SDSU 72, Grand Canyon 76: Aztecs running out of chances to pile up non-conference wins

Leave it all on the floor, they say. Everybody in the boombox that is the GCU Arena would certainly say that Aztecs point guard Jeremy Hemsley did just that. But for a team struggling to defend, that won’t be enough. Head Coach Steve Fisher said afterwards that Wednesday’s effort may have been enough to net the team a win at Loyola Chicago this past Saturday. Fisher’s team dropped its second game in a row and is mired in a full-fledged identity crisis.

More people are beginning to pile on: Why does SDSU struggle so much to show up and seize control of non-conference games? This is the same group of guys that chose to come out and say their biggest motivation was to return to the NCAA tournament. The poor effort Saturday in Chicago could be seen plainly right through the ESPN3 stream. (Hi, announcers actually present at a game! We don’t see your kind very often!)

Wednesday at GCU seemed to start out just fine—force a turnover, grab a few offensive boards and find a few buckets in the paint. 11-6, 15:43 to play in the first half. Fast forward to about the same point in the second half—one possession game. On the road in a legitimately wild environment against a confident opponent, you’ll take that. 

The Antelopes went on a 9-0 run to push their lead to 11. Zylan Cheatham (17 pts, 12 reb) and Hemsley led the charge right back. Dakarai Allen picked up his 4th foul with 10:54 to go and was taken out 2 minutes later; he wouldn’t return until more than 6 minutes of game time had passed. Cheatham and Hemsley stayed hot. Perhaps Grand Canyon was withering. 

After Hemsley scooted through the defense for a layup, SDSU led by 5 with 4:06 to go. Conventional Aztecs basketball fandom calls ball game at that point. Oscar Frayer hits a three. Aztecs turnover. GCU offensive rebound, Frayer hits another. Aztecs turnover. GCU layup. Strange time for an 8-0 run, but the Antelopes blew the lid off their arena by that point. 

The final 2:37 was even worse. The Aztecs turned it over 3 more times—that Hemsley layup at 4:06 was their last made field goal. The Aztecs PG had two cracks at creating something from the pick and roll within the final minute. The efforts were fruitless. The game ended (un)ceremoniously with a Hemsley turnover and GCU fast break layup at the buzzer to push the final margin to four.

Good teams must close out games like that. Strangely enough, though, the Aztecs only turned it over 11 times—5 of them coming after that final Hemsley layup. GCU didn’t beat the Aztecs up on the glass, either, but one offensive board late led to one of Frayer’s pivotal triples. 

So who or what is to blame for another underwhelming nonconference loss on the road? What gives? First, the Aztecs aren’t alone. SDSU is one of dozens with a target on its back. For every SDSU or Cal or Arizona State, you’ve got a Grand Canyon, a Loyola Chicago and an Alabama State foaming at the mouth. The latter group knows its chances of glory late in March are slim to none. But knocking off a team that is supposed to be there? That’s how you take the small steps to get to that point yourself. That’s how Dan Majerle is building this GCU program, largely at SDSU’s expense. 

As for the rest of what’s causing SDSU to struggle:

Pope needs to play

Get off his back, stop serving up your final judgments and just hope that Steve Fisher will actually give the most talented player to ever suit up for one of his SDSU teams a leash for a change. I’m fully aware of the arguments against—he was inconsistent through 2 years, didn’t play terribly hard, struggled to defend and was streaky from beyond the arc. Have people forgotten how fantastic he was at the end of last season? Put out the bat signal for Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard all you want. Pope was the biggest reason SDSU had a shot at winning the conference tournament and fueled their run to the NIT semis. 

The talented junior returned making lots of promises to bring more inspired play. He started the season hurt; Wednesday at GCU was his fourth game of the season. After playing well against Cal in Sacramento, he’s the hero. How can a guy fall from grace so suddenly? Steve Fisher benched Pope for the final 14 minutes on the road in a tight game. Who’s paying people to follow this team? Even if you get cut off and thrown out of the building, someone has to broach that topic in a post game presser. 

Fisher reverts to old habits

I mentioned Pope sitting out the final 14:00. Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell, Matt Shrigley, Zylan Cheatham and Valentine Izundu were the crunch time 5 out there for the Aztecs until Allen replaced Shrigley at 2:37. That group looks nice on paper, but Kell was struggling and Izundu is a poor fit with Cheatham. 

The Aztecs stood flat-footed for the second game in a row as GCU sent doubles at Cheatham or Pope in the post for the majority of their touches. Even if Cheatham gets a chance to face his guy up, he’s going to run right into Izundu’s man. Izundu grabbed 5 offensive boards and got to the line late, but is a liability from the stripe.

