SDSU 62, San Francisco 48: Aztecs take Diamond Head Classic crown, Mountain West Conference play now just days away

All things considered, the San Diego State Aztecs were very successful in wrapping up their nonconference schedule. SDSU took down USF, the surprise team of the Diamond Head Classic that had shot its way to an unlikely birth in the finale.  The magic for the Dons had run out.  The Aztecs returned to their old calling card in Hawaii over Christmas—disciplined half court defense.  The Dons shot just 37% against SDSU and were held to five offensive rebounds. Matt Shrigley hit two crucial second half treys and Zylan Cheatham led the way throughout with 16 points and 11 rebounds.  As if it were even necessary, Cheatham padded his Diamond Head resume with two powerful slams on his way to being named tournament MVP.

San Diego State won’t get to celebrate for long, though, as they open Mountain West Conference play at home on New Years day against New Mexico.  The Lobos have taken their lumps in the nonconference as well.  In short: Each MWC team will be more motivated than ever to knock off the Aztecs out of fear that the MWC will only be sending one team to the NCAA tournament.  A regular season MWC crown may mean little to the selection committee down the line, but a higher seed for the conference tournament makes for an easier path to that automatic bid.  The Lobos do boast a formidable two-headed attack in Elijah Brown and Tim Williams.  The Aztecs will need their defense to travel with them from Hawaii into 2017.

In more than one way, the short trip to Hawaii allowed this SDSU bunch to sort some things out and build up some confidence.  Injuries robbed them of their chance at giving Gonzaga a run for their money at The Kennel.  More injuries, inconsistencies on defense and lackluster overall effort spawned a three game road losing streak.  Everybody knows by now that the margin for error is slim as can be.  But I wouldn’t recommend a negative approach as the only means of motivation for this ball club.  They’ve done plenty of good in several areas and are improving elsewhere.  In no particular order, here are my keys to a successful start to the new year and new conference season:

Light ’em up

SDSU hit a bunch of threes at the Diamond Head.  They went cold at other times prior to that string of wins.  This team can’t be expected to stop hunting those looks because they aren’t falling.  Whether some like it or not, the three point shot is a bigger part of this team’s DNA, from Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell to Matt Shrigley/Max Hoetzel off the bench to the supremely talented/currently injured Malik Pope.

Hemsley, Kell, Shrigley and Hoetzel have taken 200+ threes combined.  Nobody else has attempted 20.  The right guys are shooting them.  Dakarai Allen and Montaque Gill-Caesar can really open up driving lanes for everybody if they hit just one or two each game.  And for the first time while donning the black and red, Cheatham took and made (without hesitation) a three in the second half agaist USF.  Dying by the three is always painful, especially for a team that hasn’t played that way often in the recent past.  Could it happen against New Mexico, Nevada, or even Boise?  Sure.  But good teams need an identity.  This team is one that needs to take and make plenty of threes.  They have the guys to do it. And when those looks aren’t falling (or when they are!), SDSU has four dynamic players capable of getting all the way to the basket.

And I want to speak on Hemsley specifically here.  He truly is a sensational player, especially in big moments.  He’s a wrecking ball in transition—I haven’t seen a college player make 1-on-4s look so easy.  He can get so hot to the point that an entire audience is having an out of body experience (see 2nd half, @ Grand Canyon).  And now as a sophomore, surely by a combination of many things, Hemsley is a flat out deadeye from three.  Whether off the bounce or the catch, he’ll hoist it up there without ever hesitating.  You’d think the 50% is a sure bet to fizzle out to a certain extent.  But who knows with this guy!  At full strength, he’s truly worth the price of admission.

Hemsley’s back court mate, Trey Kell, is due for a return to the mean.  He’s 17 for 61 (28%) on threes to date.  Kell is too good a shooter for that to continue.  In particular, his one dribble pull ups from beyond the arc will really blow the lid off most defenses.  But Kell is no one trick pony, he has the talent to be scoring efficiently at all levels.  Kell has been a resilient player, cashing in at big times to this point in his career as an Aztec.  And the applause he’s drawn for his leadership ain’t just smoke and mirrors.  Kell’s stock may have taken a hit, but I’m prepared to buy it all.  SDSU will need it’s junior captain to fill it up in MWC play.

Non-shooters need to score, too

Dakarai Allen shot 0-5 from deep against USF.  Sunday’s shot chart was not an ideal one for him.  But if he gets it a few times late in the clock, he can’t turn down that shot.  Allen got off to a great start in the two games prior in part by hitting an early three.  He isn’t afraid of taking those shots right now—that’s what matters.  Visualize SDSU’s next one possession game, maybe against UNM or Nevada.  Allen, the team’s best perimeter defender is likely to be on the floor.  Late in the clock, any smart team will leave him open to help on somebody else.  A bigger moment will come in which he’ll have to hit that corner three or drive it and score.  He’s looking to do it now and the team needs him to keep at it.

Same goes for D’Erryl Williams, Montaque Gill-Caesar and Valentine Izundu.  Williams played well in his first stint against USF: driving for a floater and assisting on two Aztec triples.  Williams won’t find himself hoisting as many threes as Allen.  Instead, he needs to create more off the bounce while he’s out there so he can be the one kicking it out to Hemsley, Kell, Shrigley and Hoetzel rather than vice-versa.

