This article was written by Benjamin Dull (@realbendull). To read the rest of his blog, click here.
Sunday afternoon, fans in Viejas may have been preparing for the worst after the rough first half for the Aztecs. Or maybe just wishing they had a ticket to go blast Eli Manning instead. But very few fans were satisfied with the first half performance by San Diego State against the Washington Huskies. The Aztecs went 3+ minutes three different times in the first half between baskets. Xavier Thames hit a three 20 seconds in, but the next bucket didn’t come until 15:54 on a breakaway dunk by Winston Shepard. A lay up by Thames with about 14:00 to play in the first half gave SDSU a 1 point lead. The next points would come from a pair of Shepard free throws with 9:45 left. After about 3:30, a Josh Davis drive and score cut the Washington lead to 5.
Washington led 30-21 at half, as many members of The Show may have begun to wonder if the Aztecs would lose some of the traction the past 10 days had gained them in the national rankings. SDSU just broke through into the AP top 25 after The Wooden Legacy. Would that ranking suddenly disappear? Would anyone sympathize with a team playing 5 games in 11 days? Would Aztec fans have to wait for their confidence in their team to be validated by those rankings again until the first match up with New Mexico in conference play?
The Aztecs came right out of the locker room and raised the intensity to a higher level smothering Washington with about the same level of ease with which we are able to shrug our shoulders or scratch our heads as we wonder why the efforts in the two halves differed so greatly. Washington didn’t give up; they were very persistent to the very end. But, after the 18-2 run to start the second half, there was not one question in that building as to who took control of that game. But behind that regained confidence was an even larger collective sigh of relief.
The Aztecs struggled to finish in the first half – missing somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 gimmes. More frightening was the 12 offensive rebounds managed by the Husky rotation consisting of just two players that could even be called forwards. C.J. Wilcox heated up, accounting for 10 (2 threes, a lay up, an assist) Washington points during a three minute stretch in the middle of the second half. Wilcox was the one guy that had any chance of putting some fear into the Aztecs. They couldn’t afford to let him take over. And they didn’t. After that stretch, nobody heard a peep from Wilcox. The leading scorer for the Huskies finished with 17 points, but was held scoreless (0-3) in the final 11 minutes of play.
Now the degree of worry I sensed from Aztec fans started to worry me as I reflected on this one. This Washington team has been putting up points this season (over 80 per game) but was handled on their own floor (maybe not fair to say – you try to account for 7’5″ Mamadou Ndiaye) by UC Irvine and needed two overtimes to get by Long Beach State. But for each bucket Washington has scored – they give one right back, call it their charity work for the ’13-’14 campaign (on average, they allow more points than they score).
But as we saw, Washington was still a good test for the Aztecs. Nigel Williams-Goss, a former teammate of Winston Shepard, and C.J. Wilcox might be the most potent duo of guards the Aztecs have seen yet, and that alone is a good test for this defense. I mentioned how the Aztecs buckled down on Wilcox. Poor Williams-Goss couldn’t have found an Aztec his size unless he looked to the coaching staff. In spite of all that length, the freshman guard finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists for the Huskies.
Sunday was another complete effort from the Aztecs starting front court trio. Feel free to pencil Josh Davis for just about 8 and 10 every night. That might even be a shade on the low side for Davis. He’s showing his increasing comfort level with each game. Offensively, things are slowing down for him. He’s a one dribble guy from those elbows, so when he’s got the space to attack, he’s doing it. He’s attacking the rim after every shot attempt while playing strong defense on the other end. That’s why Josh Davis is going to be successful at SDSU. The defensive intensity and effort has always been there. And that’s the number one priority for any Aztec that sees the court.
J.J. O’Brien, hand wrapped and all, scored 7 of the team’s 18 points to open up the half. Hopefully, after 10 days without a game, we’ll see J.J. over Christmas break without a wrap or any urge to hesitate. Skylar Spencer continues to welcome guards in the lane only to harshly reject their shot. What makes Skylar’s shot blocking ability special is his excellent timing coupled with the coordination to use either hand at any time to contest shots and get a hand on a high percentage of those shots he does contest.
