2 wins to start season for Aztecs, 2 thoughts moving forward

Credit/Ernie Anderson/

A top 25 ranking and 5 talented newcomers would be enough to satisfy most fan college fan bases going into a season.  But now, programs almost seem more lucky than smart to not have an academic or booster scandal on their hands.  I won’t get into the latter because there is so much we don’t know.  But this San Diego fan base has gotten demanding, and it’s just what this program needs behind it. Questions were there in our minds almost immediately following the NBA Draft.  Then, of course, Aztecs fans were hoping to hear Xavier Thames’ name called by Adam Silver, as it was.  Even as we basked in the wonder of Kawhi Leonard’s crowning as NBA Finals MVP, we couldn’t help but ask: Who will be the starting point guard?  Will Dwayne Polee make another leap and become a go to guy?  Can Zylan Cheatham shoot?  Is Malik Pope going to get over the fear of a re-injury? After two wins, some new questions have graciously taken the place of those above.  As I said, the hunger growing within the fan base is exactly what is needed.  But I don’t like questions that can’t be answered.  We’re all going to know the answer to those at the same time. The team was able to coast by CSU Northridge, sending wholesale substitutions as they pleased.  So, that one didn’t do much in satisfying all the lineup speculation.  Tuesday afternoon was a battle, as it should have been, but the roster is not yet at full strength.  We still don’t know much.  But moving onward, I believe there are two things worth thinking about more than the lineup/go to guy two-headed question monster.  Please continue reading, take a look, and share your thoughts!

Credit/Ernie Anderson/

Credit/Ernie Anderson/

1. Defense-offense: is it kind of a trade off?

I dread all commentary during nationally televised SDSU games.  There is so much vague praise and recycled talk about Steve Fisher and the team defense.  It’s all true.  But let’s dig deeper, guys!  It’s your job!  This stuff is getting stale for fans who are excited to see their team on national television.

Being a play by play guy or color commentator is an impossible job, but it just gets frustrating to listen to.  San Diego State men’s basketball is a program people should have a grip on by now.  I mean, can we get through 3 minutes of a game before leaning on the Kawhi Leonard crutch of a conversation starter?  I love all of it, but there’s a team full of guys on the floor and they are the ones playing a game.  I may be wrong, but pundits don’t seem to put as much effort into prepping for an SDSU game as they would for most traditionally ranked teams.

As games wear on, the talk inevitably shifts toward the Aztecs team offense.  This often takes the form of, “The defense is good…but can they score?”  It drives me nuts.  Um, hello, is the other team scoring?  There’s more to see than that with any great defensive team.

About five minutes into the Utah game, the first thing I noticed was the precision, urgency, and absolutely nutty pursuit in every single close out and rotation that the Aztecs made.  The Utes were absolutely suffocated.  Defensive rotations aren’t sexy, but I’d encourage all basketball fans to watch for them and appreciate them.  They were superb.

Utah wasn’t scoring  in the first half because they couldn’t – not against that defense.  The Aztecs, in my opinion, weren’t scoring because they chose to take the path of least resistance: choosing to settle for early jump shots and force drives through a nonexistent path to the basket.  They also were not very patient.  The ball was sticking in the hands of the first or second guy to touch it without moving side to side throughout the afternoon.

If I were alone with Steve Fisher in a room and got to ask him one question, I’d ask him this: How can you demand freakish ball movement on offense (what all teams want) when you already expect so much from your guys on defense?

All players have a breaking point.  Coaches demand so much in their areas of choice.  Ultimately, some areas have to allow for more freedom, right?  That’s what it seems like to me.  The Aztecs have not been blessed with the tools to space the floor with several knockdown shooters over the past 4-5 years.  Every cut, post up, and drive has to come through a tighter space as a result.

As a fan, I’m not worried.  Nobody should be.  This is a top 10 team right now, even with 3 rotation players sidelined.  Would you rather have to teach a team how to actually play good defense throughout a season or continue to build confidence and piece together optimal lineups as the season goes on?  The latter is the correct choice.  And that’s what this team will do once again.

Credit/Ernie Anderson/

2. Same things on offense, but no favorites yet

I wondered how much we’d see the 1-4 high type look, with a high post on either side to set a ball screen or catch a pass and facilitate with down screens for the wings.  But when that guy using the ball screen can’t pull up and nail a dagger from 24 feet every single time when a defender goes under the screen, the defender will go under the screen every single time.  A cramped offense ensues.

The posts would both also start low quite often last year and sprint to their screen (after a screen had already been set for that screener).  This year, the clear cut number one option won’t be so easy to find.  It may well be the high ball screen again, but the many potential suitors (and there are plenty!) need game reps to sort that out.

