Admit It: You’ve Only Seen San Diego State Play Once… Maybe Twice…Posted by rtmsf on February 11th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is an RTC contributor.
They are the #6 team in the country according to the latest Rush the Court poll, a number that the ESPN/USA Today Coaches and AP polls agree with. They’re #11 according to Ken Pomeroy. They’re sitting at 24-1 on the season, riding high at the top of the Mountain West Conference, and a shoo-in for a NCAA Tournament bid and likely a very high seed. They’re the San Diego State Aztecs, and they’re pretty darn good. But given that they’ve been succeeding out of the spotlight of major BCS conference play and largely outside of the airwaves of that big behemoth in Bristol, they are a bit of a mystery to most. I would guess most of your typical casual college basketball fans have seen them play once, maybe twice, and likely hold some reservations about their chances for a deep tournament run given the MWC’s recent lack of success in March. So, in the interest of shedding some light on a team that could be a big factor next month, we’ll give you the crash course on San Diego State basketball, taking you through their strengths, their weaknesses, some of their potential X-factors and a quick guess at their chances in the postseason.
Frontcourt Athleticism – First and foremost, this team is built around their starting frontcourt: senior center Malcolm Thomas, senior forward Billy White, and sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is the star of the bunch, a versatile freak of nature and potential NBA lottery pick come June. Despite checking in at just 6’7, he’s got a 7-foot wingspan and a pair of the biggest and strongest hands you’ll ever get a look at. Throw in effortless athleticism and a tireless work ethic and you’ve got a major force on the basketball court – especially on the boards. Despite having to compete with not only the opposition, but his glass-eating frontcourt mates, for every ball that comes off the rim, Leonard still grabs almost 13% of all shots missed by an Aztec, and 26% of all shots missed by the other team. Far from just a ferocious rebounder, Leonard is capable of doing plenty of other amazing things on the basketball court. This is a guy who can grab a rebound above the rim on the defensive end, turn and head up court with a confident dribble, and once in the frontcourt, either penetrate the lane and find his own shot or draw the defense and find a teammate either underneath the hoop or at the three-point line. While his jumpshot is still a work in progress (he’s shooting 25% from three this year, up from 20% as a freshman), he’s just now beginning to polish the raw talent we got a glimpse of last year.
While White and Thomas may not have the jaw-dropping set of physical skills that Leonard has, neither one of those guys is a slouch. Thomas, at 6’9, though not the equal of Leonard on the glass, is still an excellent rebounder, posting a defensive rebounding percentage of 21 and an offensive rebounding percentage of just under 13. He’s also one of the best shotblockers in the country and a capable, if not exceptional, offensive threat. He is most effective right around the rim, either on offensive rebounds or lobs, but does have a decent face-up game. White is the perfect complement to Leonard and Thomas. Not as aggressive or flamboyantly athletic, he is more of a steadying influence along the frontline. He is not only the Aztecs’ best offensive post weapon, but he is their best defender in the post, yet still sports a strong face-up game, a good midrange jumper and just when he lulls you to sleep with his silky smooth game, he’ll throw down a merciless dunk on a defender’s head.
Veteran leadership – While White does have that freaky athleticism characteristic of the Aztec frontline, he also provides, along with senior point guard D.J. Gay, a calm veteran presence that can guide SDSU through rough waters when the going gets tough. Down the stretch, when baskets get tougher and tougher to come by, time and again it is White and Gay to whom the Aztecs turn. With the clock ticking down, the opposition inching closer on the scoreboard and the crowd starting to get loud, the Aztecs can safely throw the ball into White in the post and expect that he’ll get single coverage and execute an effective post move. And more times than not, it will be Gay who is feeding that post. Not only is Gay the team’s floor leader, he is also one of the Aztecs’ best three-point shooters, he is their best perimeter defender and he generally doesn’t back down from a challenge. While not the type of point that is going to create an awful lot off the bounce, he is capable of dribbling into a mid-range jumper. Last year when SDSU ran through the MWC Tournament on their way to the conference’s automatic bid, while Leonard earned the most plaudits with his astounding numbers, it was Gay and White to whom the Aztecs turned most often down the stretch in the tight semifinal victory over New Mexico. And in last Wednesday night’s tight road win over Colorado State, White had a big hoop in the clutch before Gay hit the game-winner with a second on the clock. When things get tough in February and March this year, expect White and Gay to continue to answer the call.