If you want to poke holes in him and ask why he only scored 6 points, go ahead and do that. He’s just doing his job. And if you watched closely, you’d know he has improved his offensive game. Go back and take a look at his hook shot in the second half of the Creighton game. Sunday, he ran the floor and was rewarded with an easy dunk. He sealed his man against the zone and Davis found him for an easy bucket. Sky even used the rim for protection to finish a nice reverse lay up. The fact that Skylar is elevating his game defensively without being guaranteed a heavier offensive load only speaks to his unselfishness. Right now his job isn’t to take 12 shots each night, but he’s just fine with that. Because he’s busy trying to alter 12 of his opponent’s shots on the other end.
Winston and X struggled a bit from the field, but both stepped up to carry the team in the second half. Winston missed a few easy ones, but never let the frustration carry over to his effort on defense. We’re seeing such a great sense of basketball awareness by Winston Shepard this season. He worked to improve the handle, gained confidence in the shot, and became a better free throw shooter by working at it, but his attitude and desire have been just as important. He’s thinking about how he’s getting his shots, not just simply taking them to reach a number in his head. Knowing he’s so athletic and much longer than the players he’ll guard, he defends even harder, rather than using his frame as an excuse to coast. Call Winston Shepard what you want, we certainly can’t properly label him with one traditional position. But everything he’s done so far has told me this: Winston Shepard is playing like a leader.
Xavier Thames really is outstanding. He finished with 19 points, but Aztec fans should know by now he can get to 19 no matter who is guarding him. He is one of the best pick and roll guards in college basketball (a more detailed look at this later in the season). But Sunday, he impressed me even more. Xavier could have come out of the locker room and said, “OK, guys, you had your chance. We missed too many lay ups. I’m taking over now.” Basketball players do that. But being the best player on a team, which X is for SDSU, doesn’t give you the license to do this as you please because it’s not the best thing for the team.
Know what is? Continuing to be intentional in looking for your teammates. X put on his play making hat in the second half. I read a few people citing Thames’ “low” assist numbers after he was named national player of the week, as if that were pointing out a weakness in his game. Thames is a perfectly willing passer and a good one, too. But when you’re a great scorer of the pick and roll like he is, if any shot is there when X comes off that screen, his number one job is to take that shot. That is the kind of player Steve Fisher coaches.
His guys “stay within their lanes” not out of fear, but because he helps them understand what a team effort consists of with this group of guys. (Massive sidebar alert: Take note, national media. Coach Fisher doesn’t continue to coach his team in terms of Chase Tapleys, Jamaal Franklins, and Brandon Heaths, so why do you continue to do it again and again? I bring this up a lot not because I’m angry. I actually feel sorry for people who are missing out on great basketball. But that’s their choice. I guess they’re just following the SOP of sports HQ in Bristol.) That’s why Skylar Spencer continues to relentlessly block shot after shot. That’s why Matt Shrigley does not hesitate when he sees an open look at a three in transition, as he did with 9:40 left on Sunday. When you have established roles throughout your rotation and all of those guys defend hard every night? That is when you know the Aztecs have arrived as a darn good basketball team.
Shrigley and Dwayne Polee both scored 5 points off the bench, and Dakarai Allen blocked three shots. All three played at least 10 minutes. Those three guys are just about locks to be in Coach Fisher’s rotation for the season. SDSU might not have been able to pull out three of their last four wins without Polee, but just a few weeks ago, some might have wondered if he would be the odd man out again.
All 6 assists for Xavier Thames came in the second half. Thames played a killer 3 minute stretch starting at about the 6:30 mark – assisting on a Winston Shepard jumper, hitting two free throws, then hitting Polee and Shepard for back to back threes. X put a bow on yet another stretch of late game dominance with a three point play with 3:24 to go, putting the Aztecs up 9. The Aztecs rode a steady ship to victory from there, on the shoulders of Shepard, who hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final 30 seconds to silence a late 8-1 surge by Washington.
