New Year’s Resolutions: San Diego State Aztecs

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source: AP
Steve Fisher (AP Photo)

Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.

MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

SAN DIEGO STATE PROMISES TO: Do a better job of finding quality looks on offense.

  • It will happen because: This is a group that doesn’t lack for talent, with junior Winston Shepard and seniors Aqeel Quinn and Dwayne Polee II among those who are asked to take care of the offense for Steve Fisher. In regards to Polee, his finish to the 2013-14 season is a clear indicator that he’s capable of being a consistently productive offensive option. And in big men Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol the Aztecs have two interior players who can complete the pick-and-roll situations that have been a staple for San Diego State in recent years. As poorly as this team has shot offensively, things have to turn around at some point, right?
  • It won’t happen because: While the shooting percentages (40.0% FG, 27.0% 3PT) have been poor, the bigger issue for San Diego State has been the caliber of shots they’ve been able to create. SDSU’s assist percentage is better than it was a season ago, but the fact of the matter is that they’re still searching for a creator who can do some of the things that made Mountain West POY Xavier Thames so special last season. Trey Kell’s been the starter at the point, with Shepard also being placed in a position where he can make plays offensively, but things have yet to click for this group.

SAN DIEGO STATE ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Continue to have issues protecting the defensive glass.

  • It will happen because: Opponents are currently rebounding 36.3% of their missed shots this season, a percentage that nearly seven points worse than what the Aztecs allowed a season ago. While the addition of Chol has given SDSU more athleticism inside, the now-departed Josh Davis was one of the best defensive rebounders in America. Neither Spencer nor Chol have rebounded at a level approaching Davis’, and given how good the Aztecs are at forcing missed shots (opponents are shooting 37.1%) that’s a big deal moving forward.
  • It won’t happen because: Unlike last season, in which Davis grabbed 10.1 rebounds per game and no other Aztec averaged more than 4.9 rpg (Shepard), these current Aztecs handle rebounding responsibilities as a committee with J.J. O’Brien averaging a team-best 5.9 rebounds per game. Three SDSU players are averaging at least five rebounds per game (Spencer- 5.8 rpg; Shepard- 5.1 rpg), and three more are averaging between 3.1 and 3.9. San Diego State can buckle down on the glass, just as they have defensively, thus shoring things up in that department as they approach the start of Mountain West play.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 San Diego Aztecs

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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).

source: Getty Images
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.

San Diego State begins process of finding its next ‘go-to guy’

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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.

Trey Kell commits to San Diego State

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San Diego State added a second commitment in the Class of 2014 on Tuesday night, as Trey Kell, one of the best scoring guards on the west coast, committed to Steve Fisher and the Aztecs.

The decision wasn’t much of a surprise. Kell’s decision reportedly came down to SDSU and Vanderbilt, and the Commodores have already added a number of perimeter players in their 2014 recruiting class.

“It’s a dream of mine to play Division I college basketball,” Kell told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “and to play it in my hometown at such a high-caliber program around family and friends is really a dream come true.”

Kell isn’t an overpowering athlete at the off-guard spot, but he’s got size and he understands how to score. He has range well beyond the three point line and he understands had to use change of pace to beat defenders off the dribble. He will score a lot of points in the Mountain West.

Kell is the No. 118 player in the class, according to Rivals. He’ll join Kevin Zabo in the Aztecs’ 2014 class.