Defense – The Aztecs are a very good offensive team, but what makes them such a tough team is their defense, the ninth most efficient defense in the land according to KenPom. The Aztecs strategy defensively is to pack it in and make teams beat them from outside. It’s not that they won’t challenge three-point shooters, just that their priority is to defend the paint. And boy, do they ever. They challenge every shot in the lane and wind up with blocked shots on almost 6% of all possessions, good for sixth in the nation. Thus far this season they’ve held opponents to just 42.3% shooting from inside the arc and they do all of this while normally staying out of foul trouble. What makes them so good? First, along the frontline while they can be pretty interchangeable on a switch, each player has his strength. White is the best post defender, Thomas the best shot-blocker, while Leonard is the quickest and best defender away from the basket. What’s more, Leonard has even shown the ability to defend guards effectively over his short career, and White even spent some pretty effective minutes guarding Jimmer Fredette earlier this season. Throw in Gay and fifth starter Chase Tapley as solid, if unspectacular, perimeter defenders and you’ve got a defense that is capable of being extremely effective without taking a lot of unnecessary chances. The Aztecs make you score over them, and with their length and athleticism, that’s a tough thing to do.
Shooting – As good as the Aztecs are athletically, this is not a great shooting team, whether from deep or from the free throw line. As a whole the team shoots 34.2% from three, a below-average mark compared to the rest of the nation. And from the charity stripe, they’re even worse, hitting just 67% of their freebies, good for #222 out of 345 teams. The only pure shooter on the team is sophomore guard James Rahon, a 45% shooter from deep, but he’s often watching from the bench in clutch time. Gay is the most prolific three-point shooter on the team, having hit 54 threes on the season at a 39% clip, but he is more of the streaky shooter type, not necessarily a pure shooter. Tapley is capable as well (26 threes, 39%), but beyond that it is hit and miss. Leonard has been working on his jumper tirelessly, but it is not quite ready from prime-time, while White and senior reserve forward Brian Carlwell both knock down a pretty good percentage, but on limited attempts. From the free throw line, their problems are even greater, as the whole team shares in the struggles. Of the seven players that average over ten minutes a game for the Aztecs, only Tapley averages over 70% from the line. Of even more concern is that the team doesn’t even get to the line that often. Sure, that means there are fewer opportunities for them to miss their shots once they get there, but it also means the Aztecs are having to work harder for their points and are failing to get their opponents in foul trouble. It also signals that for a team as athletic as this Aztec team is, they aren’t being particularly aggressive offensively, too often settling for jumpers rather than attacking their defenders and the rim.
Defensive rebounding – Though the Aztecs dominate on the offensive glass, they are merely okay on the defensive glass, allowing the opposition to grab 30% of their missed shots. Part of the reason for this is that they’re challenging every shot, and as a result they don’t always find a body and box out. Then there’s the fact that Leonard and Thomas are so good at hitting the glass, that White and the guards don’t always make the extra effort to get to the ball on the defensive end. It is noteworthy that in most of the Aztecs bigger games of the season (St. Mary’s, UNLV, New Mexico and BYU), they have done a better job of cleaning the defensive glass, so there is the thought that their mediocre numbers in other games on the season (for instance, IUPUI and San Francisco, among others, hung with the Aztecs on the glass for 40 minutes) was simply due to a lack of effort. One would guess that come March, effort wouldn’t be in question, but this remains something to keep an eye on.
Depth – Head coach Steve Fisher has kept his rotation pretty tight throughout the season, with just eight players averaging over ten minutes per game, and just six averaging more than four points per game. While an eight-man rotation is perfectly acceptable, the dangers of such a plan came to light against TCU last Saturday night, when Tapley and reserve forward Tim Shelton both went down with injuries in the first half and spent the remainder of the night watching from the bench with various ominous looking devices shielding their injuries. Now, both escaped any breaks and, although both players sat out against Utah on Wednesday, neither was expected to miss any significant time, but it did at least for a moment point out that an injury, suspension or run of foul trouble could cause some problems for the Aztecs. If everyone remains available, the bench of Rahon, Carlwell and Shelton is perfectly good, but perhaps Fisher will throw some extra minutes to Jamal Franklin, LaBradford Franklin or Mehdi Cheriet down the stretch, just in case.
