In the 2010s, the title of “last remaining unbeaten team of the college basketball season” went to Kentucky (twice), Ohio State, Murray State, Michigan, Wichita State, Southern Methodist, Gonzaga, Arizona State and Virginia. It’s a peculiar list of teams. One (Virginia in 2019) won the national championship. Another (Arizona State in 2018) lost in the First Four in Dayton.
Last week, San Diego State joined the club — the Aztecs are 20-0 after Tuesday’s win against Wyoming and No. 4 in both polls. That doesn’t tell us much about them, of course. Are they a Gonzaga (reached the national championship and lost to North Carolina), or a Wichita State (started 35-0 and lost to Kentucky in the third round)?
For now, there’s reason to believe that the Aztecs could stick around. No stranger to the NCAA Tournament — SDSU has made seven of the past 10 — this team doesn’t have many weaknesses. The Aztecs are 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They don’t turn the ball over much (16.5 percent of possessions), and they don’t permit many offensive rebounds (24.2 percent of opportunities). Mostly, they’re nasty on defense: Opponents are making just 43.3 percent of 2-point shots and 28 percent of 3-pointers. Even individual performers have had no answers. Luka Garza, the Iowa star averaging 22.9 points this season, scored a season-low 9 against San Diego State on Nov. 29.
In college basketball at large, this may be the perfect season for an ambitious mid-major. The level of parity is well-documented: Top-five teams have already lost 14 times to unranked teams; San Diego State so far has been immune to the lapses that befell Duke (against Stephen F. Austin) and Kentucky (against Evansville). Some powerhouses of recent or historical fame aren’t themselves this winter, as this week’s AP poll includes the likes of Dayton, Colorado and Rutgers but not North Carolina, UCLA or Virginia. The top five freshmen in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings for the class of 2020 chose Memphis, Georgia, Washington, North Carolina1 and a professional contract in New Zealand,2 not Duke, Kentucky or Kansas. So this year’s San Diego State team might have struggled to shoot with Villanova in 2018 or play above the rim with Kentucky in 2015, but this year, no such threat has revealed itself.
Not since Kawhi Leonard was on campus has San Diego State started 20-0,3 and this year’s Aztecs don’t appear to have any future NBA Finals MVPs on the roster. Their success is a product of both continuity and annual tinkering. Head coach Brian Dutcher has been on campus since 1999, first as an assistant coach to Steve Fisher and then as head-coach-in-waiting. Dutcher slowly filled out a roster for a team that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2015. His top two scorers are instant-impact transfers Malachi Flynn (Washington State) and Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt), who are among five transfers on the team. The only player who was higher than a three-star prospect out of high school is senior big man Nolan Narain, who has played in just seven games this season.
Statistically, this year’s Aztecs play like the team from Leonard’s last season: good on offense and great on defense. This year’s team shoots better and forces more turnovers but isn’t as strong on the offensive glass.
Then there’s the issue of San Diego State’s strength of schedule, what by now might as well be called the “Gonzaga question.” The Aztecs are on the No. 1 seed line in the latest bracket projection from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. But they’ll have a hard time staying there over the power-conference champions, not to mention Gonzaga (20-1). San Diego State tested itself in the nonconference schedule with three games against top-40 teams on KenPom.com: Brigham Young, Creighton and Iowa — the Aztecs won all three. But despite Utah State and Nevada’s runs to the NCAA Tournament last season, the Aztecs’ conference isn’t as strong as it was in Leonard’s days. No. 65 Utah State is the only other Mountain West Conference team in Pomeroy’s top 100.4
To carry this winter success into the postseason, San Diego State has some history to erase. The Mountain West is 22-49 in the NCAA Tournament since 2000, and the league ranks last in BartTorvik.com’s Performance Against Seed Expectation metric. That’s not a statement about all unheralded programs: In the past 20 NCAA Tournaments, mid-major teams as top-four seeds5 are 45-17 (.726), just a shade below everybody else (609-212, .742). Even Gonzaga (19-5, .792) has shed its label as a Cinderella that underperforms in March.
Dutcher, of course, has had to answer questions about that 2010-11 team that finished 34-3 and lost in the Sweet 16 against a Kemba Walker-led Connecticut team that would win the national title. About two of his current players, Dutcher told reporters this week, “I bet neither one knew the starting lineup, other than Kawhi Leonard, from the 2011 team. That’s all great talk. It’s great talking points. It’s fun to compare. But we have to win a game tomorrow in order to catch them.”
The Aztecs keep winning, and the Leonard comparisons won’t stop. Only March can answer what kind of unbeaten this team really is.