The Aztecs had their work cut out for them after beginning its Mountain West Conference journey in the cellar. San Diego State came to play Saturday and put together one of its best all around performances of the season. The preseason favorite looked the part and although they need no outside motivation, it came twofold in big ways. Malik Pope returned to action coming off the bench after missing six games (knee). And even with The Show showing out by the dozen rather than in hundreds, the rest of the Viejas faithful brought it just days removed from the announcement of Dean Spanos’ decision to bolt north.
The Aztecs were hot from the jump, undoubtedly riding high thanks in part to the ‘Pope return/fired up San Diegans’ adrenaline shot. They really turned heads with their second half performance. The defense tightened its grip on Jalen Moore and the Aggies offense. Sam Merrill got loose to launch some relatively uncontested threes on his way to 18 points and lead the team, which is fine.
After collapsing against New Mexico then getting outworked by Nevada and Boise State, this SDSU bunch showed that they can 1) sustain their effort and focus through 40 minutes and 2) hone in on a team’s star. Moore, the wiry, versatile forward boasting an improved jump shot, wasn’t going to be allowed to drag his team back into the game.
Holding a star under or near his average had been a staple of past SDSU teams, and Dakarai Allen can’t be left alone on an island to do so. This team had struggled to rotate, execute its post double and communicate on ball screens. Saturday’s team looked more like one ready to defend with five men in sync and cut the head off a snake. The Aztecs will need a similar focus to slow Gian Clavell (Colorado St.), Cam Oliver (Nevada) and Elijah Brown (New Mexico).
Those circled dates on the calendar won’t mean quite as much if the Aztecs fail to rip through the rest of the schedule. Up next is the second half of softest four game stretch of the conference slate—Tuesday at UNLV, then at Air Force a full week later.
Max Hoetzel clearly loves playing in the MWC. He has been on an absolute tear (18-34 on threes) of late; any argument for him to remain in the starting lineup is warranted. Matt Shrigley went off on Saturday, needing just 7 shots to pour in 14 points off the bench. The pace of Saturday’s game ultimately was not anything faster than what Aztecs fans are used to. But the team is working harder to get out in transition, seen in many of Hoetzel and Shrigley’s recent shot attempts.
SDSU turned it over just 11 times Saturday and only surrendered 8 offensive rebounds—two hurdles they failed to get over as they opened the conference season.
Trey Kell as turned it over four times in each of the last three games. He’s also leading the team in assists (four or more in four of the last five games). Leveraging a complaint against the steadiest presence both on and off the court for this team still feels out of place. But this team needs Kell to find his jumper, or at least his confidence in it from beyond the arc, sooner rather than later.
Kell connected on two jumpers near the foul line off the bounce on Saturday. Both involved a Zylan Cheatham screen with Jeremy Hemsley and Malik Pope stationed on the weak side. Any action with that general framework is one that Steve Fisher needs to come back to again and again until somebody stops it. Some teams leave Dakarai Allen alone to send extra help. Sending Hoetzel or Shrigley to the table seems like the right move to counter, but the defense may suffer.
Playing Allen is still the answer to just about any question no matter what you think of his jumper. This team only runs into true spacing issues if Cheatham and Valentine Izundu share the floor with Allen for big minutes. Cheatham and Izundu as a pairing is questionable to begin with in most match ups. With Pope back in action, Fisher is going to be flexible to still find minutes for his best guys. A lineup of Hemsley/Kell/Hoetzel/Pope/Cheatham saw some time Saturday and they went right into a 2-3 zone rather than forcing all three of those forwards to toggle between guarding on the perimeter and navigating ball screens.
Good news: It works! We got a very small taste of a 2-3 zone in the nonconference with Pope, Cheatham and Izundu on the floor. Whether Hoetzel or Izundu is that third forward out there, the zone can really work well with all that combined length. We’ll have to wait and see if and when that pops back up and becomes a fixture for certain lineups.
For now, the Aztecs can march on with their heads held high now as winners of two straight. UNLV and Air Force are likely to finish closer to the bottom of the league standings. SDSU has been gifted this two game stretch to put its road woes behind them (0-5 in true road games). If the Aztecs see those through with their 10 best still healthy, they will be well on their way to the only thing that matters for high level programs: Playing their best basketball in February and March.
NEXT GAME: Tuesday, January 17 @ UNLV, 7 PM PST, ESPN3
Header photo via Ernie Anderson/goaztecs.com