San Diego State came a long way. The team that sleepwalked through a miserable first half of the play-in game against UNLV on Wednesday, only to narrowly escape in overtime, was minutes away from a spot in the MWC title game. They ran away late from Boise State, the #3 seed, in Thursday’s quarterfinal. Colorado State—MWC POY Gian Clavell, Emmanuel Omobo and Diet Coke guzzling Coach Larry Eustachy in tow—was the lone thing in the way of SDSU and a date in the final with Nevada: a team they wholly outplayed February 12 at Viejas Arena, a team that trailed Fresno State by 11 at the half before surging to victory in Friday’s first semifinal.
Nothing about this 19-14 season was boring. The same could be said of this second MWC semifinal, which tipped around 1:00 AM EST. The Aztecs were hot from the jump. The team that had made a habit of shooting poorly to open games looked like it had figured a few things out.
Malik Pope was looking like a commanding presence on the block. Dakarai Allen was picking the right times to carve out some room in the paint himself among Pope and Valentine Izundu. Trey Kell had 6 early points and Jeremy Hemsley struck a better balance to distribute and attack.
A 15-2 lead is nice. So is 22-11 midway through the half. But I’m convinced this Colorado State team wouldn’t even flinch at the sight of a 30 point deficit. They don’t get rattled and they just keep chipping away. Being led by Gian Clavell certainly helps—a shooting guard strong enough to post smaller guys is gonna get his own. That same guy having the handle to effortlessly get off decent looks with Allen draped all over him and make them? Good. Night.
Clavell bides his energy as if it’s a performance art. He feels his way through the beginning of games. Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige confidently poke, prod, chuck and hop step through or over defenses with confidence knowing their star teammate won’t show them up on the floor. He’s just patiently waiting to take over a game.
Clavell’s step back three from the right corner was a total gut punch, putting the Rams up four. It was sandwiched by two equally devastating triples, all coming within a three minute stretch. First Omogbo iso’d over Cheatham, then Paige’s third triple of the night.
Go back to the 9:40 mark of the 2nd for another moment that was tough to swallow. Clavell drove left toward the baseline and initiated some contact with Allen, the defender running with him step for step at his side. Maybe a player in Clavell’s position gets whistled for a charge now and then. That play screamed no call from the start. Nope. A foul on Allen, his fourth.
Funny enough, Clavell didn’t inflict any pain on the Aztecs until his signature shot of the season with 3:42 to go. In the interim, it was Nixon, Paige and Omogbo chipping in. Clavell essentially finished at his average. And because of Allen, he had to work really hard to get there—21 points on 6-16 overall and 1-7 from deep.
Instead it was Nixon and Omogbo combining for 32 points and 18 rebounds along with Paige and his 11 points on just 5 shots. That CSU big four sat on the bench for all of 15 minutes Friday night; Clavell played all 40. And this team has needed efforts like those from those four guys all season long.
Aside from the cold shooting, there are some things SDSU could have done better in Friday’s second half to at least have given themselves a better chance inside three minutes, the point at which Colorado State pulled away some.
Omogbo picked up his fourth foul with 4:09 left, sending Kell to the line with a chance to tie it at 57. He made one of two. Had the team’s base offense included some more moving and screening, they may have caught Omogbo in space, forced to close out then contain somebody off the bounce.
That didn’t happen. The offense bogged down for the same reason as always. It’s too predictable and lacks counters or a second layer. Colorado State flirted with all out double teams of Pope before he even caught the ball and did the same to Cheatham on a few possessions.
Still, players stood at the wing, stared their teammates down, and forced some of those passes in anyways. That’s what led to Clavell’s and 1 at the 10:17 mark, better known as the somewhat questionable block called on D’Erryl Williams. (Charges are awful. I wish they’d be trashed entirely.)
Last season was all about a diamond-centric approach to enter the ball to the high post against a zone, which CSU used some of on Friday. The ball wasn’t getting there, which is doubly frustrating when you think back to Thursday. Pope found his way to the elbows a few times and walked right into easy dump offs or wide open looks.
