In his sixth game back, Dwayne Polee hit 5 of 7 from deep against St. John’s on Friday night. Yes, two of them were banked in. We haven’t seen him play more than 20 minutes in a game since December 17 at Cincinnati, but smart coaches won’t forget how good he is when he’s able to make outside shots.
Shot making was the missing ingredient for Polee individually at the start of the season. Since then, J.J. O’Brien became more willing to take over games and Aqeel Quinn showed his scoring output is legit. But if you think back in time, the expectations set for this team were centered around Polee and Winston Shepard.
Call me an apologist, but Shepard’s success is more dependent on who he shares the floor with than his own efforts. The Aztecs start three players that want to play 15 feet and in. To me, their chances against Duke are reliant on one word: Spacing.
For one possession against St. John’s, we saw a lineup on the floor truly resembling a high-low set that made all 5 players a threat to score. Quinn, Polee, and Pope were on the outside with O’Brien and Spencer on the blocks. That kind of look is what makes this team successful. Winston Shepard and Malik Pope can’t play long stretches as placeholders.
What does that even mean? Team’s know they don’t need to guard Shepard at the 3 point line and now is not the time for him to prove that he can hit those shots consistently. The opposite is true for Malik Pope. I’ll never understand why he was taught to play the 4 this season. Using him in a pick and pop is dandy, but hiding him on the baseline or on the block where he won’t even get a touch is just a flat out waste.
There’s plenty to watch beyond spacing. The Aztecs are already on the map, but an upset win over Duke would be a resounding victory. A star didn’t emerge this year, and yet this team is right where Steve Fisher wants it to be. That’s impressive. Here are a few things I’ll be watching closely:
- Settling the great debate
Can the Aztecs score? (Man, if I had a dollar…) Duke doesn’t scare anybody with their ability to guard. Duke will do plenty to help the Aztecs put points on the board. I’m not nearly worried about that side of the coin as most. San Diego State holding true to form defensively will have far more to do with the outcome of the game. I’m sure we’ll see Skylar Spencer defending Okafor straight up a few times, but this team knows how to post double. Rotating out of it will be key.
- Quick start for J.J.
J.J. O’Brien can’t take his time getting into the feel of things. He’s got to get the ball in his hands and get to the rim until: A) he gets doubled or B) Jahlil Okafor ends up in foul trouble. Duke doesn’t have a natural fit to matchup with the fifth year senior leader of the Aztecs.
- Shot selection
It’s been a bugaboo all season long, specifically for Aqeel Quinn and Winston Shepard. These guys can’t settle for quick long 2s. They know better. It can also come back to bite them against a team that can get out and run.
- Proving to be more than just a shooter
Matt Shrigley is really finding himself. I love watching the guy play. He’s valuable on offense because he can shoot, yes, but simple awareness also makes all the difference. He doesn’t hold the ball. He’s not shying away from open looks as he did last year when he went cold. He almost enjoys getting on the floor too much, but you won’t find any of his teammates or coaches complaining about that.
Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook will score points. That alone doesn’t worry me. But if Okafor is so much of a load that he’s creating second and third scoring chances on shots other than his own, the Aztecs are toast. I’m very curious to see who matches up with Cook. I’d like to see Shepard get after him with his length. Cook has got to get bottled up anytime he catches an outlet pass.
If the Aztecs limit transition chances for the Blue Devils, I think they’ll hold to the form we’ve seen from them all season defensively. If Duke can get out and run, they’ll negate much of the Aztecs’ length on the perimeter. Folks can harp on offensive struggles and its all fair, but this isn’t David vs. Goliath. This San Diego State roster is very talented, too. This team went toe to toe with Arizona before Malik Pope even became part of the rotation. I like their chances.
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