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MWC Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin returns to Aztecs
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 15 San Diego State.
San Diego State has arrived on the national stage and has the potential to notch its second 30-win campaign in three seasons.
The Aztecs return four starters from a 26–8 squad, including Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin. The addition of three transfers, including athletic wing Dwayne Polee II (St. John’s) and forward JJ O’Brien (Utah), and the arrival of highly regarded freshman forward Winston Shepard, have heightened expectations.
Coach Steve Fisher’s team appears to be a lock for its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and reaching the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years is a strong possibility. The Kawhi Leonard-led team that went 34–3 two seasons ago moved the Aztecs into the upper stratosphere of West Coast programs. Last year’s team proved that SDSU was not simply a one-hit wonder.
Winning big this season is important to the Aztecs as they move into murky waters in the future. The basketball program leaves the Mountain West after the season for the Big West, a move necessitated by the football program’s migration to the Big East. The Big West will rate as a significant drop in status for a program currently clicking on all cylinders.
Shepard arrives as one of the top-rated recruits ever to sign with San Diego State. Ranked in the top 25 nationally by Scout and Rivals, Shepard will be given the chance to make the same type of impact Leonard did two seasons ago. There is, however, reason for concern: Shepard was arrested in late June for marijuana possession. The matter will be settled well before the season begins but certainly rates as an inauspicious start.
Polee II started 27 games as a freshman at St. John’s two years ago and transferred back to his Southern California roots due to the health of his mother. Polee’s athleticism has the Aztecs excited about mismatch opportunities when he is teamed on the floor with Franklin and Shepard.
O’Brien started 21 games for Utah as a freshman and bolsters a thin interior. Forward James Johnson will be eligible in December after transferring from Virginia. His 6-9, 238-pound frame is a welcome addition, as San Diego State lacked a presence like his last season.
Freshman forward Skylar Spencer doesn’t need to be rushed into action but can help right away, if needed, as a rebounder and shot-blocker. Freshman wing Matt Shrigley is a promising player who has the ability to develop into a double-digit scorer.
Franklin heads one of the nation’s top backcourts after being one of the country’s most improved players a season ago. The athletic 6-5 Franklin averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds as a sophomore and displayed a knack for making big shots. He occasionally makes careless mistakes, but the Aztecs don’t want to rein in his aggressiveness.
Senior Chase Tapley ranks 20th on San Diego State’s all-time scoring list with 1,079 career points and is the only player in school history to play in three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He averaged 15.8 points last year and notched a team-best 60 steals.
Junior point guard Xavier Thames also averaged in double figures (10.1 ppg) while expertly running the offense. Thames’ assists average (4.1 apg) figures to rise with the Aztecs having improved in the frontcourt.
Senior James Rahon is a solid 3-point marksman when he is on his game. Rahon, who averaged 8.9 points, shot just 32 percent from 3-point range while hampered by a foot injury. He underwent surgery in June and hopes to regain the form that saw him make 43.4 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2010-11.
Junior guard LaBradford Franklin provides depth but was turnover-prone (47 in 398 minutes) last season.
The Aztecs open their season against Syracuse on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum on Nov. 9 and hope to be playing a similar marquee opponent on a big-time stage deep in the NCAA Tournament.
San Diego State has all the necessary ingredients to make a lengthy postseason run. The Aztecs are Tournament tested with three straight appearances and have one of the most talented teams in program history.
Mountain West foes UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State will ensure that the Aztecs are battle-tested during the conference slate, and the nonconference schedule includes a rare game against UCLA (in the Wooden Classic) as well as the opener vs. Syracuse.
Just reaching the NCAA Tournament is no longer good enough at San Diego State, which is a true testament to the job Fisher has done in building the program to an elite level.