Steve Fisher – As the head coach at San Diego State, Fisher has done an unbelievable job. He has taken a program that was a complete non-entity before he arrived and he has made the Aztecs a consistent contender in the MWC. But this year is beyond the pale. Prior to this season, SDSU had never been in the AP Top 25, and now they sit in the top ten. Still, Fisher will be judged by what he is able to accomplish with this team in March. He’s got plenty of NCAA Tournament success from his time at Michigan, but despite getting the Aztecs into the NCAA Tournament three times in his previous 11 seasons in San Diego, they have yet to get a win. Worse yet, in a couple of those games, particularly the 2006 loss to Indiana in the first round, there was the feeling that Fisher got outcoached. Given that the Aztecs, just by way of their style of play, are going to play many relatively close games, Fisher will need to prove that he can X-and-O with the elite coaches in the sport.
Kawhi Leonard – He’s the best player on the team and one of the most talented players in the nation. Generally speaking, the teams that you see get to the Final Four, do so on the backs of their best players. For the Aztecs, they’ll need Leonard to not only rebound and defend up to the best of his abilities, but he’ll need to be ready to provide an offensive spark if their offense grinds to a halt in the halfcourt. Whether that is knocking down the jumper that he has worked so hard on or putting the ball on the floor and going by his defender or creating offense by doing the dirty work on the glass, at some point the Aztecs will need Leonard to take over for a couple of possessions or more.
D.J. Gay – In San Diego State’s lone loss on the season, to BYU a couple weeks back, Gay was largely absent. He had two points on 0/7 shooting, and the more Jimmer Fredette scored, the less aggressive Gay seemed to be at both ends of the court. This was a startling turn of events, given that he had scored 50 points in his previous two games. But, while Gay hasn’t been as prolific of a scorer since the BYU debacle, he has been his typical solid self, defending like crazy, taking great care of the ball (he has 19 assists and one turnover in his last 179 minutes) and knocking down clutch shots, as evidenced by his heroics against Colorado State. For the Aztecs to fulfill their March dreams, they’ll need Gay to be playing with complete confidence.
As good as the Aztecs have been they’ve still got a lot to prove, not only to the casual college basketball fan, but even to the hardcore hoops watchers. Rightly or wrongly, the Mountain West has a reputation of putting teams into the tournament and having them get sent home early. Last year, two of the four MWC teams that gained admittance into the field of 65 won their opening round game, only to get handled fairly easily in round two. In the last five years, 12 MWC teams have been invited to the Big Dance, with only UNLV in 2007 earning a Sweet 16 appearance. Then there is San Diego State’s record of never having won an NCAA Tournament game. There’s a lot of history there for the Aztecs to overcome.
Perhaps more concerning is the fact that, while the Aztecs have beaten some good teams, their best win on the season is over St. Mary’s, a good-not-great team. There are wins over Wichita State and Gonzaga, Cal and UNLV, but despite a solid schedule (rated the 43rd toughest schedule by KenPom), they lack a real signature win over a high-caliber major conference team. Without a chance at that type of a win, there are bound to be some doubters around the college hoops landscape. What the Aztecs do have on their schedule that points toward tournament success is a ton of wins away from home. They have to this point played 13 games away from Viejas Arena, with the loss at BYU the sole stain on their record. The Aztecs have proven themselves road warriors beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And where previous MWC teams have come into the tournament with obvious blemishes (witness MWC regular season champion New Mexico’s defensive efficiency rating of 90 last year), this Aztec team looks as solid as their record indicates. SDSU plays defense well enough to keep themselves in a game, even when things aren’t coming easily on the offensive end. And when that is happening, the Aztecs can manufacture points by pounding the offensive glass. The team chemistry here is terrific; you rarely, if ever, see a selfish basketball decision. There are plenty of smart veterans ready and willing to step up and make the big play, on both ends of the floor. And this team is coached to highlight its numerous strengths and hide its handful of weaknesses. This is no flash-in-the-pan Aztec squad. However, while the Aztecs should be expected to make it through the first weekend of the tournament, their struggles shooting the ball from deep and from the line could be the Achilles’ Heel that prevents them from reaching Houston. But, if they do come up short, it will be at the hands of an excellent team. That being said, if things break right and if they get a couple lucky rolls around the rim, you shouldn’t be surprised to see this very talented squad crashing the party in lieu of the sports’ blue bloods.