No. 13 San Diego State’s trip to Colorado Springs to play Air Force on Sunday afternoon was a tougher game than some may have realized, and not solely because of the fact that the Falcons entered the game 2-1 in Mountain West play. Dave Pilipovich’s Falcons had won the last two meetings between the programs at Clune Arena, with one of those victories being a 58-56 triumph during a 2011-12 season in which Air Force won just three league games.
With Tre Coggins rolling offensively Sunday’s game set up to be a difficult one for the Aztecs, but Steve Fisher’s team won 79-72 due in large part to their offensive balance. J.J. O’Brien, who thanks in part to an injured hand failed to score in double figures for five straight games, led the way with 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds. The wrap that covered his right hand was gone on Sunday, and it was clear that not having to deal with the bandage made a difference for the versatile forward.
In total five San Diego State players scored in double figures on the day, including Xavier Thames (16 points, five assists), Winston Shepard III (14 points, six rebounds and three assists) and Josh Davis (13 points, 11 rebounds). That balance helped to offset the 29 points scored by Coggins, who through four Mountain West games is averaging 21.0 points per game. Now up to 17.8 points per contest, Coggins has been the most improved player in the Mountain West after averaging 2.4 points per game as a freshman.
Air Force, whose offensive system can be difficult to defend, shot 51.9% from the field. But they were unable to approach that percentage from three, shooting 7-for-20 from distance with San Diego State (7-for-14 3PT) scoring as many points on those shots. Matt Shrigley hit three three-pointers for SDSU, and despite being last in the Mountain West in three-point attempts the Aztecs rank second in percentage.
With their conviction to get into the paint offensively, San Diego State’s able to create quality looks from distance when there’s a need to kick the ball out. That’s been a key all season long, and that was once again the case on Sunday afternoon. The Aztecs certainly have some headliners, most notably Thames and Shepard, but they’re also a group with multiple players capable of making teams pay on any given night. And that’s one reason why they’re 14-1.
Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.
According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.
That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.
“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”
As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.
Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.
When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.
Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.
Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.
While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.
“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”
Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.