This is the second half of a two-part predictions piece. Read part one here.
10. The Aztecs will shoot better than their opponents from deep (shot 31.7% on threes last season, opponents shot 32.4%)
That was not the case last season for the Aztecs, although the season averages were close. This team now has more shooters. Malik Pope shot 20-51 from deep last season, too. He and the departed Zylan Cheatham struggled to balance their inside-out games under Steve Fisher. Perhaps that will change under Dutcher, a coach often praised for his offensive mind. The ability is there for Pope. Playing at the 5 in more small lineups should open the door for him to sneak out beyond the arc a few times a game for wide open looks.
11. Hemsley (and Kell) will be among the MWC’s five best perimeter defenders
See the Kell points above for thoughts on his strengths as a defender. Kell’s ability to toggle between guarding forwards and guards will allow Dutcher to deploy the three-guard lineup. In that same vein, Hemsley’s defensive versatility plays an equally important part. Watson isn’t a shrimp at 6’1″, but Hemsley’s got the size and foot quickness to take on somebody at either guard spot.
Those same tools of Hemsley lead this viewer to wonder whether the Aztecs would be better off turning him loose to pressure guards for 94 feet rather than pressing so often. SDSU’s full-court trapping man-to-man press has lost some of its shimmer in recent years, usually only yielding favorable results when they surprise a team with it after a made basket with The Show is in full force.
This is something on the margins, but Hemsley really knows how to turn his man multiple times before he crosses half court. Pressing all the time doesn’t really happen anymore. Too many teams throw it ahead and get up open threes. More occasional ball pressure from Hemsley or another teammate could effectively take 8-12 seconds off the shot clock before opponents get into their sets.
12. Malik Pope will be playing rotation minutes for an NBA team by this date in 2018
Aztec fans may roll their eyes. They just are happy to see him healthy and hope things stay that way for the entire season. But in an undercovered conference, the full story often doesn’t make the rounds. Pope has not disappointed with his talent or skill level. When healthy and given the ball in space, he produces. His rebounding and post game have notably improved. No NBA team would say no to skilled size; Pope brings a whole lot of both to the table.
13. The Aztecs will improve upon last season’s turnover margin (-37), but slip in offensive rebounding margin (+8).
This is more about what the Aztecs will do with the ball than what they may do to force their opponents into more mistakes. SDSU scored 98 points and turned it over just 6 times in its closed scrimmage and its exhibition — Dutcher has been eager to cite that stat often already.
One thing on the team defense, though. They switched every screen against UCSD. Dutcher admitted postgame that it was something he just wanted to get a look at, but don’t be surprised if it sticks against teams that don’t play traditional centers. That could unlock guys to look to get into passing lanes more often, knowing the scheme isn’t demanding that they fight through every screen instead of switching.
As the season wears on, perhaps Dutcher and his players will have more insight as to what they’ve actually done to cut the TOs. Generally speaking, Kell and Pope are low turnover guys. Hemsley is another year stronger and wiser; Watson is more of a true lead handler. Those are the four guys that will be controlling where the rock goes most of the time — it’ll be up to them to ensure that their team comes through on one of its big promises.
Now for the MWC at large…
14. Speaking of ‘at large’, two MWC teams (Nevada, SDSU) will make the NCAAs, regardless of whether they win the conference tournament
This is a value play on both programs. The talent is there. Nevada may settle on a, erm, smoother style of play with this year’s bunch. They relied heavily on quick threes from Cameron Oliver and Marcus Marshall. Marshall, to be clear, was a tremendous shot maker. And Oliver is an NBA talent. But that’s tough to rely on night in and night out as your primary source of offense.
When they weren’t firing up quick shots, they usually waited on Marshall or DJ Fenner to run around some screens in a floppy or staggered set. Opponents scout that stuff and it’s predictable. Eric Musselman has done a great job to bring talent and a new level of excitement to that program. With all the talk of an SDSU resurgence, Nevada will be the biggest obstacle in their path, hoping to string together MWC championships rather than becoming a flash in the pan.
