How San Diego State Makes the Most of Its TalentPosted by Andrew Murawa on February 10th, 2014
I’ve written plenty about San Diego State this season. And while most of it has been glowing, there have been a lot of “yeah… but” moments. Yeah, they’re great defensively; yeah they’re athletic and long; yeah they’re well-coached; but then I would harp on some of their perceived weaknesses. After watching them wear down and put away a solid Nevada team on Saturday night at Viejas Arena for their 20th consecutive win, today there will be no mention of those weaknesses. Because one of the things that makes this Aztecs team so great is that they play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The story of this team is that they find a way to do what they want to do, while not letting their opponent do what they want to do. They’re like an unwelcome visitor reclining on your couch and cracking a beer; they get comfortable and prevent you from doing same.
Before every game, Steve Fisher puts up a list of keys to success on the white board in the locker room. Some of them are basic and general: rebound the ball, limit turnovers, etc. Some are more involved, such as a goal to generate at least one 8-0 run per half, or to make more free throws than the other team takes. But each of these gives a window into the priorities for this squad. Most of it begins on the defensive end, like that goal for runs, something Fisher plans for. “It comes with staying with it and not allowing them to get an easy basket, not making a foolish turnover or giving them a second chance to end a run, and eventually you’re going to have a chance to get one of those,” said Fisher Saturday night. “That’s the earmark of any real good team; you play even for awhile and then all of a sudden you have a spurt.” They didn’t get one of those spurts in either half on Saturday night, coming up just short with a pair of 7-0 runs instead. There was one right at the end of the first half where the Aztecs responded to the Wolf Pack taking a one-point lead by forcing three turnovers over the course of four possessions, all of which resulted in transition opportunities. In the second half they widened a seven-point margin to a 14-point lead on the back of another turnover and getting to the line. On Wednesday night against Boise State, it was a 15-0 run, marked not only by forced turnovers, but also by good, solid, lockdown defense.
“Our defense, the way we guard, the out-of-the-seat plays are the steals and dunks,” said Fisher, referring to those highlight-reel buckets that get the Viejas crowd on their feet. “But the real meat is persistence and staying with it for an extended period of time, where a set-play team has to come in and look at a shot clock that is at 18 seconds rather than at 28 seconds when they start to run a set play.” This was the case often on Saturday night, as the Aztecs pressured the Wolf Pack ball-handlers incessantly, often forcing them to waste eight or nine seconds to get it over half-court. Then, once there, point guard Deonte Burton would stop, relax for a second and look over to head coach David Carter for a play call. By the time the Wolf Pack actually got into their set, the shot clock was half gone. From there, it was just a matter of not letting Nevada find the types of looks they want to get in the offense. And generally that meant limiting good looks for Burton (who takes almost 28 percent of the team’s shots). “Our goal was to make him take contested twos, and for the most part we were able to do that,” said Fisher. “We did a nice job not letting him get all the way to the rim and we did a nice job keeping all of them off the free throw line.”
That leads us to another big point for the Aztecs: dominating the free throw line. In terms of pure percentages, San Diego State isn’t great from there, making just 67.3 percent, good for 262nd in the nation. But where they are great is in getting to the line and keeping their opponents from doing likewise. Their free throw rate (which is comparing the number of free throws attempted to the number of field goals) is 22nd in the nation, as they are taking better than half the number of shots from the line as from the field. Meanwhile only 11 other teams in the country allow their opponent a lower rate of free throw attempts. In fact, for the season, the Aztecs, despite that meager free throw shooting percentage, have had more successful attempts from the line (405) than attempts allowed for their opponents (356). That’s a great way to mitigate a potential weakness and turn it into a strength.
So, what’s the long-term prognosis for this team? On Saturday night, they reached that 20-game wining streak that matches the school record held by the 2011 Sweet Sixteen team, a group that is inarguably the best squad in school history. Can this team become better than that team? That team went 34-3, made the second weekend (before bowing out with a fine performance), won 20 in a row itself (all to start the season), and was rated as high as #4 in the national polls, eventually earning a two-seed in the West region. That 34-3 record is insanely gaudy and would require, assuming that the Aztecs don’t actually win the National Championship, a sweep through the rest of the regular season and a loss a game in the Mountain West tourney, or vice versa. Both things that are very much on the table right now.
Another Sweet Sixteen is very much an achievable goal for the Aztecs, although their eventual goals are actually loftier. Twenty wins in a row? The Aztecs travel to Wyoming on Tuesday night (a place where they scored nine points in the first half last season) with a chance to break that record. And peaking as the #4 team? The Aztecs will need a team ahead of them to slip up, but if they can win at Wyoming and then take care of Air Force at home, they could be in that conversation next week. When Fisher was asked if any of the team’s accomplishments, particularly the 20-game winning streak surprised him, he replied pragmatically: “I’m surprised that anybody can win 20 in a row, no matter what league they’re playing in. But, the way we’ve played, the people we’ve beaten, I think all of us are going in expecting to win, but knowing that life, especially on the road, will be very difficult. But sometimes you’ve gotta get lucky. And we’ve been lucky a few times. We’ve created some good fortune, but (Dwayne) Polee’s basket at the buzzer (against Boise State) very easily doesn’t go in and we go home with a loss. But it went in. Good teams though are in a position to win games.”
And that’s what it is going to boil down to. This team has some weaknesses, yes. But through a combination of a great coaching staff and plenty of hard work from the players, San Diego State is regularly doing what it needs to do to put itself in a position to win. Get your opponent uncomfortable and force them to go away from their strengths. Meanwhile, play to your own strengths and find a way to be supremely comfortable. It’s like something out of The Art of War. These aren’t new concepts, but Fisher and the Aztecs are deploying these tactics masterfully. And if we look up in April and see this team among the Final Four in Cowboys Stadium, will anyone paying attention really be surprised?