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No. 16 San Diego State downs No. 25 Utah, 53-49, in offensive struggle

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A layup from J.J. O’Brien with more than eight minutes remaining gave San Diego State a nine-point lead. A minute later, O’Brien assisted on Dwayne Poole II’s lone 3-point basket to once again extend the lead to nine at 37-26. In both instances, it seemed appropriate to label the game as a blowout based on how poorly Utah was performing offensively.

It wasn’t until the final minute of regulation for Utah’s star player, Delon Wright, to get his first points while a pair of desperation 3-pointers from Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge made it a one-possession game, 49-46, with under 20 seconds to play.

Although, the late burst of offense was not enough to undo the offensive woes that plagued the Utes — more so than the Aztecs’ offensive troubles — in what turned out to be a 53-49 win for No. 16 San Diego State (2-0) over newly-ranked No. 25 Utah on Tuesday evening at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

Utah (1-1) shot a dismal 16-of-49 from the field (32 percent), and that percentage increased with the Utes hitting four of their last six shots. More troubling, Delon Wright, the all-Pac-12 first teamer and preseason All American candidate was 2-for-13 (0-for-5 from three) from the field, scored his first bucket with 40 seconds left, followed later by three free throws (his only of the day) after a rare defensive mishap on the part of San Diego State resulted in Skylar Spencer fouling Wright on a 3-point shot.

To Wright’s credit did grab eight rebounds, assisted on five of Utah’s 16 field goals and came away with three steals. San Diego State’s defense forced him into tough shots, and swarmed him anytime he had the ball in his hands. The defense for the Aztecs was suffocating, and it had to be because San Diego State’s offense wasn’t much better. We went over how bad Utah was on offense, and the Utes still had a puncher’s chance at the end.

San Diego State team shooting was almost identical to Utah’s at 16-of-49 shooting.

Xavier Thames and his 17.6 points per game are gone from last season’s Sweet 16 team. He left the Aztecs without a go-to scorer and without a guy Steve Fisher can give the ball to with the game in the balance. It’s going to take time for the Aztecs to find their rhythm offensively, and that was apparent on Tuesday. Poole and Winston Shepard III shot a combined 4-of-12 for 14 points. O’Brien (12 points and 11 rebounds) was the only player to reach double figures, although, two of his three field goals came from him operating on the weak-side of the floor with two offensive rebounds leading to four of his 12 points.

The bright side is San Diego State can hang its hat on its defense as it attempts to figure out a formula for offensive success.

San Diego State hosts Cal State Bakersfield on Thursday. Utah returns home to take on UC Riverside on Friday night.

Offensive question marks aside, defense remains the staple at San Diego State

Winston Shepard (AP Photo)
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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Having lost leading scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley at the end of the 2012-13 season, San Diego State wasn’t in many conversations when it came to picking who would win the Mountain West in 2013-14. In Franklin and Tapley the Aztecs lost a combined 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, and they were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason media poll as a result. With San Diego State well on its way to putting together one of the nation’s best recruiting classes (ranked 17th by Rivals.com), 2014-15 was seen as the year in which the Aztecs would make a run at Mountain West supremacy with 2013-14 being one of transition.

San Diego State had no desire to subscribe to such thoughts, and with Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames leading the way the Aztecs won 31 games, a regular season conference title and reached the Sweet 16.

“None of it mattered,” junior forward Winston Shepard told NBCSports.com last week when asked how much attention the Aztecs paid to last year’s predictions. “[The prognosticators] weren’t with us every day, and last year they didn’t see how hard we worked. Last season was great; we had a team that had great chemistry and got along and didn’t have to deal with any outside influences. Last year was great for us, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

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San Diego State enters the 2014-15 season as a early favorites to win what’s expected to be a wide-open Mountain West race, with their being seven teams that could conceivably take the crown. But the Aztecs have a significant question to answer as they prepare for that run. The question: how will they account for the loss of Xavier Thames?