15. Wyoming will finish 3rd
This writer likes the Cowboys to emerge from the pack in the MWC Tournament, if not one of the two favorites listed above. The Cowboys jacked up a ton of threes last season — the seventh most in the country. They return some size inside and Justin James, a strong All-MWC candidate. Wyoming boasts one of the most ridiculous home court advantages in college hoops, given how tough it is for their opponents just to get there. They seem to have settled on their style of play late last year under Allen Edwards. And laugh at non-NCAA Tournament accomplishments all you want — that CBI title mattered to this team, and they’ll look to build atop that momentum to make it to the big dance.
16. Many will fail to note the progress San Jose State had made under Dave Wojcik
San Jose State was a bottom dweller, an afterthought. For years. Dave Wojcik brought skilled size to campus. Once that happened, it was clear that he was on to something. First, it was Ryan Welage drilling threes in Viejas Arena against SDSU his freshman year as a stretch big.
Then Brandon Clarke emerged as one of the MWC’s most dominant forces. His spin move/floater game was so good, it did not matter who guarded him or what they did. Stick with him and stick your fingers up his nose or just get out of the way. He was putting five of those suckers down every night and getting to the free throw line like nobody’s business. Last season, Wojcik and Clarke hit paydirt, upsetting the Aztecs at home in early February.
Wojcik resigned over the offseason and Clarke transferred to Gonzaga. In a sense, SJSU is all the way back to square one. While those returning players will carry some of that confidence with them, replacing a talent like Clarke in the MWC would be extremely difficult for any of these programs.
So the Spartans may well struggle to even approach .500 in the MWC again. But don’t mistake that for dysfunction, at least in stacking up the more recent years. The New Mexico faithful grew tired of Craig Neal and his underperforming UNM teams. Fresno State and Colorado State lost a whole bunch of high-end talent to graduation in the last two years. Air Force faces obvious recruiting challenges. Some or all of these teams may fall flat this season. But no two seasons or situations are the same. The MWC wants to become more than a one-bid league. If you share in that goal, don’t lump all their programs into the same conversation so easily.
17. Chandler Hutchison will lead the MWC in scoring
In short: He has to for them to be a top four team or to win the conference tournament.
Beyond that? Opportunity has a lot to do with it. SDSU will likely see a more balanced scoring attack. If the MWC fails to better adjust to Jordan Caroline, he may lead the league in scoring on effort plays alone for his Diet Pepsi-guzzling head coach.
Perhaps Diet Coke brand ambassador Larry Eustachy will convince Prentiss Nixon that he is Gian Clavell, and the Rams PG will lead the way. Rodney Terry has done a tremendous job in recent years of empowering and playing through his best guards to get the most out of his teams, so keep an eye on Jaron Hopkins and Deshon Taylor.
But Hutchison is the favorite. He doesn’t quite have the body that Clarke does, but he gets to the rim, can finish when he gets there, and has a solid body of work from last season to build upon.
18. UNLV, now with more than five quality players, will finish 4th
Steve Fisher was right when singing the praises of Marvin Menzies. Turns out Fisher wasn’t just doing lip service for a member of his coaching tree. UNLV’s brand, too, has remained strong despite the poor win-loss records of the last few years. Forget talent, Menzies barely had bodies to put out on the floor last season.
But he got his guys to play hard. Menzies’ five-man rotation gave SDSU all it could handle in the MWC tournament. Perhaps they would have even pulled off the upset had one of their starters not fouled out so early in the second half of their almost-upset of the Aztecs.
Be sure to chime in with some predictions/storylines to watch in the MWC this season!
Check out part one for predictions 1 through 9 here.
Written by Ben Dull. You can find him on Twitter @splitthepost
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Header image by Ernie Anderson/SDSU