The Quiet Contender: Why San Diego State Is an Elite College Basketball Team

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The Quiet Contender: Why San Diego State Is an Elite College Basketball Team
USA Today

Ask your average East Coast college basketball fan to list the 10 teams in the AP Top 10 and watch them struggle to remember that San Diego State is one of the best teams in the entire country.

The Aztecs have one loss this season—a 69-60 home loss at the hands of the No. 1 team in the country—and they were within four points of Arizona in the final two minutes of that game. Their road win over Kansas on Jan. 5 was arguably the biggest victory by any team all season.

Aside from the three remaining undefeated teams, their 15-game winning streak is the longest in the nation.

Yet most basketball fans outside of San Diego's city limits have barely even taken notice.

It's time to wake up, America, because San Diego State is ready to put an end to the stigma that the Mountain West Conference can't cut the mustard in the NCAA tournament.

***

It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Steve Fisher's team. Back in October, ESPN projected San Diego State to finish in fourth place in the Mountain West (subscription required).

Part of that was perhaps because of too much respect for UNLV and Boise State, but it primarily stemmed from the fact that the Aztecs lost four of their six leading scorers from last season. It has certainly been nice to have a few of last year's players back in the fold, but when Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley, James Rahon and DeShawn Stephens left town, they took 61 percent of the team's scoring with them.

When the Aztecs upset both Creighton and Marquette in the Wooden Legacy, the national writers began to take notice. ESPN's Eamonn Brennan wrote about their surprising hot start, while Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg chimed in about the team being undervalued and a year ahead of schedule.

We proceeded to forget about the Aztecs for about a month until their win over Kansas. But we certainly loved them on that day.

Now that they've disappeared into the annals of Mountain West play, it seems we've more or less forgotten about them all over again.

It's a mistake to simply overlook the No. 7 team in the country, though. The primary names and faces are different from last year, but this might be the best team that San Diego State has ever put on the floor.

***

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Tulane transfer Josh Davis is averaging 11.5 rebounds per game, good enough for third-most in the country. His scoring (9.0 PPG) is almost half of what it was last year for the Green Wave (17.6 PPG), but that's to be expected since he's nowhere near the focal point of the offense that he was at Tulane. Still, Davis has at least 10 rebounds in 11 consecutive games and has already registered seven double-doubles this season.

Matt Shrigley was a 3-star recruit in the 2012 class, but he was a healthy redshirt last season. This year, he's sixth on the team in minutes played and is shooting 38.1 percent from three-point range. Aside from Xavier Thames, Shrigley is the team leader in made and attempted three-pointers.

Close behind Shrigley on the team's three-point depth chart is Cal State Northridge transfer Aqeel Quinn. Quinn missed four games earlier in the year, but he has become a key contributor since mid-December, averaging 7.8 points and 3.0 rebounds over SDSU's last nine games.

In addition to those newcomers, the three primary returning players from last year's team have each improved their game considerably.

Despite playing several weeks with an injured and bandaged shooting hand, JJ O'Brien is averaging 9.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Before the injury, he was averaging 13.8 points per game, so he might finally be getting back on track. On Jan. 12, he went for 18 points and 11 rebounds against Air Force.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Winston Shepard's freshman season was a pretty big disappointment. Shepard was No. 33 in 247Sports' composite ranking of last year's freshmen. Players just ahead of him on the list included Mitch McGary, Semaj Christon, Marcus Paige and Perry Ellis.

By the end of last season, Shepard wasn't even remotely on the same page as those players. In his last seven games (including the NCAA tournament), Shepard averaged just 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game.

He still isn't rebounding a ton (4.9 RPG), but he has certainly figured out how to assert himself on the scoreboard, averaging 13.1 points per game. Perhaps just as crucial, he is able to stay on the court as much as possible by rarely committing fouls. Other than the four fouls he committed in the season opener, Shepard hasn't been whistled more than twice in any game this season.

The biggest improvement, however, has been the play of senior guard Xavier Thames.

Forced to share the backcourt and spotlight with Franklin, Rahon and Tapley over the past two seasons, Thames was never given the proper opportunity to shine until now. Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Thames attempted 156 three-pointers while the other three guys combined to attempt 917 triples.

He only shot 34 percent from long range, but perhaps that's because he was never able to properly get into a rhythm.

