San Diego State put an end to its second three game losing streak of the season Tuesday night as they hosted the San Jose State Spartans at Viejas Arena. The Spartans have been a Mountain West Conference bottom-dweller in recent years, making matters simpler for the banged up Aztecs (9-7, 1-3). Second chance points were not an issue against this wiry thin roster; SJSU had two. Max Hoetzel shot 4 of 9 from three point land and Montaque Gill-Caesar poured in 10 points in 20 minutes off the bench.
As Steve Fisher’s team tries to find itself and get back in the mix to compete for a Mountain West Conference title, contributions from its role players around Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatham will be of the utmost importance. Malik Pope missed a sixth consecutive game with pain and discomfort in his knee.
Matt Shrigley has been playing on a grade 2 ankle sprain and Hemsley is dealing with an Achilles strain. D’Erryl Williams was active and ready to go after a bad ankle kept him out the game prior. Naturally, something else had to be added to the tally—Valentine Izundu took an elbow/flailing arm to the eye and had to get patched up before returning. SDSU ultimately got the job done, walking away with a 15 point victory. The team has played one game at full operating capacity, if that, in Sacramento against Cal.
Whether it was intentional or not, the Aztecs got Brandon Clarke (25 pts, 7 reb, 4 ast) out of the game early. Clarke picked up his second foul just 5:11 in, and Head Coach Dave Wojcik did not send a sub to the scorer’s table until play had resumed. Kell drove the lane, up faked, and cashed in a floater over Clarke. Foul number three. See ya in the second half.
Even against this Aztecs team at this point in time, asking a team to play close to even without its best player for 15 minutes is too tall a task. The talent deficit San Jose State was up against, with or without Clarke, was still plain as day. Ryan Welage and Jalen James would each finish with 9, but nobody on the Spartans was able to reliably create a shot. Welage was unable to repeat his 23 point, 8 rebound performance from last season’s match up at Viejas.
Even as the Spartans flirted several times in the second half with the vague idea of a comeback, the odds remained heavy against them. No matter how much the Aztecs did to help, SJSU wasn’t going to cut the deficit to single digits without Welage, their best shooter. Coach Wojcik went away from Welage late in the game, which I can only assume was because of the simple fact that he can’t guard anybody.
Brandon Clarke shot 11-15 from the field. His teammates: 14-51. San Jose State may not be near the point of making any noise in the Mountain West, but they could give the Aztecs a game at their place February 7th if Welage plays better and a few others hit an outside shot or two. And as the Aztecs aim to slow Clarke down next time, I hope to see the help key in on his spin move. Or just send the double right away to get the ball out of his hands. Both sides would be equally shocked to see somebody outside of Welage/Clarke burn the Aztecs.
Coach Fisher chose to make a point to Cheatham and Hemsley with a quick hook on several occasions. Cheatham was shown the bench after sizing up his man from the arc, putting his head down then slinging a pass toward Hemsley in the corner—he was wide right by a good 20 feet. Turnover. And that wasn’t the first instance of a wild attempt by Cheatham at playmaking via a face up drive.
Hemsley put his head down early in the second half and would miss three contested lay ups. He didn’t elevate much on any of those tries, and maybe the Achilles had something to do with that. Postgame, Fisher referenced such bouts in which his leading scorer “at times just lowers his head, and is like a fullback”. Finishing among the trees isn’t too tall a task for Hemsley. If those tries were hampered by his nagging injuries, then I’d find it tough to be critical of those drives in the first place.
Moving forward, the Aztecs offense will continue to flow and balance out when Cheatham takes better care of the ball and Hemsley finds the right drive/kick balance. SDSU turned it over 18 times Monday, perhaps the only sore sight in the box score. One related issue to watch moving forward: Teams are deliberately choosing not to guard Dakarai Allen behind the three point line. He hit a three at the start of the second, but does not regularly even attempt more than two or three. Freeze the frame on almost all of Hemsley’s drives and you’ll see Allen’s man in the paint waiting to help.
Max Hoetzel, still in Pope’s slot with the starting lineup, really seems to love the right wing. Both in the half court and in transition, he gravitates toward that spot. And to the delight of fans, Hoetzel does not need much time to get a clean look off. His teammates reflect the same confidence in their marksman as their coach. Hoetzel missed a quick three only for Cheatham to fire it to him the next time down in transition. Money. The third time, though, wasn’t a charm as he pulled from a good 4-5 feet behind the line and came up short.
Aztecs fans can rest easy for now as they gear up for Saturday’s date with Utah State. The team has a healthy-ish 9 man rotation and are in the softest part of their schedule—home to Utah State then away for UNLV and Air Force. Those opponents can’t be taken too lightly, seen Tuesday as UNLV went to The Pit and took down New Mexico.
Kick and scream all you want about how terrible the Mountain West is; there are plenty of teams capable of knocking off Nevada and Boise State, which the Aztecs are rooting for at this point. And as seen from previous losses, SDSU cannot take any opponent lightly the rest of the way. Fisher implored the fan base to come out in full force once again Saturday as they take on the Aggies. The Show was at about 30% of its peak powers Monday night with SDSU still in its winter break. As the competition improves, this team will need much more than that from its proud (and currently disheartened) fan base.
Header photo via Jake Roth/USA Today Sports