What if I told you last Friday that New Mexico would shoot sub-36% from the floor. At their place. On senior night. Emotions running even higher than usual as Tim Williams makes his return from a foot injury. I’ll throw in 3-12 shooting from deep and 11 missed free throws. Oh, and Southwest suddenly has dozens of seats available for $52 a pop. You’d have made the trip, right?
The Aztecs bested those numbers in the worst way—32% from the floor, 4-21 from deep, 16(!!!) missed free throws. Dakarai Allen fouled out with 11:20 to play. Trey Kell shot 1-8; Jeremy Hemsley was 3-13. I don’t want to nail Steve Fisher down for once sentence as part of a bigger answer, but this team didn’t play any “better” heading to March.
The start to the second half was ugly for the Aztecs. Allen picked up fouls four and five and Elijah Brown came alive. Allen, accurately described as a blanket that could be thrown on the Lobos’ leading scorer, couldn’t keep himself on the floor in his final regular season game. Sticking to the senior class: Matt Shrigley shot 2-8 from deep (several of which were well contested) and Valentine Izundu boiled over with enough anger for 10 people (and one technical foul) after a questionable yet standard shooting foul was called against him.
Elijah Brown (29 points in 38 minutes) shot just 6-19 and 2-8 from deep. But both his triples were huge answers to late rally attempts by the Aztecs. He did most of his damage from the free throw line (15-17). Tim Williams and Obij Aget combined for 20 points and five (of UNM’s 10) offensive boards. As a team, SDSU did a solid job on the glass.
As mentioned, the defense was good enough to win, too, save for Allen’s foul trouble. The second half beyond Izundu’s outburst and UNM’s quick run was a long game of catch up, punctuated every so often by a response from Brown.
The Aztecs struggled once again because they cannot and will not work for good looks. Aside from his trips to the line, Malik Pope was darn near invisible. Kell and Hemsley weren’t making shots. Hoetzel and Shrigley didn’t get many clean looks because the team doesn’t run enough in transition. How about Montaque Gill-Caesar? Has he been scrubbed from the rotation again? That appeared to be the case until he was summoned to spearhead a second half comeback along with Zylan Cheatham.
Cheatham, for what it’s worth, was the lone bright spot on that night—13, 7 and 3 steals in 10 minutes. Even this praise can only go so far. SDSU’s bigs, Cheatham and Izundu included, provided minimal resistance at or near the basket to deter drives to the basket by the Lobos. Look, I get it. The refs made some bad calls. But you’re going to just stop trying in response? Choosing not to contest layups as you attempt a comeback is somehow helping your team? This is still a top 40 defense to their credit that I’ve already talked too much about, but that was maddening in the moment to see.
What’s left to say? Enough defense is there. Make a few more shots! Reverse the ball and actually make it look like doing so is worthwhile!
The road map from here is very clear to SDSU fans. They’ve had the Mountain West Conference Tournament at the front of their minds since January (some earlier than that). Beat UNLV, beat Boise State (who they only saw once this season), then win two more. Colorado State and Nevada very well could be the final two opponents if the favorites emerge.
Can they do it? Who knows. There’s little consistency at this point in which version of this team will show up. Some of the players have said they are in good spirits—a small sliver to cling too if you care for one at this point.
Nobody needs to be reminded of all the talent on this roster. Remarkably, though, we’re at the point where Steve Fisher needs to pander to his players by reminding them how talented they are. If you caught Saturday’s broadcast on CBS Sports Network, you heard a sideline report summarizing a late team huddle in which Fisher singled out Malik Pope, noting how talented he is and how much he was needed in that moment.
Even I, one of Pope’s biggest forever fans, was shaken in that moment. Coaches don’t just do that kind of thing on the regular, nor should they have to. A top 50 in his class/4 star/recent fixture in the 1st round of NBA mock drafts needs to be reminded that he is talented and needed? More than anything else, the argument could be made that this SDSU season was built to be Malik Pope’s season. No reminders necessary.
