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SDSU 63, Arizona State 74: Aztecs drop third straight, soul searching begins


The San Diego State Aztecs have dropped three straight games.  That doesn’t happen under Steve Fisher.  That isn’t supposed to happen for a team that got burned last season in the nonconference and was shooed away by the NCAA selection committee.  Slides like that aren’t supposed to happen for a team touted to be one of Fisher’s finest to ever see the Mesa.

The Aztecs appeared to be just fine in the first half—perhaps minus a few of the 8 early turnovers.  They jumped to a 14-4 lead early and headed into the locker room with a 7 point lead at the half.  To their credit, the Sun Devils came to play.  The entire team appeared to wake up all at once.  Maybe they were adjusting to the Viejas Arena crowd, which had its moments in the closest thing to date to a marquee nonconference home game.

SDSU did not play with sustained effort and focus to keep Arizona State from hitting 7 of 14 triples.  The offense sputtered to screeching halts and some of the sloppy play continued.  And there was the tell-tale sign of a team playing on edge—the guy holding the ball waiting for a teammate to get open looked anxious.  Passes were being thrown before guys could get out of their breaks and some were just thrown to nobody in particular.

But that last point is a vague one.  Here’s what we know: SDSU’s 2 point FG% is down, they aren’t pulling down many offensive boards, they aren’t racking up nights of 25+ trips to the foul line, the assist rate is down, opponents are making more threes on them, and they are taking more threes themselves.

Worst of all, the Aztecs still play at one of the slowest tempos in college hoops.  What gives?  Steve Fisher openly talked about all the preseason practice time devotion to forcing the issue.  The team has two supremely talented scoring guards to lead the charge and a glut of dynamic wings.  They just don’t do it—is that on the coaches, players, or both?

This Aztecs must get up and down the floor more.  In the half court, the team struggles to simply enter the ball into the post.  That must change, too, but SDSU has most to gain from going up and down.  Jeremy Hemsley is a terror in the open floor; he and Trey Kell will get to the foul line more if they crank it up all the way.

The team’s lead guards along with Matt Shrigley and Max Hoetzel account for 75% of their 3 point attempts, a good sign.  You want those guys bombing threes.  Overall, SDSU is shooting about 34% from deep as a team.

Knowing the offense has been a train wreck, a middle of the pack mark is reason for optimism.  The Aztecs stand to find more open looks for those guys.  How do you get wide open threes?  Do something to draw two defenders.  Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham are constantly getting doubled on the block.  Only problem—the Aztecs run a set play just to enter the ball to the post and at least one guy stands flat footed too close to those guys once they get it.

The rigidity of a Steve Fisher-Brian Dutcher offense is still alarming.  Despite having the personnel for it, we rarely see four guys on the perimeter to just run a skeleton motion offense.  Fixing the spacing issues when Pope or Cheatham get it in the post should be simple.  One guy, usually the post feeder, could be cutting hard to the basket.  And Pope and Cheatham are smart; they don’t force a tough shot when doubled and know where the open guy is supposed to be—in the opposite corner, usually all alone.

If they aren’t going to feed the post or conduct a more spirited motion offense, the team needs to hand the keys to Hemsley and Kell to just run pick and rolls.  And there’s the crux of the offensive struggles.  Is this an inside-out team running things through Cheatham or Pope?  Or are they a spread pick and roll team with two dynamic guards at the wheel?

The Aztecs are clearly leaning towards the former at the moment.  And in doing so, the players just don’t look comfortable.  I’ll go back to all the preseason chatter on team offense: What were they running?  Did they introduce anything new?  Now might be the time for more pick and roll.  Kell could help the team by shooting more threes because he can hit them off the bounce.  And Hemsley needs more chances to get going downhill at the basket.

The pick and roll can also unlock the guy that is the clear elephant in the room with any discussion centered around this team: Malik Pope.  Think back two years ago to some of Pope’s breakout performances.  Know what really unlocked his game?  Taking and making wide open threes.  Pope got them not by being parked in a corner or iso-ing out on the wing.  When he was the man setting the screen, he had the option to drift beyond the arc if both defenders sunk into the lane.  Pope as the roll man can also look to dish it off to Cheatham for lobs and easy finishes, rather than forcing Cheatham to be a play maker off the bounce.

More from Saturday’s loss to ASU:

TL;DR

To summarize everything above as best I can, I’d say the following: Something or someone is holding Hemsley and Kell from pushing the pace.  Who or what is it?  Why is it happening?  How can that be changed?  Second, the team needs to decide if it’s going to lean more to post ups or the pick and roll.  Bland motion offense run with some purpose would get the job done, too.  They’re shooting a ton of threes as a team but the right guys are taking them and more open looks will come as the overall comfort level increases.

Hemsley struggles to follow up on GCU performance

#42 for the Aztecs looked all kinds of out of sorts.  He had one possession in particular in which he stood and pounded the ball for at least half the shot clock, put his head down only to get up in the air and land out of bounds.  Possessions like that either tell us people are butting heads or the team is really mixed up on what is wants to be running.

Defense?

The defense wasn’t going to top the ranks once again.  It’s tough to repeat that kind of performance over and over and over again.  Harping on the defense is the wrong move at this point, especially calling out individuals.  SDSU’s players aren’t getting iso’d on a wing and taken to task.  Opponents are hitting more threes and getting too many quality looks at them.  Guys arriving a half second late or missing a rotation learn from those mistakes real quick.  I’m not jumping ship on a team defense right on the doorstep of the top 50, 8 games into a season that was hit with a laundry list of injuries from the start.

#FreeTeki

Speaking of post ups or drawing two defenders, Montaque Gill-Caesar is a perfect player to do both.  He certainly has the tools to play more right now if this is the style of play we’ll be seeing all season long.  If we’re headed toward drag screens and pick and pops, I’m unsure of his spot up chops.  New player, sat out a year, isn’t sure of his role on a team mired in an offensive identity crisis.  I have zero worries about his game right now.

Shrigley and the word ‘slumping’

Is Matt Shrigley in a slump?  I don’t know.  If I were a shooter for a D1 program, I know I wouldn’t envy his situation.  He and Hoetzel bring a ton of value to the team.  They can be plugged in to play with any lineup.  Both guys bring a full effort when they see the floor.  But role players, especially knock down shooters, are at the mercy of team play.  Right now, the Aztecs aren’t moving the ball well in most cases, let alone when somebody has drawn a double team. I’m not drawing any conclusion from a sample size small as Shrigley hitting 2 of his last 11 from deep.  The team isn’t getting great looks.  Why hold a select few over the fire, then?


Header photo by Ernie Anderson

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