Maybe now more than ever, San Diego was ready to shift its focus to the San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball program. The first half of Friday night’s season opener was all but reassuring from a squad that made a promise to return to the NCAA tournament. There were rare early cracks in the defense exploited by the young Toreros–layup, layup, layup. The Aztecs transition attack was stifled early by the whistle. Two early charges were called against the Aztecs; not even 3 minutes in, Jeremy Hemsley picked up his second foul. At the 9:29 mark, senior captain Dakarai Allen picked up his third ticky tack foul.
For about 3 full minutes, the Aztecs scrambled to score just to avoid a double digit deficit. They did. Then Trey Kell and Hemsley went on a 13-0 run, punctuated by Hemsley’s second three pointer with 41 seconds left in the half. With the Aztecs up by 4, Viejas Arena could finally exhale and let loose.
Surely that momentum would lead to a monster run to start the second half. 13 seconds in, Allen picked up his fourth foul–ticky tack and away from the ball. 2 unanswered layups later, the Toreros had the lead back. Hemsley scored 7 straight for the Aztecs to steady the ship and D’Erryl Williams drilled a trey from the top of the key. Hemsley and Kell combined to pile on 10 more as USD went 8:42 between scores.
The Aztecs were undermanned but not out-gunned. Hemsley and Kell, hailed to be one of the nation’s most prolific back courts were, per usual, all business, no hype. The duo was responsible for nearly 75% of the team’s points. Few duos can play the my turn/your turn game better than Hemsley or Kell because as soon as you begin to tilt your defense toward the one with the ball, the other looms to drill a contested three or get all the way to the rim.
The Aztecs only assisted on 7 of their 23 made field goals, three of them of the Hemsley to Kell (or vice versa) variety. But that’s the style of play this team needs to rely on as they play 4 and a half men down. (Steve Fisher pointed out afterwards that Valentine Izundu “had missed ten straight days of practice.”) Even once all bodies are healthy and suited up, there will be an adjustment period to (re)integrate those pieces–anybody ever heard of this Malik Pope fella?
These Aztecs will drop off a bit defensively, as any team would after graduating Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard. Easy translation: They need to score much, much more. Hemsley and Kell can carry the load, but Monday’s early test at Gonzaga will be a tough one.
Friday’s margin of victory and Monday’s result won’t define the season. Steve Fisher doesn’t have his full team. Voters and the media will recognize that. But whether he has 7 healthy bodies or 14, the Aztecs will need to win a majority of their biggest non-conference tests–versus Cal in Sacramento, at Loyola Chicago, a revenge game at Grand Canyon, and a home date with Arizona State–all coming before the Diamond Head Classic, a final primer for the conference season which begins at home against a hungry, talented New Mexico team.
Before we look too far ahead, it’s important to focus on more of the good from Friday night. Hemsley and Kell were the headliners, but their teammates came up big as well:
New year, new Zylan
36 minutes and zero fouls. I wrote after the exhibitions that Cheatham had to stop fouling. He hit the 30 minute mark just once last season. Pope, Max Hoetzel, Matt Shrigley, and Ben Perez are on the mend. Regardless, this team needs Zylan Cheatham on the floor as much as possible.
Dakarai Allen with a chip on his shoulder
Allen picked up some silly fouls Friday night. You could argue 3 of the 4 were easily avoidable. But Allen doesn’t compromise his game. He’s going to get up in a guy’s jersey and hound him. Even late in the second half, after the outcome was clear, Allen was getting after it. Look for that to continue from the jump Monday in Spokane.
D’Erryl Williams, consummate program player
Few things I’ve read this month made me happier than Steve Fisher’s quote on Williams after Friday’s win:
“I thought D’Erryl, and I’m glad you brought him up, but I think he’s one for four. But the other three were right at the rim layups that could’ve gone in and he could’ve been four for four. He is relentless, he is the ultimate teammate and to be honest with you, if you look over a career, he probably has been odd man out, not gotten quite the opportunity others have and could’ve looked for reasons to not compete quite as hard suddenly. He never ever let that happen. D’Erryl is a pre-med major. He has a two o’clock class Monday, Wednesday and Friday so he’s only able to practice those three days for a little over an hour. President Hirshman put him on the selection committee for the athletic director. He was the only student-athlete on it. He’s held in very high regard in our athletic community and throughout San Diego State and if you say, ‘Tell me what a student-athlete is supposed to look like,’ put D’Erryl Williams’s face there. And he can play! And he can play. So we are going to need him. We are going to need him. Whether he can play 29 minutes every game, I don’t know, but we’re going to need D’Erryl to come out to play and play with the enthusiasm, energy and effectiveness that he did tonight.”
As the Aztecs slogged through the first half, the impossible almost felt possible. Williams even got screened, twice! As only he could, Williams made up for it. There was the momentum-swinging three, relentless ball pressure, and tough drives to the basket. As Fisher pointed out, he easily could have shot 4-4 rather than 1-4; D’Erryl takes good shots and makes winning plays.
New bigs turning heads in limited minutes
Valentine Izundu’s presence will be felt on the defensive end. He is listed at 6’10, 240, and unlike most at the college level, looks the part. He swatted two USD shots in his limited minutes. Nolan Narain, a stretch big that’ll complement Izundu’s physical style, flashed some great footwork on a spinning drive for a score. It’s unclear whether Narain will see big minutes (only played 4 on Friday), but keep an eye out for him working from that short corner and even beyond the arc.
Redshirting Jalen McDaniels, barely
Steve Fisher has hinted at redshirting the wiry, talented freshman wing. Mark Zeigler of the U-T has kept his finger on the pulse of the situation and as he pointed out, Friday may have been the lone obstacle to those wishes. Had Hemsley picked up his fourth foul sooner or Williams/Allen had fouled out, Fisher’s hand may have been forced. Another USD loss would have been inexcusable. Moving forward, as team health improves, it’s far less likely we see McDaniels this season. Like Devin Watson, that doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing about him in the interim–those two will be getting after the starters for the scout team in practices.
Montaque Gill-Caesar, speeding up a steep learning curve
With so many big bodies in street clothes, Gill-Caesar had to step up to fill the open role within the offense. This team may not always need him to be a microwave scorer. Of course, they need him to defend. He’ll also be asked to distribute and attack from the high post. The Missouri transfer filled the spots in the offense usually reserved for post players, but that could be by design for now. He airballed a three early in the game and will need some time to find his niche on offense with his new teammates.
Trey Kell, basketball IQ spilling out of his ears and shooting without a conscience
Steve Fisher said it first, many times: Kell is a very smart player. You see it in how he defends. He doesn’t leap like Cheatham or glide in a stance like Dakarai, yet Kell tallies up deflections and puts his body in the right spot as often as anybody. That can’t be done without a high motor and boatload of smarts. On the other end, we saw in night one that Kell is going to pull from anywhere. Kell hit on 2 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first 9 minutes in transition and off the bounce.
(Finally) addressing their weaknesses
Three point shooting: 7-17 (41%)
Free throw shooting: 16-22 (73%)
The Aztecs want to revamp their offensive style of play. A task that tall takes time. Failing to address weaknesses only prolongs that transition. Three keys to speed that up dramatically: only take good threes, make your free throws, take care of the ball. Friday night, the Aztecs checked all three boxes.
The Aztecs travel Sunday to Washington for Monday’s 9 PM start with Gonzaga (ESPN2). As of Saturday morning, Malik Pope, Matt Shrigley, Max Hoetzel and Ben Perez are questionable.
Header photo via sdsuaztecphotos.com