3 thoughts: No. 9 Arkansas 78, No. 17 SDSU 74 (OT)

Three thoughts on No. 17 San Diego State’s 1-2 trip to the Maui Invitational, with a win against Ohio State and losses against No. 14 Arizona and No. 9 Arkansas (in overtime):

1. In closing

There was a time when the Aztecs were the best closers in college basketball, maybe in college basketball history. It is a stat that defies comprehension: 164 straight wins when leading with five minutes to go in regulation, stretching from January 2010 until February 2016.

That seems so long ago now.

Suddenly, the Aztecs can’t close.

In their past 15 games, they’ve twice spectacularly blown leads with five minutes to go and had several other games with dodgy moments down the stretch. The third-place game in Maui against Arkansas is merely the latest, up 13 in the first half, up 11 midway through the second, up eight with just over five minutes to go, up four inside 15 seconds to go in regulation, loss in overtime.

“Obviously, we wish we would have closed better,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “We didn’t.”

That was topped only by the meltdown in the NCAA Tournament against Creighton, a flurry of turnovers and missed free throws that allowed the Bluejays to erase a nine-point deficit with 2½ minutes left in regulation and win in overtime.

Before that, there was the 53-52 loss against Boise State in the Mountain West tournament final after missing three shots in the final 90 seconds.

In the last regular-season game, at Nevada, the Aztecs were up 17 with eight minutes left, up 11 inside four minutes to go and up four with 15 seconds to go … and won 79-78. And only after the Wolf Pack missed two shots to win it.

Two days earlier, they gave up a 3 at the regulation buzzer by Fresno State that forced overtime and won 65-64 despite not scoring for the final two minutes of the second OT, thanks to a turnover and two missed free throws.

Two weeks before that, they missed a pair of free throws with seven seconds left at Boise State and lost by one.

A certain amount of this is just college basketball, a capricious, unpredictable game when you put 20-year-old kids in an emotionally-charged environment with bleary-eyed officials flying around the country in pursuit of paychecks. Crazy stuff happens. Maybe it’s merely a regression to the mean after 164 games of perfection.

But if there is any concerning piece for SDSU, it’s that it’s happening to veteran players, who presumably should have more experience and, by extension, composure in such situations. These aren’t wide-eyed freshmen out there. SDSU’s nine-man rotation consists exclusively of juniors, seniors, fifth-year seniors and a sixth-year senior.

On Wednesday, junior guard Lamont Butler intentionally fouled Arkansas’ Anthony Black up four with 13 seconds left, apparently against the wishes of the coaching staff. Then he didn’t call timeout or hold the ball for a tie-up when trapped, instead getting stripped and giving the Razorbacks it back with 7.5 seconds left – and setting up the fateful tip-in that forced overtime.

The ensuing press break called for Butler to get the ball, then have two passing options – back to Darrion Trammell, the inbounder, or to Micah Parrish cutting diagonally toward the sideline.

“That usually leaves one guy to guard two,” Dutcher said. “That guy’s either got to take the diagonal or the pass back to the inbounder. … But one thing you can’t do when you have the (possession arrow) is throw it away. You have to make them at least tie you up for a jump ball.”

The other option, of course, was call timeout, and Dutcher informed the team repeatedly of the timeout and possession arrow status during previous stoppages. Dutcher possibly could have called one himself, but that would have required leaving his coaching box, sprinting past midcourt and basically tapping an official on the shoulder, it was so loud in the Lahaina Civic Center.

But …

“This is early-season college basketball,” Dutcher said. “It’s hard. You get trapped and you got to make a play. It’s always easy when you look on tape after the game. You can see spacing and where everyone’s open. But when you’re in the heat of it and they’re trapping you and you have to split it or you have to get a jump ball, it’s hard.

“Lamont is a smart player, but he didn’t make the play, obviously.”

2. The big picture

The good news: It’s November, not March.

At a pre-tournament news conference Sunday, framed by palm trees and decorative surfboards, all eight coaches were asked about their approach to the week and all eight said essentially the same thing.

“We’re all trying to figure out our identity on both sides of the ball,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “Every team in the tournament will learn a lot about themselves and we’ll all get better.”

