Aztecs get No. 5 seed, face Charleston in first round of NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament Selection Show on CBS started, and they got right to it, revealing the 68-team bracket.

San Diego State didn’t have to wait long. It was the fifth team to pop onto the screen, as a No. 5 seed in the South Region against No. 12 College of Charleston.

Maybe that’s because the NCAA wanted to give the Aztecs as much time as possible to get there.

They’re playing Thursday at 12:10 p.m. PST on CBS.

In Orlando, Fla.

The players shot up from their seats in an athletic department auditorium and roared, then celebrated as the rest of the bracket was posted, oblivious to the pros and cons of their draw.

Good: They got a preferred No. 5 seed (the 17th overall team among the 68 in the field) and a mid-major opponent, instead of a 6 and a power conference team and, possibly, the winner of a midweek play-in game that would have severely reduced their prep time not knowing who they were facing.

Bad: They’re playing Thursday instead of Friday and on the opposite side of the country, not ideal for a battered and bruised team that just played three grueling games in 51 hours at the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.

Good: The South Region, on paper at least, seems to be the softest of the bracket’s four quadrants, and their potential opponent in Saturday’s second round in Orlando — fourth-seeded Virginia — has a Kenpom rating 20 spots lower (34 compared to SDSU’s 14) after closing the season with three losses in its final seven games.

Bad: They’re likely playing a road game Thursday. Charleston is a 5½-hour drive from Orlando; San Diego is 5½ hours away by plane. The last time the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament, in 2018, they lost to Auburn at Viejas Arena. “This trip,” one fan told the Charleston Post & Courier, “will be a lot cheaper.”

Good: Charleston, while 31-3, is a bit of paper tiger. SDSU is ranked 10th nationally in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. The Cougars haven’t faced anyone with a defense rated better than 97th since November.

Bad: The Aztecs rarely venture to the Eastern time zone and rarely win when they get there. They’re 6-20 in the Division I era and have lost four straight by 14, 16, 19 and 19 points.

“It is what it is,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “You can sit there and complain about everything. Maybe we should have been a higher 5, maybe we should have been a 4, maybe we should have played in Sacramento, maybe we should be in Denver. You have to put it behind you and play, because at the end of the day, it’s going to be decided on the floor.

“Wherever you go, whatever it is, you have to beat the team you’re sitting across from.”

It was a good day for the Mountain West, with the Selection Committee respecting what the NET rates as Div. I’s fifth-best conference by giving it four berths in the field. Boise State and Utah State both are 10 seeds and were sent to Sacramento (against Northwestern and Missouri, respectively). Nevada got the final at-large berth despite closing the season with three losses and goes to Dayton for a First Four game Wednesday against Arizona State … where former starters Desmond Cambridge Jr. and Mission Hills High alum Warren Washington both transferred last spring.

The Aztecs got the conference’s best seed and will travel the farthest. That didn’t seem to dim the enthusiasm of their 10th trip to the tournament in 13 years, which would be 11 in 13 had the 2020 event not been canceled because of the pandemic.

“We know we’ve got a lot of potential to make some noise in March Madness,” senior Matt Bradley said. “We’re not putting a number on what it’s going to be, but we’re just going to do the best we can. We know we’re able to win a lot of games. We’re 0-0 starting (Sunday), and I think our team is ready to go.”

What does he know about Charleston?

“Right off the bat, you look at their record and they know how to win games,” he said. “I was going through their scores, they’ve won some close ones. It’s not just that they’re blowing people out that are no good. They’ve won some tight games. And they’re going to have an edge about them, coming off a 10-game win streak.”

The 31 wins are tied for the most nationally with Houston and Florida Atlantic. The Cougars also spent four weeks in the Associated Press top 25, rising as high as No. 18 in late January before tumbling out after losses against Hofstra and Drexel by a combined five points.

The record, though, is deceiving.

The NCAA’s NET metric is a sorting tool that divides teams into four tiers, or quadrants, based on where a game is played: home, road or a neutral court. Quad 1 and 2 wins are good, Quad 3 and 4 losses are bad.

The Aztecs, for instance, compiled a solid resume at 5-5 in Quad 1 games, 6-1 in Quad 2, 13-0 in Quad 3 and 2-0 in Quad 4. Most teams play a half-dozen or more Quad 4 games to pad their record; the Aztecs played only two, home against UC San Diego and Wyoming.

Charleston? Twenty-nine of its 31 wins came at the expense of Quad 3 (12), Quad 4 (16) or non-Div. I (one) opponents. The Cougars lost their only Quad 1 game, 102-86 at North Carolina on Nov. 11. They won their only Quad 2 games by two points each, home against Kent State and at Towson. They’ve had nothing but Quad 3 and 4 games in 2023 since playing in the CAA, which Kenpom ranks 26th of 32 Div. I conferences.

It is Charleston’s sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament but only the second in the 2000s (the other came in 2018). Its only win came in 1997.

“We like the match-up,” senior guard Adam Seiko said. “It’s a game that’s definitely winnable if we play the right way.”

The Aztecs are dancing for the 15th time in its Div. I history and reached the Sweet 16 twice, in 2011 and 2014. They won their game the following year against St. John’s but have lost four straight since. Last year’s defeat, to Creighton in Fort Worth, Texas, might have stung the most — up nine points inside three minutes to go in regulation before falling in overtime against a depleted Blue Jays roster.

It is the fourth trip to the tournament with Brian Dutcher as head coach. He has yet to win a game, although that statistic is skewed by not getting to play in 2020 with a 30-2 team that many regarded as a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four.

One other quirk of SDSU’s tournament history: It is 6-14 all-time, but all six wins have come against worse seeds. Against better seeds or higher ranked opponents (there were no traditional seedings before the 1980s), the Aztecs are 0-9.

“We always seem to get a higher seed than the media thinks we’re going to get, and it happened again today,” Dutcher said. “I think most people thought we’d be a 6 seed, and we got a 5 seed. And I think deservedly so. We had a very good season. Our numbers spoke for themselves.”

Charleston’s metrics ranged from 51 in the NET to 73 in Kenpom. Its Kenpom rating would have ranked sixth in the Mountain West, behind SDSU (14), Utah State (18), Boise State (31), Nevada (43) and New Mexico (52).

Charleston would not have received an at-large berth in the field had it not come from behind to beat Towson 77-72 in the CAA Tournament semifinal and held off UNC Wilmington 63-58 in the final. Kenpom gives the Aztecs a 70 percent chance of winning and predicts a 74-68 final score.

The great equalizer, though, might be the travel. It’s hard for any team in any sport to cross four time zones and win.

“We went to Hawaii (for the Maui Invitational),” Bradley said. “We play in mountains, with elevation. All the places we play outside Viejas are way different from home. I think going to Orlando will just be another one of those type of games, with a three-hour time difference. We just have to get adjusted quickly.”

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