Seniors take Aztecs to new heights on Elite Eight journey

·4 min read

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — San Diego State's recruiting pitch to Darrion Trammell certainly sounded intriguing.

Coach Brian Dutcher asked the former Seattle University guard to come to Southern California and play in a Final Four.

What Trammell found was a mature, talented group of players with two NCAA Tournament appearances — a team that convinced him it was possible. Now, after matching his season high with 21 points in Friday's 71-64 win over No. 1 seed Alabama, Trammell and his teammates are one win away from fulfilling their ambitious goal.

"I felt like we were going to a make deep run, so yeah, I did believe it," Trammell said Saturday. “I felt as a team, we were the only people to believe that, but that's ultimately what matters is the confidence and the belief that we have in our own team.”

The fifth-seeded Aztecs (30-6) don't look like many other teams.

In an era when one-and-dones and the ever-swirling transfer portal threaten to break up teams and keep rosters young, San Diego State has relied on size, strength and experience to keep dancing through March Madness, right into the South Region final against No. 6 Creighton.

Seven of its 12 players, including Trammell, are seniors. Five have only played at one school and everyone was sold on the same Final Four pledge. To Dutcher, the son of a former Big Ten coach who's in his 24th season at San Diego State and sixth as the head coach, it was more than a dream. It was a quest.

And now this veteran lineup, which endured everything from a canceled postseason to a tournament bubble to last March's excruciating 72-69 first-round overtime loss to Creighton, can earn its ticket to Houston on Sunday.

Those who have followed the Aztecs — or listened to Dutcher — are not surprised.

“I think at Cal, we were really young and nobody really had any kind of leadership and experience winning, but I came into a program where I think a culture was already established,” said Matt Bradley, a two-year starter who played his previous three seasons with the Golden Bears. “Aguek (Arop), he reminds me all the time what it takes to win games at San Diego State.”

Together, these seniors have played in three straight NCAA Tournaments, won three Mountain West regular-season titles and two conference tourney titles, and made the deepest postseason run in school history.

Over the last four seasons, only two Division I teams have a better winning percentage than San Diego State at 82.8% — Gonzaga (91.0%) and Houston (84.1%). It's a sterling resume that hasn't elicited much national attention until now.

“I said before the year our plan is to make it to a Final Four, to win a national championship, so we can't act surprised we're sitting up here," Dutcher said. “This is what the goal has been."

How did the Aztecs reach this point?

Playing perfect complementary roles, for starters.

Trammell is the playmaking guard who was an all-conference defender at Seattle. Adam Seiko is the thick, gritty guard who prides himself on being a fearless 3-point shooter and a strong defender with 118 career wins.

Forwards Keshad Johnson, Jaedon LeDee and Arop provide the brawn and skill in the post against beefier, more touted opponents, and at 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds, Nathan Mensah is second on the school's career blocks list (231).

Then there's Bradley, the Mountain West tourney MVP and first-team all-league selection. He's one of the nation's most prolific active scorers with 2,294 points but had just six points on 2-of-9 shooting against the Crimson Tide.

“Anybody who appreciates basketball understands how good San Diego State is,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They play a brand of basketball that's built on toughness, built on intelligence. They don't take many bad shots and they're very physical when the ball goes up."

Building that culture requires more than just vision or commitment. It takes patience, a trait lacking at many schools and among many fan bases.

Nobody can quibble with the results, not even the 2019-20 team that was in line for a top-two seed and may have been Dutcher's best team. The oldest players have not forgotten how the COVID-19 pandemic derailed that potential Final Four run and now they're playing just as much for those seniors as they are to fulfill their own aspirations.

“I felt bad for the seniors that didn't have this, the opportunity that went by them,” Mensah said. “I feel like now we are here, trying to represent them also, make them feel proud of what we have accomplished and what we are capable of doing in this tournament.”

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