Column: Aztecs dare to dream, talk title as optimism-fueled NCAA Tournament arrives

It’s dare-to-dream time for San Diego State. It’s the moment to stop back-slapping about the net cutting that came before and imagine the net mutilation to come. Shift into “why not us” mode. Shred the order of things.

We’re not here for logical, reasoned analysis. We’re here to envision how a glitch in the bracketing matrix could clear an exhilarating path for the Aztecs, who open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against the College of Charleston in Orlando, Fla.

Optimism rules. Pessimism hits the showers.

How far can the No. 20 Aztecs go?

“Our goal is the national championship,” said guard Lamont Butler, proving he understands the mindset of most-anything-goes in March. “It’s there for us. We have nine players who can come in at any time and go off. Our defense is one of the best in the nation. We’ve had multiple games where people led us in scoring. We’re just deep.

“It’s going to show in March.”

This is the point when Deborah Downer points out a nagging little bit of history: San Diego State has not won a game in the tournament since 2015, going 0-for-4 since.

There was the late train wreck in 2022 against Creighton, the Fiasco in Fort Worth. In 2021, the Syracuse zone and Buddy Boeheim tied the Aztecs in knots. In 2018, a shot rimmed out at the buzzer against Houston.

Stick a sock in it, Deborah.

This team is different, right? Right?

“I think they have a chance to advance,” said CBS analyst Dan Bonner, who covered the Aztecs in Las Vegas and will do so again in Orlando. “That team that never got to play (in 2020, when the 30-2 Aztecs were sidelined by the pandemic), I thought was a national championship-caliber team.

“I’m not sure that’s this group, but they’re elite defensively. And they’re so much better offensively, in terms of the depth of guys who can score. Not being able to key on one guy will present problems.”

Though not exactly a ringing endorsement, it’s definitely a fair sense of things for a team that defends in its sleep while scavenging for enough late-game points to keep jelly-legged opponents at arms-length.

The Aztecs certainly push enough x-factors onto the floor to be fascinating. Which Jaedon LeDee will go dancing? Is Darrion Trammell’s aim tortured or true? Do Adam Seiko or Micah Parrish scorch from the start or does the team clank along its way, like the 2-for-19 groaner from 3-point range — exhausting schedule notwithstanding — in the Mountain West Tournament title game?

The merry-go-round of leading scorers and unpredictability of the offense, though, make San Diego State one of the most difficult teams to prepare for in this tournament.

There’s always the physical toughness of the Aztecs. Stir in a tricky scouting report assignment and depth that shows up in differing shades game after game? That makes them an odd duck to figure out, without a doubt.

“The top of my priority list is to make sure I can control my own defensive boards against them,” Bonner said of Charleston’s challenge. “You can’t allow San Diego State to dominate you on the offensive boards. They’re just relentless.

“They have big, strong athletic guys who are always attacking you on the boards. That can get them in foul trouble, but that would be my priority. And I’d rather have (leading scorer) Matt Bradley shooting contested 3s rather than him getting into the lane, where he’s so good.”

There’s enough substance to counter blind optimism when considering whether the Aztecs can survive the opening weekend. So, “why not us” has enough oxygen to continue.

Win it all? That will require some explaining. Next up, coach Brian Dutcher.

“Because we defend at a high level,” Dutcher said.

But why?

“We’re veteran. We’ve got a lot of experience.”

But why?

“We’re deep. All those things that won us games all year can win us games at the NCAA Tournament.”

One indisputable truth about these Aztecs is that they have logged oodles of minutes with outcomes at stake in final minutes. They’ve lost leads. They’ve gone ice cold. They’ve fought off castle stormers with clutch defensive plays on final possessions.

They have not lost a game decided by five points or fewer this season since an overtime loss to then-ranked Arkansas on Nov. 23. When things get tight, they’re a been-there, done-that bunch.

“You play in close games, so when you play in a close game in the NCAA Tournament you’ve already had that moment five, six, seven, eight times,” Dutcher said. “You want to win every game by a large margin, but the close games get you prepared for the next close games.”

Seiko insisted that dreaming big begins with a simple seed.

“It’s March,” he said. “We’ve just got to play hard.”

Just as simple: Win the first one, first.

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