The Aztecs have made it this far, but what’s next?

Photo Credit/Ernie Anderson/
Photo Credit/Ernie Anderson/

Photo Credit/Ernie Anderson/

I think it’s only fitting to start with what happened Saturday night. Looking back on the game, I know we’re all saying how amazing it was, which kind of sucks that special feeling out of it, but this is one of the few cases in which that’s okay.  Because it was something else.  I’ll admit it; I thought we were out of it.  Even with Kendall Williams being as nonexistent as possible, those two stinking bigs were still flexing their muscle all over the place.  But we finally sped the game up and that made all the difference.

Two things on the game for me:

1) Absolutely EVERYBODY that plays the Lobos must, must, must gear up to go on a huge run when Bairstow gets his short breather towards the middle of each half.  It’s just too easy.  That team is not deep.  Kirk and Williams are great college players, but nowhere near as imposing as that dude.

2) Thames/Shrigley/Polee/2 bigs is a terrifying lineup. And I’m not just saying that because it’s the lineup that was used at the end of that game.  With that group, 1 of 2 things will happen: (against smarter teams like UNM…) X will get to basically play 3 on 2 coming off a screen because guys know they can’t leave either Shrigley or Polee all alone for a 3, or (against not so smart teams…) Thames will come off a screen to see a guy in his face, then toss it over to one of those two standing all alone for a 3 ball. Simple as that. UNM didn’t leave a shooter to help on Thames all night. And he’s going to score at a high rate 95% of those times.  I like our chances.

Now about that 1-3-1 zone.  Dwayne Polee once again reminded us that he just has it.  When he’s on the floor, absolutely everybody understands that he’s one tipped pass or run at the rim away from completely changing the game.  His teammates know it.  His coaches know it.  The opponent knows it.  And when you’ve got a guy with that kind of ability, what better spot to put him than at the very top of a zone?  Guards won’t see over him or blow by him.  That length forces guards to the sideline and opens the door for the offense to get trapped.  If the defense forces a lackluster pass out of said trap, they’re off and running.

The noise in the building was chilling.  I got the chance to enjoy the game from the box up near the catwalk and that view I got of all the fan reaction during that second half run could not be matched.  The Show was rocking from bottom to the very top and the noise did not even bother to cease during second half timeouts.

There are probably a dozen plays that could be deemed the plays of the game, but two defensive strips in particular really summed it up for me.  The first came from Polee with 3:23 to play.  Cameron Bairstow collected a missed 3 by Deshawn Delaney in the right short corner area.  Polee got his hands in there as Thames came over to trap, and DP knocked the ball off Bairstow’s knee and it rolled out of bounds.  SDSU ball.  Then of course there was the play by Thames.  After hitting two free throws to give the Aztecs a 4 point lead, Kendall Williams brought it up in need of a quick score.  Thames waited for Williams to be caught between dribbles for a hair too long, then got his hand in there.  Williams clearly was not expecting a reach in by Thames.  He jumped as he bobbled the ball, and it, too, rolled out of bounds off his foot.  Aztec ball.

19-1 run, outscoring the Lobos 26-7 in the final 12:00.  1 conference title.  1 MWC player of the year.  1 MWC coach of the year.  2 members of the all-defensive team, conference newcomer of the year, two honorable mention all-conference performers, and the conference sixth man of the year.  But today marks the start of the conference tournament for the Aztecs.  So all the fans are asking, naturally: What’s next?

There’s the opening match with Utah State, then would come either Wyoming or UNLV, then I believe the Aztecs are equally likely to see Nevada, UNM, or Boise State in the final.  I’m not going to jump the gun and write them into the final just yet.  And the team is approaching it with the same attitude.  There are 5 good teams in this tournament.  Here’s what I’ll have my eyes on this MWC weekend.

Baseline runners

There’s one play that has worked all year against the Aztecs.  But you’ve got to have knockdown shooters that can run around screens to exploit it.  And that’s what Utah State has, so I will start here.  Skylar Spencer is the only guy in the regular rotation that won’t automatically switch onto guards.  Especially when he’s guarding Jarred Shaw.  So if while on a block, Shaw were to turn and set a screen for a shooter (Spencer Butterfield or Preston Medlin) sprinting from the opposite corner, that guy will probably get enough time to launch a three before his guy can recover.

Johnny Dee did this to get hot in the second half against SDSU back in December.  Butterfield, too, used a few of those screens to get hot against the Aztecs in Logan.  But when this a defense’s biggest concern, that team is in great shape.  Because every team is susceptible to this kind of action.  And if it’s really hurting that team, all that’s needed is one timeout to make an adjustment.  So I may have just went in a big circle, but the Aggies don’t stand a chance unless Butterfield gets hot, followed by Medlin.  They need those kind of looks to stick around with the Aztecs.

