Running past the Rebels; back on the road again Don't let your concern for the pretty stats with nice, round numbers cloud your opinion on these last two victories.  Remember that grueling stretch the Aztecs played in non conference play - the games that put this team on the map across the nation?  It culminated nicely with the wins at Fort Collins (conference opener) then in Lawrence, but don't think the Aztecs are back unscathed.  These guys get tired; it's a long season even for the "young legs". That top 10 ranking comes with a pin the tail on the donkey sized target you've got to put on your back come conference time.  The Aztecs are getting everyone's full attention and each guy's best shot.  Everybody wants to go off against San Diego State - whose defensive excellence is no longer ignored.  And let's dispel a common myth here.  Past match ups do not matter in sports.  It's all about what's on the floor that night.  Yes, even for Fresno State, or San Jose State, who hosts SDSU on Wednesday.

Matt Shrigley talks things over with Steve Fisher (Credit/Ernie Anderson/

There’s no doubt these players are made aware of all of this.  If it didn’t sink in, the fight Fresno State put up certainly forced the message to sink in.  The high standing in the polls is lovely, but you’ve got to work even harder to keep it than you did to get there.  The Aztecs should open the week as the number 7 team in the nation.  These aren’t high profile opponents coming up, but a win on Wednesday would be a huge rallying point for San Jose State.  Utah State isn’t afraid of anybody in their home arena.  The Aggie fans and The Show were among the first to regularly use the “I Believe” chant that you now hear at every high school game when the score is even remotely close.

Matt Shrigley talks things over with Steve Fisher (Credit/Ernie Anderson/

Looking at what UNLV did offensively, I really don’t know what to say.  I’d have pulled out all my hair if I were a Rebels fan.  Maybe that’s why this happened.  Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith were just chucking.  Those two dudes took a combined 44 shots, which might be OK if they made more than 12 of them (0-13 from three).  Kevin Olekaibe (38% 3PT shooter) wasn’t getting open catch and shoot looks – he made the only one he took, right before halftime.  I don’t know how they didn’t get more touches for Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch.  SDSU was doubling, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  That double at least forces SDSU to scramble if the big can make a pass out of there.  But maybe those guys just can’t make that pass.  I’m sure we’ll find out March 5th in Vegas.

UNLV’s half court offense is not good.  I’m not sure what their strength should be.  Worse, I don’t know that they know what they do best.  Deville Smith is good when he’s in the paint and has the defense on the move, but he’s not a shot maker.  That’s the beauty of Xavier Thames.  That’s why Aztec fans should be more confident in the team’s offense in the half court.

SDSU has three bigs that can play the pick and roll with Thames.  I really like one wrinkle we’re seeing more this season in the pick and roll.  Rather than having, say, Skylar Spencer set up at the elbow and set a screen to get the two man game going with Thames, O’Brien or Davis will come set a down screen for him at the block and he’ll then sprint into his screen.  That forces one of the bigs to also get moving and that plays right into Thames’ hands.  He can probably freeze that guy with a hesitation, then pull up or blow by him.

We now know he’s also got three good options to turn to if more perimeter shooting is needed to spread out the defense (Polee, Shrigley, Quinn).  It doesn’t hurt that O’Brien, Davis, Shepard, and Dakarai Allen can attack beautifully off the catch, too.  One dribble usually is all they need.

The Aztecs are also very fortunate to have another guy that can create offense.  Winston Shepard is being mislabeled in his sophomore season even when he’s playing very well.  He’s not turnover prone; he’s not selfish.  Shepard often times doesn’t call for a screen like Thames because things are much easier for him when he can just make a quick move, get to the rim, and elevate.  He’s not trying to dunk the ball 80% of the time, but he is going to the rim very hard.  If you re-watched the Fresno State game, you’d see that.  Winston Shepard going hard to the rim was just enough to keep the Aztecs going for stretches that night.

Also start to take note of where Winston’s shots come.  He rarely shoots outside the paint anymore.  I was happy to see him pulling up from 15 feet two or three times per game (he’s much improved there!), but we all know what’s even better than that – a lay up.  He made one decision that only he can make: I’m going to get to the rim 8+ times per game and get to the free throw line because that maximizes my talent and opportunities with this team.  And I applaud him for that.  I’ve dreaded the thought of saying this, not because it’s not true, but because I want him here as long as possible.  But, Winston Shepard is playing himself up draft boards.  If he keeps it up, he’ll have played himself into the first round by the end of February.  Yes, this 2014 draft class including all those phenomenal freshman.  I’m not blowing any smoke here.  Wait until the NCAA tournament comes around; you’ll be hearing it then.

Aqeel Quinn in the “Flu Game” Jordan XII (Credit/Ernie Anderson/

Nice line from Dwayne Polee, who I just featured in my series on the first four off the Aztec bench.  6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, and 4 blocks in 18 minutes.  Very nice.  That rotation tightened a bit on Saturday.  We didn’t see any of Dakarai Allen, which Fisher addressed in his postgame presser.  He regretfully said he wished he had played Allen in the first half.  But that’s how hard playing time is to come by these days for those four.  Shrigley is the shooter, Polee does a bit of everything and creates a ton of lineup possibilities, and Quinn has been hot from deep while taking on some ball handling duties.  Dakari Allen has carved out his spot as a tenacious defender and slasher; his name just wasn’t called on Saturday.  Expect that to change on Wednesday.

Written by Benjamin Dull.  Follow him on Twitter or read his blog.

2 Comments on Running past the Rebels; back on the road again

  1. Great article! I could not agree more on Winston. At the Aztec Club lunch after the Boise game Coach fisher said part of the game plan was for Winston to take certain shots, and he did. He has come so far since last year, more mature, making better shot selection and taking it to the rim. We will be lucky, very lucky, to have him next year and I don’t think there is a chance we see him the year after unless it’s in an NBA game.

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