Good teams get better as the season progresses. They develop a stronger identity and confidence in who they are and what they can accomplish. San Diego State is one of those teams.
This was thought by many to be a rebuilding year. The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference. They didn't have any players on the preseason MW all-conference team, although transfer Josh Davis was predicted to be MW Newcomer of the Year. Previous scoring leaders Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were gone. This was to be a year of transition until a top 15 recruiting class arrives on campus in the fall.
But the Aztecs quietly and confidently went about their business, believing they were good and could compete with anyone in the country. They played Arizona tough in November, just the second game of the season. Unranked San Diego State held its own against then No. 6 Arizona and its highly touted freshman Aaron Gordon. Beyond Gordon, the Wildcats had high talent at every position.
Who were the Aztecs? They had sophomore Winston Shepard, who was a highly recruited freshman a year before that failed to live up to expectations. He averaged just 5.7 points. Would this be his year? Would he emerge as the team's go-to guy the way Jamaal Franklin did as a sophomore?
They had highly sought-after graduate transfer Josh Davis from Tulane. Could this power forward averaging nearly a double-double every game be the missing piece for San Diego State? Could he duplicate those numbers on a bigger stage?
While Shepard has shown improvement and Davis is a rebounding machine, it is the emergence of two other players that gives the Aztecs hope of taking down Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.
Fifth-year senior point guard Xavier Thames is no longer in the shadow of Franklin and Tapley. His ailing back from last season is a non-issue. This is his chance to shine, and he's made the most of it. He won the MW Player of the Year award by being the best player on the best team in the conference. He went from averaging 9.5 points as a junior to 17.4 points as a senior, on a team that often struggles to put up points.
Thames had breakout games against Creighton and Marquette in the Wooden Legacy tournament, scoring a then career-high 29 points in the championship game. His 30-point game in the Round of 32 against North Dakota State is why the Aztecs are still playing. He is clearly the team leader with the ability to knock down perimeter shots, get to the foul line and distribute the ball to his teammates for open looks.
Dwayne Polee II is playing in his second season for the Aztecs after starting his collegiate career for St. John's. He did not play in the earlier Arizona game due to coach's discretion. At that point in the season, coach Fisher had Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen as the first two subs off the bench. Depending on the opponent and player match-ups, Polee was sometimes the third, fourth or even fifth option off the bench early in the season.
He has since gone on to earn the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year award. Polee is getting starter's minutes and gives the Aztecs a different dimension in the frontcourt. He can play at the four and step back and hit three pointers. That forces San Diego State's opponent to bring one of their big men out of the paint to chase Polee around the perimeter. Polee is also the team's best finisher in transition.
As a team, the Aztecs have made adjustments to both offense and defense throughout the season. Most notably, the Aztecs employed a seldom used 1-3-1 defensive zone to overcome a 16-point second-half deficit to defeat New Mexico in the final regular season game. They have also implemented a motion offense to free up shooters from beyond the arc.
With Brandon Ashley out for Arizona, San Diego State has a great opportunity to defeat the Wildcats and move on to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.