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

Leave a comment
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.”

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mountain West Preview

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).

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

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.”

Osun Osunniyi picks St. Bonaventure over Syracuse, Georgetown

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
Leave a comment

St. Bonaventure has made something of a late splash on the recruiting trail.

Osun Osunniyi, a 6-foot-10 from Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy, signed with the Bonnies, the school announced Monday.

It’s a bit of a recruiting coup for coach Mark Schmidt, who won the services of Osunniyi over offers from Syracuse and Georgetown, both of whom hosted the prospect on official visits this spring.

“Osun oozes with potential. His ceiling is extremely high. He has so much God-given ability,” Schmidt said in a statement. “And, he’s a great kid, a character kid who is level-headed. He has a great wingspan, he runs well, he has a natural talent for blocking shots and is a very good rebounder. He can score around the basket.

“Osun wants to get better, like all of our players. We saw how he developed at Putnam, which is a credit to coach Espinosa and the staff there. He’s come a long way to become a kid who was highly recruited. We’re thrilled to have him come to St. Bonaventure.”

Osunniyi, who previously committed to La Salle before taking a prep year, becomes the fourth member of the Bonnies’ 2018 freshman class. He averaged 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots per game while Putnam won a national prep championship.

The Bonnies made the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed last year after going 26-8.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Leave a comment

South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.