Column: Dance-happy Matt Bradley joined Aztecs for his NCAA Tournament moment

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This is why Matt Bradley came to San Diego State. This is why, after entering the transfer portal at Cal, he muted Gonzaga, Kentucky, Kansas, USC and Oregon when his phone buzzed.

This is why it was impossible to pry the smile off his face with a crowbar Sunday when San Diego State popped up during the NCAA Tournament selection show on CBS.

It’s an easier, greased rail for a player with enough talent to sign on with a hoops blueblood, cozy into a comfortable role and saunter into tournaments as routinely as trips to the grocery store. For those who dig in and choose a less traditional path, the finish line becomes something to savor.

Some inch toward the shadows. Some demand the lead in the Broadway play.

This is Bradley’s moment. Finally.

“It’s an overwhelming experience, just to hear your team be called and have a chance to compete against all the great teams in college basketball,” Bradley said of the team’s opening-round game Thursday against Creighton in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I could never put myself in that situation. I’ve always been a fan of March Madness, but I’ve never participated in it. So, I could never put myself in the shoes of those players.”

Those shoes? They’re the dancing kind.

Not just because the tournament’s well-worn nickname is The Big Dance. Bradley, who describes himself as, well, um … maybe it’s best for him to explain.

“I just dance in the most random moments,” said Bradley, a senior guard and the Aztecs’ leading scorer. “I say I’m two different people. On the court, I have a serious demeanor. But off the court, I’m laid back. I’m a weird guy.”

Weird. And talented.

Everyone knew Bradley provided the Aztecs a proven scorer when he snugged up those dancing shoes to shuffle down the California coast. They found out his stomach was grumbling, hungry for college basketball’s biggest stage.

Cal last dipped its sneakers into mid-March in 2016. The Bears have one NCAA victory in the last dozen years.

San Diego State connections soon began popping up like spring flowers after a rainstorm, ranging from body-and-game look-alike Matt Mitchell (both from the Inland Empire), former player Jamaal Franklin (met through mutual friends) and rebounding machine and former NBA player Michael Cage (family ties).

Without being fully aware of it, Bradley became tethered to the program.

“I didn’t think he was even going to come here,” fellow guard Adam Seiko said.

The decision shifted the direction of a season.

A team in desperate need of consistent scoring had one land in the locker room, just in time. His 17-point scoring average, No. 9 in the Mountain West, made him the conference’s newcomer of the year.

Asked what Bradley’s decision meant to the dribble-and-dunk crowd on Montezuma Mesa, coach Brian Dutcher raced right to the point.

“Everything,” Dutcher said. “He had a magical season for us. We wouldn’t be in the tournament without him. Obviously now, he has to be great for us to win in the tournament.

“He doesn’t want to just go, he wants to have his shining moment. And if he does, we’ll have a chance to win games.”

Bradley does more than score, though that’s his critical differentiator. The next-highest point producer this season is guard Trey Pulliam, at 8.5 per game. Bradley, though, is second in rebounds (5.4), second in assists (2.6) and tied for second in steals (1.1).

The one thing he does not lead the team in, however, is baggage.

“A lot of guys who can score like that and have a lot of attention, they can tend to be arrogant or cocky,” Pulliam said. “He’s just real down to earth, humble, just a normal guy. I think that speaks to his character.”

Not buying it?

“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met,” Seiko said. “He’s not egotistical. He’s a selfless guy. He wants to get better every day.”

There are breadcrumbs along the trail that the season has drained Bradley’s legs and whole-body gas tank. That would be completely understandable, given how many times the ball is in his hands as he attempts to create offense when points grow scarce.

In the first two games of last week’s Mountain West Tournament, he hit just 4 of 14 shots for 12 points while piling up nine turnovers. In the championship game, a one-point loss to Boise State where he left the potential game-winning drive on the front of the rim, he scored 17.

“I have moments where I’m inside my own head at times and overlook things,” Bradley said. “I think it was a situation where we had to win and I pressed a little too hard and let it get to me a little bit.

“I feel like I got it out my system and I’m looking forward to this tournament. I’m just going to have fun and compete.”

Those legs?

“As we’ve gotten deeper into the season, I’ve gotten in better shape,” he said. “But around this time, all the kinks and bruises are starting to appear. But mentally, I’m sharp. Physically I’m sharp. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to make a run.”

Bradley was so committed to the moment that unfolded Sunday in the Fowler Athletics Center that instead of doing regular college-kid stuff when basketball wasn’t draining his batteries, he joined a 24 Hour Fitness.

He swam three days a week, toning his body without taxing his limbs.

“Getting into the pool, it doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on your body,” Bradley explained. “It’s non-weight bearing.”

When people recognize him at the gym, they thank him for the points today and the ones coming tomorrow. Bradley and Seiko recently announced they would return for “super senior” seasons due to the COVID pandemic.

That means another season to master the Aztecs’ complex and demanding defensive schemes and techniques. It also could mean another bite of March Madness.

Keep those dancing shoes handy.

What are those random dances he does, by the way? He glides one step to the left, glides the next to the right, with a little shoulder shimmy.

“Two step, that’s what we call it,” Bradley said.

Dance, as they say, like nobody’s watching. It’s your time, after all.



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