Entering the 2015-2016 season, expectations were high on the Mesa. The Aztecs featured veteran leadership, a potential lottery pick, talented freshman and sophomores and a non-conference schedule that featured games against, Utah, Cal, West Virginia and Kansas. Win one or two of those and avoid any bad losses, and a seventh straight bid to the NCAA Tournament was all but a certainty.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the season played out.
While the team would notch a resume building win against a tournament bound team in Cal, they would suffer two bad home losses to Little Rock (49-43) and Grand Canyon (52-45) and one catastrophic neutral court loss to cross town rival USD (53-48). Those three losses, coupled with the poor state of the Mountain West Conference, meant the Aztecs only way into the NCAA Tournament was by securing the conference’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament at the end of the regular season.
After advancing to the final, they would eventually lose to the Marvelle Harris led Fresno State Bulldogs, and miss the tournament for the first time in six years. While they ended up accepting a bid to the NIT, they would eventually lose in the semi-final to George Washington, ending what was considered a disappointing season, by Aztec standards.
Now here we are today, with last season far behind us, and the 2016-2017 regular season just over a month away, and there’s optimism abound.
Coach Fisher returns an incredibly talented core of players from last year’s team, while adding some talented transfers that should be able to immediately help on both offense and defense.
Let’s dive into who will be the key players for this year’s Aztecs.
Jeremy Hemsley – The reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year, averaged 12.0 points and 1.8 assists per game and will look to improve his fantastic rookie campaign. He will need to improve on his turnovers (71 last year), as he will be the primary ball handler when he is on the court.
- Trey Kell – If Kell can keep improving, he could be competing for Mountain West Player of the Year. He’s Coach Fishers most trusted player, and after scoring 12.6 points per game, and hitting 38.4% of 3-pointers last season, he will be the primary scoring option for the Aztecs.
- Malik Pope – Pope has considered leaving for the professional ranks each of the last two seasons, and has arguably the most upside of any player in the conference. However, he has struggled with consistency. If he can consistently play at the level that he has shown flashes of, he will be the best player on the court every night.
- Zylan Cheatham – The red shirt freshman averaged 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and is the type of player Coach Fisher loves. While he is still a little raw as a player, he possesses the length, athleticism and drive to be an impact player on both ends of the court for the Aztecs.
- Matt Shrigley – The senior suffered an ACL tear in July of 2015 and was forced to miss all of the non-conference slate before returning at the end of January of 2016. Shrigley was never himself after making an incredibly quick recovery from an injury that often sidelines players for closer to a year. If he can regain his 3-point touch and shoot closer to his career norm of 33-35%, he should see significant time on the court as a key reserve. If he continues to struggle, he will likely find playing time hard to come by with new additions to the roster earning minutes over him.
- Montaque Gill-Caesar – The former top 50 recruit, redshirted during the 2015-2016 season after transferring from Missouri. During his lone season in Columbia, he averaged 9.1 points per game and 3 rebounds and showed flashes of being the go-to scorer that can take over a game. He will be counted on to be a main contributor for the Aztecs offense this season.
- Valentine Izundu – A graduate transfer from Washington State, the 6’10” center averaged 2.2 blocks per game for the Cougars. He will be asked to fill the role recently vacated by Skylar Spencer, as a defense first, rim protector. However, Izundu comes with a major issue that will need to be addressed by the coaching staff, his fouling. He was only able to average 14 minutes per game due to consistent foul trouble.
- Max Hoetzel – A 6’9” transfer from Indiana, Hoetzel averaged 2.4 ppg for the Hoosiers during the 2014-2015 season. The most notable thing about his lone season at Indiana is scoring 19 points in his first ever college game. Hoetzel has a reputation as a 3-point sharp shooter, and he averaged 34.5% from long range as a freshman. If he can build on that number, it will go a long way in helping an Aztec team that has typically struggled shooting the ball over the past few seasons.
Projected Starting Five (in my opinion):
- Kell (G)
- Hemsley (G)
- Zylan Cheatham (F)
- Malik Pope (F)
- Valentine Izundu (C)
Hemsley, Kell, Cheatham and Pope are all returners that logged significant minutes last season, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them all starting since Fishers knows exactly what he’s getting from those players. Even with the offense likely being better this season, Fisher is a defense first coach. He will want players that know the system and can set the defensive tempo of the game.
Key Non-Conference Games
- 11/14 at Gonzaga
- 11/21 at California
- 12/10 vs Arizona State
Key Conference Games
- 1/1 vs New Mexico – Elijah Brown and Tim Williams are both fantastic players. If they fix the defensive issues from last season, they will be able to compete for the regular season title.
- 1/4 at University of Nevada, Reno – Cameron Oliver and Lindsey Drew lead a talented roster looking to improve on last season’s CBI Championship.
- 2/12 vs University of Nevada, Reno
- 3/4 at New Mexico – The regular season finale and could determine the regular season league champion.
While the Mountain West is never an easy conference, a lot having to do with the rigorous travel schedule, it once again appears to be top heavy and a likely one bid league.
If the Aztecs want to avoid needing to win the conference tournament to secure their trip to the big dance, it’s going to be important to avoid any bad missteps during both the non-conference and conference slates and also secure a resume building win. The best opportunity for that is at Gonzaga in November.
All the stats in this article were pulled from Sports Reference.