We still don't know how good the San Diego State Aztecs (14-4, 5-1 Mountain West) really are, but they are certainly getting better with every game.
The SDSU defense has been good all year, but it's playing unworldly right now thanks to the increased presence of guys like Dakarai Allen and Malik Pope. The Aztecs have held their last four opponents to an average of 46.5 points on 39-percent shooting, including 27 percent form beyond the arc. They've also forced 13 turnovers, blocked 4.25 shots, and nabbed 6.75 steals per game in that stretch. As they continue to rise up the nation's defensive ranks (now slotted at third in the country in scoring defense), the Aztecs are also becoming slightly less terrible on the offensive side -- emphasis on "slightly."
After SDSU took one on the chin from the Fresno State Bulldogs three weeks ago, its season stat line reads something like this:
62.4 PPG, 40.4 FG%, 28.7 3FG%, 61.5 FT%, 36.5 Rpg, 9.9 Apg, 13 TOpg
During its four-game conference winning streak:
61.5 PPG, 43.5 FG%, 33.3 3FG%, 64.5% FT%, 35 Rpg, 13 Apg, 10.5 TOpg
The scoring output has basically been the same, and it still remains a big problem. The important thing to realize is that SDSU is doing everything more efficiently, and the flip-flop in assist-turnover ratio is a very large part of it. Throwing the ball away less leads to minimized frustrations, longer possessions, better ball movement and better looks. Just like "assisting" more leads to increased confidence, increased offensive fluidity, and fewer fast-break scoring chances for the opposition.
This four-game stretch might be the first time all season that the Aztecs have averaged more assists than turnovers, which is a pretty good sign.
Although SDSU looks to be getting better, there is still more room to grow both as a team and on an individual level. Progress is good, but this team isn't out of the woods yet. Take away the 13-22 monsoon from behind the arc on Tuesday and SDSU is only shooting 21.3 percent from deep over its streak, which is a heck of a lot worse than its season pace.
State of the Players
It's never a good thing to lose a player for the year, especially when he's a senior, team leader and crowd favorite like Dwayne Polee II. Although we all love Dwayne and wish him the best of health, Dakarai Allen and Malik Pope are making more of his minutes than he was. End of story.
Allen, a sophomore, is a stout defender and since becoming Steve Fisher's new seventh man has established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Angelo Chol is somewhat of a bull in a china shop when he gets the ball in the paint. Allen at times resembles a drunken cheetah running down a hallway when he drives to the bucket. Allen does a decent job at cutting and finishing inside, but if he develops an instinct for creating his own offense, he could be an absolute force coming off of the bench.
Pope lets his game do all the talking. He took some time getting adjusted to the college game, which is fair considering his time off from basketball, but this kid is going to be something special. His playing time is steadily increasing and it seems like every game he does something that makes you drop your fork. At the rate that he is improving, he could be one of the deadliest weapons in the league by the time conference play winds down.
You can throw Matt Shrigley and Chol into the mix when talking about Aztecs who have stepped up. Shrigley has become the outside threat that we all thought he was, and he gives his team a jolt of energy whenever he's in the game by blocking shots and diving for loose balls.
Chol might be the most consistent Aztec this season. His 61.4 field goal percentage leads the team and no one else is even remotely close. As he continues to improve on the defensive end, the gap in minutes between Chol and Skylar Spencer slowly diminishes. The rise of Allen, Pope, Shrigley, and Chol should take some of the load off of the Aztecs' MVP, Aqeel Quinn.
That's right. MVP. Say what you want about his volume shooting and lack of ball distribution as a point guard, but since he was inserted into the starting lineup a month and a half ago, it's clear that he is the engine that makes this team run. The rest of the Aztecs do as Quinn does, and he feeds off that leadership role when it's crunch time. Remember the double overtime game against BYU? His second half against Fresno State? He's been the Aztecs' leading scorer in each of the last three games as well, including their most important game to date -- a road victory in Laramie.
Quinn's team MVP nod takes nothing away from Winston Shepard, who nearly messed around and had a triple double on Tuesday night against the Air Force Falcons. He dished out seven assists and was 3-3 on 3-pointers, which could be frightening for the opposition if he keeps it up.
The 2014-2015 season was prefaced with one question: Who is going to step up in place of Xavier Thames? If Shepard brings it like he did on Tuesday on a night-to-night basis, then there's the answer to the question. However, it's not likely that he does, and I would caution against letting one night's performance put you into a Winston frenzy. If you think about it, the whole "putting the carriage before the horse" dilemma sums up the season for this year's Aztecs.
We're all guilty of it in regards to all of our favorite teams. I bit on it hard when I wrote this before SDSU had even gotten through its first month of the season. Long story short, there's no room for "gimmies" in 2015, and frankly, the Aztecs don't deserve any. Whether it goes up or down from here, there's really no telling. You might as well just hang on for the ride.