We all have the loss in the final to New Mexico fresh on our minds, but there were games played in Las Vegas prior to Saturday afternoon, and value can be taken away from them all. The Aztecs either took their anger out on the Utah State Aggies for taking them to overtime in Logan in the first meeting this year, or the combination of USU returning to earth and the Aztecs simply figuring them out did the trick. Spencer Butterfield was pretty banged up, too. Probably a combination of all the above. Now matter how you look at it, the Aggies were stifled.
Josh Davis put together quite the stat line in just 27 minutes on Thursday: 8 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 steals. We’re used to those efforts from him by now, but I will say one thing about him. He’s an overqualified ball handler for his position! He surprises us when he glides up the court, running the occasional break, but that skill is there with him. In fact, he probably could take off 2-3 times per game after a rebound for a coast to coast finish. He’s got a herky-jerkyness to him when he attacks, yet glides up and down so smoothly that it’s just impossible to keep your body in front of him when he’s got a full head of steam. But the number one priority after any defensive board by the Aztecs is to find Xavier Thames. No shame in that.
Winston Shepard might have a spot on the all-scrutinized team by the end of March here, but it’s not his fault people are just looking in the wrong places. He played well all weekend, starting things off nicely with the final 8 minutes of the first half against USU. He collected his own miss after he had aggressively backed down his man and turned over his left shoulder into a turn around jump shot with about 7:00 to go. This opportunity came in semi-transition, which is something I’m a big fan of for two members of this team – Shepard and J.J. O’Brien.
Shepard and O’Brien are the two best scorers in the post for the Aztecs. But those two often see the floor with Josh Davis and/or Skylar Spencer. Those post ups aren’t coming in a pick and roll offense, especially with other big guys on the floor. But (I love when there’s a but!), those two can easily find post touches for themselves because they also are two of the team’s best ball handlers, free to dribble it up at any time. If those guys get a defensive rebound, they should always look to push it up themselves and try to bully their way into some transition post position. Guys rarely expect it – a defender will often exhale once his feet hit the three point line and the ball handler lets up a bit.
Shepard showed it to us at that moment in the first half and O’Brien has gone to it a few times this year. But that should just be an automatic thing for those two guys to do. If you get the rebound, push it up yourself if nothing better is there and look to back your guy down while other players work their way down the floor. If the opposing big men are slow to get back, either guy is a safe bet to find a high percentage look in the paint against an over-matched and off-balance defender.
Back to Shepard – he finished the half after that bucket with 2 steals, and assist, a jumper, and two layups, one of which was part of a 3 point play. The Aztecs have got to put Winston Shepard in spots in which he’s encouraged to constantly be on the move. Not nearly enough people see the similarities in the games of Thames and Shepard. Some see Thames’ shooting splits, compare them to Shepard, and assume they are completely different players. It’s as if some people are saying, “What’s wrong with you, Winston Shepard? Can’t you just play nice with Thames?”
What people don’t understand is that both players are ball dominant (this doesn’t have to always be a negative thing, by the way!). Thames has some misdirection in his game, but he’s ultimately going to get going in a straight line towards the basket to attack the rim or pull up. Shepard pokes and prods far more than Thames, but that’s not a bad thing. Because Shepard also only needs about half a dribble and suddenly he’s at the rim.
But for now, Shepard plays off the ball quite a bit. But he’s just got to be reminded that he’s in spots to make a living on the glass with his strength and great instincts. He also should use his long frame more often to be a threat to cut to the basket. His 3 point play came on a cut right down the middle of the lane. Josh Davis was simply holding the ball above his head with nowhere to go in the short corner, but was able to hit Shepard in stride for an easy lay up because he bolted to the rim as his defender took a peek at what Davis was up to.
I mentioned leading up to the tournament that pin downs and runners could give the Aztecs some trouble. Utah State ran one play for Preston Medlin in the first half that I really enjoyed. He ended up missing a 3 point shot from the left wing area, but there was some nice misdirection involved to get him that look. I drew it up and you can take a look below.
I think all Aztec fans shared a few very angry words with their televisions on Friday and Saturday. Friday especially, when the national audience missed the first 7 minutes of SDSU-UNLV to catch the final 7 minutes of a game between Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss that was essentially over by that point anyways. I’m not going to argue that CBS should have cut away from that game, but the stubbornness of all sports to stick to these time slots for games that are never long enough drives me absolutely nuts. I’m sorry, but college basketball games rarely take just 2 hours. Plus, what about all those people are getting paid to do a studio show? Would an extra 30 or even just 15 minutes really kill anybody? For what it’s worth, it’s not like we watch our shows on these networks live anymore anyways. Let’s maximize our experience with the one thing that will always be better when viewed in real time – sports.
But once I finally got to see the game, I noticed something. That lineup that closed against UNM last Saturday? That’s now the second lineup we see on the floor about 5 minutes in. Thames, Shrigely, Polee, Davis, and O’Brien/Spencer. This 5 is good for the offense. It’s the best for Xavier Thames, most importantly.
I drew up a nice pick and pop type play that got Dwayne Polee a look at a three which he nailed, but before that I’ve got something on Thames. As I watched the regular season finale, I realized that New Mexico wanted X to try to get all the way to the rim. Coach Neal clearly wanted Kirk and Bairstow to hang back, then meet Thames up top. I was a bit uneasy watching it unfold because Thames was not very confident in his floater at the middle-end point of conference play. He had missed some of them very short, and seemed to tuck that shot away. But we saw some very nice floaters this weekend and he put all worrying minds to ease by attacking those UNLV big men on Friday evening. He isn’t afraid to be challenged at the rim and as any excellent free throw shooter, he wouldn’t mind a few more attempts from the line each game.