Gill-Caesar still may not be at the point where his role is defined with this roster.  Dino Gaudio said on the broadcast that Fisher hasn’t been happy with his defense.  I say the same could be said of the entire team at points across this roller coaster nonconference season.  All I can say for certain is that ‘Teki’ is a scorer.  For whatever reason, he doesn’t look comfortable yet.  (He’s also been bothered by some lingering injuries.)  As we approach January, Fisher pointing out that he sat out a season won’t cut it.  The team either needs to help him settle in to get more out of his minutes or give them to the Allen/Shrigley/Hoetzel trio. Those three alone contribute enough on the wing that it’s tough for just one of them to see 30 minutes of floor time on a given night.

Finally, Izundu at least made it through his 11 minutes of action Sunday without continuing his pace of about one foul to every two minutes played.  If Pope’s knee checks out to the point where he’s confident in it again, Izundu won’t play much more than that anyways in a conference short on low post bullies.  (The best back to the basket player in the MWC may already be his teammate, Zylan Cheatham.)  Unless he’s on the receiving end of a lob, the ball being stripped is still the most likely outcome as Izundu has a bad habit of bringing it down to his knees.  We knew he wasn’t a back to the basket guy.  But if he can’t convert more often on dump offs, he too may struggle to see the court much at all in close games.

Just grab it and go

I’ve beat this drum enough already.  It shouldn’t matter who pulls down a rebound.  Cheatham has shown little fear of prodding at the defense early on in transition.  Pope can and should do the same.  Dakarai Allen took off and euro-stepped his way to a short floater on Sunday.  He missed, but those are good shots!  If the numbers continue to show that this team hasn’t picked up the pace, then all that preseason buzz from Fisher was just a bunch of hot air and wasted time.  The players need to be the ones to force the issue, but maybe the coaches have been saying things to discourage that.

No second chances

12 games in, SDSU stands tall as the nation’s 39th best defense according to kenpom.  Given the makeup of this roster, you’ve got to take that every day of the week.  The offense is supposed to account for the slight slippage after being the nation’s #1 defense.  Other than communicating effectively on screens and being attentive away from the ball, this team can get the absolute most out of its abilities by committing more often to the defensive glass.  They have the athletes to push it and run right by everybody; they need to secure rebounds before doing so.

Let Zylan lead the way

By a truly unique chain of events, this team appears to have found its lynch pin.  Zylan Cheatham is a match up problem for every team in the conference.  More often than not, his own teammates are the biggest obstacle between him and a lay up.  Good news for the Aztecs: Teams can’t just hack him.  Cheatham shot 72% from the line as a freshman and sits at 78% after Sunday’s win.  That solid free throw shooting is reason for hope that we’ll see more of his face up game.  For the same reason, NBA scouts will continue to drool as they realize that they now have two SDSU starting front court players worth scouting.

Cheatham still stands to improve as a finisher and driver as we saw against Arizona State and Loyola Chicago. Naturally, teams will double him.  We have 12 games full of proof that he knows how to find the open man.  His teammates have to capitalize on those advantages before the defense can rotate.

What to make of Pope

The former 5 star recruit has taken plenty of verbal shots to date.  He was good to go for the opener and then he wasn’t. Perhaps Pope had returned for good only to take himself out late in the Southern Miss game, citing the same knee troubles.  Fans seem to forget that everybody is sick of hearing about his lower body injuries.  I can’t speak for Pope, but I’m quite certain he’s sick of it too and is ready to put it all behind him.  But last time I checked, I don’t know anybody that tall/talented with that much on his shoulders and that kind of injury history.  On top of it all, he has barely practiced, per his head coach!  Things clearly have been worse than most had assumed given the information at hand for Pope and a few of his teammates.  So I’m hoping that in 2017 more than anything else that SDSU fans can put the speculation, cheap shots and tough guy acts behind the veil of a smartphone away for good and remember that he’s one of the good guys.

When Pope returns to action, it will be interesting to see how the team continues to seek out scoring opportunities.  I still think the Pope pick and pop is the deadliest weapon this team can turn to late in the shot clock when things fall apart.  But for starters, Pope can help himself when he catches it beyond the line by being more decisive.  When he’s open out there, he has every right to fire away.  But he had been racking up traveling violations from out there after hesitating then sweeping through to drive or pull up off the bounce.

Defensively and in the floor game, he’s got to play harder.  If anybody knows so, it’s him.  He’s the one that had NBA people tell him to his face that it had hurt his draft stock.  And ultimately, he’s still in school because he was no longer in line to be a lottery selection.  A 6’10 active and energized Pope would certainly bring enough juice to propel this defense even closer to last season’s top rank.

Whether Pope is back in action at full strength as the Aztecs host New Mexico and travel to Nevada to kick off conference play, SDSU remains the favorite.  Both opponents eagerly await the opportunity to try and knock them off, as did their entire nonconference schedule.  The Aztecs deserve to say they’re riding an upswing following their strong showing in Hawaii.  As they know, they’ve got an 18 game grind ahead of them before they even get to the MWC Tournament in Las Vegas.  Such is life for the juggernaut Steve Fisher built.  The program and its fans are hungry for a vengeful return trip to the dance.  Fisher has the talent and depth to lead them there.

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