SDSU 66, Southern Miss 51: Aztecs pull away, still bothered by injuries

The Aztecs take the floor again today for an early afternoon face off with Tulsa in the Diamond Head Classic, so we’re keeping things tidy with this one.  Quick hitters from Thursday’s up-and-down victory:

Injuries—all worse than we’ve believed?

Malik Pope had to remove himself late in Thursday’s contest.  Montaque Gill-Caesar’s back has stiffened up.  Jeremy Hemsley sat out the game prior to this one.  Did Valentine Izundu’s ankle ever approach 100% before he joined the rotation? (And how hobbled is he right now, if at all?)

This team dropped some games they should have won.  They are lauded for their potential.  And relatively speaking, the program is as rich with talent as ever.  Steve Fisher has said no team he’s ever coached has been this banged up. Maybe that was part coach speak and part looking out for his guys.  But as time rolls along, you have to start taking that statement more literally no matter how frustrated you are.

Wins, RPI, strength of schedule, fear of being left out in March

SDSU is a nationally recognized brand in the college hoops realm.  Teams will always be hungry to try to knock them off, which we’ve seen tenfold this season to date.  They’re in a tough spot, but there was never much room for error to begin with for a Mountain West Conference team in 2016.  Nobody can put a number to their at large birth destiny. (Please, stop with the doomsday stuff game after game. “That’s it! THIS would be the nail in their coffin.” Stop it.  It’s December.  Bubble Team X of the Big 12 is going to lose ugly more than once.  So will Bubble Teams Y and Z of the ACC and Big 10, respectively.)

Leave it to Zylan

Fisher came out and said that he’s looking for the team to play more through Zylan Cheatham.  The results have been fantastic.  He’s gone through some fits of sloppiness and poor finishing near the basket, but he handles doubles with poise.  And there aren’t five guys in the country that can match him athletically—that helps.  The team is slowly finding ways to get it to him on the block more often.  But teams still need to, you know, reverse the ball from time to time.  Cheatham kicked it out once in the first half Thursday, Dakarai Allen forced the issue with a drive toward the middle, fired it to Trey Kell, and Kell made the extra pass to Jeremy Hemsley who was alone in the corner to nail a triple.  A run of the mill drive by Allen netted a wide open three for the one guy circled on the SDSU scouting report that you can’t leave open from there.

Desperate for shot creation

SDSU needs to push it more and would benefit from loosening up in general on offense.  It’s tough to watch a team look like they’re walking on hot coals.  This team looks like one that needs to get over it’s mental obstacles more than the physical ones more and more by the day.  Pope and Cheatham have been grabbing rebounds and pushing it on their own.  But if Cheatham isn’t out there and the team isn’t playing through Pope, there’s a ton of pressure on whichever of Kell or Hemsley is playing with the second unit.  Matt Shrigley and Max Hoetzel are spot up players and Valentine Izundu won’t be doing anything other than setting screens, hitting the glass and waiting for dump offs. Somebody needs to draw a second defender and if Fisher refuses to call for more pick and roll, those units will continue to be a net negative as they struggle to find good shots.

3 PGs in the kitchen

D’Erryl Williams saw 22 minutes of floor time Thursday.  Fisher said afterwards that Williams had earned the additional time by performing in practices.  Williams absolutely belongs.  But he isn’t a shooter and spends time off the ball.  That can create spacing problems, as one could imagine.  Having seen how the season has gone to date, I want more time for Williams—a guy that can defend and won’t make mental mistakes on either side of the ball.  But the team needs some crisp ball movement to make it work.  SDSU has cut down its turnovers substantially and those returns seem legit 10 games in.  They have made progress and will continue to do so with the offense.  The only question left: How soon can they put it all together, grinding 40 straight minutes for nothing but good shots?

Tulsa, a 2016 NCAA Tournament team, will be a nice test Friday afternoon.  Note that Tulsa’s coach, Frank Haith, previously coached at Missouri and departed just months prior to Montaque Gill-Caesar’s freshman year with the Tigers.

Header image via Marco Garcia/USA Today Sports

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