Night Line: Reloaded San Diego State Has Picked Up Where Last Season Left OffPosted by EJacoby on January 24th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
When you lose four starters, 73% of your scoring production, and one NBA lottery pick from the season before, it usually means that a year of rebuilding awaits your basketball program. But for San Diego State, a fresh slate of players who mainly watched and waited their turns last season have picked up where Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas left off. Tuesday night’s road victory over Wyoming improved No. 15 SDSU to 18-2 on the season and 3-0 in Mountain West conference play as one of the most surprising teams in the country. Veteran coach Steve Fisher and the new-look Aztecs have wildly exceeded expectations and are looking to match or surpass last season’s run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Junior guards Chase Tapley and James Rahon are the only current Aztecs who played significant minutes on last year’s outstanding 34-3 team that won the MWC and advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Tapley was a starter and averaged 8.6 PPG a year ago, but this season has taken his game to a whole new level. The shooting guard leads the Mountain West in scoring (16.4 PPG) and steals (2.05 SPG) while hitting a tremendous 46.7% from behind the arc on over five attempts per game. His growth from role player to star guard, however, is not even the biggest improvement on the team. That distinction goes to sophomore Jamaal Franklin, who hardly rose off the bench last season (8.1 MPG), but who’s now developed into one of the most talented players in the conference. He didn’t start the first 10 games of this season, but Fisher has had him in the lineup in the past 10 after he flashed tremendous skills and strength at the small forward position. He’s now averaging 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game as a versatile threat for the Aztecs.
This year’s roster has its own identity, but there’s no doubt that the 2011-12 Aztecs are shaping into the form of last season’s bunch. Franklin has an eerie similarity to Kawhi Leonard, last summer’s No. 15 overall NBA draft pick, in both his stature and playing style. With his play, Franklin is emphatically answering the question of who can replace the star forward’s production, and he’s doing it on both ends of the floor. Xavier Thames, a transfer from Washington State, is another huge key to this reloaded roster, as he’s stepped in at the point guard position and averaged 11.1 points and 5.0 assists per game, even better than the departed D.J. Gay from last year.
In addition to the necessary production replacement, the toughness from last year’s team looks like it also has rubbed off on this year’s squad. The Aztecs’ road win on Tuesday was their fifth of the season, which includes victories at Arizona and New Mexico, where they were solid underdogs in two very tough places to play. SDSU’s only losses this season have come at Baylor (current Top 10 team) and at home by two to Creighton (current Top 20). The Aztecs lack the interior scoring of last year, but they have three upperclassmen forwards in Tim Shelton, Garrett Green, and Deshawn Stephens who all average 20 minutes or more per game and can rebound and defend at a high level. This has helped the Aztecs become a physical defensive team that sports a season-long defensive efficiency of 89.1, good for 16th in the nation. The team is clicking on both ends and doesn’t have very many weaknesses to exploit.
San Diego State, of course, is led most of all by the veteran coach Fisher, who was the head coach at Michigan during the Fab Five era. He left the school in 1997 in a bit of disgrace as a result of the recruiting violations and scandal surrounding Chris Webber and some other major recruits of the early 90s, but he quickly picked up the job at SDSU in 1999 and has been the steady leader of the program ever since. Now that Fisher has garnered some big-time recruits again, the Aztecs are flourishing in the Mountain West. While the Pac-12 is in another down season, the MW has picked up that slack as a highly competitive league of eight quality teams. SDSU, at 3-0 this year already with wins over co-favorites New Mexico and UNLV, is the favorite to win the MW title for the second consecutive season. The combination of Fisher’s experience and his players’ collective development to fill departed roles has this team in great position to make another postseason run. We know that San Diego State will be in the Big Dance, but the question is whether they can ride this wave of new talent to another Sweet Sixteen appearance, or perhaps even beyond.