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.
The wing position in college basketball this season will be fun to keep track of. It can be argued that from a depth standpoint this is the strongest position for incoming freshmen, with two players expected to be NBA Draft lottery selections in the near future and others expected to have a significant impact on their team’s fortunes. But there are also skilled veterans among the ranks, including one who reached the Final Four last season and another whose team fell one win short of that goal. What’s the common bond amongst many of these players? Versatility, which allows them to impact games in multiple facets.
Below are some of the best wings in college basketball this season, beginning with a gifted freshman from the Pac-12.
1. Stanley Johnson, Arizona: Johnson has the build of a pro and the skill set to match, as he’s capable of scoring at all three levels with great consistency. He’s no slouch on the defensive end either, which is key when fitting into what was one of the nation’s best defensive teams a season ago. In a season without a clear-cut choice for national Player of the Year, Arizona’s freshman wing could be right in the mix come March.
2. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: Dekker went from reserve to starter in 2013-14 and his productivity was one reason for the Badgers’ trek to the Final Four. Dekker averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 47 percent from the field. If he can raise his three-point shooting back to freshman year levels (39.1%), and he looked better shooting the ball at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July, Dekker becomes an even tougher assignment for opposing teams.
3. Delon Wright, Utah: The late Bum Phillips’ words regarding Earl Campbell may apply to Wright when it comes to discussing the most versatile players in college basketball: “he may not be in a class by himself, but it don’t take long to call roll.” Wright (15.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.3 apg) was a pivotal figure for the Utes in 2013-14, leading the team in scoring and assists. It could be argued that Wright should be on the lead guards list given how often he’s allowed to initiate the offense for Larry Krystkowiak’s team, but he fits in at any of the three perimeter positions.
4. Kelly Oubre, Kansas: One of three freshmen to make the top ten in our list, Oubre has the skill set needed to be one of the most gifted scorers in the country immediately. The 6-foot-8 lefty has a slight build, but he can finish through contact and is a good perimeter shooter as well. Oubre also uses ball screens well, an attribute that was on display at the adidas Nations camp in August. Given the production Kansas lost on the wing in the form of Andrew Wiggins, Oubre will have plenty of chances to put points on the board.
5. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: Hollis-Jefferson is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and he was very good around the basket as a freshman. The question for Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg in 2013-14) is a simple one: how much has he improved his perimeter shooting over the summer? Hollis-Jefferson showed progress in July at the Lebron camp, and a consistent perimeter shot would make him an even tougher player for opponents to defend.
6. Treveon Graham, VCU: The 6-foot-6 senior has been a consistently productive player for Shaka Smart throughout his career, averaging 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season. Graham can certainly shoot the ball from the perimeter, but he’s good in the mid-range game and can put the ball on the deck as well. He’ll be one of the leaders for a team expected by many to win the Atlantic 10.
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: The third freshman in the top ten, the 6-foot-8 Jackson can score both inside and out for the Tar Heels in 2014-15. As a high school senior Jackson averaged 31.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, and his length makes him a nuisance on the defensive end of the floor.
8. Aaron White, Iowa: With Roy Devyn Marble having moved on, the 6-foot-8 White will be an even more important player for the Hawkeyes in 2014-15. As a junior White averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, shooting 58.6% from the field. The loss of Marble should open up more opportunities for White, especially when it comes to the mid-range game where he was so successful a season ago.
9. Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson’s had to navigate injuries for most of his career in East Lansing, but there should be little doubt regarding his skill level. Last season Dawson averaged 11.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest, and given the amount of production the Spartans lost (Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne) the senior will need to be even more influential on the offensive end.
10. Wesley Saunders, Harvard: Saunders is one of the leaders for the Crimson, having averaged 14.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game as a junior. Saunders’ versatility is one of his greatest attributes, and he’s also done a good job of getting to the foul line in each of the last two seasons.
THE NEXT TEN
11. Anthony Brown, Stanford
12. Justise Winslow, Duke
13. Winston Shepard III, San Diego State
14. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
15. Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State
16. Sam Thompson, Ohio State
17. Dustin Hogue, Iowa State
18. Theo Pinson, North Carolina
19. Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
20. Anthony Drmic, Boise State
ALSO CONSIDERED: Justin Anderson (Virginia), Patricio Garino (George Washington), Vince Hunter (UTEP), Nick King (Memphis), Justin Martin (SMU), Sheldon McClellan (Miami), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming), Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State), Marcus Thornton (Georgia), Tyrone Wallace (California), Byron Wesley (Gonzaga).
More than a few people saw the 2013-14 season as one of transition for Steve Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs. Of course things didn’t work out that way, as senior Xavier Thames emerged as one of the best players in the country as SDSU won 31 games and the Mountain West regular season title and reached the Sweet 16. Thames was San Diego State’s most efficient player, and in late-game situations everyone knew who would be entrusted with the task of creating a scoring opportunity for the Aztecs.
