clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

San Diego State Basketball season preview: Aztecs enter most important season in SDSU history

No pressure, right?


"The Aztecs have programmatic momentum unlike any time in their school's history. Another 34-3 season may not be on the way, but a long-term stay in the national college hoops conversation -- even without all the stars from last year's team -- is starting to seem more likely than ever."

Those were writer Eamon Brennan's words after San Diego State landed a young, relatively unknown forward named Dwayne Polee II following the Aztecs' first Sweet 16 appearance in program history.

Three years later, it turns out Brennan was right. Head coach Steve Fisher and his defense-first squads have reached three more NCAA Tournaments and recently received their highest preseason ranking in program history.

But notice Brennan didn't mention immediate results, acknowledging the fresh stars from the West probably wouldn't repeat their 2010-11 season. The Aztecs entered the 2011-12 season without Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay and Billy White. To put that loss into perspective, consider this: the 2011-12 team lost 73 percent of the scoring, 82 percent of the rebounds and 72 percent of the assists from the previous season.

In other words, those players were kind of good.

Yes, Fisher landed two quality transfers in J.J. O'Brien and Polee. Yes, the team returned James Rahon, Chase Tapley, Jamaal Franklin and Xavier Thames. But SDSU reeled in's 253rd-ranked recruiting class in two-star junior college transfer Deshawn Stephens. The preseason USA Today Coaches Poll didn't rank the Aztecs and the Associated Press ranked them 25th.

Well, just in case you didn't already know, SDSU reached its second Sweet 16 last year. But this offseason feels very different than it did after the first Sweet 16.

Maybe it's the 21 individual preseason honors for returning Aztecs. Maybe it's SDSU's No. 18 recruiting class in the country, according to Maybe its the No. 17 ranking in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll. Maybe it's the fact that, despite the the loss of Thames and Josh Davis, SDSU returns 65 percent of its scoring, 64 percent of its rebounding and 59 percent of its assists from last season. Maybe it's a combination of everything.

Never before have the Aztecs stood so prominently on the preseason map. With more eyes looking to Montezuma Mesa than ever before (including the eyes of 2016 targets T.J. Leaf and M.J. Cage), Fisher's squad enters the most important season in program history. At this point, SDSU can't afford to take a step back.

Projected starting lineup

Version A

F Winston Shepard Jr., 6'8", 210 pounds
F Dwayne Polee II Sr., 6'7", 200 pounds
F J.J. O'Brien Sr., 6'7", 215 pounds
F Skylar Spencer Jr., 6'10", 240 pounds
G Kevin Zabo Fr., 6'2", 185 pounds

Version B

F Winston Shepard Jr., 6'8", 210 pounds
F Angelo Chol Jr., 6'9", 220 pounds
F J.J. O'Brien Sr., 6'7", 215 pounds
F Skylar Spencer Jr., 6'10", 240 pounds
G Kevin Zabo Fr., 6'2", 185 pounds

As the three returning starters from last year, Shepard, O'Brien and Spencer are essentially locks to start again.

SDSU's point guards will duke it out for the next three weeks to earn the starting job. Senior Aqeel Quinn has the most experience and sophomore D'Erryl Williams played some of the team's best perimeter defense last year. Freshman Trey Kell may see some time at the point, but he's more of a two-guard. Fellow freshman Kevin Zabo will emerge as SDSU's starting point guard come game one against Cal State Northridge.

Zabo is SDSU's only recruit that fell outside of ESPN's Top 100. But in 2012, ESPN actually ranked Zabo the No. 9 point guard in the class of 2014 after his sophomore season. Zabo transferred to a prep school his junior year, though, and he fell a little off the recruiting map. His ESPN scouting report says that while his jump shot needs improvement, Zabo is physically and mentally mature beyond his years.

"A lot of people don't know how good he is," Shepard told the U-T San Diego's Mark Zeigler. "He's a true point guard. That's the best way I can describe him. He has the handles. He can shoot. He can command the team. He can play the pick and roll. And when you come from a prep school, you're a little better prepared to make the transition to the college game. You've already been away from home, and you're used to a high level of competition."

Check out some of Zabo's highlights.

Polee will most likely join the starting lineup this year. Simply put, Polee is too efficient offensively to keep him out of it. He played the sixth-most minutes on the team last year, but he scored the third-most points and shot the highest field goal percentage of any scholarship player who played at least 10 minutes per game.

But wait.

Fisher could also continue to use use him like the Oklahoma City Thunder used James Harden: make Polee the sixth starter, as Fisher called him last year. Despite never starting, Polee averaged 24 minutes in SDSU's final 12 games, including 29 minutes per game in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Polee provided such an invaluable spark off the bench that Fisher might consider keeping him in that sixth starter role. If Chol, small forward Malik Pope and shooting guard Trey Kell can't give a big enough jolt to second unit, Fisher will most likely start Chol and give Polee starter's minutes off the bench.

Second unit

SDSU coaches may be frequenting AM/PM this preseason because they're dealing with a case of "too much good stuff." (I'll wait for the uproarious laughter to die down before I continue............)

Fisher said at SDSU's first official practice that all 11 healthy players (Pope is most likely out for game one and freshman Zylan Cheatham is out potentially until January) are good enough to earn minutes. When Pope and Cheatham are healthy, SDSU will theoretically be 13-deep.

"All of them want to play. All of them think they should play," Fisher said at practice. "Eventually, it will work itself out ... It might be one game somebody gets 12 minutes and the next game he gets two minutes."

