WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer session with Tod Leonard, who helps cover San Diego State men’s basketball for the San Diego Union-Tribune, about Tuesday night’s game with the University of Wyoming at 9:05 p.m. at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.
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How surprised are you that San Diego State is No. 5 in the nation, undefeated in the MW and winners of 20 straight games? Wasn’t this supposed to be somewhat of a transition season for the Aztecs?
With the Mountain West Player of the Year from last season, Jamaal Franklin, leaving one season early for the NBA, there seemed to be a consensus in the Mountain West that this would be a transition season. The Aztecs were picked by the coaches to finish fourth in the conference. Nobody, including San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, saw a 20-game winning streak or 10-0 start in the MW coming. The team is young, and point guard Xavier Thames, who had a history of back trouble, needed to fill Franklin’s role and the Aztecs had to get a big contribution from sophomore forward Winston Shepard. Both have produced, and 6-feet-10 sophomore Skylar Spencer has come up big on the inside defense with 54 blocked shots in the past 20 games.
Is Thames the Player of the Year in the MW, or perhaps in the nation? What has he done well for this team so far this season?
He certainly should be among the top three considerations in the MW. He’s the team’s top ball-handler and scorer (18.1 ppg). He’s scored in double digits in 18 of the last 19 games, and he’s as good a defender at guard as any player in the league. He has a team-best 38 steals. Thames is a great team guy, as evidenced by the opportunity he gave reserve Dwayne Polee to make the winning basket last week in the closing seconds against Boise State. Thames could have gone to the basket and tried to get a foul, but he drew everyone to him and then dished to Polee, who nailed the 3-point shot for the win.
San Diego State’s defense is among the nation’s best. Is it because of its overall size and athleticism, does it pressure full-court? Why is it so good?
Two things are keys to San Diego State’s defense: size and commitment. The Aztecs have players with big wing spans who are also athletic. Polee, for example, is 6-feet-7 and regularly breaks up passes. There also is a defense-first mindset that few teams seem to be able to match. Fisher has the team believing that they can control any game with strong defense, and if a player slacks, he gets pull quickly from the game. The Aztecs have the depth to be able to do that.
Do you see pressure mounting among the team and coaching staff as this winning streak grows and some of the national attention begins to build?
Honestly, there’s no indication at all that the team is feeling the pressure. A lot of that calmness no doubt comes from Fisher, who doesn’t outwardly experience a lot of highs and lows. The team doesn’t seem outwardly cocky, but there is a very big sense of the belief in themselves and their system at this point.
Since Wyoming also is good defensively, could this be a game where the first to 40 points wins? What are the key match-ups and who do you see winning?
The Aztecs have had their trouble shooting at times this season, though they’ve been over 50 percent from the field the past two games. I think anytime they face a good defense like Wyoming’s there is a reason for them to be nervous. Boise came out shooting well and got up 14 points on SDSU. Forty points is probably a pretty low threshold for them at this point. They scored 73 on Saturday night against a very good Nevada defense. Wyoming has a chance to win if it can hold them in the 50s.