San Diego State, which adds Arizona transfer Angelo Chol and a very talented freshman class, may have lost “just” two players from last season’s team but those were important players in Thames and leading rebounder Josh Davis. Fisher’s Aztecs have begun practice, and according to Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune figuring out who will be the go-to guy in crunch time is one of the tasks for a group seen as the favorite to win the Mountain West.
The search for a player Fisher and his staff can call on in those situations boils down to two areas: productivity and trust.
And without X?
You can set a ball screen again, but now you’re entrusting your fate to a true freshman instead of a fifth-year senior who would become Mountain West player of the year. You can clear out for Dwayne Polee II, whose jumper is much improved and also unblockable given his freakish elevation. You can just keep running the offense and hope somebody gets a reasonable look.
Last year a clear solution emerged by November. Fisher has five weeks to find one this year.
Polee’s an interesting case when it comes to assessing this issue, because the slender wing improved significantly as the season progressed in 2013-14. The Los Angeles native averaged 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game for the season, but from February on he reached double figures in nine games including the final five of the season. Also of note when it comes to Polee: he shot 39.1% from beyond the arc, displaying improved form and greater confidence in the shot as the season progressed.
Polee certainly isn’t the only option for San Diego State, with junior Winston Shepard III capable of initiating things offensively as are freshman guards Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell. The question for the Aztecs: which player, or players, steps forward as they look to build on last year’s success.
No. 8 San Diego State isn’t a team that will light up the scoreboard offensively. With Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard III doing their best to probe the lane against the opposition, the Aztecs have been at their best when those two are on their game when it comes to both scoring an distributing the basketball to the supporting cast.
That wasn’t the case in Saturday’s Mountain West championship game, with Thames making just six of his 16 field goal attempts and Shepard shooting 4-for-15. With New Mexico struggling against the Aztecs’ 1-2-1-1 full court press, those off nights prohibited the Aztecs from taking advantage and gaining separation. The end result: a 64-58 Lobo victory, giving the program its third consecutive Mountain West tournament title.
If anything the pressure allowed the Aztecs to continue to stand toe-to-toe with New Mexico, as they scored 21 points off of 15 Lobo turnovers. But with Thames, who committed his fourth foul with 11:03 remaining, struggling offensively San Diego State led by no more than three points in the second half. Once New Mexico calmed down they were able to get better shots, turning the tables with Kendall Williams’ three-pointer with 26 seconds remaining being the final nail in the coffin.
It wasn’t all negative for the Aztecs, especially when it comes to the play of Dwayne Polee II. Polee scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, and his three days in Las Vegas is a key development for the Aztecs moving forward. Polee averaged 13.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, giving San Diego State some needed help on both ends of the floor.
It’s no secret that Thames and Shepard will be the focal points offensively, and their struggles on Saturday contributed to the Aztecs’ falling short of their goal. But if they can continue to get solid contributions from a more confident Polee, that will bode well for the Aztecs in the NCAA tournament.
This didn’t do the Aztecs much good Saturday afternoon, with New Mexico limiting San Diego State’s two best offensive options. The supplementary pieces are important, but if San Diego State is to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament they’ll need Thames and Shepard to be at their best.
Senior guard Xavier Thames has led the way all season long for No. 10 San Diego State, as he’s been the best scorer and playmaker for a team one win away from the outright Mountain West regular season title. That was once again the case Wednesday night in Las Vegas, but he had help down the stretch in the form of Winston Shepard III as the Aztecs beat UNLV 73-64.
Thames may have shot just 6-for-18 from the field for the game but he was far better in the second half, scoring 15 of his 19 points on 4-for-9 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Thames and Shepard combined to score San Diego State’s final 12 points, leading the Aztecs on a 14-5 run over the final 4:47 to move back into a tie for first place in the Mountain West with No. 21 New Mexico.
And the points scored by that tandem only tell part of the story. Simply put, Shepard and Thames are better decision-makers than any of UNLV’s primary ball-handlers, and that was evident down the stretch. Neither player committed a turnover on Wednesday night, with UNLV’s Deville Smith accounting for seven turnovers and Bryce Dejean-Jones adding three. Overall the Runnin’ Rebels turned the ball over 16 times, with San Diego State turning those opportunities into 19 points.
Thames and Shepard have been the leaders offensively this season and that’s going to be the case for the remainder of the season. But for San Diego State to make a serious run deep into March (and maybe even April) that tandem will need help, and against UNLV Dwayne Polee Jr. and Matt Shrigley provided it. Polee scored 13 points and Shrigley added 14, with all of his points coming in the second half. Shooting 33.7% from three on the season, Shrigley hit four of his five attempts from beyond the arc in the second half.
The contributions of Polee and Shrigley were needed against UNLV, with Josh Davis failing to score while battling foul trouble for much of the season, putting the Aztecs in position to win the game late. That’s when Thames and Shepard took over, guaranteeing that Saturday’s showdown with New Mexico will be a “winner take all” affair.
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.
“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.