SDSU 48, #14 Gonzaga 69: grade this early test on a curve; Aztecs need to get healthy

Aztecs fans are angry. San Diego fans are angry. Another bad year in America’s finest sports town had been summed up nicely by the late game woes of the Chargers. Just a day after another Sunday afternoon erosion, San Diego fans looked ahead to the Aztecs trip to The Kennel. We called on memories of SDSU’s upset victory there 6 years ago to drown out the gridiron misery. Both teams went scoreless in the opening minutes–a good sign, some would say.

Then the Zags went to a 2-3 zone at the 15:08 mark coming out of the first TV timeout and never looked back. Zone offense, per usual, as pointed out by plenty of fans online, was a slog. The offense did not look good Monday night. The leading cause? No Malik Pope, no Max Hoetzel, no Ben Perez and (one must assume) a limited Matt Shrigley. Yes, the Aztecs have not been efficient matching up with a zone. For the most part, they run some variation of the same play, which you’ve seen illustrated here many a time.

Measured criticism of Monday night’s offensive performance is fair. More times than not, 3-4 players should not be standing flat footed against a packed in zone. That is a poor habit that has been detrimental to Steve Fisher teams even as players have come and gone. Something about the team’s approach isn’t addressing that habit well enough and that needs to change, now.

Gonzaga has laid the blueprint. No coach of a high profile program zoned up the Aztecs for such a large percentage of a big game on a big stage. Mark Few chose the path that gave his team the best chance to compete–tossing conventional wisdom and pride out the window. Any coach worth his salary that truly wants a win over San Diego State will do the same:

  • 2-3 zone, geared up to first protect the paint
  • ensure every shot taken by Trey Kell is a contested, leaner in the lane
  • funnel Jeremy Hemsley into the trees and hope your bigs don’t foul him
  • ignore every sub-33% 3PT shooter on the roster

But enough about the offense for now. The 4 guys currently injured or limited all have the pure talent and/or pedigree to combine to shoot 35-40% on open threes. It may not always happen, but the mere threat of those guys being on the floor changes everything. The driving lanes for Kell and Hemsley will get wider; Zylan Cheatham and Valentine Izundu will have a split second longer to finish tough looks inside.

via USA Today Sports

via USA Today Sports

Gonzaga, by games end, had only shot 39% from the field and only got to the free throw line 14 times. The Zags got too many easy transition buckets off of 15 Aztecs turnovers. They also ballooned their lead thanks to the hot hands of Jordan Matthews–17 points, 5-7 from deep–and freshman Zach Collins.

Matthews, a grad transfer from Cal (shot 4-13 against the Aztecs in Vegas last season), truly put his foot down early in the second half. The Aztecs came out of the locker room to score 5 straight. Then Matthews caught fire, hitting 3 unanswered threes in 96 seconds.  Better awareness and solid close outs would have helped the cause, but the Zags, like the Aztecs, are deep. This may come off as sour grapes after a very good Gonzaga team earned that win, but the difference Monday night was health.

Fans have every right to be frustrated and fed up. Another rough calendar year is wrapping itself up for the least recognized miserable sports city. (Thanks for nothing, good weather: San Diego won’t get Chicago/Cleveland/Buffalo levels of sympathy, ever.)

I, too, have concerns–I fear the offense won’t have enough spacing with Izundu and Cheatham playing together, but that the defense won’t be elite again without both playing 30+ minutes; the team relies on Kell and Hemsley relentlessly attacking the basket, which opens up their bodies to taking a lot of hits; Dakarai Allen and Montaque Gill-Caesar may struggle to continue to grow being forced into the high post or stuck in a corner.

But you can’t close the door on a deep team led by great coaches 2 games in. Monday night wasn’t doomsday. It was a golden opportunity spoiled by circumstance. The NCAA selection committee can’t and won’t be crossing SDSU off its list with a Sharpie today. The Aztecs very well may run the table from here in the non-conference. At the very least, they’ve got to play Cal tough in Sacramento and make the final of the Diamond Head Classic. And they know that.

The promise of this roster didn’t change overnight. Steve Fisher wasn’t putting on a front when he said this could be one of the best offenses to grace the Mesa. Give them time, at the very least, to suit up 14 healthy bodies. Malik Pope alone stepping back out on the floor will put a whole new level of fear into each opponent. The Aztecs have a chance to get right back out onto the floor Wednesday night at home against San Diego Christian.

Header photo via USA Today Sports

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