Now that he's the head honcho on offense, Thames is shooting 46.7 percent from downtown. He's also averaging 1.8 steals per game and making better than 81 percent of his free-throw attempts for a third consecutive season. If he could just improve his two-point shooting (40.7 percent), he'd be a more serious contender for the Wooden Award.

In the Player of the Year standings that he released on Monday, Ken Pomeroy had Thames rated as the 10th-best player in the country (subscription required).

Forget about the individual members, though, because San Diego State's biggest strength is its team defense.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

In defensive effective field-goal percentage, the Aztecs rank third in the country behind Clemson and Arizona. Thanks in large part to Skylar Spencer's 2.6 blocks per game, opponents are making just 40.5 percent of their two-point attempts. That's the fifth-best defensive percentage in the country and is 8.0 percentage points lower than the national average.

They also rank 20th in block percentage and 60th in turnover percentage.

Only twice this season have the Aztecs allowed an opponent to score 70 points in a game against them, and those games were against Air Force and Creighton—both teams that average well north of 20 attempted three-pointers per game. On any given night, either of those teams could go for 90 against any opponent. Just ask Villanova.

No matter how stalwart the defense is, though, the Aztecs have to deal with the fact that they're playing in a cursed conference.

***

One of the biggest things keeping us from falling in love with San Diego State is something that has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular collection of players. The Mountain West has gotten a bad rap over the past two NCAA tournaments, leading Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and others to wonder whether the Aztecs can avoid that same fate.

Over the last two years, the Mountain West Conference sent nine teams to the big dance, but they emerged with a combined record of 3-9. Despite perennially being one of the 10 best conferences in the country, the Mountain West has a 17-38 record in the NCAA tournament since its inception in 1999—and has yet to send a single team to the Elite Eight.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Granted, they've been given a lot of double-digit seeds over the last 14 years (18 of the 38 bids were as a No. 10 seed or worse), but they've also lost to a lot of double-digit seeds—"lowlighted" most recently by New Mexico's opening-game upset at the hands of No. 14 Harvard and San Diego State's loss that fueled the folklore that was No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast.

It's tough to say why the conference struggles so much.

New Mexico led the nation in RPI Top 100 wins last season, but that didn't seem to matter in the tournament. Perhaps playing two straight months at the highest and most varied elevations takes a greater toll on Mountain West bodies, leaving players more fatigued than their opponents by mid-March.

Three things stand out statistically about the Mountain West over the past several years, however, and perhaps they are to blame for the repeated poor showings in the tournament.

First, their teams typically play at a slower pace than most other conferences. Save for the 2011 season, the Mountain West ranked 21st or worse among the 31 conferences in average tempo.

Usually, one or two teams drag down the conference's average tempo—Wyoming and Air Force, as of late—but there's at least a case to be made that the Mountain West isn't accustomed to the frenetic pace of most NCAA tournament games.

Second, it appears that offensive rebounding is historically optional in the Mountain West. They have ranked 28th or worse in offensive rebounding percentage in each of the past six seasons and finished in dead last (31st place) in three of those seasons.

Last but not least, they rely too heavily upon three-point shooting—and if I've learned anything from trying to create the perfect bracket over the past decade, three-point percentage is the most horrendously unpredictable thing to count on in the tournament.

In terms of percentage of field-goal attempts coming from three-point range, the Mountain West was among the eight highest in each of the past six seasons and had the highest percentage (37.3 percent) during the 2011-12 season.

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Fortunately for them, the 2014 Aztecs don't particularly fit any of those descriptions.

Their offensive rebounding percentage (37.0 percent) ranks 36th in the country while no other Mountain West team ranks in the top 60.

Their reliance on three-point shooting is almost nonexistent. With just 25.9 percent of their field-goal attempts coming from three-point range, the Aztecs rank 323rd in the country in that category.

And while they do play at a relatively slow tempo (249th in the country), they dictate the pace of the game about as well as anyone. Excluding the game against D-II St. Katherine in which they were simply running up the score, there have been between 63-68 possessions in each of their last 11 games.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin—which has something of a reputation as a team that controls the flow of the game—has ranged from 58-71 possessions per game just in the month of January. San Diego State may play a little slower than most, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

Whether or not they end up getting a No. 1 seed, these Aztecs might be the most potent team that the Mountain West has ever sent to the NCAA tournament. We'll see what sort of draw they end up getting, but it might not be a bad idea to pencil in San Diego State as the first Final Four representative in Mountain West history.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of KenPom.com and are current through the start of play on Tuesday, January 21.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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