Beating them again

Surprisingly, I’m not even referring to New Mexico here.  I’m zoned in on the game between Wyoming and UNLV.  The debate is going to come up, so I might as well take a look, too.  Should the Aztecs hope to see Wyoming for the second time or Vegas for the third time should they beat Utah State today?  Vegas for a second time on their home floor seems especially daunting, but I do not want to see Wyoming again.  They’re a very good team.  Of all the un-educated remarks concerning the Aztecs rattled off this season by the national media suddenly trying to cover their butts for ignoring this team for so long, a recent one by CBS’s Steve Lappaz upset me most.  On a recent broadcast, he labeled SDSU’s loss at Wyoming as a “bad” one.

I cannot reason with statements like that, because they are nowhere near reasonable.  The Cowboys very well could have beaten Colorado and Ohio State (both on the road!) this year.  They beat the Aztecs and took New Mexico to overtime TWICE!!!  This team has really only played two stinky halves of basketball all season – they were blown away in the second half in losses to Utah State and Colorado State.  I’m not sold on the whole bad luck aura around Laramie, as if it’s the SDSU kryptonite.  Wyoming deserves some credit for some of the talent they’ve got (and had) on that roster.  I do not want anything to do with that team.  Bring on UNLV and their disorganized mess of a roster, even if it’s for the 10th time this season.

The magical 5 man unit

How much do we see of Thames/Shrigley/Polee with two of O’Brien/Davis/Spencer?  It wasn’t just by chance that those guys played so well to close out that New Mexico game.  I think the Aztecs have found an optimal lineup.  It creates enough spacing for Thames to go to either side in the pick and roll and there is no drop off in the defensive effort when those guys hit the floor together.  I want to see this group playing a long stretch in the first half of games together (maybe after Thames gets his rest around the 13:00 mark) and to close games out.  But, there’s one big concern resounding in my head since Saturday night.

Winston Shepard wasn’t a part of those last 12 minutes against New Mexico.  Now that was one game and one run, so it says nothing about him.  He very well could have played just as big a part in that run.  But the guys on the floor were going bananas.  Every coach knows better to mess with something like that when it’s happening.  But is this going to lead to a change in his usage?  Will his minutes begin to drop?  I’ve written that I think he could leave as early as this spring and have his name called in the second round of the draft.  But none of us are ready to see him move on just yet because there is so much stinking room for growth with that guy.  Just look at how he’s progressed from a year ago to today.

But there have been other games he wasn’t on the floor to close for the Aztecs.  There was that overtime win at Utah State in which Aqeel Quinn got the nod.  He played just 25 minutes in the home win against Boise State over a month ago and 20 against UNM on Saturday.  I’m not concerned about his talent or confidence, because it’s all there for him.  But I do worry about how he’s labeled and perceived because of what he’s asked to do.

I don’t know if anyone really knows what Winston Shepard will be.  For the most part, he’s still feeling himself out.  We’ve seen him more as a pick and roll ball handler this season, but also in the post.  He plays off the ball often when he’s on the court with Thames.  He and Polee are our one man fast breaking machines.  Winston is also a force on the offensive glass.  He is a do it all player.  And he’s a sophomore in college.  Everything doesn’t have to be so cut and dry for him.  Why to people insist on calling him a guy playing out of position at the 2 guard?  Isn’t it blatantly clear that positions just don’t matter in basketball anymore?

It drives me nuts that guys can’t get over that fact.  Clinging to positional labels is one of the most foolish things a basketball fan or self-proclaimed analyst could do.  Shepard does just about everything and he does most of those things quite well.  Of course there is room for growth.  There is room to grow for every player out there.  J.J. O’Brien is a guy that has clearly set aside just about all of his pride to plug himself in to do whatever he’s asked to do on a given night.  Why can’t we give Shepard some of the same love?

He’s a guy that is asked to do an awful lot on the fly.  Some of those things he’s still learning to do.  But he doesn’t hesitate to take the 15 foot jumper when the flow of the offense leads him to that point.  He hasn’t stopped relentlessly hitting the glass, content with his double-digit scoring average.  This guy came into his freshman season with a bit of an attitude and has come back one year later as a leader of a top 10 program.  Words cannot show my appreciation for the work he’s put into doing that.  I know his coaches and teammates think the world of him.  I just wish the general meter of fan appreciation would come close to matching theirs.

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