It’s been a while.
You can’t make sense of anything about this season. On senior night, the Aztecs failed to pull away until late to an Air Force team that shot 3-20 in the first half. SDSU was merely seeking a split—yes, a split—with the Falcons. They got it. Matt Shrigley and Malik Pope scored in double figures to lead the way. The Aztecs shot 4-27 from deep, but held Air Force to 5 offensive boards and forced 15 turnovers while committing just 9 themselves.
The team has pivoted toward a more three point happy approach. Wednesday night was a worst case scenario, but two of those triples could not have come at a better time. Air Force cut back into the lead to start the second half. With 8:08 to play, Matt Shrigley hit a three from the top of the key to extend the lead to 9. Moments later, Shrigley hit another from the right corner to push the lead to 12.
And really, that’s about it.
Those who decided early on that San Diego State’s season would boil down to its performance in the Mountain West Conference weren’t wrong. But reason for hope to the contrary was simple: The favorite to win the conference would slowly get healthy again and flex its muscles as the season wore on.
And boy, there were some mixed signals. The Aztecs played Nevada off the floor just two and a half weeks ago to spark a three game win streak. A lethargic home loss to Fresno State followed. Then came a trip to Fort Collins where the Rams broke the Aztecs’ hearts again.
SDSU needs to win Saturday at New Mexico in the regular season finale to secure the #5 seed for the Mountain West Conference Tournament, which would give the team a first round bye. If you defined a rivalry by the animosity present in each arena when two teams play alone, you’d say the Lobos are the Aztecs biggest rival at the moment. New Mexico will be equally motivated to win Saturday at The Pit.
This is where I’d normally say Tim Williams has missed 7 straight games with a stress reaction in his foot. Good news, right? Sadly, his status probably will factor little into Saturday’s outcome. SDSU fumbled a large lead away at home to the Lobos earlier in the season, with Williams ranking pretty far down the list of reasons for the failure to protect that lead.
Just look at the MWC standings following Wednesday’s action. SDSU is 9-8; Nevada and Colorado State are at the top with 4 losses apiece. Injuries aside, the team has two red marks on its record: road losses at San Jose State and Air Force—two teams that a program this proud and dominant should never overlook. The two losses to Colorado State could easily have gone differently; 10 matches between the two teams may end in a 5-5 split. I mentioned the game given away to New Mexico. Then you have three games in which the Aztecs were legitimately out played for at least a decent portion of a half: at Nevada, at Boise, home for Fresno.
Does any San Diego State team of recent memory come out of that with more than 4 losses? (The answer is no.) That would put them into at least a tie for first. This season has been different for many reasons. Shall we?
- The injury bug was never totally kicked to the curb.
- The duties of Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell overlapped too much and the staff did little to help them divvy things up.
- Malik Pope, to his credit, has operated with force from the low block like we haven’t seen before. But this team isn’t ready to feed it to him 25 times a game—they’d run the risk of stagnation to an even larger degree. Heck, this team makes one entry pass look like an adventure.
- Valentine Izundu is still being jerked around. 20+ minutes in 3 of 4 games as he blocked 10 shots in a late January-early February stretch. He hasn’t logged 20 in 5 games since then and played all of 4 minutes on Wednesday, just days after Fisher pointed out that he regretted slapping Izundu with a DNP-CD in the first date with the Falcons.
- Kell scored 17 per game in the 10 games following the team’s 3 game losing skid to open conference play. He’s just under 8 per game in the last 4. He had built a pretty compelling case for himself as a darkhorse all-MWC candidate, but barring a monster performance at New Mexico, the Aztecs are unlikely to have any representation in that way. Amid all the injuries, Kell has been the healthiest. He’s averaging a hair under 32 per game both in conference and for the season. The burden he’s carried is nothing to roll your eyes at. The team needs his body to be darn near 100% to run the table in Vegas. Kell has quietly also been stellar defensively, flashing his improved lateral quickness and heady timing to poke the ball free and block some shots.
- Hemsley picked an odd time to declare that his slump was over—after the road loss to San Jose State. He walked the walk in the next 4 to the tune of 14 points per game, but shot a combined 3-16 in his last two and saw his minutes trend downward.
- Ya think Max Hoetzel is at the top of scouting reports yet? He’s made just 5 of his last 30 threes, and the length team’s are now willing to go to really get into his jersey has been noticeable. As I’ve said before, we’re left with little reason to blame him; the team’s sets do nothing to generate open looks for him. That pressure wears on shooters.
- Matt Shrigley has played in 15 conference games to date and hit multiple threes in 7 of them. Hoetzel may be on the top line of scouting reports, but Shrigley can’t be much further down the list. Again, like Hoetzel, open looks are tough to come by and the team hasn’t even tried to install a few quick hitters to run him off screens to at least see how the defense reacts.
