COACH AND PROGRAM
San Diego State won 22 games, finished tied for third in the Mountain West and advanced to the second round of the NIT last season. For a program that had reached the 20-win plateau just twice in the previous 21 years, the year should have been considered a success.
But the 2006-07 campaign was the one San Diego State was going to use to elevate its program. The Aztecs, who stole defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, col-lapsing in the final 80 seconds in an 87-83 loss to Indiana, were a prohibitive favorite to repeat as MWC champions last season and talked of advancing deep in the NCAAs.
Instead, the Aztecs, despite the play of seniors Brandon Heath (19.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), a first team All-MWC player, and Mohamed Abukar (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who earned second-team all-league honors, never came together in 2006-07.
SDSU didn't have a signature non-conference win and lost four of its first six league games.
The Aztecs made a push, but late losses at Wyoming and Utah dashed any hopes of an at-large NCAA bid and a quarterfinal upset at the hands of Colorado State ended any hopes of de-fending their tournament title.
With Heath and Abukar, the only anticipated departures, the Aztecs appeared to be in good shape to make a run at the 2007-08 conference title. But SDSU's dreams for the coming season suffered a significant blow when 6-10 senior Jerome Habel (10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) was dismissed from the team in late August for a violation of team rules.
Habel's dismissal wasn't altogether a surprise. Trouble seemed to follow the ultra-athletic forward and a potential battery case involving Habel was under review by the San Diego City At-torney's office. SDSU was Habel's seventh school in six years and last year was only his third full season since he was 14, despite the fact he sat out four games because of a suspension.
Habel's talent was nearly as big as his problems, hence the reason Aztecs coach Steve Fisher took a chance on him.
But Habel's dismissal illustrates the dangers in relying on a player with suspect character. The Aztecs had time to prepare for the losses of Heath and Abukar, as much as that was possible, but there was no time to recover from Habel's exit.
Covering for Habel will be a collective effort, but 6-6 junior Lorrenzo Wade (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) will be asked to carry an even heavier load. Wade, who played his first season at Mon-tezuma Mesa last year after transferring from Louisville, has star potential. An explosive athlete and the team's best defensive player, Wade was fourth in the MWC in steals (1.8), ninth in blocked shots (1.1) and 14th in assists (2.5).
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San Diego State
Wade can score around the basket, but he does need to improve his three-point shooting. He made just 26 percent of his shots beyond the arc. With the losses of Heath, Abukar and Habel, Wade won't have to sublimate his offensive game and he should emerge as an all-conference caliber player.
Richie Williams (7.0 ppg, 4.6 apg), a 5-9 junior, will run the point. A two-year starter at point guard, Williams was second in the MWC in assists, first in steals (2.0) and sixth in assist to turnover ratio (1.5-to-1). He has the quickness to beat anyone off the dribble and is a ball-hawk on the defensive end.
After struggling with his shot as a freshman, Williams made 45.8 percent of his three-point attempts last season. Newcomer Kelvin Davis (Waterbury, Conn./College of Southern Idaho), a 6-4 junior transfer, is the likely starter at shooting guard. Davis, who played one season at UTEP before transfer-ring to Southern Idaho, was the nation's 11th-ranked junior college player, according to the Rivals.com. He averaged 15.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 rebounds as a sophomore at Southern Idaho.
''He has the ability to score the basketball and defend multiple positions on the court,'' Fisher said.
Senior Matt Thomas (1.5 ppg, 2.0 apg, 1.5 rpg), who missed nearly all of last season with a back injury, will provide backcourt depth, assuming he is healthy. Thomas played in just two games a season ago before receiving a medical red-shirt. He has 17 career starts to his credit and is a serviceable point guard, but back injuries aren't easy to shake.
D.J. Gay (Sun Valley, Calif./Poly High), a 6-0 freshman, was one of the nation's most prolific prep scorers a season ago. Gay was 21st nationally, averaging 29.4 points, in addition to 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals. If Thomas isn't healthy, Gay will factor into the backcourt rotation.
With the departure of Habel, 6-8, 272-pound Ryan Amoroso becomes vital to the Aztecs success. Amoroso, a junior who sat out last season after transferring from Marquette, doesn't have Habel's high-flying athleticism, but he will be a physical presence in the post.
Amoroso was a productive player at Marquette, averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 57 career games. His time as a Golden Eagle was highlighted by a 30-point, 12-rebound explo-sion against South Carolina in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Chris Lamb (1.4 ppg, 0.9 rpg), a 6-10 junior, will provide depth in the middle.
Fisher has an abundance of quality forwards, which makes playing small a possibility for the Aztecs. Kyle Spain (6.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), a 6-5 junior, is expected to start alongside Wade. Spain, who has 43 starts in 59 career games, regressed as a sophomore. His scoring (9.2 to 6.6) and shooting (.495 to .398) suffered significant drops.
The Aztecs will ask much more of Spain this season and he needs to deliver.
Sophomore forwards Jer'Vaughn Johnson (2.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) and Jon Pastorek (1.5 ppg, 0.8 rpg) will have the opportunity to show they are ready to be contributors as well. The 6-6 Johnson has the power at 254 pounds to be a force around the basket. He was one of six players and the only freshman to play in more than 30 games last season. Johnson could be poised for a breakout campaign.
The 6-8 Pastorek doesn't provide much inside muscle at 208 pounds, but he is a good three-point shooter that turned the ball over just eight times in 136 minutes of play as a freshman. Last season he shot .429 (6-of-14) from behind the arc.
Billy White (Las Vegas, NV/Green Valley), a 6-7 freshman, could earn his way into the rotation. White, who averaged 20.7 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 blocks as a senior at Green Valley, was a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com and the 48th-ranked small forward in the nation.
White is an outstanding athlete and the most likely of the Aztecs' three freshman to play a significant role. Tim Shelton (Fresno, CA/Clovis West HS), a 6-6 freshman, can score with his back to the basket or on the perimeter. The son of former NBA player Lonnie Shelton, Tim's senior year at Clovis West was limited to just three games as he recovered from an ACL injury to his left knee.
Habel's dismissal is a severe blow to a program already trying to replace Heath and Abukar. Habel had the size and athleticism to create match-up nightmares for the opposition. Amoroso should be a good, physical player, but he won't be the dynamic presence Habel was in the middle.
Wade has star potential and he will need to reach that potential sooner rather than later. Spain must recapture his freshman form and build on that, and Davis needs to be an immediate pres-ence at shooting guard.
With Habel, San Diego State had a shot at making another run at the MWC title. Without him, the Aztecs, who almost surely won't win at least 22 games for the third consecutive year, will be in the middle of a MWC race that probably won't have a dominant team.
San Diego State Aztecs
Last Season 22-11 (.667)
Conference Record 10-6 (t-3rd)
Starters Lost/Returning 2/3
Coach Steve Fisher (Illinois State '67)
Record At School 127-117 (8 years)
Career Record 311-199 (16 years)
RPI Last 5 years 103-120-189-61-60
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS