I know what you’re thinking. And I’m with you. I don’t care, either. Max Hoetzel can wear his shorts as high as he wants; that dude can play. Don’t let his lean frame fool you. Same can be said for his front court mates Zylan Cheatham and Malik Pope. That Aztecs trio got the best of a Cal frontcourt that boasts two traditional 7 footers along with likely future NBA lottery pick Ivan Rabb.
The San Diego State Aztecs seized control of this prime date with Cal late in the first half and had an answer to the Golden Bears, who stuck around, trimming the SDSU lead to 10 or fewer several times. And for Cal, things could have been much worse. Pope (19 minutes) and Cheatham (21 minutes) couldn’t stop fouling. Pope, appearing in his first game of the season, ended up on the wrong side of some head-scratchers. Cheatham picked up two fouls in the first 2 and a half minutes. He didn’t return until the second half.
When those two were forced off the floor, in came Max Hoetzel, also making his season debut. The 11 point, 7 rebound line was impressive. But this Indiana transfer isn’t just out there to be a shooter. He competed inside to box out and rebound among Cal’s trees—an offensive rebound and putback with 10:20 to play pushed the lead back up to 17. Valentine Izundu (ankle) looked good in 19 minutes as the anchor for SDSU’s bench groups, blocking one shot and altering at least a few more.
Matt Shrigley (ankle) looked spry and clearly felt good playing at the brand new Golden 1 Center, the home floor of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The newly minted team captain hit 3 of 7 from deep, including a banker coming off a screen moving to his left near the top of the key and another to end the first half and put the Aztecs up 17. An intense mean mug ensued.
Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley each scored in double figures. They only combined to shoot 8-29 on Monday night, but the shots they got were promising. The duo attempted 16 of their 29 shots in the paint. Hemsley easily could have drawn foul calls on 2-3 of his—the two teams combined for a whopping 50 fouls. Let’s just say the referees were in a giving mood.
Hemsley finished with 15 points. 10 of them came over a crucial 4:10 stretch late in the first half. After 2 Cal free throws, SDSU led 24-18 at the 7:23 mark. Hemsley scored the next 10 for his team as the Golden Bears missed 10 straight. Cal didn’t get any closer than 8 down the rest of the way.
The Aztecs even fared well in three key areas that had haunted them in years past–defensive rebounding, free throw shooting and turnovers. Cal grabbed 15 offensive boards on Monday. You can point to a few 50/50 balls the Aztecs should have come up with and if you snag those, you’re in good shape. How about free throw shooting? 22 of 31, good for 71%. Check. And turnovers? Not only did the Aztecs take care of the ball (just 5 turnovers), they took 16 Cal turnovers and converted them into 23 points.
The offense really shined and the team as a whole looked comfortable. Bodies were moving on offense and when Pope or Cheatham didn’t get it to face up and attack their men, Hemsley or Kell called for a ball screen and got off a good shot. And Allen, Shrigley and Hoetzel loomed as threats to run off a screen as all of this was happening. Cal only tried a 2-3 zone on a handful of possessions. I’d love to have had the chance to ask Cuonzo Martin why he didn’t turn to it for even one extended stretch.
Teams would benefit by taking note of this one. Pope and Cheatham as the starting front court are unguardable if they’re allowed to work in space. Send a double or go to a zone, because college bigs don’t have the lateral quickness to stop either from getting to the rim. Pope will truly become a monster when he starts to hit 40% of his threes. Cheatham probably won’t get there anytime soon, but he knocked one down from the top of the key! That’s enough to make a slower defender think twice.
‘Teki’ and that 9th rotation spot
Montaque Gill-Caesar played just 6 minutes. I’m expecting a bit of an up and down season from him. Steve Fisher himself has mentioned that Gill-Caesar is a volume scorer. For now, he’s probably the 9th guy in the rotation. You know what that means for a Steve Fisher team–single digit minutes more times than not. But he’ll settle in and find his spots. I believe in his talent.
Falling into place isn’t all that easy. Some SDSU fans may still be skeptical, but this team has scorers! Pope was urged to play harder and tougher on a more regular basis by NBA scouts. He listened and is ready to be unleashed. Cheatham is too talented to not be featured more from the post. Kell is crafty, can hit shots from anywhere and knows his limits. Hemsley is a wrecking ball in transition and almost never gets forced into a shot that he won’t make more than 50% of the time. Gill-Caesar may need to sharpen his cutting and spot up toolkit, but he’ll get there.
The post double
The Aztecs came out with their famed post double in full force. Pope and Izundu in tandem in particular are a terror with their combined length and leaping ability. I was surprised that Rabb didn’t particularly seem to understand what to do from there. The same guy–whoever’s furthest away on the weak side–is going to be open. Cal couldn’t decide where to park that guy and their offense stagnated. Okoroh even tossed a skip pass out of bounds, more in the direction of Steve Fisher than the opposite wing area.
Cal’s premier talent
I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the Ivan Rabb hype train. He doesn’t have much of a jumper, doesn’t playmake and is rail thin. But there’s still a great deal of talent in that frame. He’s on the mend from a toe injury and didn’t really wake up until the second half. By then, it was too late. Any injury to the foot, even a small one, is a gigantic pain in the rear. But he doesn’t get a pass here. Pope, Hoetzel and Izundu have been battling injuries of their own. The SDSU forwards didn’t cede much ground to Rabb, Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh on straight post ups. That’s a big plus.
Charlie Moore (17 points, 4 fouls) didn’t quite follow up with another 38 point performance, which saved the Golden Bears from UC Irvine in their previous game. But he’s got a pretty stroke and a ridiculous handle. He created separation at will without breaking a sweat. He’s a guy that no coach will want to be forced to gameplan for in March. Thankfully, SDSU returned the nation’s best defender in isolation. Should these teams meet again, you can bet Dakarai Allen will draw the assignment if Moore heats up.
It’s all but official for Jalen McDaniels, who didn’t suit up Monday night. But at this point, it’s probably best not to declare it until the team finds what it means to be at full strength again.
Zylan Cheatham, almost putting somebody on a poster
Cheatham caught it at the right elbow and stared down Kingsley Okoroh. One quick jab, head fake, or hesitation dribble would do the trick. Cheatham made his move, came to a jump stop, then rose up. Then he rose up some more. Somehow, Cheatham jumped off two feet to almost slam one home all over Okoroh–this wasn’t a help defender just standing near the basket. Okoroh was actually trying to slide with him and even offer some resistance. The dunk attempt bounced out, no poster on this night. But man, would it have been a one to remember.
The Aztecs are taking 3 well deserved days off to celebrate Thanksgiving. They’ll be back in action Monday, November 28th to host Savannah State (7:00 PM PST).
Header photo via AP