Saturday afternoon’s tip at Viejas Arena brought plenty to the table from the start. San Diego State was without starting forward Zylan Cheatham, whose foot injury has clearly worsened. The red-haired sophomore did not dress and was sporting a walking boot. Colorado State came to town with a top-heavy roster that also got thinner when three scholarship players were recently declared academically ineligible. CSU’s Emmanuel Omogbo had a bit of a, erm, run in with one of New Mexico’s assistant coaches following their heated meeting two weeks ago.
And did I mention that their star, Gian Clavell, has a few frightening off the court moments on his record? SDSU put itself in prime position to put a temporary end to its streakiness, to finally slam the door shut on a team after holding a large first half lead. The Aztecs couldn’t hit enough shots late as their offense stagnated, and Clavell came roaring back time after time on his way to 37 points on 14-23 shooting.
After Trey Kell hit a pair of free throws with 11 seconds to play, Clavell gathered the inbounds pass and went the length of the floor to toss in what would be the game winning layup over the help of Valentine Izundu. Jeremy Hemsley made it down the floor to get off a contested three that would not fall. The Rams outscored the Aztecs 55-44 in the second half after mustering just 23 points in the first.
Perhaps Clavell was just playing a game of energy conservation with the Aztecs, knowing he’d need to go off to give his team a chance late. His bet paid off, but he needed help. Emmanuel Omogbo undoubtedly played one of the best games of his career, too—a 22% three point shooter a year ago (and just 9-39 to date from there this season) made all four of his triples Saturday afternoon on his way to 24 points and 9 rebounds.
Colorado State is a seven man team at this point, but Larry Eustachy’s guys play hard and will be able to compete with anybody in the Mountain West when those two guys play well. Clavell and Omogbo each played 38 minutes Saturday, but both clearly fed off the jeers of the SDSU student section, the show. (The name of a student section that can’t show out in full force for a big Saturday game won’t be capitalized in these parts any longer.) One show member even proudly held up a cutout of Clavell’s mugshot from a November arrest.
While the Aztecs did hold a double digit lead through parts of the first half, the flow of the game left you feeling CSU still had a chance. The grind-it-out SDSU style of old isn’t going to scare anybody until their second best win comes against somebody with a little more bite than Tulsa.
Knowing Gian Clavell torched the Aztecs all on its own, save for some timely Omogbo threes or meandering drives that somehow ended with two points added to the tally, there’s a temptation to find somebody to blame. Dakarai Allen, one of the best there is when it comes to defending in 1-on-1 situations, drew the majority of the Clavell assignment. Matt Shrigley and Jeremy Hemsley were tasked with guarding Clavell through some stretches though, too, because SDSU had to stick Allen on Omogbo.
Valentine Izundu played with great energy, as could have been expected after drawing a DNP at Air Force. And the fifth year center was the biggest and strongest player on the floor at all times, which helps. The Rams still managed 13 offensive boards, but if Steve Fisher wants to help that effort, Izundu needs to play. A lot. On Saturday he got 27 minutes!
Izundu doesn’t totally look comfortable defending in space, or just being in space, period. (He almost pivoted away from a wide open dunk after Dakarai Allen found him all alone near the basket.) Malik Pope started in Cheatham’s place and had his best game of the season (19 points, 7-12 shooting, no turnovers). That’s the good news. Bad news: Pope only managed to play 22 minutes. He was in foul trouble in both halves.
Izundu couldn’t totally stick with Omogbo, but Pope couldn’t either, because he couldn’t even stay on the floor. So Allen had to take some turns on him—a much bigger and stronger player. While Cheatham does many things well, stopping Omogbo probably would not have been one of them had he suited up as is. Cheatham spends most of his time guarding guys close to the basket and regularly finds himself in foul trouble when he has to defend in space. Omogbo spent nearly all his time around the arc and isn’t a back to the basket threat against like-sized guys.
Lockdown defense on the perimeter is Allen’s calling card. But at a certain points, reasonable fans know to just tip their cap to Clavell. He got to his preferred spot, the left short corner, a bit too comfortably to can a few fade away or step back jumpers, sure. Those are tough shots! By the time Clavell appeared to be in the midst of an out of body experience, (let’s say the 12:48 mark of the second, after his fourth consecutive make cut his deficit to six) Allen could only do so much. SDSU decided not to send double teams at him, an idea Fisher eluded to in his post game presser. The double alone wouldn’t have saved them. And the burden of yet another devastating defeat cannot rest on one man’s shoulders.
