In honor of Steve Fisher’s 18 seasons as head coach on the Mesa, here are 18 predictions for the upcoming San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball season and the Mountain West Conference at large, ranging from dull to obvious to crazy (and everything in between).
This is part one of two. Check out the second half of the piece here.
- Devin Watson, Trey Kell, Jeremy Hemsley and Malik Pope will each score 13+ PPG this season
A conservative prediction to kick things off — Kell and Hemsley finished right around that mark for last season’s spacing-deprived team. Watson averaged 20 as a sophomore for USF, where opponents were more likely to lock in solely on him. And Pope, who has only been slowed as an Aztec by lower body injuries, will see nothing close to an equal across from him all season. Expect him to feast from the left block, and for the guards to push the tempo for themselves and others.
2. Max Montana and Jordan Schakel will shoot 40.5+% from three
Two of those “others” happen to be lights out shooters. Both have quick releases and short memories. It’s tough to lump Adam Seiko into this one. We saw last year how tough it can be for a guy who starts his first season on the Mesa hurt (Montaque Gill-Caesar). Montana (formerly Hoetzel) shot 34.7% (52-150) last season from deep, rarely seeing an open look in the meat of MWC play after teams had scouted him. Last season’s team rarely ran, and their drive-and-kick game never came come to fruition. Sprinkling Watson into the mix alone will cause both to perk up; Schakel and Montana are likely to reap the rewards.
3. Trey Kell, once all the dust settles, will be seen as the MWC’s best player
The San Diego native did not shoot the ball well last season. Questions (unfairly) swirled in the media and from fans last season in regard to the leadership in that locker room. SDSU did not excel in close games. But when somebody did step up to make a big shot, it was usually Kell. Brian Dutcher named Kell and Pope as team captains heading into the season. Despite the shooting struggles, Kell was recognized as an All-MWC player last season.
Dutcher pointed out that Kell is in the best shape of his life. Kell has been a key cog for SDSU through its most trying stretch since they rose to national prominence under Steve Fisher. With an infusion of skilled size, a go-go point guard and a healthy Pope to start the season, Kell’s numbers are a solid bet to perk up even if shots get spread around evenly among 5-to-7 guys on any given night.
And to truly earn this distinction, a guy needs to be able to guard someone. Kell is the rare guard that is strong enough to wall up in the post against bigger players — he did it last season on select possessions against Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison. Think of Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors here. He’s the only 2-guard in the NBA that puts up a reasonable fight against LeBron James in the post. Kell is that to the MWC and college hoops in that regard.
When Kell is matched up on a quicker guard, be sure to watch his feet and how he’s able to strip opponents regularly when they go to a spin or try to gather. Kell is a master of the dribble spin himself to score in the paint. He knows his own move well — well enough that he knows what to do when opponents try to use it against him.
4. Devin Watson will lead the conference in assists
We don’t know much about SDSU’s exhibition and closed scrimmage against USC. One thing is clear after seeing just one exhibition: Devin Watson can fly. He rarely waited with flat feet to receive an outlet pass from a teammate. Even after makes, Watson would catch the ball on the run, sometimes just a step away from mid-court.
When the game slows down, SDSU in all likelihood will feed opponents a steady diet of Watson pick and rolls when they aren’t posting Pope. Watson and transfer C Kameron Rooks talked about their pick and roll chemistry with Mark Zeigler a few weeks back.
To truly put fear into an opposing defense, a guard needs to be a threat to score efficiently in the paint over long arms. Jeremy Hemsley struggled at times with that last season. Dutcher noted yesterday that Hemsley added 20 pounds over the summer. Watson isn’t quite as big, but he showed a nice feel to put his defender in jail in SDSU’s exhibition a handful of times — Watson will get a step on his defender, slow down and survey the scene while that guy is stuck on his back. It’s tough for that defender to get back into the play or contest a shot without fouling. When Watson does this, look for him to toss in a floater, hit the roller or kick to an open shooter.
Watson brings some scoring pedigree from his two years at USF. In order for the Aztecs to come through on promises to push it this time, Watson will need to take the keys and create for his teammates.
5. SDSU’s most dangerous closing lineup will consist of Watson, Hemsley, Kell, Pope and…Matt Mitchell
We all have a lot to learn about this mysterious true freshman with an NBA body, huge leaping ability, and a smooth outside stroke. The key word to this one: dangerous. If the shooting is real from Mitchell, it’ll be impossible for Dutcher to keep this guy off the floor in crunch time. As mentioned, Pope is a walking mismatch; the added shooting of Mitchell would open up the floor even more for those post ups.
With so many talented rotation-quality players on the roster, Dutcher will probably tinker with lineups and reward the guys playing well. Hemsley and Dutcher spoke in a presser Thursday on the genuine excitement this group finds in seeing others playing well. There also may be a lot more offense-defense subbing late in games, not even to say that one guy, in particular, is a liability on either end. The key to that formula working out? Win some games. Nobody’s on a hot seat here, but SDSU’s upperclassmen have been through some frustrating times. Pulling away late a few times early on could go a long way.
6. 10 SDSU players will average 12+ minutes per game
Whoa! That already happened! Perhaps Steve Fisher’s reliance on an 8.5 man rotation had been overstated at times — ten guys got 11 minutes or more of run on average last year. Malik Pope did miss nine games, but aside from that, guys were available to play save for minor bumps and bruises.
Seiko and Gill-Caesar had to deal with some injuries early on. Dutcher has said all the right things about the talent and competitiveness from top to bottom. Those guys certainly have the talent to get into the mix as well.
7. Malik Pope will be SDSU’s best rebounder
Pope is undoubtedly the most entertaining grab-and-go guy in the MWC. If he gets it with a full head of steam in the open floor, you had better cut him off before he starts his gather. More generally, Pope really rips down boards with a fun ferocity. His length helps, to be sure. Especially when Kam Rooks isn’t on the floor, the Aztecs will need to rely on gang rebounding. At least with Pope in the mix around the basket, Dutcher will know that most of those misses will be taken care of.
8. Hemsley and Montana will each get up more than 225 threes apiece this season
That’s 75 more than either got up last season. That’s an extra two-ish per game. Montana’s attempts really fluctuated game-by-game last year for reasons mentioned above. Hemsley shot it with confidence and pinpoint accuracy even off the bounce last season. There isn’t a glaring concern for either guy in watching them shoot. More early offense should translate to more wide open looks for both — something worth monitoring in non-conference play.
9. Trey Kell will not shoot 37.5% from the field and 26.8% on threes again
No surprise here. Even those that don’t quite expect him to be the best player in the conference will have his name near the top of the scouting report on a nightly basis. Kell has only gotten stronger as his career has progressed, which has helped his finishing around the basket. He was forced to be the point guard as a freshman. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal then, but he now has that valuable experience to look back on. Longtime viewers have seen Kell’s ball handling/pick and roll chops improve as a result, too.
The threes will be the most interesting thing to keep tabs on with Kell: How many is he taking and will that percentage approach 40? If yes, MWC teams will have their hands full stopping the guy with the best low-key post-bucket celebrations in the MWC.
You’ve seen 1-thru-9, but be sure to check out the rest of our predictions!
Be sure to chime in with some predictions/storylines to watch in the MWC this season!
Written by Ben Dull. You can find him on Twitter @splitthepost
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Header image by Ernie Anderson/goaztecs.com