When this set becomes more of a motion or pattern offense, it is prone to essentially doing a whole lot of nothing.  This same stuff would lead to Thames standing in a corner with the shot clock well below 15 as a post player stood at the top of they key with the basketball.  This unfavorable positioning reared its head more than it should have in the second half of the MWC schedule last season.

When guys aren’t open off down screens or able to get moving toward the basket, a post is just left at the three point line passing it side to side and getting it right back.  A guard eventually comes to the ball with 8 seconds or so on the shot clock and calls for a ball screen.

This team could use a few creative sets to get Winston Shepard and JJ O’Brien some post touches.  I’ll couch that statement by adding this: It’s maddeningly difficult.  Good luck getting cute when those guys are on the floor together or when one shares time with two additional posts/non-shooters.  It’s a lot to ask.  And once again, we’re pointed to the hopeful return of Malik Pope and Matt Shrigley.

I expect and hope to see a ton of down screens for Dwayne Polee.  People know about the high release, but he’s a smart shooter, too.  Last year he was a sure bet to choose correctly as a defender closed out.  He’d immediately rise up and nail a 3 or attack with one or two dribbles.  If just one between Shrigley, Pope, or Aqeel Quinn can do that on the other side of the floor, then this offense will begin to gel.

Teams will step under a pick and roll run by Shepard or O’Brien.  Quinn is probably the team’s most diverse pick and roll threat at this point, but even he isn’t going to approach the Thames standard of pull up jump shot greatness that we got familiar with.  X was really stinking good at finding and fearlessly taking those shots.    Guys don’t learn to shoot that well over a big man closing with hands held high overnight.

Opponents will be happy to tell Trey Kell and Kevin Zabo to “prove it” if they’re going to run the pick and roll.  But if you put shooting on both sides,  defenders start to get nervous.  That’s what this team is waiting on.

For now, I’m very happy to see things going through O’Brien.  He’s staying on the floor as the power forward, technically speaking.  I can’t imagine a scenario in which anyone is taking minutes from him this year.

Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol seem to be in a timeshare for now.  I’d like to see them playing together at some point once a second perimeter player can demand the respect that Polee does as a spot up threat.  A Quinn/Polee/Pope/Chol/Spencer lineup, to just throw one of many possibilities out there, would terrify teams.  But there are plenty of ifs before that point can be reached.

Credit/Ernie Anderson/

Some notes

Bill Walton is the biggest character out there, man.  No sarcasm or meanness intended here.  It’s just true.  He’s a San Diego guy and he’ll go down fighting in defense of just about anything remotely San Diego-related.  His rabid defense of Dwayne Polee’s tardiness to Monday’s practice in particular made me laugh out loud.  Saying how times and schedules are always changing on these athletes made me chuckle.  I’m sure he has an iPhone, Bill.  And he still got plenty of playing time.  I’m sure Polee is just fine.  Good stuff.

Who’s got the best flattop on the team now?  Is that even a thing among the guys?  Does O’Brien automatically keep the crown because he was the first on the team to do it?  That’d make for a fun YouTube clip, if the team were interested in doing it (or the NCAA allows that sort of fun).

This team is absolutely full of stoppers.  What a nightmare for Delon Wright.  Aqeel Quinn is very capable of keeping quick guys in front of him and the energy he always carries with him is the kind of thing that will frustrate the heck out of whoever he is guarding.  And we already know about Polee, O’Brien, and Shepard (who is even better on defense than I think he is given credit for).  Good luck driving by any of them.  Oh, and when you do, get your shot up in a hurry with Spencer and/or Chol waiting for you.

Final thing, in relation to Spencer: Bill Walton threw out “one of the best shot blockers in the nation” after a Spencer block.  I loved that.  So, so glad he is getting that praise from someone on that stage.  I love it because Spencer is disciplined.  He leaps after shots are released and still blocks them most of the time!  This guy is not a shot blocker than leaps at everything and finds himself in foul trouble half the time, unable to make any contribution.  He was taught very well and I hope then national and conference-wide appreciation for him continues to grow.

Tonight’s game should be a fun one.  Let’s hope for lots of chances to get out and run on the break.

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

1 Comment on 2 wins to start season for Aztecs, 2 thoughts moving forward

  1. dthomasbruner // November 21, 2014 at 8:29 am // Reply

    Great read. I agree with a majority of what you’ve stated. My concern, as it has been the last four years, is in order to beat the really good teams we will HAVE to shoot better. The Aztecs shot 25% from the field against Bakersfield! This worries me. I wrote a thread on AztecMesa about how we should accept the fact that State is not going to shoot well and got torched for giving my opinion. Shooting the ball has always been the challenge. If we could shoot 45% from the field, I think we could be a final four team. If not, then sweet 16 which in years past would have been great. I believe with this team we can take that next step forward. I hope we do.

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