San Diego State lost their second game of the season on Christmas night, falling to Arizona in one of the more thrilling finishes you’ll see this season.
If you missed it, after a second half that saw both teams exchange haymakers, Mark Lyons hit a pair of free throws to put the Wildcats up 68-67 before Nick Johnson saved the win by coming out of nowhere to block a would-be game-winning layup by Chase Tapley.
The only other time that the Aztecs have played an elite team this season was when they lost to Syracuse in their season-opener, although the fact that that game was played outside on a windy day should discount that game. But it does create a bit of concern; last season, SDSU put together an impressive record, but a lack of impressive wins — especially outside of conference play — led to some concern heading into the NCAA tournament.
That concern was proven correct, as the Aztecs got smacked around by NC State in the opening round of the Big Dance.
And while this year is trending in the same direction, watching SDSU in the Diamond Head Classic only made me believe that this group will be better than last season.
For starters, Chase Tapley has slowly but surely developed into one of the nation’s most underrated players. He’s a deadly jump-shooter that thrives in the clutch. I’m not sure there are five players in the country that I would want taking a big three more than Tapley. It doesn’t hurt that Xavier Thames is also shooting the ball much more effectively than he did last season as well.
Perhaps the biggest difference with this group, however, is that they are much longer and more athletic than they were a season ago. Jamaal Franklin has not been as effective as he was a season ago, as his shooting numbers are down and his turnover numbers are up. Part of the reason for that is because he’s spending more time at the three than he did a year ago, when he played the Kim English-esque, undersized four role.
And while that may make Franklin’s stat lines a bit uglier at the end of the day, it should be a good thing for SDSU as a whole. Franklin is still going to be a tough matchup for small forwards across the country — especially with his ability to rebound the ball — and having versatile four men like Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee and JJ O’Brien lining up alongside better-than-we-thought bigs like Deshawn Stephens and Skylar Spencer will allow SDSU to better matchup with some of the bigger front lines.
Whether or not Franklin will be able to buy-in to the fact that SDSU will be better with him playing a small role.
But if it wasn’t for a ridiculous play made by Nick Johnson, I don’t think that this would be a discussion that we needed to have.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.