San Diego State eyeing breakout season in tough Mountain West
UNLV will once again be favored, but San Diego State should continue to excel
Coach Steve Fisher could be working with his best roster yet at SDSU this season
Given a competitive Mountain West, could the league see four tourney berths?
According to folklore -- OK, according to the write-up on its own dedicated website -- the origins of San Diego State's now-celebrated student section, The Show, were quite modest. Started by a handful of students who cared a little too much about a .500 basketball team early last decade, the group used to augment its own enjoyment of Aztecs games by having individual members walk onto the court and assist the cheerleaders with routines during timeouts. The regular invasions prompted an SDSU message board poster to accuse the kids of "thinking you're the whole show," and a nickname was launched.
Now, a decade later, Aztec basketball is at an all-time peak, with 81 wins over the past three seasons, the first two NCAA tournament wins in school history, and a first-round NBA pick in Kawhi Leonard. Yet as each season has unfolded in the Mountain West, there's been another team with a bigger, louder story. In 2010, Steve Alford's New Mexico Lobos won their last 14 league games to take the crown and play their way into a 3-seed in the NCAAs. In 2011, despite the Aztecs' 20-0 start, the buzz was principally about Jimmer Fredette and then 19-1 BYU, a point hammered home during the Cougars' subsequent pair of 13-point regular-season wins. Last year, UNLV was the flavor du jour even as the Lobos and Aztecs ended up tied for the league title. This year? More of the same.
If their student section is The Show, then perhaps the Aztecs themselves could be called The Sideshow? No one seems too worried, though, about what others think of what should be another top-20 team this season. Viejas Arena is already sold out for the season and the Aztecs know that if they live up to advance billing, perhaps the outside spotlight may finally be there.
"You just gotta keep doing what we've been doing. Just go on out there and winning," redshirt junior point guard Xavier Thames said. "If we're winning, we're going to attract a lot of people. That's the main thing."
After thriving with a guard-heavy look in what was expected to be a rebuilding campaign last year, the Aztecs bring back four starters from that squad and have added a significant cache of frontcourt talent to enhance the balance, athleticism and depth on the roster. Defensive stalwart Winston Shepard arrives from Findlay Prep and he'll be joined by transfer big men J.J. O'Brien (Utah), Dwayne Polee (St. John's) and James Johnson (eligible for second semester after a mid-year transfer from Virginia).
Individually, none are expected to provide program-changing impact, but collectively, to go with the returning backcourt talent, the newcomers could help create the Aztecs' best roster under Steve Fisher. And even if this group is not quite as talented as the 2010-11 team that was 34-2 before losing to eventual national champ UConn in the Sweet 16 by seven, the current Aztecs will benefit from the accumulation of confidence garnered over these past few seasons.
"I think what we now have is what all really good programs have," Fisher said. "We have a culture and a basis where our kids genuinely expect to win. They don't dismiss what you have to do to win, but they think they're going to win. Against anybody."
That attitude will be needed to navigate another challenging schedule, with nonleague showdowns with Syracuse and UCLA coming before what could be the most competitive season in Mountain West history. With UNLV loaded, New Mexico still solid, Colorado State returning four starters (and importing Minnesota transfer center Colton Iverson to help erase last season's lack of size), Nevada entering the league with a good roster and even second-division teams like Wyoming and Air Force looking improved, there is a significant chance the MWC could place four teams into the NCAAs for the third time in four seasons.
"The league will be very, very good," said Fisher, who is the only coach in the conference who has been there since it debuted in 1999 and has seen its evolution from a one/two-bid league. "It's competitive, balanced and maybe as good as just about any league in the country, so it will be a challenge playing in it."
The Aztecs will have to spend the preseason and nonconference play sifting through their options, with Fisher saying that even starting spots from last year are not guaranteed. The league has now gotten a full look at leading scorer Jamaal Franklin and at Thames running the point, and will adjust. The Aztecs could use a second shooter to emerge to complement the lethal Chase Tapley, lest he have a bad night or opponents gameplan to take him away. Which combinations of big men will work? Who will have minutes carved? These are all nice issues to have, but as Fisher and Thames suggested, they're issues that only resolve themselves when you're winning.
That hasn't been a problem the last few years on Montezuma Mesa, and it shouldn't be one this season, which then circles back to when the Aztecs will finally get marquee billing to themselves. With so much experience, so much talent and so much buzz, is this the year they become the show?
"I have no clue," Tapley said. "All we have to do is worry about San Diego State and all that will take care of itself."
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