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Column: Aztecs basketball already showing it might have more depth this season

Aguek Arop scores two of his 10 points Wednesday during a 73-58 win against No. 22 UCLA at Viejas Arena.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coach Brian Dutcher says it could be deepest team, despite following 30-2 trailblazers

Someone might be a few laps into the spiked eggnog to argue Aztecs basketball, coming off a 30-2 season with a No. 6 ranking, could be deeper.

It’s fair to check for a knot on the noggin at the thought of the team being a more complete wave to brace for after losing first-round NBA pick Malachi Flynn, current Australian pro Yanni Wetzell and the defensive handcuffs known as KJ Feagin.

In the wake of a grinding, relentless 73-58 dismantling of short-handed UCLA on Wednesday at Viejas Arena, that’s the pretzeled logic suddenly and surprisingly at play. This team watched 38.3 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, 301 assists and 101 steals go poof into the eligibility night — and remained every bit the complex, exasperating riddle to solve.

“We used a lot of guys, 10 guys,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “We don’t drop off much. This might be as deep a team as we’ve ever had.”

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There. He said it. And he’s not wrong.

Last season’s Aztecs were brilliant at the top. Flynn is the kind of season-shaper who shuffles onto campus once a decade or three, if you’re lucky. Wetzell operated in the high post like part ballerina, part Sherman tank. Feagin infused attitude that crept into a ball handler’s head.

This group, with lane clogger Nathan Mensah back from a blood clot in his lung, with graduate transfer scorer Terrell Gomez ready to plug and play, with Maryland import Joshua Tomaic showing offensive punch unseen in his career gives Dutcher the confidence to go 10-deep against the No. 22 team in the country.

Key talent a year older, from Trey Pulliam to Keshad Johnson, Aguek Arop and Adam Seiko, offers more seasoned tools. Freshmen Lamont Butler and Keith Dinwiddie Jr. must feel like enticing gifts parked under the tree.

In baseball terms, the Aztecs of last season featured mashers at the top of the lineup. They still have that with proven scorers Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. Now, they have even more potential to hit in the middle and bottom of the order.

Batter up. There are plenty of them.

“Overall, a taller and longer team with Nate back,” said Schakel, when asked to compare the road-running Aztecs and Aztecs 2.0. “(Mensah, Johnson, Arop), they make a big different with their length. You can’t teach length.”

The forest, full of trees.

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These Aztecs may not prove to be better, a nearly impossible task when you follow a team that lost twice in 32 games. They’re reloaders not rebuilders these days, though. How many programs lose three starters and are picked to win their conference?

Dutcher channeled predecessor Steve Fisher: “We’re not a one-hit wonder.”

UCLA, picked to win the Pac-12, buried shots early despite playing without 6-10 rim minder Jalen Hill (knee) and Kentucky transfer and marksman Johnny Juzang (foot). At the first timeout, the Bruins were shooting 75 percent and held a 4-0 turnover margin advantage.

The Aztecs rarely flinch at hot starts. They lean on defensive chops that burn you out from baseline to baseline. They don’t need to catch you. They reel you in like a marlin, one defensive turn at a time.

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“I think we just wore them down to the point where maybe they were on tired legs at the end of the game,” Dutcher rightly reasoned.

By the buzzer, UCLA had 15 turnovers and watched the Aztecs launch 15 more shots. They led almost everywhere in almost every way. Paint points: 24-12. Rebounds: 34-28. Steals: 5-1. Assists: 16-10. And that depth? Bench points: a bruising 21-6.

Walking off the court, San Diego State had outshot, outhustled and outwilled them. The working man’s depantsing felt so complete, personnel issues aside, that UCLA coach Mick Cronin sounded like he might consider handing in his whistle.

“Total regression,” Cronin said of his team, 40 minutes into the season.

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Mitchell and Schakel provided steady offense with 15 points each. Gomez and Arop chipped in 10 apiece. Tomaic finished a free throw away double digits and Pulliam a basket short of making it six in double figures against a name program that had not played on the Aztecs’ 比特币交易网home court since 1991.

You wonder if the Bruins will again.

That depth Dutcher is molding remains fascinating wet clay. The most interesting numbers against UCLA teased along the margins: Tomaic’s nine points after averaging 1.1 as a junior, seven rebounds from Mensah, six assists from Pulliam.

The retooled rotation led to a 16th straight win in a 比特币交易网home opener, no matter the name and pedigree on the opposing jerseys.

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“As well as we played, there’s a lot of room for growth with this team on both ends of the floor,” Dutcher said.

Deeper? Than last year?

Pass the eggnog.


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