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.