College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 13 San Diego State is preparing for another run in the NCAA Tournament after reaching the Sweet 16 in two of the last four years. Once an afterthought, winning the Mountain West is now commonplace for Steve Fisher’s team. Do the Aztecs have what it takes to reach truly uncharted territory in the Elite Eight or better?
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San Diego State exceeded expectations last season with the second Sweet 16 appearance in school history, and it will be no surprise to see the Aztecs advance deep into the NCAA Tournament again this season.
The Aztecs lost their top two players in point guard Xavier Thames and rebounding dynamo Josh Davis, but plenty of athleticism and talent remains on campus. San Diego State returns three frontcourt starters (JJ O’Brien, Winston Shepard and Skylar Spencer) and the Mountain West’s top reserve (Dwayne Polee II) from a 31–5 club. They also welcome an impressive cast of newcomers.
Once a program with no tradition that received sparse interest locally, the Aztecs are among the top programs in the West and seeking their 10th consecutive 20-win campaign. San Diego State has won at least 25 contests in five of the last six seasons, topped by a school-best 34–3 mark in 2010-11.
A knack for reloading and the ability to get players to sell out defensively have been trademarks of the program’s recent successful run. The names change, role players develop into standouts and the victories follow.
San Diego State is easily the class of the Mountain West entering this season. The question isn’t whether or not the Aztecs will be part of the NCAA Tournament field. It is this: How far can they advance?
No. 13 San Diego State Facts & Figures
Last season: 31-5, 16-2 Mountain West
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 5
Coach: Steve Fisher (312-176 overall at San Diego State, 129-99 Mountain West)
Mountain West Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Sweet 16
The athletic Shepard will receive the opportunity to show he’s a go-to player after finishing second on the squad in scoring (11.6 ppg) as a sophomore. Shepard fancied himself as a one-and-done college player, but his inconsistent jumper remains a work-in-progress despite impressive versatility to play multiple positions.
Polee was the Mountain West’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, and the 6-7 wing has the nickname — “TramPolee” — to go with his soaring skill set. Polee was a force over the second half of last season and helps present matchup problems if San Diego State opts to start him in a three-forward alignment.
O’Brien and Spencer are returning starters who know their roles. O’Brien, a senior forward, does all the little things and is a strong defender, while Spencer, a 6-10 junior center, established a school record for blocked shots (89) in a season and is on pace to shatter the school’s career mark.
Arizona transfer Angelo Chol and freshman Zylan Cheatham will supply much-needed interior depth. Ballyhooed freshman Malik Pope will receive opportunities to contribute on the wing, while sophomore Matt Shrigley will again play a role after ranking second on the squad in 3-point baskets (40) last season.
San Diego State will be hard-pressed to replace Thames, who emerged as a major star as a senior and became a second-round draft pick of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
Sophomore D’Erryl Williams played in 20 games off the bench last season and will compete with incoming freshman Kevin Zabo, a Canadian import. Whoever lands the starting point guard role will represent a drop-off from Thames, and coach Steve Fisher will attempt to diminish the amount of pressure the duo will face early in the season.
Incoming freshman Trey Kell will have a chance to make an impact at shooting guard — whether it be as a starter or from off the bench. Kell averaged 25.6 points last season as one of the top prep players in San Diego.
Holdovers Aqeel Quinn and Dakarai Allen will compete for playing time, as will Hartford transfer Parker U’u.
San Diego State figures to be an NCAA Tournament participant for the sixth straight season — an incredible accomplishment for a program that had never notched an NCAA victory prior to the 2011 tourney.
The Aztecs have established an expectation of winning and have reached the Sweet 16 in two of the past four seasons. The next step is making it to the Elite Eight, but the 69-year-old Fisher also has an eye on cracking the Final Four before he retires.
How ready the newcomers are for the big stage might determine whether 2015 is the year in which San Diego State breaks through. The abundance of depth will ensure that a key injury won’t derail those hopes.
Regardless, the Aztecs will again be one of the top programs in the West and a program to watch during the month of March.
Angelo Chol was a valuable reserve at national powerhouse Arizona and has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Malik Pope earned a five-star recruiting grade from one major recruiting service despite missing all of last season with a broken left leg. Zylan Cheatham also figures to make an immediate contribution after being one of the top prep players in the state of Arizona. Trey Kell is a highly regarded shooter, while Kevin Zabo provides much-needed playmaking ability.