Winston Shepard, Aztecs look to keep momentum going in San Diego
San Diego State is always itching to be taken seriously on the national stage, and an opportunity was missed that might have solved that issue once and for all.
The Aztecs were exposed by eventual national champion Duke in the Round of the 32 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, as a season-long inability to score finally caught up with a team that went 27–9. And that is what must change this season for San Diego State to shed that perception of being scrappy and tenacious but not ready for big-time status.
The Aztecs need to figure out how to score after averaging just 61.8 points in 2014-15. Improving on shooting percentages of 41.8 overall, 32.0 percent from 3-point range and 63.0 percent from the free throw line is a must if San Diego State wants to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in school history.
The defense should be as unyielding as ever, and the program has a solid chance at winning 25 games for the seventh time in eight seasons. Shot-blocking center Skylar Spencer and forward Winston Shepard are returning starters, but Matt Shrigley, the team’s top 3-point threat and a 17-game starter in 2014-15, was sidelined with a torn ACL during the summer.
The Aztecs remain the most talented team in the MW, but the squad once again enters the season without a go-to scorer and will be counting on forward Malik Pope to improve on an inconsistent first season and incoming freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley to be a difference-maker.
All Mountain West Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Shepard has been an enigma over the past three seasons, as his production often falls short of his talent. He led the Aztecs in scoring last season at a modest 11.1 per game. He fancied himself as a one-and-done player when he arrived at San Diego State and never intended to be around for his senior season. Shepard checked out his NBA Draft options in the spring, but a 9.6-point career scoring average and other deficiencies didn’t impress evaluators, so he’s back with one more chance to evolve into one of the better players in the Mountain West.
Another player who surprisingly considered applying for the NBA Draft was the 6'10" Pope, who didn’t start a game while averaging 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds as a freshman. Despite his lack of productivity, Pope’s length and projections about his shooting ability led to scuttlebutt that he would be a first-round selection. The Aztecs would like to see his skills flourish while he’s still in college, and the opportunity is there for Pope to become that needed go-to player. However, he scored in double digits only four times last season.
Spencer is already the top shot blocker (231) in San Diego State history, and the 6'10" senior will be asked to improve his rebounding average of 5.1. He’s an offensive liability, but the Aztecs are willing to live with that due to his ability to dominate on defense.
Senior Angelo Chol, a former top recruit who began his career at Arizona, figures to be the top inside reserve unless highly regarded redshirt freshman Zylan Cheatham emerges. Cheatham, a former top-100 national recruit, missed last season due to a foot injury but is fully recovered.
Shrigley, who averaged 5.1 points and made 41 3-pointers as a junior is hoping to return to the lineup during February.
San Diego State Aztecs Facts & Figures
Last season: 27–9, 14–4 Mountain West
Postseason: Second Round
Consecutive NCAAs: 6
Mountain West Projection: 1
Postseason Projection: Second Round
San Diego State is thin in the backcourt and will once again use an abundance of three-forward alignments to make up for the shortages.
Sophomore shooting guard Trey Kell started the first 15 games a year ago before getting demoted to reserve status. He shot just 33.3 percent from the field, including a woeful 22.1 percent from 3. The Aztecs are hoping the experience he gained last season will lead to an improved all-around game.
Hemsley will open the season at the point unless he proves to be overwhelmed or overmatched in the weeks leading up to the first game. The much-ballyhooed prospect seems primed to make an immediate impact.
Junior Dakarai Allen is a stellar defender and will again be a key player off the bench. Junior D’Erryl Williams provides added depth.
Key Losses: F JJ O’Brien, F Dwayne Polee, G Aqeel Quinn
Top Players: G Jeremy Hemsley, G Trey Kell, F Winston Shepard, F Malik Pope, F/C Skylar Spencer
Jeremy Hemsley was a consensus top-100 recruit who shouldn’t need much time to get comfortable at the collegiate level. Zylan Cheatham received valuable practice time last season after his foot injury healed, and that should reduce the learning curve. Nolan Norain, originally part of the class of 2016, reclassified over the summer. He was a great late addition for the Azetcs.
Coach Steve Fisher is 70 years old and wants to take the Aztecs to the Final Four before he retires. But that doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility with the current squad, which is too similar to last season’s offensively challenged group.
A seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament is a near certainty, and so is an 11th straight 20-win campaign, but reaching the Sweet 16 appears to be the ceiling for this team.