SDSU may not have ever held much of a lead if not for Allen. Go back to when the game was tied at 15—Allen made the extra pass to Max Hoetzel in the corner for a three. He corralled a defensive rebound then went down the right sideline and through three defenders for a finish on the opposite side. Allen found Izundu for the aforementioned lay in that he almost never saw for the next SDSU bucket. He drove it right and put in a floater; about two minutes later he drove it left and did the same thing. Next time down, he curled around a screen and banked the ball in as he was fouled out of a baseline out of bounds set. He made the free throw. Later, Allen grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Hoetzel flew in to tip it in.
As his final act of the half, Allen pulled Shrigley away from Clavell to square up with the guard himself with 10 seconds left in the half. He stripped Clavell clean and Hemsley almost got it to Hoetzel in time for a clean look at a three before the buzzer. Those final nine minutes before the break began as a 15-15 tie. With Allen responsible for 14 points (16, if you include Hoetzel’s FT tip) during that 18-8 run, the Aztecs headed to the locker room feeling good, given both Kell and Pope both sat for most of that stretch with two fouls.
As much as I personally hope that first half stretch doesn’t get buried in the end, the thousands at Viejas Arena still saw the Aztecs watch one slip away despite ample chances in the closing moments. Possessions stagnated as Hemsley, Kell and Pope played their most frustrating version of ‘my turn, your turn’ to date. SDSU still led by six with 7:00 to go. Two CSU threes and 90 seconds later we had a tie game.
Malik Pope made one of two at the line to put SDSU up by 1 at 4:27. Hemsley preposterously banked in a layup as he fell to the ground and was fouled, but missed the free throw. Clavell from there would trade nine points of his own for a Pope score, an SDSU turnover and 1-2 trip to the line by Hemsley. That 9-3 Clavell run was capped by his desperation triple from the left wing as the shot clock wound down. Off glass.
Pope got fouled and hit both throws. SDSU sent a double at Clavell in the back court and he inexplicably tossed a lollipop of a pass 40 feet down the floor begging to be stolen. Hemsley grabbed it, got fouled, and again, made one of two at the line. SDSU forced a shot clock violation on the next trip, coming up big on that end in a half devoid of much defense.
On the next trip, Pope iso-d from the elbow and missed a jumper, but Hoetzel made what to that point was the play of the day, securing the offensive rebound. Hoetzel had just entered the game in favor of Izundu to spread the floor. Kell was fouled as he tried to drive it and stepped to the line with a chance to give the Aztecs a one point lead if he made both. He did.
Clavell received the inbounds pass with 11 seconds on the clock. Neither Coach Eustachy nor Clavell seemed inclined to use the team’s final timeout. CSU’s lead guard, well, you know how things played out from here.
With a few seconds on the clock after Clavell’s final points, Hemsley had to get the ball and get up the floor in a hurry. Steve Fisher was jumping up and down signaling for a timeout, but he was too late. Coaches cannot call timeouts in live ball situations. Hemsley did about as best as he could to get a shot up given the time constraints, but his triple was well contested.
The Rams flat out stole one in Viejas Arena from an already shaken Aztecs bunch. SDSU still can’t get its full team healthy. The three up, three down; four up, three down; three up and now two down pattern doesn’t indicate that this team has taken the steps necessary to defend and grind for good shots for 40 whole minutes.
And yet, that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. Allen has really been surging and finding his niche on the offensive end. As mentioned, Pope played his best basketball of the season, only to be limited by foul trouble. Izundu responded to Fisher’s decision not to go to him at all at Air Force with great effort and energy.
But Kell and Hemsley still cannot put together nights in which both are efficient from the field. Hemsley was off to a good start, but found himself once again in a fit of forcing bad, contested shots near the basket as teammates stood open around the arc waiting for him to kick it out.
