It sure didn’t take much for Matt Shrigley to get his confidence back. All he needed was one – the three point field goal he made with 13:02 to play in the first half Tuesday night against Utah State. He made two more threes in the half and was the night’s leading scorer with 15. Once he got the first, he clearly found that same confidence from the start of the season to simply catch and shoot when he had enough space to do so. And Aztec fans rejoiced.
It’s strange to think the offense was really clicking when you check the box score and see Xavier Thames finished with just 4 points and shot 1-9 from the field. But, he had 5 assists, and everybody else was attacking with confidence. You didn’t see any Aztecs opting not to take a driving lane or an open shot because he felt the need to feed Thames so he could reach his scoring average. That’s not what this team is after.
Skylar Spencer started the game with three buckets around the rim, which with the Shrigley threes made it clear that Tuesday would not be an easy night for the Aggies. The offense consisted of much more free-flowing movement with less ball watching and standing. And the defensive effort was there as it has been all along. Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin worked themselves free often and shot a combined 7-13 from deep in the January 25 match up. But all Aztec defenders trailed both players very closely around screens Tuesday night and Skylar Spencer locked down Jarred Shaw. Thus, Utah State’s offense never got going at a desirable rate.
Obviously the offense doesn’t just get to pick when to have their best nights, but this team is smart. They know three of the first dates they circled on their calendars are coming up quick – games against New Mexico, and the regular season trip to Vegas. Whatever the team was going to do to free/clear things up on offense had to be done soon. There isn’t any time left for experiments or trial runs.
The rotation has become clear. Dwayne Polee will probably be the first off the bench, but Shrigley’s night could give him that nod. After Shrigley, Aqeel Quinn, and Polee allow each of the bigs to get some kind of break, we usually see the starting group together once again near the end of the first and middle of the second half. Dakarai Allen didn’t play in the first half Tuesday, but had been seeing time around the 7:00 minute mark of each first half. The coaching staff appears to make a conscious effort to put Winston Shepard on the floor when Xavier Thames takes a seat to give that unit a shot creator. Shepard is also getting more and more post touches in the short corners. This is a good place for him to make a quick drive, feed cutters, or go to a little turnaround jump shot he’s shown us a handful of times now.
I think there is still an optimal lineup out there to run offense through J.J. O’Brien, but I haven’t seen it click quite yet. I’d love to see a team try to go super small against the Aztecs. Lineups with O’Brien and four perimeter guys could put together some furious runs and switch everything on defense. Obviously O’Brien doesn’t see as many driving lanes with the starting group (which features two guys who do all their work in the paint). But to then feature O’Brien for stretches, coaching and game situations decide whether Davis or Spencer stays out there with him, and then there’s three guys to add on the perimeter. O’Brien finished a strong baseline drive after faking a hand off to Thames in the first half, which really made me want to see more two man hand off-like action for the two at the top of the circle. If O’Brien can fake a hand off to Thames, turn and face, then attack with shooters camping out; that could be a dangerous weapon.
I like how the conference schedule has shaped up for the Aztecs. Having three of the toughest games near the end of the season allows things to settle into place. I know the Aztecs are ready as a team because we’ve now seen each guy find himself at a point in this season. They’ve all seen how well they can play as individuals with this team, in this conference. They know what to expect from each other and nothing will be left to the unknown. The road tests at Wyoming and Utah State were very valuable learning experiences, and they’re going into The Pit after playing very well last night on both sides of the floor. Nothing but fun from here on out! March is just around the bend.