The San Diego State Aztecs didn't have too many eyes on them before the start of last season. Now the team that was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West in 2014 is just about everyone's 2015 conference champion.
Junior Winston Shepard has seen a similar increase in popularity from his sophomore to junior campaign. Although he started 34 games for the Aztecs and was their second leading scorer with an 11.6 points-per-game average, Shepard was never really the team's primary threat. This year, he's one of two Aztecs to earn preseason all-conference honors from the Mountain West media.
With two major staples from last year's team now gone, leading scorer Xavier Thames and leading rebounder Josh Davis, Shepard will bare the responsibility of being a constant aggressor on offense. One thing he made a point to work on this off-season was his offensive mindset.
"I continued to work on the mental part of my game. Staying in attack-mode," Shepard said at a press conference last month. "I always remember the Air Force game where I think I went the first 32 minutes with two points, and the last five minutes I had 14. So I'm just trying to stay in attack-mode, keeping constant pressure on the defense, and to continue to make better decisions with the ball."
By the numbers, it looks as if he has been working on the right things. Shepard led the team with 80 turnovers last year and his 18.4 percent mark from beyond the arc was the worst percentage among Aztecs who attempted a 3-pointer. Shepard showed last year that he could get to the rim and finish, but it's awfully hard to lead the team in scoring when you can't shoot and like to give the other team the ball.
With unknowns at the point guard position, Shepard could bring the ball up the floor when there isn't a "traditional" point guard in the lineup. J.J. O'Brien is probably best suited for that role of all the forwards, but you can bet Shepard will be called upon to run the point at some point early in the season.
Ball control is a premium skill set for 6-foot 8 forwards. If Shepard doesn't have a lick of it, he'll play himself out of big-lineup minutes. If he's made significant improvement, it could open up Pandora's Box in terms of the junior's star potential.
To steal a line from the golf legend Ben Hogan, "The secret is in the dirt." Shepard's play this season will directly reflect the work he put in when no one was watching.