And the Aztecs are still not one bit closer in terms of adding scoring punch from anybody off the bench. Are we going to continue to see D’Erryl Williams and Montaque Gill-Caesar each play 6-8 minutes? Wouldn’t it be better to just pick one and give that guy all of those minutes? Matt Shrigley and Hoetzel haven’t lost an arm recently as far as I know. Will Coach-in-Waiting/”offensive guru” Dutcher draw anything up to get them an open look? (SDSU did run one action late for Hoetzel to get off a three.)
But that isn’t enough. Those guys are too good to be asked to just stand in a corner and hope their dysfunctional, outdated offensive schemes net them open looks. Both guys are at the stop of scouting reports; I guarantee it! Coaches may as well command their players never to leave those two alone once they cross the midline because the SDSU staff isn’t creative enough with its offense to put its best players in advantage situations to draw extra help.
I don’t see it fit to turn on any SDSU players and I have no plans to do so. People have pointed out over and over again that SDSU needs to win the conference tournament. But if we’re going to watch these games in the meantime, I recommend that more people begin looking for some good. I can only speak for myself, but watching games angry is a pretty miserable self-induced habit.
I trust in the talent and smarts of Hemsley/Kell/Pope to be averaging 60 a night before its all said and done, regardless of the predictable, scripted actions that don’t do much to get them the ball with so much as half a step on their man even 10% of the time. But for crying out loud, when will the time come at which we see some lightly scripted motion or a college rendition of some spread pick and roll?
Aztecs fans will be asking many different questions as the team works its way through the rest of the MWC regular season. I’ve posed mine, and others are free to pose their own. Nobody knows how this season will play out. But I know calling Steve Fisher’s job at this point isn’t the answer. Please, stop it. San Diego fans are already following the bait to turn on one of their teams that is still here far too soon. Other cities don’t feel sorry for San Diego fans and their prescribed agony. They see the city for what it is as a sports town: one filled with fickle fans eager to take advantage of the many other entertainment options that exist in this beautiful warm weather city.
This thing that Steve Fisher built is beautiful, too, for this city. And it was built to last. Fans boast of the listicles calling their student section one of the nation’s best. Not 18 months later, people have stopped filling the arena. Winning the Mountain West Tournament may be the narrative. Fans ascribing to this at the very least could keep showing up to games. (It won’t hurt your pockets. When I haven’t scored tickets for free, I’ve found them for less than $10 a pop on SeatGeek.)
Will this be Steve Fisher’s last season? I hope not. But even if you do, well, why bother asking if there’s a conference tournament left to be won? It’s really time to start asking if we’ll see 12,414 in Viejas again this season. SDSU hosts Wyoming at 8:00 PM on Tuesday, hopefully with Zylan Cheatham back in action. After two on the road, the Aztecs host Nevada on February 12, who currently stands alone atop the conference.
Circle that date on the calendar twice. The team is likely to make some progress as they inch closer to that MWC tourney in Vegas. And they are hosting the best the conference has to offer, the team that beat them earlier in the season at their place despite an incredible barrage of late threes from Jeremy Hemsley.
Fans don’t get to decide when the great years will happen. This one had the look of it and the ingredients seemed right. I get it. Everyone does. There just isn’t time for whining and second guessing. At least half a dozen big time programs are in near-identical predicaments this season.
Injuries have continued to devastate a roster that has remained competitive in everything but about 50 combined minutes at Gonzaga and at Boise State. When does the team start getting credit for that feat alone? When do people begin to recognize that (rightfully so) as a feat?
Fans do have a hand in the game when it comes to propping a great program up. Matt Shrigley could barely get a rise out of the crowd under the 10 minute mark as he went at the crowd from all four sides of the court waving his arms, disappointed by the response. This team can’t leave, so what are fans so afraid of? Steve Fisher has handled this all with tremendous maturity, grace and poise and his players have followed suit. And he doesn’t speak out both sides of his neck. Fisher has never discounted the immense value of his team’s fans, and has even publicly called for them more than usual in press conferences and radio appearances to come out even bigger and better because his team needs them this season more than ever.
For Fisher and his team, it’s on to the next one as they host a capable Wyoming team. They may not boast one individual scorer as explosive as Gian Clavell, but they can shoot it and are also doing their best to rise above the pack at the middle of the MWC standings.
Photos via Jake Roth/USATSI