Team Preview: 2014 SDSU Aztecs
By: Tory Davis
Coach: Steve Fisher 281-168 (464-248 overall)
2011-2012 Finish: 23-11 (9-7 in MWC), NCAA Third Round
The Aztecs faced an identity crisis coming into the 2013-2014 season: senior point guard Chase Tapley was moving on, and versatile forward Jamaal Franklin declared for the NBA draft. Forwards Winston Shepard and Skylar Spencer didn’t make great strides in their freshman seasons; as sophomores they would need to build up their games.
But Coach Steve Fisher didn’t need to panic. He simply handed the reigns over to fifth-year guard Xavier Thames, a transfer from Washington State who contributed nearly 10 points per game as the backup point guard last season. Thames embraced the starting point guard role early in the 2013-2014 campaign, scoring 16 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field. Fisher also signed up fifth-year senior forward Josh Davis, who comes to San Diego after graduating from Tulane. Despite losing its two stars from last year, the Aztecs have reloaded admirably.
Strongside: Davis brings with him a mature, experienced skill set. He adds a presence in the paint; he averaged a double-double per game with Tulane and so far this season has averaged 11 boards per game for a very active Aztecs frontcourt. Indeed, Davis joins Shepard and Spencer inside to give the Aztecs size, athleticism and length.
Shepard and Spencer have taken major strides in their sophomore seasons. Shepard has developed a scoring touch and averages 13 points per game. He leads the Aztecs’ starters in field goal percentage as well. Spencer has become stronger defensively, averaging almost three blocks per game and routinely getting his hands on loose basketballs thanks to his wide wingspan. The size of the Aztecs’ frontcourt has resulted in the team leading the nation in field goal percentage defense and sitting in second place for points allowed per game. With forward J.J. O’Brien in the mix as a talented rebounder, the Aztecs have the potential to dominate in the paint.
Weakside: Apart from Thames, the Aztecs are not a strong team when it comes to shooting the basketball. SDSU is heavily reliant on second-chance points. While the team is strong on the boards, it seems that often their best play is to throw the ball up and hope for a high-percentage shot on an offensive rebound.
The Aztecs are also lacking in depth. Coach Fisher largely looks to forward Matt Shrigley and guard Dakarai Allen off the bench, both of whom are freshmen. Fisher also periodically charges Shepard with running the offense with Thames on the bench, and the results are mixed. Shepard is a good passer, but he turns the ball over almost as often as he records an assist.
All Told: Coach Fisher has done a fine job of filling in the gaps after losing his star players from last year. Davis’ veteran inside presence appears to have taken some of the pressure off Shepard and Spencer. Together they form perhaps the most stifling defense in the nation. Their ability to keep opponents from working good shots was key in their victory over Kansas on the road. SDSU is a team that will try to win with old-school, hardworking basketball; they won’t be able to hang in there if their defense can’t shut down the opposition. The model ought to get them to the Big Dance, but a complete team that can match the SDSU’s size inside and work open shots on the outside will likely give the Aztecs a lot of trouble.
Tory Davis is Playboy Bracket Challenge’s version of Homer: a sportswriter who supplies both long-winded odysseys and consciously epic analysis. He has a distinct west coast bias and believes that western teams are constantly underrated (even though last year’s tourney brought underwhelming results for almost all west coast teams). When not yelling at sports on his TV, he is a passionate beer drinker and arrogant debater. He can be celebrated on Twitter @ToryADavis10.