Polee or Chol will definitely lead the second unit, depending on which one starts. Kell's strong 6-foot-4 frame mixed with his long-range jump shot will earn him a second-unit spot and Pope is too athletic to keep off the court when he's healthy. Williams and Quinn will battle for point-guard minutes. Shrigley's role will be diminished with Kell on the roster, but he'll win some playing time with his 3-point shot. Sophomore transfer guard Parker U'u and Dakarai Allen may have too many players in front of them on the depth chart to see significant minutes.

Cheatham is somewhat of a wild card. Scouts heralded the freshman power forward for his athleticism and energy on the boards, but he'll have players like O'Brien, Shepard and Chol above him on the depth chart. He could steal some minutes from the veterans when he gets healthy.

What can Shepard and Polee do this year?

Polee made it abundantly clear last year that he can get buckets. In his last 14 games, Polee averaged 11.1 points while shooting 44 percent from long range and 53 percent from everywhere else. He also flashed his quickness and length to average 1.4 steals and 4.2 rebounds in those last 14 games.

And then there's always this. Go to 2:15.

Shepard improved exponentially from his freshman to sophomore year. He scored six more points per game and found the charity stripe almost three more times per game. He also upped his steals from 0.4 per game to 1.0 per game. Now, without Thames and Davis, Shepard is undeniably this team's on-the-court leader.

These two forwards form a two-headed monster in the front court. Aztec fans know what they can do, so let's talk about how hey can improve.

Catch-and-shoot or fast-break layup/dunk. That was about the range of Polee's offense last season. While he was effective, Polee must add another dimension to put up consistent numbers in a long season. Remember Polee only played significant minutes for about the final third of the season -- MW defenses didn't have as much game footage to scout him with. Now they've had an entire offseason to learn his weaknesses.

A one-on-one skill set would work wonders for Polee's offense. If he could create his own offense instead of relying on a point guard that won't pass as effectively as Thames, Polee will live up to his preseason All-MW recognition.

For Shepard it's all about consistency. At times last year, Shepard looked NBA-ready. Then, seconds later he'd miss a defensive assignment or air ball a jumper. At the team's first press conference, Shepard said he worked on his consistency in the offseason.

"I always remember the Air Force game where I went the first 35 minutes with two points, and in the last five minutes I had 14 (points)," he said. "So (I've worked on) just staying in attack mode, keeping constant pressure on the defense and continuing to make better decisions with the ball."

If Shepard plays his A-game for even five more minutes per game this season, he'll compete with Wyoming's Larry Nance, Jr. for MW Player of the Year.

Team strength: Defense

Surprised? SDSU returns a vast majority of the defense that allowed just 88.6 points per 100 possessions last year, good for best in the country. O'Brien, the statless guru, anchors the defense with his ability to cover anybody from point guard to center. He'll be joined by a couple of front-court trees in Spencer and Chol. It also doesn't hurt that SDSU's roster stands an average of 6-foot-6.

Team weakness: Mid-range jump shots

SDSU seemed to score its points in one of three ways last year: offensive rebound tip-ins, 3-pointers or Thames' magic. Shepard was the only player not named Xavier that consistently shot those 12-15 foot jumpers. Sometimes he'd drain them; sometimes he'd look like he never shot a mid-range jumper in his life. Kell could help fill the void this year and Chol flashed a nice, arching mid-range shot at Arizona. But with a roster that hasn't posed a consistent threat from someplace other than the paint or beyond the arc, SDSU could struggle on offense.

Games to circle

November 18 vs. Utah Utes

With potential-player-of-the-year Delon Wright and a cast of upperclassmen at his side, the boys from Utah are worth their preseason hype and will be SDSU's toughest non-conference challenge. ESPN will feature this game as part of its Seventh Annual Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, so expect "The Show" to be in full force even on a Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Take a look at Mr. Wright to see what the Aztecs will be up against.

December 17 at Cincinnati Bearcats

The 13,176-seat Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati is no "Phog" Allen Fieldhouse, but it gets the job done: the Bearcats are 54-14 at home in the last three seasons. They have reached four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and play stalwart defense like the Aztecs: they allowed 91.9 points per 100 possessions last year, good for 12th in the country.

February 17 at New Mexico Lobos

Let's face it, the Lobos face a significant drop-off this year after losing Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams. Cullen Neil, Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney can only take UNM so far. This is still a rivalry game, though, and SDSU was demolished 58-44 last time it visited The Pit.

February 28 vs. Boise State Broncos

Boise State was the only school other than SDSU to receive a first-place vote in the MW media preseason poll. With shooters Anthony Drmic, Mikey Thompson and Derrick Marks all back for another year, the Broncos pose the biggest conference threat to SDSU. This is a late conference game and will most likely have significant MW Tournament seeding implications for both teams. Plus, Boise State probably still feels the pain from Polee's game-winner last year in Boise.

March 4 at UNLV Rebels

Of course SDSU's rivalry road game against UNLV is going to be on this list. The Rebels are loaded with talent, namely with five-star freshman Rashad Vaughn. The Aztecs and Rebels normally play each other close, with SDSU winning three of the last five meetings. Once again, this is a late conference game, meaning it could have significant postseason implications.

Season predictions

  • 28-3 (16-2 Mountain West)
  • Will reach 2014 EA SPORTS Maui Invitational championship game and lose to Arizona
  • First place in Mountain West
  • Four-seed in the West regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament
  • The Aztecs will reach the Elite Eight for the first time in program history