“It’s not going to define our season,” Dutcher said. “This will be an opportunity to see where our weaknesses are and where we excel.”

The Aztecs handily beat an Ohio State team that was just outside the top 25 in both major polls and went on to blow out Cincinnati and knock off No. 21 Texas Tech in the fifth-place game. They came from 16 down to lead eventual tournament champion Arizona in the second half. They went toe-to-toe with No. 9 Arkansas, a program that has reached two straight Elite Eights, and would have – should have – won if not for a couple late brain cramps.

They came to Maui No. 17 in the Kenpom metric, rose to No. 13 after the Ohio State win and fell to No. 19 after two losses to teams ahead of them. And Ohio State climbed to No. 21, making that a quality win for NCAA Tournament resume purposes.

But their offensive flow stalled after a promising start to the season and an impressive effort against Ohio State, amassing 88 points on nearly 60-percent shooting and 14 assists. In the final two games: 68.5 points on 40.8 percent shooting with 12 combined assists.

Arizona and Arkansas played the ball screens straight up, with no help off the guards, leaving the Aztecs at the mercy of contested, unassisted jump shots off the dribble by Trammell and Matt Bradley. Didn’t make them against Arizona and lost by 17. Made more of them against Arkansas and nearly won.

It’s not a sustainable model, though.

“Just tighten up our offensive efficiency,” Dutcher said, “learn what’s a good shot, what’s a hard shot depending on the time and score (while) still being aggressive and not having them afraid to make plays.”

They also were exposed on the boards, by a combined 17 in the last two games. It was particularly evident in second half against Arkansas, when 6-foot-10 Nathan Mensah got in foul trouble and Dutcher opted to go with a smaller frontline pairing of 6-6 Aguek Arop and 6-7 Keshad Johnson instead of 6-9 Jaedon LeDee. Arkansas had nine offensive rebounds in the second half and overtime, most notably Kamani Johnson’s tip at the regulation buzzer, and an 11-4 edge in second-chance points.

“We learned a lot about our team,” Dutcher said, “that we’re tough, that we’re strong enough to play with power (conference) schools, and that we have to use these moments we had here in Hawaii to learn and grow as a team. And we will do that. We always do that.”

3. 2026?

Four years ago, SDSU left Maui uncertain if or when it would return. The tournament chairman said the Aztecs were not in the 2022 field and not a lock to be part of the regular rotation after they went 1-2, blown out twice and trailing by 19 against Xavier before an epic comeback victory.

Four years later, they leave Maui 1-2 and uncertain if or when they’ll return, but for different reasons.

One is the ugly incident that began in the handshake line and spilled onto the court and the areas around both locker rooms. According to multiple witnesses, it began when SDSU fans berated Musselman as he shook hands, and Musselman responded with an expletive-laced exchange and by making the “L” sign (for loser) with his fingers. Then SDSU fans came onto the court as Musselman’s staff pulled him away, forcing security – and Maui police – to intervene. One Arkansas fan was pulled from the entrance to SDSU’s locker room.

Whether tournament organizers blame SDSU fans for lighting the flames, or Musselman for fanning them, or perhaps both, who knows. But the key word is “invitational,” meaning they can ask (or not ask) anyone they want to their island party.

Another potential issue for SDSU is a different potential invitational, to join the Pac-12 once UCLA and USC leave in 2024. The Maui field typically consists of one team from each of basketball’s six power conferences, and you can only go once every four years.

The Aztecs are an easy choice out of the Mountain West to fill one of the remaining two spots. But as part of the Pac-12, they might have to wait their turn behind Arizona, Oregon and, well, pretty much everyone else. You think the current conference members are going to allow a newcomer to jump the line?

This was SDSU’s fourth trip to Maui, and third since 2014. Its overall record: 6-6.

“I think we’ve represented this tournament well when we’ve come,” Dutcher said. “I think our fan base has been supportive. We have as many fans as any team that comes to this event. We’re wholeheartedly excited for all the opportunities we had to play in it and hopefully we’ll have another one down the road at some point.”


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