If you like rooting for defensive intensity, long and labored possessions, a dearth of transition buckets, difficult shots, and four-point leads that feel like 14, well, any contest involving the San Diego State Aztecs is your kind of game.
In other words, they’re always in a good ‘ol fashion basketball rock fight — the kind of affair that has taught me to learn to love betting the under.
After putting the clamps down on a dynamic Creighton offense (76.4 points per game for the season) in a 56-55 slog in an Elite Eight nail-biter, the Aztecs play Saturday in their first Final Four in program history. They face the Florida Atlantic Owls, also making their first trip to college basketball’s gathering of royals.
This is the part where I caution that I watched only a sampling of college basketball prior to the calendar turning to March. But I’ve seen enough of San Diego State this month to know that it’s going to bring a football attitude to a basketball game played at a football venue: NRG Stadium. The locale is also part of the handicap: Under 132 points in the Final Four tilt between SDSU and FAU.
We’ve come this far, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that the game total has hit the under in 12 (twelve!) straight SDSU contests, a streak discussed earlier this week by my friends Matt Perrault and Dave Sharapan on their show, The Bostonian Vs. The Book.
This run goes back to Feb. 11 against UNLV, when the teams combined for 153 points. In these dozen games that tipped with totals ranging from 126 to 147, SDSU has held opponents to an average of just 57 points, with the Aztecs contributing just 64.8 for their part.
1) What is this place?
NRG Stadium may be best remembered in basketball circles as the site of Butler’s dismal 18.8% field goal percentage performance in its 53-41 loss in the 2011 NCAA Tournament title game against UConn.
Blame the open-dome facility, with its roughly 71,000 capacity for basketball events? To an extent, yes. But believe it or not, Butler actually shot better that night from behind the arc, which is consistent with how NRG’s impact appears to register.
From a 2016 analysis in FiveThirtyEight:
Comparing how teams shot at NRG with how they shot during the regular season, the stadium’s negative impact on effective field goal percentage is bad. The effect is the worst among open domes and the fourth-worst among the 29 venues that hosted the regionals or Final Four in the past 10 years. Its impact on 3-point shooting is worst among open domes and fifth-worst overall, behind two arenas and two traditional domes:
The broad conclusion there is good enough for me: This is not an environment conducive to high-scoring affairs.
2) Possessions per game
SDSU ranks 265th out of 363 Division I schools for possessions per game (68.5), while Florida Atlantic does not exactly push the pace either at 170th (70.3 per game). Sounds like a recipe for a nice, slow, methodical, shot clock-draining brawl.
A Nathan Mensah appreciation post right here. Blocked Shots, Rebounds, Clutch scoring and Imposing Defense—Nathan is all heart and Mensah Mania is here! #sdsu #FinalFour
Get yours: https://t.co/Vmueg4Vw7o pic.twitter.com/2vS60i9tBF
— SONS OF MONTEZUMA™ (@sonsofmonty) March 28, 2023
3) Three-point shooting – and defense
Okay, here’s where things could veer into potentially problematic territory, where we encounter strength-on-strength.
FAU has proven capable of stacking treys this season, averaging 9.6 3-pointers per game (12th in Division I). SDSU, meanwhile, is especially strong at 3-point defense, allowing a mere 27.7% from that distance, second only to Tennessee. While still formidable at the rim, they’re more vulnerable there. And the Vols, by the way, held FAU to 8-of-27 from 3-point range (29.6%) in their Sweet 16 meeting at Madison Square Garden, a 62-55 victory for the Owls.
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The total has stood at 131.5/132 all week, so I wondered if we might see a bit of movement closer to tipoff. I reached out to Sharapan, who gently advised me that no, there’s not a lot of folks out there making substantial early-week wagers on the total in this game.
“Of course there’s a chance” the total will drop, Sharapan said. “Limit plays on college basketball totals are not being made five days in advance. It will move when the bag guys play it. And there is a chance they won’t even play it.”
So be it.
At 132, we’re in the clear with outcomes such as 66-64, 70-60, 67-64 — you get the idea. Not a lot of margin for scoring, but that’s what prolonged scoring droughts are for. Grab your canteen, because it’s time to party.
Ladies and gentleman, SDSU is a dead nut under team. It may not be fun or especially pretty to root for a slow pace and shot clock violations, but you know what is fun? Winning money.
Let’s just pray this thing doesn’t go to overtime.