The San Diego State Aztecs and their fans had to temper expectations heading into their exhibition opener against D-II UC San Diego–4 players were out nursing injuries and several others were on minutes restrictions, per Mark Zeigler. The Tritons outscored the Aztecs 33-23 in the second half, which may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some fans. The Aztecs were missing size inside and it showed defensively; Max Hoetzel, Malik Pope and Valentine Izundu will be difference makers protecting the basket and securing defensive rebounds.
Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell, and Zylan Cheatham were joined in the starting lineup by Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen, both of whom were capped at 20 minutes. D’Erryl Williams played solid on both ends in a turnover free 22 minutes. If you really love digging into details, watch Williams closely. This dude is still impossible to screen–teams need to just stop trying. Avoiding screens in a real skill, one that this senior point guard has mastered.
Montaque “Teki” Gill-Caesar took the game ball, scoring 18 points in 25 minutes. Teki, pitched to fans as a source of instant offense, made 6 of 10 shots and was scoring at all three levels. We saw him face up to hit from the midrange and from deep, which this team needs more than anything. Gill-Caesar also looked comfortable taking smaller guards down on the block and getting to a short turn around jumper. This team probably won’t have one go to back to the basket scorer; they have 3 or 4 guys that should be given the freedom to pick their spots when they see a smaller defender.
True freshman Jalen McDaniels and redshirt freshman Nolan Narain made their debuts in Viejas Arena, and like Steve Fisher said prior, his team needed to play in front of a crowd. Both freshman bricked dunk attempts and the groans from the crowd came through loud and clear. But this entire team needed this exhibition experience to ease the tension. Mountain West Conference tournament championship game notwithstanding, this team knows it missed out on the NCAAs last season because of its non-conference woes.
The Aztecs kick off their season against crosstown ‘rival’ USD. You can remove the quotes and save the punch lines for now. The Toreros stunned the Aztecs last year at Petco Park. Complain about that venue choice and frame the November 11 opener as you’d like. USD and Head Coach Lamont Smith will be walking into Viejas with some swagger as a program ready to make some noise. Some Aztecs fans won’t have the stomach to deal with two consecutive losses to a school viewed by many as a meme-worthy ‘little sister’. That game is must see.
3 days later, the Aztecs will be on national television, on the road to take on Gonzaga. That game, too, will be all business. Basketball media and voters won’t see much of the Aztecs this season. Some will only see this early season ESPN2 headliner. Around the same time last season, the Aztecs fell on the road against the University of Utah and lived up to the label that’s been held over their heads for years–great on defense, too tough to watch on offense.
This season will be all about offense for the Aztecs. Scoring in transition (early in the shot clock in particular) will be emphasized. Getting back to Thursday’s exhibition victory, there were some hints at what is to come. Once Jeremy Hemsley gets the ball in his hands after a rebound or opponent make, Trey Kell and Matt Shrigley will be bolting to the corners. Both guys got good looks at transition threes, and you want those guys taking those looks every chance they get.
Gill-Caesar, one of the next best options from deep, hit one early in the shot clock as UCSD players were slow to find their assignments. It was only one game, but my early assessment of this running game is the same as before: The Aztecs run the lanes perfectly, but don’t make the next pass soon enough. Getting the ball in the hands of a guard isn’t always enough to find easy buckets. Players running the wing need to get wide, create a passing lane and look for a second pass to really put pressure on any defense.
When settling into half court offense, we saw much of the same. The Aztecs will often fall back on some sort of ‘Horns’ set up with two guys near the high post and two guys at the wing. Kell and Shrigley opened the game criss-crossing, using screens set by their teammates. That stuff can be slow to develop and smart teams will key in on Kell at all costs. But Kell is really, really good at reading defenders, so that stuff is probably here to stay. He curled around his screen a few different times rather than just bolting to the three point line. When Kell gets the ball off a curl, he’s going to the basket and will probably get to the free throw line.
If one game says it all, Zylan Cheatham will be the guy to absorb post touches from the right midpost that had been allotted to Winston Shepard over the last few years. Cheatham absolutely torched his man early in the game down the baseline for a monster two hand jam. Teams will quickly remember to lay off him and dare him to shoot. Zylan obliged, hitting two of three midrange jumpers and finishing a drive to the middle with his left hand. Keep your eyes on Cheatham from that right midpost area–few players in the nation (not hyperbole) are quick enough to contain him from there if his jumper is for real.
The real question from me is whether the pick and roll will be a bigger part of their offense. This team has more shooting and some of their pet sets brought things to a screeching halt too often. Both Kell and Hemsley can orchestrate the pick and roll at a high level. And Steve Fisher has some dynamic pieces to use as the screener in those actions. Nolan Narain and Cheatham each his a three pointer popping to the outside rather than rolling to the rim on Thursday. Malik Pope and Max Hoetzel can do the same, and will tilt defenses more their way, leaving guys like Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen alone in a corner just one skip pass away.
All four of those guys need to be featured in the pick and roll in every game this season. Cheatham rolling to the rim alone would strike fear in every opposing coach. If these guys pop out for threes and hit them, that will be what makes this offense soar.
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