- Malik Pope has scored in double figures in 8 of his last 10 on 47% shooting (10-24, 42% from deep). Double teams flock to him on the touch. Pope’s assist to turnover ratio remains positive for now and he has 7 or more boards in 7 of 10 games. His impact on the defensive glass has been apparent. He may not box out as much as the coaches would like him to, but that’s a team-wide problem dating back to a early note from Mark Zeigler in a 2015 column:
- And now to the elephant in the room from a personnel standpoint as I see it. Remember ‘Diamond Head Classic Zylan Cheatham’? Who wouldn’t? He racked up 47 points and 28 boards against just 4 turnovers in those 3 games. Cheatham has scored in double figures just twice in MWC play and has played 30+ minutes just three times since Hawaii. Four things are at play here:
- 1) He’s playing almost all of his minutes as the nominal center—any good it has brought to the team has done little to impact winning. The flip side of that: He’s a dynamic basketball player, not just a ball of energy. You allow him to be known more as the latter by playing him out of position while stunting his growth. This is a guy that has years of basketball ahead of him. An NBA team, should he get drafted someday, will hone in on the jumper for him. He needs to be pushed and freed up to make greater strides in the others areas for now.
- 2) I harp on offense all the time, but the staff has shown they don’t know how to build an offense around he and Malik Pope yet. All those things Cheatham did well in Hawaii? Pope does them better. Where does that leave Cheatham? The answer to this point? On the bench or marginalized.
- 3) His defense hasn’t gotten noticeably better. I’m not a guy with dozens of sources, but I follow plenty of scouts on Twitter. NBA people are fully aware of Z’s name. Everything about him screams modern day NBA 4 man. Because he spends so much time guarding centers, he still struggles to stay in front of guys on the perimeter, a surprising truth given his physical tools and competitive drive. Fast twitch athleticism doesn’t translate to immediate success as a lock down perimeter defender. He needs reps. Because Izundu hasn’t always been getting serious minutes, that hasn’t happened.
- 4) Why can’t we live a little? I rarely take anything away from press conferences at face value when Steve Fisher is asked to talk about the team because nearly all questions he gets are softballs. But I’ve never understood the narrative that Cheatham plays too fast at times and thus, a leash needs to be put on him. Look, he’s had some ugly turnovers trying too hard to make plays. But those still make up such a small percentage of the possessions he’s used and he isn’t one of the two guys blindly bowling over help defenders on a near-nightly basis for easy charge calls. The majority of his success has come from facing his man up and taking him off the bounce, even when he backs off him three steps. And can these coaches give him the Mike D’Antoni-Grant Hill treatment already? His jump shot looks fine; he shouldn’t seem afraid of it at this stage in his career. We know D’Erryl Williams isn’t a shooter. We can’t say the same of Cheatham yet. He’s 2-12 on threes. He got more attempts up last season!
- Montaque Gill-Caesar has not been healthy. Back injuries make me extremely nervous. His focus came and went on defense which needs to change, but fans looked to him to be a microwave on the other end. He needs freedom to work the baseline/elbows and post up smaller guards on demand. This team’s offense doesn’t help him enough to work from those spots with space.
- Nolan Narain flat out didn’t get a chance this year. In hindsight, that may have been more predictable than first thought after Valentine Izundu chose San Diego State. This time last year, it wasn’t so clear that Cheatham and Pope would play so many minutes as ‘centers’. Narain’s shooting will very much be needed next year, and the team may be very short on bigs unless Brandon McCoy chooses the Aztecs.
- Dakarai Allen has been this team’s rock. Legit foul trouble has popped up 4-5 times in conference, which wasn’t ideal. I have nothing more to say here.
Now would be a bad time to lose sight of one thing that has been steady, even with this year’s team: a commitment to the defensive side of the ball. Looking at this season as one body of work, the Aztecs once again are one of the nation’s best. Did this year bring another #1 ranking? No. But this season has been a perfect reminder that competitiveness often leads us to under-value the little things, the intangibles, the middle ground.
Saturday’s game is certainly a big one. Wednesday’s game did little to build the suspense. The state of the team is harsh—they aren’t playing any better. No upward trend. No weeks-long momentum to carry into March. There has been no steady build. Little at all in or around the team has been steady, save for the love that Steve Fisher has shown to his players.
“I like our team.” How many times has the hall of fame coach spoken that phrase in a news conference? Judge the man by his actions; you have no choice but to believe him.
Call it the season from hell. Other teams across the country are in similar spots. Health and luck are never predictable. Both have played a larger role than one would hope in this Aztec basketball season. We know this NCAA-or-bust labeled season would be a wild ride. Nobody thought it would be this wild.
Several wins across the schedule this season have been far from pleasing. But they are wins regardless. Early on, this season was pitched with one purpose above all others—make it back to the NCAA tournament. This team needs 3 (or 4) wins in a row to get there. How pretty they look won’t matter. Ahead of Saturday’s regular season finale, we’re faced with a few days to celebrate a few of those little things, like Shrigley’s second half triples or timely buckets from D’Erryl Williams.
Here’s to those seniors—Matt Shrigley, D’Erryl Williams, Dakarai Allen and Valentine Izundu. Here’s to Malik Pope, who we may or may not see on the Mesa next year. Here’s to the rest of the roster, including Devin Watson and Jalen McDaniels, who are reason enough to already be excited about next season. And here’s to Steve Fisher, a shoe in for the Mount Rushmore of San Diego sports. He likes his team.
Photos by Derrick Tuskan/sdsuaztecphotos.com