So, why did SDSU really win this game? Or the better question might be: Did the Aztecs deserve to win this game? Some say no, but my answer is yes. What did the Aztecs do that was really out of the ordinary here? They played a bad half offensively, but their defensive effort was still there in the first half. They played defense well enough to keep them in the game when they struggled just to score once every three minutes. Even facing a 9 point deficit, they could smell the blood in the water coming out of the locker room. They came out and guarded the Huskies even tougher, forcing 5 turnovers before Washington knew what happened. Suddenly they controlled the game and The Show was rocking again.
So no, I’m not surprised by the outcome. Very few teams with a wide collection of talent can say they can defend like the Aztecs can. And what is the big question in the NBA right now, just for kicks? Who can multiple stops in a row when they need them? Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City might be the only teams on that list. That’s why some teams aren’t all that afraid of the Clippers. For the same reasons, that is exactly why I prefer this Aztec team over a team like Creighton or Washington that can light up the scoreboard when things go their way. When you play good defense, you’ll always be able to make plays to stay in a game.
Two questions I’m sure someone might ask. 1) What if the Aztecs don’t play good defense when they need it most? Well, isn’t that just fish out of water? That’s really like asking if we should expect the Heat to win if LeBron doesn’t play well. It’s pointless to ask such questions. If a team can’t play to their identity, then yeah, they probably won’t fare well in that game. But I’m happy to have an identity centered on defense. Some teams can’t guard at all (umm, have you watched Duke this year?). The Aztecs can guard any lineup any team wants to throw out – go big, small, fast, it just doesn’t matter. They have proven they can handle it all.
The second big question here: How does this translate to a big road game or neutral site NCAA tournament game? Well, the Aztecs won’t be able to feed off the crowd in the same way, but by that point (say a game at the Pit, or in the tournament) the Aztecs will know what got them that far (I believe they already do) and everything will be on the line in games like that. So I’m not worried about another stinker of a half like what we saw against Wyoming last season.
Remember how we were worried teams wouldn’t be able to play good defense any more without fouling? Yeah. This team isn’t having any problems with that. The identity and goal of this SDSU team is clear: play good defense to stay in games when shots aren’t falling, then kick that defensive gear up to a max level (something very few college teams have a switch for) to spark a run. Once they get a tie game or a lead in a second half, the opponent will probably hit a wall, or worst case scenario: You’ve got to outplay a team in a close game down the stretch.
The Aztecs might have to labor for baskets at times this season, but don’t forget how hard their opponents have to work just to get a good shot. Some might not like this style of play, but this Aztecs team is great and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
NEWS & NOTES
These college rankings are a joke, man. The Aztecs somehow fell down a spot in the AP poll to 25, but did enter the USA Today poll for the first time this season at 24.
Grizzlies swingman Quincy Pondexter is expected to miss the rest of the season with a stress fracture. While the Grizzlies have brought several guards in for workout, most of those players are point guards, which means we could see more of Jamaal Franklin in coach Dave Joerger’s rotation. With Tony Allen currently banged up, too, we’re just another Mike Miller injury from some big time minutes for Jamaal in Memphis. Franklin played 5 minutes (0-2 FG, 1 Reb) in the Grizzlies most recent contest, when the Grizz were spanked by the Warriors.
Kawhi Leonard was feeling extra nasty in the Spurs big match up on Saturday, when the NBA’s best came to town. The Pacers torched the Spurs in the second and third quarters and went on to win by 11, but Kawhi, who has struggled of late, wowed the audience with two great attacks off the bounce. See the two slams below.
Alright. You know what time it is. Let’s see some kicks the Aztecs wore in their Sunday win over Washington.
The Aztecs resume play Wednesday, the 18th, hosting Southern Utah. McNeese State and St. Katherine College will also travel to Viejas before the new year.
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