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San Diego State Basketball: Winston Shepard says team goal is to reach the Final Four

This season is easily the most anticipated season since the Kawhi Leonard days.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher, junior Winston Shepard and redshirt-senior J.J. O'Brien held the season's first Aztec basketball press conference today. The three answered questions about an array of topics, from the recruiting class to the strength of schedule.

But Shepard made something clear in the first few minutes.

"I don't want to make promises and things like that, but our goal as a team is Final Four," he said.

Fisher also addressed SDSU's goals soon after Shepard. Fisher seemed talking to his players as much as he was the media, like saying 'Hold on there, boys. We've got to do a lot before we get to the Final Four.'

"Every year we talk about hanging a conference championship banner. If you do that, you're going to get into the tournament," Fisher said as Shepard and O'Brien nodded in affirmation. "We've been there five straight years, we want to be in the tournament again. When you're in the tournament, you've got a chance."

The Aztecs will try to reach their goals with eight players returning from last year's Sweet 16 team, including three starters. Shepard comes back to the Mesa as SDSU's leading returner in points, rebounds and assists per game, O'Brien returns as a 2014 All-Mountain West Honorable Mention, and junior Skylar Spencer returns as a 2014 All-MW Defensive Team member.

Of course, SDSU loses key pieces in Xavier Thames and Josh Davis. However, the coaches recruited SDSU's most heralded class this year to help replace Thames and Davis. And so far, Shepard said he likes what he sees in freshmen Trey Kell, Kevin Zabo, Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham.

"The coaches knocked it out of the ballpark with all four of (the recruits)," Shepard said. "(The recruits) are unbelievable."

Unfortunately for SDSU fans, only two recruits might suit up for game one against Cal State Northridge on November 14. As Mountain West Connection previously reported, Cheatham will be out at least until at least December after getting surgery on a broken left foot.

And Fisher said coaches are taking it easy with Pope, who still isn't 100 percent after a broken-leg surgery kept him from playing his entire senior season at Laguna Creek High School. Pope has only participated in non-contact drills, Fisher said. Pope doesn't have a specific return timetable like Cheatham, but Fisher said Pope probably won't be able to play at the start of the season.

Fisher, Shepard and O'Brien also addressed the most intriguing question entering the 2014-15 season: Who will play point guard? Sophomore D'Erryl Williams, senior Aqeel Quinn and freshman Kevin Zabo appear to be frontrunners, but the Aztecs could also run a point forward in Shepard or O'Brien.

"(The point guard will be) someone who is unafraid, who makes good decisions, who gets the ball to the right guy at the right time at the right place," Fisher said. Fisher also said that this season's point guard probably won't be a leading scorer like Thames was last year.

Fisher also highlighted trips to Washington, Cincinnati and Maui as big challenges in a purposefully difficult non-conference slate.

"We have a very taxing schedule, no question about it. But that's by design. I think it will all prepare us for (Mountain West) play, which will be very good," Fisher said. "What we've been able to do lately is play these teams outside of league and win enough of them to enhance our perception nationally."

SDSU begins official practice this Friday, October 3. The Aztecs are allowed to hold 30 practices in the 42 days that lead up to their first game--that's lots of time to grow and learn a team's strengths and weaknesses.

"Of course we think we're a great team and we have the ability to get to the Final Four and win an NCAA championship. So those are always our goals," O'Brien said. "But like I said, we still have a lot of time to build as a team."