There are a few highly-ranked teams this season that thrive on defense but have so far left much to be desired on the other side of the ball. One such squad San Diego State. Despite their overwhelming victory against San Jose State tonight — 90-64, a game in which the Aztecs scored 1.20 points per possessions — SDSU truly struggles executing their halfcourt offense.
Other than Arizona, there isn’t another team this year that can lock up an opponent like Steve Fisher’s group. The Aztecs have defensively stymied opponents, holding teams overall to .91 points per possession — that OPPP is still a robust .95 in Mountain West play — but the Aztecs are an offensive mess. Of the handful of teams that could compete for the national title this year, a group that includes SDSU, no other squad possesses a lower offensive efficiency rating than SDSU (1.06 PPP). They don’t have a perimeter outlet since SDSU doesn’t take, or make, many threes, so the majority of their scoring has to come from within the arc or at the bucket, but that offense, specifically their two-point shooting, has suffered, hovering around 45 percent in conference play.
One would think a team with Xavier Thames, however, one of the country’s most dynamic guards, would field at least a somewhat competent offense, but Fisher’s squad simply has trouble getting easy baskets. The reason is surprising — SDSU is way too dependent on one-on-one and isolation possessions. The team’s assist rate is one of the lowest in Division I, a shocking 38.4 percent; nearly three-quarters of SDSU’s field goal attempts come in the halfcourt and the team’s effective field goal percentage for a non-transition attempt is under 50 percent. Taking the numbers deeper, and a troubling pattern is further fleshed out: a majority of the shots in those halfcourt sets are twos, and the Aztecs’ field goal percentage is just 32.5 percent.
A significant problem for the Aztecs is ball-watching: both Thames and Winston Shepard have usage rates of more than 25 percent, but no one Aztec who plays significant minutes has a rate over 20 percent. The team relies too heavily on both guards to create and distribute that the offense suffers when an opponent does manage to contain the backcourt.
This offensive stagnancy was evident in this weekend’s loss to New Mexico, managing only four assists and posting one of their worst offensive efficiency ratings this year (.75 PPP). San Diego State’s top 25 ranking is largely attributed to their defensive fortitude, but if the Aztecs fall early in the NCAA tournament, a large factor will likely be this inability to score.