Picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West’s preseason poll, No. 5 San Diego State has proven to be one of the nation’s biggest surprises of the 2013-14 season. Steve Fisher’s Aztecs, who are 18-1 on the season with their lone defeat coming against current No. 1 Arizona, own wins over Creighton and No. 6 Kansas and have won 17 in a row.
Obviously point guard Xavier Thames, who at this point is the favorite to win Mountain West Player of the Year, has been the biggest factor with the fifth-year senior leading San Diego State to an overtime win at Utah State last Saturday with 31 points (ten in overtime). But he isn’t the lone contributor, with Tulane transfer Josh Davis and returnees J.J. O’Brien, Winston Shepard III and Skylar Spencer among the valuable pieces in Fisher’s rotation.
Shepard’s development has been especially key, with the player who joined the program as the highest-rated recruit in SDSU history making strides not only statistically speaking but maturity-wise as well. After averaging 5.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest as a freshman Shepard’s up to 12.9 points and 5.2 rebounds while also dishing out 2.3 assists per game.
And in a story written by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Shepard admitted that he had some growing up to do after experiencing a freshman campaign that didn’t go as he’d planned.
“It’s hard, you know?” Shepard says, sitting in Viejas Arena after practice earlier this week, reflecting on the freshman season that wasn’t. “When you go to the high school that I went to, play with the players that I played with, always in the spotlight, always on Court 1 at AAU tournaments, it’s a downfall if you don’t have the right mindset. And I don’t know if I had the right mindset last year.
“One thing this game will do if you don’t have the right mindset, it will make you have the right mindset. Or, you’ll have to quit. You learn quickly: Nobody owes you anything.”
In conference play Shepard’s been slightly more productive for San Diego State, averaging 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, and his presence makes the Aztecs a difficult team for opponents to defend. Shepard’s one of the players intent on attacking the paint offensively, and that kind of pressure doesn’t receive the attention that it deserves.
With their athleticism and versatility San Diego State can command the paint on both ends of the floor, and it’s something they’ve been able to do during this 17-game win streak. As for Shepard he’s made good use of the lessons learned last season, with both he and the SDSU program as a whole reaping the rewards.