SDSU 73, Alabama State 41: Aztecs, Malik Pope bounce back as Jeremy Hemsley sits

Player movement is a beautiful thing.  Monday night, before a Viejas Arena at 70% capacity, if that, the San Diego State Aztecs bounced back.  They did so against an Alabama State team that shot 25% overall, 25% from deep, and couldn’t run a baseline out of bounds play netting anything other than a heave to the back court—even with one second on the clock just prior to halftime.  But it was a win for a team badly in need of one.  The Aztecs’ three game slide has come to an end.

And now?  They get right back in the lab to address their weaknesses and build on strengths, rest up, and you know, take finals and things like that.  You can bet there will be some emphasis on the rest.  Starting point guard Jeremy Hemsley sat out Monday night’s contest.  Per Mark Zeigler, Hemsley would have played “in an emergency”.  In other words: The staff knew even a team mired in this frustrating three game skid had little to no chance of seeing it turn to four given the opponent.

Knowing this was a 32 point game that was never competitive at any point, what can be taken from it?  The team can certainly walk away from this one with some confidence restored in its ability to defend.  Surprise, surprise—Dakarai Allen led those efforts with 4 steals and truly had a legitimate shot at at least 3 more.

The Aztecs didn’t exactly dominate the defensive glass, however.  Take the sequence of possessions leading to a timeout near the 1:00 mark of the first half.  Steve Fisher pulled Zylan Cheatham and Malik Pope and closed out the half with a bench group.  Did they get chewed out for not boxing out?  If they did, that was the likely the topic of discussion.  Alabama State collected 16 offensive rebounds; this area was the only one not dominated by SDSU Monday evening.  Take that number with a grain of salt.  Alabama State missed more shots than most teams would.  Subtract four or five from that number and it may not stand out at all.

Some of those Alabama State offensive rebounding scrums were a bit, um, atypical.  They continued to crash with reckless abandon because their best hope was to string together some kick out threes.  Pope and Cheatham at times could have been doing more to secure inside position, sure.  The guys on the perimeter have work to do, too.  Too many Alabama State guards came flying in uncontested.  At the very least, those guys are dangerous traffic cones to any Aztecs player trying to start the break.

And SDSU, donning its throwback whites, did get out and run some.  Pope, Allen, and even Matt Shrigley were eager and ready to grab the ball and get going up the court.  That is exactly what any player other than Valentine Izundu needs to be doing.



Getting back to Pope, fans at the game or tuning in via Twitter stream saw the 6’10 junior get off to a hot start.  That wasn’t anything new; he racked up a few easy buckets against Arizona State.  But even in those early possessions, Pope was operating with some room to breathe.  The Aztecs had adjusted.  The entry passer no longer stood 5-8 feet from Pope as he sized up his man.  Dakarai Allen found himself all alone for an easy slam after Pope dimed him up slashing to the rim.  Allen had darted to screen for Trey Kell at the top of the key.  Both defenders were clearly thinking about Kell’s three point stroke—Allen slipped to the basket free of any resistance.

Not every team issue is an insurmountable obstacle.  Pope and Cheatham were being suffocated by double teams.  SDSU finally started with the easy fix: Suck the defense in with a cutter bolting to the rim and be sure the other three guys are threats to catch and shoot it.  (They already had been doing the latter.)

Fast forward to later in the half.  Pope sets a ball screen for Trey Kell.  Kell probes then throws it back to Pope for a triple.  Next trip down, Montaque Gill-Caesar looks to feed Cheatham on the left block.  Pope sprints to the rim.  Gill-Caesar skips it to Dakarai Allen at the opposite wing.  Allen immediately shovels the extra pass to Kell in the corner for another triple.  Who says this team can’t create wide open looks?  Timing and spacing matter.  Teams need time to nail those things down because dozens of lineup combinations end up seeing time together over the course of a season.

And we did see a new combination Monday night.  Pope, Cheatham and Valentine Izundu played a stint together in each half.  Gill-Caesar spent some time with that unit.  Pick your poison between Jeremy Hemsley and Kell with those four and you’ll have no trouble finding mismatches to attack in the post.  That group does come with some obvious caveats—SDSU needs to pick and pop with Pope to put him at an advantage to shoot it or attack from the top of the key and Izundu needs to catch without holding the ball at his knees before making a decision.

Izundu strung together a few quick catches and (attempts at) strong two handed finishes.  And as mentioned once again, the Pope pick and pop was finally picked back up off the shelf.  The disappearance of that simple action is truly puzzling.  Pope’s jump shot never went anywhere.  He stopped getting those easy looks to shoot it or drive because the team stopped asking him to set as many ball screens.  Wouldn’t your individual pick up game suffer if your easiest opportunities to score were to vanish in one fell swoop?