He put his name in the draft. He got feedback. He came back. They told him to play harder and crank it up on defense. He’s healthy-ish.
It hasn’t happened for him. It (getting back to the NCAA tournament) will be one heck of a battle for Fisher and his ball club. It starts Wednesday with the last place Rebels, possibly followed by the MWC’s top three seeds.
Life will not always be easy at the top. The Aztecs can prove that they still hold residency if they can piece together their second four game winning streak of the season.
A few more thoughts on the end of the regular season:
Hindsight stinks. But what if Allen made it through Saturday without foul trouble? Forget the win or loss of the game at this point. It seems to be a near-50/50 split on whether the 5 or 6 seed is an ‘easier’ path at this point. Sunday morning, the media’s All-Mountain West awards were released. Cameron Oliver of Nevada was the winner for Defensive Player of the Year with 4 of 11 votes.
Allen finished with 3, per Mark Zeigler. Had Allen blanketed Brown some more on Saturday, would just two more votes have come his way? Tough break for Allen, coming from somebody who likes Oliver but isn’t too high on his body of work on D.
Who’s the 5th starter?
I wish the mixing and matching would stop already. It’s a rare showing from Fisher—he reminds us at least once a season that he likes to find a first five and stick with it. Sadly, health had a lot to do with it. Zylan Cheatham looked great in the middle of the season, then ran into foot trouble. Max Hoetzel shot the lights out as the team went ‘smaller’ to start games, but he then had to deal with a heel injury.
But everybody is playing now. Is Hoetzel the piece to spread the floor to allow Pope to work from the block or open up driving lanes for Kell and Hemsley? (The answer is yes.) Then start him!
Coach Fisher refuses to allow “Diamond Head Classic MVP, 2016” to be the biggest accomplishment of Cheatham’s basketball career (another nice nugget from the CBS Sports Network crew). A rare consensus does appear to exist with Z—fans love his energy/body language and most would agree that his ceiling calls for more accolades and awards. He can’t do it without more floor time. Inserting him makes some sense, too.
Now this is where Izundu comes in. Some games he’s been great. Some he’s been good. For a few, he’s been benched or given single digit minutes. But a team that needs to score more just doesn’t have the leeway to keep running him out there. Pope and Cheatham need to score from the block. They need time to feel out the primary defender and the help.
Extra time for Shrigley and Hoetzel means the help must leave a capable shooter rather than a dunker lurking the opposite baseline. If Izundu’s out there, his man, a big, can be the doubler. The help will cover up Val then bolt back to his man with relative ease. That brings us to my last point.
More minutes, more digits…on the scoreboard…for SDSU?
If you haven’t already, familiarize yourselves with the SMU Mustangs, winners of 13 straight.
Why them? Take a look at some of their recent box scores.
They play 7 guys, sometimes 6. I’m not joking.
Most games there isn’t even the half guy, playing one 5-6 minute stretch in the first half to give a key player an extra breather.
Winning 4 games in 4 days is a grueling task, but it’s being over-dramatized some at this point. Other teams in other conferences need to do something very similar. And I’d be willing to bet that one of them will still have enough left in the tank to win a game or two in the big dance.
I’d hate to see SDSU go down in the MWC tournament as much as anybody else. The only thing I’d hate more would be to see them going down playing it safe. Fisher needs to ride his 7 best guys and include Izundu, too, if he plays well in his first stretch while the team continues to find good looks.
And that’s it. Ride those guys and move on when the time comes with no apologies.
This regular season has been flat out exhausting to follow. As SDSU fans we aren’t alone. UConn, Indiana, Texas and a few others probably have it worse. But this season is all about making it back to the NCAAs. All this team has left to look at is a slate of four days that could get them there. In a way, maybe that’s what they’ve needed. We’ll all find out soon enough, starting on Wednesday with UNLV (4:00 PM PST, streaming online via the MW Network, no TV).
Header photo via Jake Roth/USATSI