After averaging 9.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a junior, Thames emerged as one of the best players in America as a senior. Thames averaged 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per contest, and amongst players who factored into at least 24 percent his their team’s possessions he posted the best offensive rating in the Mountain West (120.0) per kenpom.com. Add in the leadership Thames provided, and that’s an awful lot to account for moving forward.

San Diego State returns three of its top five scorers from last season, led by Shepard who averaged 11.7 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a sophomore. From a versatility standpoint Shepard may be the best option to take over the role of chief playmaker for the Aztecs, with there being multiple options besides him who are capable of making teams pay in the pick and roll situations that were a staple of the SDSU attack a season ago. But in order for Shepard to take another step forward, he has to earn the respect of opponents in one particular area.

“I have to be able to knock down open jump shots,” Shepard noted. “I don’t think I have to be as good of a jump shooter as X was, because that was a bigger part of his game, but I definitely have to be able to knock down shots. I think that will open up my game.”

To Shepard’s point he shot just 18.4% from three last season, and according to hoop-math.com he struggled with two-point jumpers as well. Shepard made just 29.9% of those attempts, and nearly half of his 330 field goal attempts (164) were two-point jumpers. While no one would complain if Shepard emerged as an elite marksman from the perimeter, the fact of the matter is that becoming a consistent shooter when left alone would do wonders for his game and what he’s able to contribute.

Accounting for Thames’ departure on the perimeter won’t be the responsibility of just one player, even with the steps Shepard has taken to improve his game. Dwayne Polee II, who played the best basketball of his college career over the final month of last season, is expected to figure more prominently in the San Diego State attack and senior Aqeel Quinn and sophomores Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen will all have opportunities to earn more chances themselves. Add in freshmen Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell, and San Diego State won’t lack for options on the perimeter.

The offensive end is where San Diego State’s toughest questions lie, with this group poised to pick up where they left off defensively. Last season, the Aztecs were one of the best defensive teams in the nation, limiting opponents to 38.6% shooting from the field and 28.8% from three. Both numbers were tops in the Mountain West, and the Aztecs also led the conference in steals and turnover margin. And because of that defense, the Aztecs were undefeated in games in which they’ve scored 65 points or more (24-0).

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Skylar Spencer averaged 2.5 bpg last season (Getty Images)

In recent years San Diego State has consistently put together teams that have both length and athleticism, two traits that have served them well defensively. What will also help the Aztecs is the addition of Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, who’s eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules and is bigger and more athletic than the departed Josh Davis. With Davis, who led the team in rebounding (10.1 rpg), moving on, Chol and Skylar Spencer will be asked to lead the way inside and the feeling is that they’re more than ready for the responsibility.

Spencer started all 36 games last season, blocking 2.5 shots per game and establishing a good rapport with Thames in San Diego State’s pick and roll action. And according to Shepard, not only has the big man improved offensively but they’ve also worked hard to build a similar connection in advance of the upcoming season.

“He’s become much better on the block offensively,” Shepard said of Spencer. “Everybody knows what we’re going to get from him on the defensive end. He’s a great shot-blocker, and that allows us to pressure people on the perimeter because we know he’s back there. He’s a great finisher, and me and him are developing good chemistry in the pick and roll.”

San Diego State will also have freshmen Zylan Cheatham and Malik Pope to call upon in the front court, with the latter being a 6-foot-10 forward who’s skilled enough to score from just about anywhere on the court. In short, San Diego State has a lot of possibilities when it comes to the task of accounting for what Thames and Davis provided them last season but there are also questions offensively. Which of those talented players takes that step? Can they find enough perimeter shooting to open up lanes to the basket?

That remains to be seen, but what is known is the fact that Fisher’s teams have been tough to crack on the other end of the floor. And if that continues to be the case, San Diego State is more than capable of defending their Mountain West regular season title.

