Three Key Takeaways.
- San Diego State Needed This More Than Arizona. And they weren’t able to get it, in large part because of the same old bugaboo that has limited Steve Fisher’s teams the last few seasons: offensive production. From the 9:17 to the 0:18 mark of the second half, the Aztecs scored a grand total of three points on a Skylar Spencer free throw and a Trey Kell jumper. What will cause Steve Fisher to lose even more sleep over this loss tonight is that Arizona only moderately took advantage of the drought (going from a one-point deficit to a six-point lead) — opportunities were there, and Fisher mentioned as much in the postgame press conference. But far too often, the Aztecs simply don’t know what to do with the basketball on the offensive end other than to give it to Winston Shepard (14 points, six rebounds) and ask him to create something. There’s more on a possible remedy to that problem below, but the bigger takeaway here is that this was a winnable game that could have really bolstered the Aztecs’ seed line in March when they have another gaudy record that people are uncertain about. Arizona, on the other hand, will play Gonzaga and Michigan in coming weeks to bolster its bona fides as the Wildcats position themselves for another #1 seed in the West Region.
- Stanley Johnson is the Real Deal. I’m not sure if I was more impressed with the all-around abilities of Johnson in his Tournament MVP performance, or his relative nonchalance while dominating the action here in Maui. With four California state titles under his belt, Johnson was as well-decorated as they come heading into college. But his demeanor on the floor is so unflappable that, incessant chewing of the mouth guard aside, it belies his relative inexperience in a college uniform. In what was easily the poorest shooting night of his young career (4-14 FG), he still found plenty of ways to impact the game beyond scoring (which he made up for at the line): nine rebounds, including five offensive; three big steals; a block; an assist. Sean Miller said after the game that Johnson has only recently — the last month or so — started to understand what it takes to be successful at this level: “He couldn’t have won Tournament MVP a month ago.” God help us all once he puts it all together. He’s a game-changer in the best possible way.
- The Offensive Development of Trey Kell Will Make or Break the Aztecs. San Diego State will beat a bunch of teams with its defense alone, but in order for this group to break through and realistically become a Final Four contender, Fisher needs Trey Kell to become his second reliable scoring threat. Dwayne Polee is a nice third guy in an offense — the kind of player who is best served when defenses aren’t designed to specifically stop him — but Kell showed through three games in Maui that he is more than capable of putting up nice numbers (14.7 PPG on 60% FG and 76% FT) for a team that ranks among the slowest-paced 20 percent of all Division I teams. The question is really whether he can do it reliably. Shepard, as talented and versatile of a player as he is, needs a teammate who can take the offensive pressure off of him, and the freshman clearly has the stones (hitting the big four-point play to give SDSU its final life with 18 seconds remaining) to make a run at it. Mark this down: If Kell becomes an all-Mountain West caliber player this season, San Diego State will play in the NCAA’s second weekend and have a favorable match-up’s chance at the program’s first Final Four.