Now here’s the play I referred to. Xavier Thames brought the ball up the right side and got a screen on each side – Skylar Spencer on his right and Dwayne Polee stationed to his left. Thames used the Polee screen, so his man naturally had to at least show help onto Thames as he looked to turn the corner. As Polee’s man took a quick step toward Thames, DP began to flare out to the right wing and Spencer stepped in to set a nice solid screen on Polee’s man. Thames delivered the ball and Polee sunk what we now consider an easy look for him.
Now onto the heavyweight slug fest, part III. I was told by the broadcasters that Skylar Spencer had a great start to the game. If only I had been able to see it! I know it was made available online and whatnot, but the whole TV thing still peevs me. You’re really going to tell me that as big a draw as college basketball is in March, they can’t tack on even a measly extra 15 minutes to each scheduled game time to avoid most of this entirely? It’s ridiculous.
I feel like my own words really came back to bite me, even though I know my words don’t hold that much weight. But Deshawn Delaney made one monster 3 ball late in the game each of the last two Saturdays. Today it was a corner 3 with 3:28 to play, assisted by Kendall Williams. It was just the answer needed to suck the air out of the Aztecs and increase the Lobo lead to 6.
But don’t forget that a Delaney 3 – from the same spot, the left corner – almost completely put an end to that furious comeback in the March 8th meeting. That shot came with 4:30 left in the second half and was assisted by Hugh Greenwood. It also came on the heels of that 19-1 SDSU run. Delaney got 2 more clean looks at a three late in that game and had he made one more, we might be calling the Lobos MWC tournament and regular season champions. I knocked New Mexico a bit for their lack of depth and referred to Delaney as “just a guy”, but basketball is funny like this sometimes. The only prerequisite required to make a play is that you be on the floor. Delaney stepped up big time when his team needed it most.
Those Greenwood and Williams guys sure are pesky. Strange thing is: We’ve seen 3 different version of that tandem in 3 different meetings. That whole team went bonkers at The Pit, but those two did about what you’d expect in that one. Williams contributed nicely, but Bairstow shouldered the load. Greenwood only took 3 shots, but was noted for putting forth his best effort in sticking to Xavier Thames.
They both all but disappeared at Viejas Arena last week, and not surprisingly, the Aztecs came out on top in that one as we already know. On Saturday for the tournament championship, both guys were flat out great. Williams finished with 16, but his deep 3 over Dwayne Polee to push the lead to 5 sealed the fate of that one. Greenwood hit a two threes and finished with 12 pts, 4 reb, and 5 ast. So which one is it with those two? What performance(s) will that back court turn in this time around in the NCAA tournament? Teams are going to go after Bairstow no doubt. Kirk is a weapon offensively, but someone’s got to get him the ball before he can put it in the basket. Those two don’t necessarily have to score for UNM, but they must play well.
Now the Thames foul trouble is a clear recipe for a tough night. The 4-15 shooting line for Winston Shepard might stick out in your eyes, but he played very well. Don’t become a box score doctor or let the numbers fool you. Shepard scored 4 quick points after X left with his fourth foul, which was just what the team needed to hold the fort until he returned just a few minutes later. But one miss really hurt – the shot down the left baseline with 8:17 to play.
That bucket would have been huge – cutting the deficit to one with Thames on his way back. But there were so many big plays Shepard made that make the knit-picking irrelevant. The steal and miss leading to the out of this world tip slam 3 point play by Dwayne Polee gave SDSU the lead. So if you’re going to get picky, be careful. You also must consider the good plays made by that player throughout the course of the game.
Now my concern with this team is the same it’s been since the first loss to New Mexico – with the starting lineup. This unit scares me with what it does on offense because guys do not have enough space to get to their spots and maximize their strengths. Defenders ignore O’Brien and even Winston Shepard to some degree on the perimeter. Spencer and Davis hardly get much time to get off a shot down inside, so forget about O’Brien getting a post touch or two. That rapidly improving post game from Shepard? Ain’t happening with that spacing. And Thames – the guy this offense is centered around – cannot find one single nook or cranny sometimes because five guys have 100% of their attention directed toward stopping him.
Don’t believe me? Take another look at the image directly above the last paragraph. I’ve heard of inverting your offense, but that is really taking things to a whole new level. There we see all 5 guys outside the 3 point line with 10 seconds on the shot clock, and the two main ball handlers are in the corners as the bigs attempt to reverse the ball and run dribble hand offs with each other. I do not like seeing Xavier Thames ever in the corner. That’s also where he was with about 1:00 to play. The drive by Dwayne Polee was fine – I like that look for him and would take it 100 times out of 100. But shouldn’t every player on the court be trying to keep the ball in his hands unless it’s on its way through the net?
Like I said, I’m concerned. That doesn’t mean I’m calling for rebellion or reform. I’m not even necessarily calling for a change. But it is enough to scare me and it has for quite some time now. We’ve seen the alternatives and how effective they’ve been. But I suppose what we do know is that we can expect to see those differing lineups early and often if the match up will allow it (and most will).
Coach Fisher and the squad hope for and expect a four seed or higher from the selection committee, so I’m going to do the same. Be sure to check back early next week for a preview of whatever part of the bracket the Aztecs find themselves in!