“Our defense will always be our staple,” noted Shepard. “We’ll win a lot of games just by defending well, but I think we’ll surprise some people on the offensive end. Some of our older guys have taken steps forward, so I think we’ll be a better offensive team and that will give us better balance.”

Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 San Diego Aztecs

Skylar Spencer, Dwayne Polee II
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Winston Shepard (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 18 San Diego State.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Last Season: 31-5, 16-2 Mountain West (1st), lost in the Sweet 16 to Arizona

Key Losses: Xavier Thames, Josh Davis

Newcomers: Angelo Chol (transfer), Kevin Zabo, Trey Kell, Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham

Projected Lineup

– G: Winston Shepard, Jr.
G: Dwayne Polee, Sr.
F: J.J. O’Brien, Sr.
F: Angelo Chol, Jr.
C: Skylar Spencer, Jr.
Bench: Matt Shrigley, So.; Dakarai Allen, So.; Kevin Zabo, Fr.; Trey Kell, Fr.; Malik Pope, Fr.; Zylan Cheatham, Fr., Aqeel Quinn, Sr.;

They’ll be good because … : There are not going to be many teams in the country with a lineup that is as long as San Diego State’s. Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee and J.J. O’Brien are all 6-foot-7. Angelo Chol and Skylar Spencer are both 6-foot-10. And that’s before you consider the length of some of the guys that are coming off of the bench — Dakarai Allen, Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham (assuming the latter two when they get healthy).

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Dwayne Polee (Getty Images)

Not everyone on the roster has the wingspan of an albatross — Kevin Zabo, Trey Kell and Matt Shrigley are going to play a lot of minutes — but even so, expect the Aztecs to once again be one of the best defensive teams in the country and one of the toughest teams to keep off the offensive glass.

But they might disappoint because … : The Aztecs don’t really have a go-to scorer on their roster. Losing the leadership that Xavier Thames provided is going to hurt, but what was more important was that he provided Steve Fisher with a guy that was able to create his own shot, particularly in crunch-time. It’s particularly valuable in a conference like the Mountain West, where the difference between the team in first place and the team in seventh place is relatively minimal.

Who will be that guy for SDSU this season? Whose number does Steve Fisher call when there are five minutes left at Colorado State or UNLV and a 10-0 run just erased a double-digit lead? Who can he trust to take and make a big shot? Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien are notorious for their unreliable perimeter shots. Dwayne Polee had a promising end to last season, but being an athlete that can hit a three is much different than being a go-to guy.

The Aztecs were 81st in adjusted offensive efficiency last season and will now have to replace a guy that whose offensive rating on KenPom.com was 120.0 and who used 28.6% of the team’s possessions when he was on the floor. In other words, a team that struggled offensively just lost an all-american lead guard. That’s not easy to overcome.

Outlook: The Aztecs were picked to win the Mountain West this season, and while the offensive end of the floor is going to be an issue all season long, it’s not difficult to understand why SDSU clearly looks like the best team in a perennially-balanced conference. Simply put, they are going to be a nightmare to try to score on, and while there are going to be times where a missed shot and an offensive rebound is their most effective way of scoring, there are some signs that should make the folks at Viejas Arena optimistic.

For starters, Dwayne Polee looks like he’s ready for a monster senior season. He scored in double figures in nine of the last 14 games of 2013-2014 and averaged 13.7 points in six postseason games. He needed to round out his offensive arsenal during the offseason, but his confidence should be there, and that’s a major hurdle to get past. Winston Shepard showed signs of becoming one of the better players in the Mountain West, and he’s a consistent jump shot away from being a really dangerous slasher. Throw in promising youngsters Dakarai Allen, Matt Shrigley, Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell, and someone is going to be able to provide scoring pop off the bench.

The Aztecs will rarely win games pretty. Every night is going to be a grind-it-out, physical battle, meaning that we should expect a lot of close games involving Fisher’s crew this season. But if a couple of guys took a step forward this offseason and the Aztecs are as good as we expect defensively and on the glass, this is a team that should be able to make the Sweet 16 again this season.