G Jeremy Hemsley (So.)
G Trey Kell (Jr.)
G Montaque Gill-Caesar (So.)
F Malik Pope (Jr.)
C Valentine Izundu (Sr.)
Bench: F Zylan Cheatham (So.), G Dakarai Allen (Sr.), F Jalen McDaniels (Fr.), F Max Hoetzel (So.), F Matt Shrigley (Sr.), F Nolan Narain (Fr.)
I was not old enough to remember when Steve Fisher took the men’s basketball head coaching job at San Diego State University back in 1999. If I was, there would have been little reason for me to care. Steve Fisher, the high-profile coach of the Fab 5 at Michigan, took a job in the Mountain West with a program that hadn’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in over a decade and was suffering from abysmal attendance numbers. Fisher, however, viewed this school in southern California as a diamond in the rough, and he has clearly uncovered the diamond since then. The 2015-16 season marked the end of a 6-year run of the Aztecs reaching The Dance, a run that very easily could have continued as San Diego State was one of the biggest at-large snubs in the country last season. The reality is that Fisher, now 71, has choreographed one of the most consistent programs in all of college basketball. Since that run of consecutive NCAA appearances began in 2010, the Aztecs have gone 194-55 (78%). West coast tip-times and the lack of power conference exposure grants San Diego State a best-kept-secret mentality.
Without a doubt, Fisher has established defense as the foundation of his rags-to-riches transformation of San Diego State basketball. In 5 of 7 seasons since 2010, the Aztecs have owned a top 15 defense nationally. Yet, it is almost alarming how each San Diego State team under Fisher is a carbon copy of all the others. On the recruiting trail, Fisher actively seeks out long and rangy athletes in order to execute his pesky defensive schemes, and the 2016-17 roster is a perfect example of the archetypal Steve Fisher prospect. On the other hand, the Aztecs’ hindrance during their rise has been efficient scoring. In those same 7 seasons since 2010, San Diego State has finished with a top 50 offense just twice, bottoming out at 170th nationally in 2015-16. To find the root of the offensive issues, we have to look no further than the complete absence of a floor general on the roster. There has not been a player in San Diego that can be classified as a point guard since the departure of Xavier Thames. The Trey Kell point guard experiment in 2014-15 was nothing to write home about to put it lightly, as that was a large contributor to the Aztecs’ slow start. Kell is much better-suited as a spot-up shooter anyway. Last season, then-senior Winston Shepard led the team in assist rate as a natural small forward. The last two years, overall, have been marked by stagnant and brutal half-court offense, little movement, and isolations that go nowhere. For example, in an NIT game against Washington last year:
After Kell fiddles with the ball for 15 seconds, the Aztecs late-clock solution was a ball screen for Winston Shepard, a non-shooter, who sizes up his defender on a switch and fires an airball. After completing last campaign assisting only 46.2% of makes, good for 305th out of 351 Division I teams, the 2016-17 story appears it will be scripted a bit differently. Sophomore combo guard Jeremy Hemsley seems primed to grab hold of the full-time point guard duty reins. Hemsley, a former top 100 recruit, truly has a chance to erupt into a college basketball star and has the makings of developing into the dynamic scoring point guard that Xavier Thames was in 2013-14. Three key additions will also aid in amending the Aztecs’ bone-dry offensive crisis. A cornerstone of Steve Fisher’s outline has been key transfer additions. Montaque Gill-Caesar enters after a lone season at Missouri. A proficient shot-creator, Gill-Caesar’s isos will produce some better results than several of the ones we saw last year. Indiana transfer Max Hoetzel instantly becomes San Diego State’s best pure shooter, and utilizing him in pick-and-pop and as a floor spacer at 6-9 will be essential for the Aztecs to have an efficient enough offense to be considered a national menace. Matt Shrigley also returns from injury in the same role: knock-down shooter. Good looks have been hard to come by, but that can all be disentangled by the mere threat of outside shooting on the floor.
If you ask ESPN’s Chad Ford, Malik Pope is the best NBA prospect since Jordan, and his underwhelming first two seasons in college will not allow you to tell him otherwise. San Diego State fans hope the third year’s the charm for Pope, who oozes upside, sure, but has failed to put it together due to poor shot selection and lack of an edge. Zylan Cheatham brings invaluable energy and activity off the bench. Replacing the departed Skylar Spencer is grad transfer Valentine Izundu, who makes San Diego State his third different college stop. Izundu provides the capabilities that Spencer vacates: feared rim protector. In limited minutes for Washington State in 2015-16, Izundu amassed an astounding 13.9% block rate, and should see an increase in overall production with an increase in minutes and step-down in level of competition. In the end, one thing’s for certain: a stingy defense in San Diego will always be a constant. The season will hinge on how quickly and how well Hemsley is able to adjust to the point guard role, as well as what exactly the supposed added offense is indeed able to add. The Aztecs should be able to drill threes at an at least respectable rate. If that comes to fruition, don’t be surprised to see Steve Fisher enjoy yet another 30+ win season.
Namedrop Corner: People forget….. San Diego State went 34-3 in 2010-11. They only lost 3 games!!! 2 were at the hands of JIMMER, and the other came in the Sweet 16 against the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Not too shabby. The team was comprised of a bunch seniors and some springy dude with huge hands and cornrows named Kawhi. I was a sophomore in high school watching the waning hours of the ESPN College Basketball Tip-Off Marathon late on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, and that was when the special season was born. San Diego State trudged into Spokane and exited with a 79-76 victory against #11 Gonzaga, all thanks to Billy White. Instantly growing attached to a lefty hoopster as I naturally do, White dazzled with a clinically masterful 30-point performance, going 14-18 from the field, for the one shining moment of his career.