SDSU 57, Air Force 60: Falcons stun Aztecs at altitude, Pope exits with neck strain

Aztecs fans have learned to brace themselves, to think twice before assuming victory in the midst of this injury-riddled season that keeps sending bad breaks their way. Tuesday night at Air Force was no different. Malik Pope was unquestionably the best player on the floor after his first six minutes of action: a block, a steal, an offensive rebound, a triple and a quick bucket from the post.

San Diego State led by six points or more for 14+ minutes of that first half, even as Trey Kell sat out the final seven (save for an offense only possession) with two fouls . Air Force responded to a Zylan Cheatham tip in to open the second half with a three and an easy layup against the Aztecs’ full court pressure. (Your answer to, ‘Why don’t the Aztecs run their full court press more?’ It gets beat.) The Falcons would not trail by double digits the rest of the way.

We know what would happen shortly afterwards. Pope appeared to have his neck twisted as an opponent crashed on top of him in pursuit of a loose ball. After being examined for several minutes, he was helped off the floor in a neck brace.

But it would be unfair to Pope to pin SDSU’s sixth road loss of the season on his neck injury as a momentum-swinging moment. Truth is, Air Force had already seized plenty of it in chipping away at the Aztec lead. Tuesday’s loss was another result of poor offensive game planning.

Sure, the inability to grab a defensive rebound in key moments hurts. But 11 of those isn’t enough on its own. And now that we’ve seen what the team looks like when Steve Fisher hits Valentine Izundu with a DNP-CD, it’ll be hard to question his value. Frank Toohey (9 pts, 7 reb) made Cheatham look like a traffic cone. Dakarai Allen, who fouled out late, picked up a bogus foul guarding Toohey when Cheatham wasn’t on the floor. Toohey’s performance Tuesday night clearly belongs in the record books as one of the most devastating by an opposing player against the Aztecs not scoring in double digits.

Back to offense. Zylan Cheatham, seemingly the fulcrum of the team offense several short weeks ago, touched the ball in the post nine times on Tuesday. To be generous, I’ll say he actually had a chance to do something with the ball six of those times. Each time Cheatham caught it, Air Force had a second defender an arm’s length away looking him right in the face.

Coach Dave Pilipovich was the first opposing coach to finally blink. He put his team in a zone for a full 40 minutes against the Aztecs. They toggled between a 2-3 and a 3-2. Both were successful. The Aztecs were content to swing the ball around the arc without moving much to eventually shoot a three. In the first half, they went 7-19 from out there. In the second half? 1-10.

Most of those three point attempts were lightly contested at the very least. That’s what a zone allows you to do against an aimless offense. The Falcons didn’t over-help against the drive, either. Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley had to throw up whatever they could muster because Air Force refused to abandon other shooters to help on the drive, and Cheatham still plays with little feel in the two man game.

I went back and counted. Again, erring on the side of generosity, SDSU shot 10 “open” threes. This isn’t to say the 19 other attempts were bad ones, of course. Lightly contested threes for Max Hoetzel, as he continues to show us, are very good shots. Bottom line, if the Aztecs weren’t shooting a three, what were they aiming for? The coaches couldn’t have simply expected Kell and Hemsley to get to the rim; Air Force’s zone easily could have sent more help at will. They clearly didn’t mandate additional touches for Cheatham, either.

One clear mandate from the sideline in the second half was for Hoetzel to set some ball screens up high. A Hoetzel pick and pop is probably this team’s biggest weapon at this point. But it’s also incredibly easy to swallow up when everybody in a zone defense stays home and plays on a string.

SDSU did not even try to enter the ball into the high post, something I highlighted in my game preview and took away from the UNLV win a week prior. The Aztecs pulled away from UNLV late despite all those missed opportunities in 2-on-1 situations from the free throw line. Surely, the team was a good bet to blow the doors off Air Force after staring at that tape for a week!

I went back and counted for a second time. Across 40 minutes of basketball, SDSU entered the ball into the high post three times. Three! Denying easy entries to the foul line area is a staple of every zone defense; there must be a reason behind that! Don’t tell this team.


Four guards forming a diamond, with one of them always in the high post, has long been a staple of any Brian Dutcher offense. Where was that on Tuesday? Kell, Allen, and Montaque Gill-Caesar are all equipped to attack from that area. (Gill-Caesar played all of four minutes. We’ll get back to that.) The team as a whole struggles to enter the ball inside against any kind of defense, which may be a small part of the problem.

If a team isn’t motivated and focused enough to run unscripted motion, then a coach needs to install a few sets to get the wheels spinning. A team with four really capable three point shooters wants to shoot a lot of them (rightfully so). But they can’t even help themselves by running a few actions to create easy looks. You can literally Google these things and you’d be flooded with great options.

Watch this team, and you don’t see a plan. Air Force kept running it stuff, kept back cutting even when they knew it wouldn’t directly lead to a score. By the second half, the Aztecs were constantly chasing the Falcons around some possessions just to stop them from getting off wide open jumpers. Jeremy Hemsley got benched down the stretch again, only to be subbed back in for the most important possessions of the game. Fisher has been resorting to similar tactics with he Cheatham in recent games. They aren’t working.

That said, somehow Gill-Caesar barely played and Izundu got a DNP. The Aztecs played with eight guys, then Pope went down. They finished it with seven. Fans don’t even have a shot at reasonable speculation anymore with these rotations. What’s the ratio of ‘Hemsley’s Achilles/foot being worse than reported’ vs. ‘Fisher is trying to send a message to him on shot selection and shoot/pass balance’?

I’m content to call Tuesday’s loss what is was: a missed opportunity impacted in part by a truly frightening injury. The Aztecs failed to take care of a big lead that they quickly squandered little by little. Air Force can’t be given zero credit for overcoming a double digit deficit to knock off the preseason favorite. Coach Pilipovich and his guys are capable, as seen previously in their win over Fresno State. We’ve been hearing for months now that the Mountain West Conference tournament is all that matters. So please, make up your minds and stop crying wolf.

If Pope is due to miss games, I think it is time to give Nolan Narain 10 minutes a night. Ask Cheatham to push the limits of his game by doing more from the outside with Izundu also on the floor to prop up the defense. And make a decision on Hemsley and Gill-Caesar: Are they injured or just not playing well? Matt Shrigley is playing hurt, but everybody knows it. The difference in perception with those three players lately is plain as day. Fans are used to the unimaginative offense. At the very least, step up and spare these guys so that the fickle Viejas faithful don’t turn them into verbal punching bags.

Colorado State will travel to San Diego for an important match up on Saturday. Here’s what we do know: SDSU can’t rely on its full court pressure because they spent their entire preseason emphasizing an offensive attack that mirrors what they’ve shown for years—stagnation and aimlessness. On Saturday afternoon, the Aztecs will need Dakarai Allen to slam the door on Gian Clavell and Trey Kell to, well, go off.

Malik Pope being sidelined once again hurts. And above all else, I hope that he gets well. Whether he’s suited up for Colorado State or not, Saturday looks to be a good one. Steve Fisher has sent a message to the fan base on multiple occasions already. The Aztecs need their fans to turn out and be loud even in the inevitable lulls of a 40 minute game. Those who can’t attend can catch the 3:00 PST tip on CBS Sports Network or 1090 AM.

Photos via Ron Chenoy/USATSI

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