcher said. “He just seems to make the right play at the right time. We’ll give him that opportunity to do that in Vegas and if he does we’ll continue to play for a while.”

SDSU reached the MWC tourney championship game three times in the last four years, but hasn’t won the tournament since 2011.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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