And think back to those final handful of possessions. At that point, the team just needed Hemsley to attack off a screen and create something. But how can he be expected to do that with 3 non-shooters out there with him? The entire defense can lock in on him and his recent struggles to get all the way to the rim and score will continue to come to the surface. Steve Fisher turned to a defense first lineup with under 5:00 to go. One problem: This is the team that’s supposed to run and score more than ever. Which version is it going to be?

No tempo

This SDSU team is supposed to run. They aren’t. The ball rarely gets pushed on misses or makes and there are no signs of early drag or flare screens despite having some ideal pieces to pull that kind of attack off. Explicit or not, a ceiling has in turn been put over the heads of Pope, Cheatham, Allen, Shrigley, Max Hoetzel and Montaque Gill-Caesar. 

Hoetzel, by the way, played 4 minutes on Wednesday. Maybe some injuries are still nagging at he and Pope. If so, we may not ever know for certain. But if they’re deemed good to go, they have to play. And that string of guys could be helped a great deal if the uptick in tempo ever comes. If not, it’ll be more of the same—force feeding Hemsley and Kell with poor floor spacing with just enough from Cheatham and Pope out of the post to make us wonder why we can’t at least see more of that. 

Pick and roll or not?

We see it once a game, if that. And it nets a wide open catch and shoot three or a layup. Umm, more, please? What I’m referring to: Jeremy Hemsley on the left side using a Cheatham ball screen to attack the middle of a defense with two of Kell/Shrigley/Hoetzel spotting up in his direct line of sight, the threat of a lob to Cheatham sucking in extra defense, and the fifth guy in the weak side corner. 

We saw that specific action once on Wednesday. On the following possession, the Aztecs went to it again, but with Max Hoetzel clogging an elbow, no longer a threat to do what he does best. Gone is Hemsley’s driving lane along with Cheatham’s bolt to the rim. I’m at the point where a loss no longer bothers me as a fan. But the sight of Hoetzel or Pope, 2 of the team’s best shooters, at an elbow forced to facilitate for teammates sleep walking through a few down screens absolutely sends me up a wall. 

Whose team?

Jeremy Hemsley lives for big moments. He isn’t afraid of big shots; he doesn’t shy away from chances to attack the basket, even when he’s been struggling to convert them. Hemsley is the point guard and he’s the go to guy at this point. I could do without the endless DJ Gay and Xavier Thames references, seeing as it allows people on the outside to lazily babble about the program’s recent success.  But being mentioned in that same air is high praise at the end of the day. 

Dakarai Allen, too, has done his part and then some as a team captain. He has found himself in foul trouble a bit too often, but such is life for a stopper in college basketball today. Picking up a few is inevitable sometimes. Even one questionable call piled on top can really spoil things. Allen had a put back dunk early on and a few really nice, hard drives all the way to the rim. 

Pick and roll defense 

DeWayne Russell, GCU’s scoring machine and point guard, is good. He’s clearly a guy that can get his own shot if he needs to, so giving him a chance to get going downhill is even more dangerous. Dakarai Allen did a good job positionally, but Russell still made some shots that were at least a 9.5/10 in degree of difficulty. 

But I’d be remissed not to point out that SDSU’s pick and roll defense in particular has been an adventure anytime Allen isn’t guarding the ball handler. Cheatham and Pope have some reps guarding the screener in that case, but haven’t exactly been doing it for years. Izundu is an absolute wall if he sinks back, but that leaves too much room for a guy like Russell to get off an open shot if Russell’s man gets screened. 

On top of all that, you have new combinations of guys around that action trying to rotate and recover in sync. I don’t see all that many issues with the defense this season. They’ve played well on that end. Brand new guys are being mixed into the rotation and Fisher is toggling between big and small lineups frequently. The rotations will become more seamless with time and they’ll fight harder to get through screens. 

Where to from here? 

The season isn’t over. They aren’t NIT bound. Dozens of other teams have and will get upset during non-conference play. But this team is playing uninspired offense. They stand flat footed and jog through sets. The defense may have some leaks from time to time, but this team was billed as one that would score more. That’s what needs to change, and the clear first step to get back on that path is clear: trust Pope, play the shooters and lean more on the pick and roll. 

SDSU has 2 more cracks over the next 5 days at doing so. Then they have a break, head to Hawaii, come right back and host New Mexico’s two headed attack on New Year’s Day. Hopes at the big dance can’t die in December.  But the clock is ticking.

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