SDSU’s crunch time scoring woes weren’t all that tough to wrap your head around. They had simply been riding Malik Pope to that point of the MWC Tournament with great success. Prior to that stretch, teams weren’t denying Pope so aggressively. Think what you’d like about Eustachy. I know this much: That was a key wrinkle executed late in a big game by the conference’s coach of the year and his team.
The Aztecs won the turnover and offensive rebounding battles. Colorado State made two more treys (7-21 vs. 5-19) and got to the line (20-25 vs. 10-15). The starters played several long stretches together, but that’s what all teams need to do in March. SDSU didn’t shoot itself in the foot all that much outside of the shooting/post entry troubles.
A few more notes on (what could be) the last we see of SDSU basketball this season:
Hemsley kicking it out
This guy can flat out play point guard if he wants to. He has the ability. He has more off the bounce juice/unpredictability than anybody else on the roster. For him, it’s all about making that read whether to go up over the help or to kick it out. Quite often, he looked like he didn’t notice his open teammates were even there. And I think that’s what worried people. Friday, that wasn’t the issue for the first time in a while. He made those reads and was willing to kick it out. Those kick outs that don’t immediately lead to a shot (and aren’t counted by the box scores) are most important for him and the team moving forward.
They may lead to the extra pass—an open Dakarai Allen passing to an even more open Trey Kell to drill a three (an actual chain of events from Wednesdays game).
Or they simply lead to another string of passes. Swing it once, twice, maybe three times, and suddenly a second player will be attacking off the bounce. And that’s what this offense lacks. Hemsley, Kell, Pope, Cheatham, and even Allen can get something off the bounce. What’s the problem with that? Defenses know. Just guard the first action or drive and you’ll probably be able to contest the shot. Do your job and box out from there, and your team will be just fine.
This team needs to find that next level to have the collective discipline to pass up contested floaters with 18 on the clock with the confidence that they can keep moving the ball around and end up with something better. It needs to happen whether you envision Hemsley or Devin Watson as the ‘true point guard’ of next year’s squad.
A healthy Hoetzel?
Max Hoetzel is a guy that can just make plays for you. Teams respect the heck out of his outside shot. And his nose for the ball and wild vert make him a pest on the offensive glass, even if he’s standing around the arc when a shot goes up. He’s going to be a big part of the program over these next two seasons. If he can stay disciplined on the other end, he’s got the fight and the tools to guard 3s and 4s.
Offensively, he’s a stretch 4 for a team that doesn’t know how to use one (see Pope, Malik). That can’t be held against him. He’s willing to run hard in transition and knows which spots work best to really put pressure on a defense. To his credit, he didn’t hang his head. He’s been exploring his off the bounce game and it’s clear that it will be more and more useful to him if and when the team spacing/floor awareness improves.
Dakarai’s D: Don’t judge him on the wins and losses
Dakarai Allen was already going down as one of my all-time Aztec basketball favorites. If I had to make an #AztecMBB Mount Rushmore (sans Fisher and Kawhi since they’re automatics for everybody) today, I’m going with Xavier Thames, Lorenzo Wade, Winston Shepard and Allen.
All ended their careers playing prominent roles, but things weren’t always like that for them. Who better exemplifies that than the Mountain West Conference’s 2017 DPOY?
He arrived with plenty of hype. Minutes didn’t come his way. He’d have to adjust and put the work in. He did. Allen wasn’t ever knocking down 5 threes a night, but he made enough that he had to be guarded out there. The defense was always there. But college stars don’t care. Allen elevated his game and forced them to.
If Allen had to go out on a loss, what better way than for him to blanket the conference player of the year, then be pulled aside by both Clavell and Eustachy afterwards to share a hug and some kind words? Don’t let Allen’s brilliance move to the back of your minds too quickly. Like Skylar Spencer, who had been the 2-time reigning MWC DPOY, defensive cornerstones must be celebrated and remembered long after they graduate. Especially for a program whose success was built on getting stops.
Here’s to hoping the NIT comes calling to bring us more Aztec basketball. Here’s to Clavell, Eustachy, CSU, and the rest of the MWC. (They may not schedule anybody, but that doesn’t mean that some of these battles don’t deserve to be remembered as classics.) And here’s to the program’s seniors—Dakarai, D’Erryl Williams, Valentine Izundu, and San Diego’s own, Matt Shrigley.
Photo via NCAA Photos.