Aztec basketball coach Brian Dutcher (left) watches a practice. Photo by Chris Stone
Aztec basketball coach Brian Dutcher (left) watches a practice. Photo by Chris Stone

Six months after a magical run that took them to the national title game, the San Diego State men’s basketball team began in earnest their drive toward a new season, and another shot at a championship.

Aztec players practiced on the floor of Viejas Arena Monday under the watchful eyes of local media and staff, including head coach Brian Dutcher.

Dutcher said it was their first day practicing in Viejas as they’d been limited to 4-hour work weeks during the summer and that’s been bumped up to 20 hours a week in the fall.

“We’re making good progress,” said Dutcher. “I like this year’s team. Like they say, you never know what you’re going to be until you’re hit in the mouth. We’ve got a long ways until we’re hit in the mouth. We’re going to try to get better every day.”

The exciting March Madness run that took the Aztecs to new heights and united the city and the region remains fresh in their memories.

“We’re still basking in that, obviously,” said Dutcher. “But we’re not naïve enough to know that we have to get back to work. We can only bask in that for so long. The team is not taking shortcuts because of success. We’ve always been successful because we work hard.”

Challenges await, including the loss of center Nathan Mensah.

“His ability to block shots, protect the rim covered up for a lot of mistakes,” Dutcher said. “We’ve got a lot of guys capable of doing that but maybe not at Nathan’s level. So, we’ve got to find other ways to be disruptive. We’ve always been good defensively. That’s the trademark of this program and we will not let that slip.”

On the offensive side, Dutcher believes this is a better shooting team that can also in different ways, including possibly a four-guard lineup.

The Aztecs will be able to count on returning forward Jadeon LeDee.

“He’s a dynamic scorer,” Dutcher said. “I have to make sure I give him the ball. I said in a meeting yesterday if I don’t give him the ball, he’s going to come get it himself. I’d like to get it to him when the spacing is right. He’s an attacking offensive player. He’s going to be a dangerous guy for other teams to guard. Like all great players do, he’s got to score, yet he’s got to find ways when he draws a second defender to move the ball to get an assist because he’s a good passer too.”

Of the new players, the coach praised freshman forward Miles Heide, saying he’s done a good job so far. Guard B.J. Davis is “pretty athletic.” And forward Jay Pal, who has played at Jacksonville State and was a starter at Campbell University, brings a lot of experience.  

One popular holdover is Aguek Arop, a former team captain who has been part of the program for five years and was recently added to the staff as the director of player development.

“My problem with AG is I’m going to see him on the bench and try to put him in,” joked Dutcher.

While the team is focused on creating new memories this year, Dutcher said they learned a lot from the tournament last spring that they hope to take with them through the new season.

“We always felt our greatest opponent was ourselves because we knew had enough talent to win and we just had to play to our standards,” said Dutcher. “And so, we have to play to that standard every day in practice. We can’t take a day off. We have to strive to be great. That’s just not in games but in every practice. And if we do that, we’ll have a good year.”

The Aztecs begin the season at home Nov. 6 against Cal State Fullerton.