45 seconds to play, with most of the crowd that remained at Viejas Arena on its feet, Valentine Izundu stepped to the line. His predecessor at the center position, Skylar Spencer (and alleged look alike), looked on from his court side seats. Shot one of two falls through the net. The crowd erupts. Izundu wasn’t breaking a tie; fans weren’t poking fun at his free throw shooting woes, I think. With that free throw, Izundu and the Aztecs hit triple digits.
Monday night was a good one for Steve Fisher’s Aztecs in game two of this ‘Wow, These Guys are Really Good When Everybody’s Healthy’ 2016-2017 season. Savannah State, playing at a faster pace than anybody at the D1 level, never led or had much hope. SDSU fans weren’t forced to sit through another scoreless stretch to start a game. 2 minutes in: 8-1, Aztecs.
The visiting Tigers, both athletically and vertically, were no match for any lineup Coach Fisher would have thrown out there. So they sat in a 2-3 zone, quite literally. Matt Shrigley proceeded to shoot right over the top of it with relative ease. Propelled by his 5 first half threes, SDSU put the game away early. The senior hit 5 of 6 from deep over a 6:41 stretch. The Aztecs led by 19 after Shrigley’s first stint—he had entered a 10-4 game prior to the first “media” timeout. (This is where I roll my eyes and hope you join me.)
Yes, unless you were in town and had a ticket, you were straight out of luck once again. Monday night wasn’t televised. The December 7th quest for revenge to Grand Canyon University won’t be, either, unless you find shady access to Phoenix’s CW6 channel. December 12’s home date with Alabama State will at least be available on Campus Insiders. After that point, though, it’s smooth sailing for Aztecs fans…if your TV package carries CBS Sports Network.
As great as the Aztecs have looked, they can’t afford to get caught looking ahead. This collection of talent can (and in all likelihood should) be expected to run through its 7 remaining non-conference games. With each of those 7 dates will come a maximum effort by an eager opponent. This year’s Diamond Head Classic field is way down, missing a blue blood headliner. But that field will be gunning for SDSU. Regardless, the Aztecs need to capitalize on the good publicity. There’s a possibility of all 3 games being televised on an ESPN network.
For now, the team moves on to Loyola Chicago. So much about this early December Saturday afternoon is strange and screams ‘trap game’ loud enough that bothering to point it out seems redundant—the fact a program on SDSU’s level can get shoehorned into a zero upside road game like this is absurd. But as you all remember, last season was defined by failure to show up for trap games. The opening minutes of Saturday’s game will say a lot.
More from Monday:
Teki hits from deep
Montaque Gill-Caesar tallied 12 point and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench. He hit 2 of 4 from beyond the arc, a good sign from a player that will be forced to hit jumpers to earn extra minutes.
Turnovers down, assists piling up
Fisher’s remarks on the importance of/need for assisted buckets for this team Monday night really resounded with anybody that’s been following the program closely. Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell, Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham can all be play makers or get their own shot at will. Having 4 dynamic players is a luxury, but won’t carry any team deep into an NCAA tournament playing my turn, your turn. They haven’t always excelled in making plays for one another. Monday was especially promising in that regard: 22 assists (Hemsley + Kell combined for 16) on 35 baskets against just 10 team turnovers.
I liked how we shared the ball. We had 22 assists. Jeremy (Hemsley) had nine assists and no turnovers. Trey (Kell) had seven assists and one turnover, and we made that a topic of conversation when we got back from Cal. We’ve got a group of really good young people who are very unselfish, but we were taking too many hard shots. And we took a few tonight, but we did a better job of moving the ball and making one more pass to go from a good shot to a better shot. — Steve Fisher in Monday night’s postgame presser (via goaztecs.com)
Role guy, roll guy
Dakarai Allen played just 12 minutes. I’ll chalk that up to Shrigley and Max Hoetzel playing well. But there’s also some truth in the previous point relating specifically to Allen. He can really lock a guy up on the perimeter, but there wasn’t much of a need for that on Monday. Allen is effectively slashing to the bucket off one dribble, but doesn’t get many opportunities. Allen knows his role, but the team as a whole isn’t at the point to truly accentuate his value. That will need to change as the season progresses. No matter how hot or cold Allen’s jumper is, the team will need his defense against top flight competition.
Valentine Izundu (7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks) helped the Aztecs hit that 100 point mark beyond hitting a free throw. He blocked a few shots and doesn’t ever seem to look out of place defending the basket. But the comparisons to Skylar Spencer stop there. Izundu holds the ball too long when he gets it near the basket. He doesn’t seem to have Spencer’s touch or awareness to finish on either side of the hoop with or without the use of a dribble. It’s early, but that’s probably the difference between 15 and 25+ minutes per game, even as the tean’s only true center.
Zylan Cheatham soaking it all in
Fans know by now about his coast to coast slam from Monday’s first half. Cheatham really embraces his big moments—just one of a million reasons why he’s such a delightful player to see in person. After that first half dunk, he took a second to stare right into the baseline camera. Savannah State had already advanced the ball to half court.
Even though Cheatham has fast twitch muscle fibers falling out of his ears, his explosiveness still catches people by surprise once or twice every game. That coast to coast slam was a prime example. He never really cranked it up to a full sprint, but didn’t have any trouble elevating and throwing down the hammer.
Pace, lineups, awkward collisions and a slippery floor
The Aztecs can play however they want. What we know: selective running should be a part of it. Turns out, running all the time isn’t all that bad, either. Especially against a zone. Monday brought me back to last season’s NIT win over Washington. UW dictated the pace of that game; the Aztecs were just flat out better across the board, even though the 3 of those Huskies would get a crack at the NBA months later. Seeing this team healthy is a beautiful thing. Steve Fisher can play big or small, go for shooting or just put his best defenders out there. With all hands on deck, there is zero drop off in talent.
By the second half on Monday, the outcome had been decided, which made for some rough stretches. Savannah State players putting their head down and going to the basket never seemed to end well. The Viejas Arena floor must have been slicker than ususal, too; players were struggling throughout the night to change direction and take off going the other way. Thankfully, both sides made it out in good shape.
Saturday’s game at Loyola Chicago (3 PM CST) will be available on ESPN3.
Header photo via sdsuaztecphotos.com