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

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source: Getty Images
Getty Images

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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source: Getty Images
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.”