We’re only 9 games in and not yet halfway through December, but I’m comfortable planting my flag now.  A Malik Pope pick and pop is the team’s most dangerous weapon.  Run it in the half court when the clock is running down, run it as a first option, run it in transition.  Run it to death because it will not die.  Cede the lane to Hemsley or Kell and you’re giving up a layup, fouling them, or watching Cheatham throw down lob dunks all over you.  Send extra help at the ball handler and Pope’s tearing apart your defense with a smile on his face.

Zylan Cheatham, whose recent sloppiness had been noted, settled down some Monday night.  He opened the second half with a block, then fed Dakarai Allen for a lay in from the right block—a carbon copy of the screen away/cutting action that netted Allen a slam on a feed from Pope in the first half.

The Aztecs have plenty of reason to feel good after responding with a win.  They’ll get back to work to continue to sharpen their offensive approach and cut out defensive breakdowns.  It’s clear that they and Coach Justin Hutson had already been working on a thing or two of late.  The Aztecs, not their opponent, actually went to a 2-3 zone!  Don’t call it a desperation bid or pivot away from their traditionally man-heavy approach.  The 2-3 zone came out with Pope/Cheatham/Izundu on the floor.  That length will terrify just about anybody.

And we caught a glimpse at a 2-2-1 half court trap with that 2-3 zone for about two and a half possessions.  That will be a nice change of pace to throw at a quality opponent later in the season if Hutson and the staff are confident in the team’s ability to force some turnovers and rebound out of it.  The players also wisely pounced on opportunities to trap the ball in the corners, forcing a few lob passes that were begging to be stolen and taken the other way for easy slams.  The turnovers in particular would be a warm sight.  The Aztecs are known for their full court pressure, but it does little to create turnovers unless the opponent works hard to shoot itself in the foot.

The Aztecs need to accept that kind of trade-off.  If the tempo is ever going to get bumped up, regular full court man-to-man, sometimes-trapping pressure will be impossible to sustain.  This half court trapping option will be much easier to execute in short bursts and opponents may not see it coming, unless they were closely watching the Campus Insiders Twitter live stream.

One game can bring about progress and signs of life.  SDSU never left Monday night in question.  They didn’t approach or blow right by the 100 point mark, but Monday was an absolute victory, no matter how you look at it.  As the Aztecs gear up for the Diamond Head Classic, we’ll wonder if they can repeat the effort—trust the Pope pick and pop, send a cutter to the basket when the ball enters the post, make the extra pass, and put forth the extra effort to push the ball up the floor on every opponent miss.

Allow everybody to push it and Malik Pope or somebody else will find more and ones just like the one he got Monday.  Look up to the wings for their slashers and shooters to get up easy, quick, efficient shots.  And when all else fails, wait on Pope to set a drag screen as the defense scrambles just to get back.  Move on from the old, tired tradition of grinding out each offensive possession and reap the benefits that can be found in early offense.  That alone can be enough to make a great program even better and push this current team towards its ambitious goals for the season.

And because Jeremy Hemsley didn’t play Monday, it’s now time for some D’Erryl Williams love and other random nonsense from the 32 point win:

With you every step of the way…

D’Erryl Williams makes full court pressure look so easy.  Guys are truly on an island when pressuring the ball end to end.  Get crossed up and you’re a meme.  Reach in early on and your teammates are forced to play 4 on 5 with a point guard coming at them at full speed.  Williams turns his hips to sprint and catch back up with a guy as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.  I can’t help but sing the praises of a role player that has always been ready to play.  Think about that for a second.  He isn’t a fixture in the 9 man rotation, and yet he’s always ready to go like a true pro.  Plus, this is his final year of eligibility.  I’m going to enjoy watching him and spewing about it every chance I get.

Did he just do that?!

With 2:36 to play in a game that was all but over, Zylan Cheatham shot out of his chair like a canon ball.  Did somebody get put on a poster?  Nope.  Just Nolan Narain, tipping in a D’Erryl Williams lay in that rolled out.  I’d love to be Cheatham’s teammate.  We can all strive to be as happy and genuinely excitable as that dude is for his teammates.

Where were Kell, Shrigley and Hoetzel?

I’m sure many will be checking the box score, wondering why those three key contributors weren’t more “involved”.  Turns out, those guys did plenty.  But only so many guys can rack up counting stats when the team only attempts 45 field goals in a regulation game!  The Aztecs turned it over 15 times—a number too high given the opponent.  But they also got to the line a ton by getting into the bonus.  (Hoetzel: 6-6 from the line.  That’ll do.)

Teki gets a chance

Montaque Gill-Caesar went for 11 points on 6 shots in 24 minutes off the bench.  He got some post touches and took advantage of non-isolation scoring chances, too: 4-4 from the line, 1-3 from deep.  Every three point shot he hits will raise his immediate value exponentially.  As I’ve said, he has tremendous tools to be a match up nightmare as a strong, dynamic wing.  If he’s a threat to knock down spot up threes as well, his minutes will skyrocket and opponents won’t be able to leave him out of a scouting report.

Header photo via Ernie Anderson

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