SDSU 80, CSUSM 42: Aztecs cruise into season opener as injuries pile up

via Ernie Anderson/

The San Diego State Aztecs looked true to form Monday night in their second of two exhibitions against Division II programs. Led by Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley, the Aztecs went on two 17-0 runs in the first half alone, cruising to the easy victory. Cruising may have been a poor word choice. In spite of the wide margin of victory, the banged up Aztecs saw their bench get even thinner–Malik Pope was a late scratch from the starting lineup (knee) and Matt Shrigley went down late in the first half (ankle).

Yes, this team is deep and talented. Talented enough that it ought to plow right through the University of San Diego Toreros on Friday night to avenge last December’s sobering loss at Petco Park. But the Aztecs have a date in prime time days later at Gonzaga. They’ll need all hands on deck for that one. Friday’s home season opener will remain the focus for now. Malik Pope may be ready to go by then and 5th year transfer Valentine Izundu could make his Aztecs debut in limited minutes.

Plenty of good can be taken from Monday’s win over Cal State San Marcos. The Aztecs looked better filling lanes in transition to find some early offense. Trey Kell found two open looks from deep just by running to the corners; Matt Shrigley hit a transition three, too by doing the same. And that’s where this running game must start for the Aztecs. If Kell and Shrigley aren’t bolting to the corners looking for open threes, Hemsley and Zylan Cheatham will be forced to drive into a crowd of defenders. Those two shooters will be the ones most feared by opponents and in turn, will open up the floor for everybody else.

We saw an early pick and roll with Hemsley and Cheatham that ought to be a staple of this offense, especially with a Hemsley/Kell/Dakarai Allen/Pope/Cheatham starting 5. With the ball on the left side, Hemsley used a Cheatham screen to drive down the middle. On that occasion, Hemsley got all the way to the basket. The coaching staff has pointed out numerous times how most college teams force a pick and roll to the middle of the court. Maybe this will be the year they start to exploit that again.

If this team can ever incorporate a side pick and roll like that on a regular basis, Hemsley will pick his poison between a shot for himself inside 17 feet or a dish to Cheatham as he runs to the rim. Most of the time, defenses will be forced to give that up unless they want to take their chances leaving Kell/Pope (or Shrigley/Hoetzel/Ben Perez) alone for a catch and shoot three.

That action is too tough to stop. Teams could counter by sending help from the opposite corner to leave that fifth guy, Dakarai Allen (26.5% 3PT shooter last season), all alone. I’d tip my cap to anybody that could pull that off before Hemsley slices through the two initial defenders or lobs it to Cheatham for a slam.

Harping on offense this early seems silly, but fans haven’t seen this offense soar on a regular basis since it completely turned its offense over to Xavier Thames in 2013-2014. And even then, there were identity issues: Should J.J. O’Brien be more involved; is Winston Shepard doing enough? To be clear, there will not be another Xavier Thames on the Mesa. But Kell and Hemsley are each pretty dang close to producing at that level. And we’re getting them as a duo. Let these guys play in space and turn ’em loose to attack defenses with a full head of steam.

via Ernie Anderson/

via Ernie Anderson/

A few more things from Monday of note:

Zylan Cheatham, euro stepping for an easy lay up in transition

It just isn’t fair. Put 2 points on the board anytime he catches it as the trailer with his man (usually a plodding big) giving him a cushion of 10+ feet.

Trey Kell, making it rain running off a flare screen

Here’s another simple action I’d love to see as a staple of this offense. Aztecs fans: Watch the Portland Trail Blazers anytime you get the chance. Kell and Hemsley won’t be pulling up from the center court logo like Damian Lillard can, but the Blazers offense is so much fun to watch. It can give you some hope for what an offense can do with two dominant combo guards.

Nolan Narain, busting a zone from the short corner

San Marcos went to zone after a timeout early in the first half. Steve Fisher said in his post game presser that this team will make enough shots to beat a zone this season. While my confidence in that simple solution doesn’t quite stack up to his, Narain added a wrinkle to zone offense that we haven’t seen much of in recent years–a quick turn-and-face jumper from the short corners. He made 1 of 4 on those looks Monday night. If he’s ready to contribute as a stretch big, those (and open 3s) are the shots he’ll need to hit.

Zylan Cheatham, playing multiple positions

Cheatham will be a must watch early in the season. He’s bound to pile up minutes as the de facto “center” on the floor. Steve Fisher says often that he doesn’t use conventional position labels, but they matter. They matter because somebody needs to guard and box out bruising post scorers–they still exist in college basketball–such as Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski (7’1″, 300) and Nevada’s Cam Oliver (6’8″, 225). Cheatham being forced to play there more as Izundu’s ankle injury lingers will be concerning if Z can’t stop fouling.

Jalen McDaniels, following up on a debut that had been highlighted by a missed dunk

McDaniels’ situation is a fascinating one. If every man on the roster were 100% healthy, news may already have broken telling us the wiry freshman would redshirt this season. I can’t see how that would be justified now as things stand, but we’ll know by Friday night. On Monday, McDaniels looked much more comfortable and got a few extra buckets late–he finished off a lob from D’Erryl Williams and hit a corner three right in front of the SDSU bench.

Zylan Cheatham, unanimous Bench Celebrations All-American, standing on the actual court 

Nobody is better than Cheatham in this realm. Skylar Spencer was right up there and Aqeel Quinn was delightful, too, but Cheatham stands alone in his own tier. His enthusiasm in seeing his teammates succeed is genuinely delightful and I’ll go so far as to say I hope he gets T’d up for straying too far onto the court during a blowout this season just to see which coach jumps out of his seat first to pull him back to the bench.

Be sure to catch the season opener Friday night at 8:00 PST. It’s actually on TV! (ESPNU)

Header photo via Ernie Anderson/ 

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