Aztecs hoop poised to build on football’s success vs. Pac-12 – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Basket by basket and tackle by tackle, San Diego State’s basketball and football teams are sapping the power from the Power 5’s Pac-12.

Go back to Sept. 11, when the shoulder pad-wearing Aztecs built a comfy fourth-quarter lead before holding off current No. 24 Utah 33-31 in three overtimes. A week earlier, they cruised at struggling Arizona 38-14 — part of a seven-win run against the conference in the last nine games.

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The dribblers and dunkers hit the locker room winners in their last three against the Pac-12, dropping UCLA and Arizona State — both ranked at the time — a season ago. The Aztecs also steamrolled Utah by 28 points in 2019, three days after the Utes beat then-No. 6 Kentucky.

Pac-who?

“Perception is not reality,” said basketball coach Brian Dutcher, whose team has another shot Thursday against Arizona State at Viejas Arena. “The reality is, we beat Pac-12 teams. We’re competitive with Pac-12 teams. We recruit against Pac-12 teams.

“And even though we don’t have the Power 5 conference label behind us, we’re as good as those teams.”

San Diego State forward Nathan Mensah, left, led the Aztecs to a win against Arizona State in 2020.

San Diego State forward Nathan Mensah, left, scored 17 points and grabbed 15 rebounds during a double-digit win at Arizona State in 2020.

(AP)

Name recognition can speak volumes, come March. Results speak louder.

The basketball program owns an all-time record of 61-148 against the Pac-12, but has won the last three matchups by an average of nearly 18.4 points per game.

“I just think it speaks to the culture of our program,” Dutcher said of the Aztecs, 1-1 entering the game with the Sun Devils. “We think we can play and beat anybody we put on the schedule. That has to be our mindset.”

Guard Trey Pulliam shoots against Utah in San Diego State's 2019 win in Los Angeles.

Guard Trey Pulliam helped the Aztecs to a win against Utah at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, in 2019.

(Getty Images)

The run comes at a time when the football team has made beating the conference an expectation, rather than the exception.

“It’s something to sell, obviously,” football counterpart Brady Hoke said. “It’s something we’re proud of.”

Though the Aztecs might not scream about the wave of success from rooftops, they definitely bring it up in living rooms with recruits.

Have story, will travel.

“If they don’t notice, we tell them,” Dutcher said. “If we’re beating Pac-12 teams, we’re going to let the recruits know. We want to say that, even though we’re in a non-Power 5 conference, we’re a Power 5 school.”

The names and numbers become more pitch-able by the game.

They’ve done it at home, beating No. 22 UCLA at Viejas Arena in the 2020 opener. Despite the Bruins being short-handed in the game, coach Mick Cronin framed how the game truly got out of hand: “We got outplayed physically. I’ve been doing this a long time. … You go on the road and just get physically beat up the way we got beat up (physically).”

They’ve done it on the road, as Nathan Mensah piled up 17 points and 15 rebounds to help brush aside No. 23 Arizona State a couple weeks after the UCLA game.

They’ve done it on a neutral court, sprinting past Utah at Staples Center by building a monstrous advantage for points in the paint (42-20) and holding the Utes to the second-lowest shooting percentage in then-coach Larry Krystkowiak’s nine seasons.

Home? Away? Neutral? The Aztecs play hard no matter what, especially on defense. Zip codes rarely become a factor when the recent nonconference spotlight brightened.

“We’re not putting those games on the schedule just to entertain our fans and lose,” Dutcher said. “We want to win every game we play. We’re scheduling up. We’re playing anybody that will play us. And I like that kind of challenge.

“… The name on the front of the jersey doesn’t mean as much as getting your team ready to play, no matter who you play.”

The Aztecs get a chance to keep fueling the Pac-12 narrative this week, one squeaky sneaker at a time.

The Sun Devils, predicted to finish near the middle of the pack, so to speak, in the Pac-12, fell to UC Riverside 66-65 Thursday — two days after the Aztecs dropped the same team 66-53.

“There’s great parity in basketball,” Dutcher said. “You can look at any of these games around the country. If you just get caught up in the name game, how does this team lose to this team?

“… You have to dig deeper. I’m not really surprised. Sometimes I’m like the rest of the public. I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’ Then I look at their roster and like, well shoot, they’ve got players back from a really good team.”

Just circle back to the 48 hours involving Riverside.

“Most people thought when we played (UC) Riverside, it would be a walkover,” Dutcher said. “They’re a very good team. They lose to us and two nights later, they win in Tempe.”

So, what does all of this Pac-12 stuff mean in football and basketball?

“It potentially says the Pac-12 better not invite us, because we’re pretty good,” Dutcher said.

Then he uncorked a mischievous grin. That’s easy to do on the Mesa these days.