Here is my question-and-answer session with Mark Zeigler, who covers San Diego State men’s basketball for the San Diego Union-Tribune, about Wednesday’s game with the University of Wyoming.
Tip off is at 8 p.m. MT at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.
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The Aztecs were picked to win the league in the preseason and they’ve shown why. Has this team played and performed like you thought? If not, what has been different?
I think they are now. They certainly weren’t in November and December, when they went 7-6 and lost three at home, including back-to-back games at Viejas Arena for the first time in 11 years. But this team was always going to take longer to coalesce because of its youth, with two freshmen starters and two sophomores in the rotation. If anything, most figured this team would be better offensively and a little worse defensively than last season. In reality, the two teams have been pretty alike — challenged on offense, nails on defense.
San Diego State has been one of the best defensive teams in the country for years due in large part to a lot of long and athletic players. Is that the case again with this year’s squad, or what in your mind makes this team good defensively?
This team’s defensive numbers are very similar to last season. The potential certainly was there with a bigger, more athletic team. The question was how long
it would take for them to embrace the sometimes complex defensive schemes given their youth. In some respects, that’s happened quicker than maybe anticipated. The one constant, of course, is Skylar Spencer in the middle. Everyone knows about his shot-blocking ability (he is the all-time Mountain West leader) and that allows the rest of the team to press farther onto the perimeter knowing he’s got their back. But Spencer is more than just a rim protector. He can move his feet and stay in front of point guards, which gives San Diego State the rare and lethal option of switching the 1-5 ball screen. His athleticism and footwork also allows them to force ball screens down the sideline, a tactic used in the NBA but hard to replicate with college-level athletes. I think a case can be made, despite Spencer’s limited offensive numbers, that he’s the MVP of this team (and maybe the league) because of what he brings to the defense. Or maybe assistant coach Justin Hutson, who oversees the defense, should be the MVP.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the Aztecs offensively. Is this an offensively challenged team as many around the league think, or is that an unfair statement to make?
About a 4, especially when you compare them to teams like Iowa State or Oklahoma. On some nights they can be a 6, though, which makes them very hard to beat considering their defense is always a 9 or 10. The numbers don’t always show it, but they have improved markedly as the season has gone on. The offense is predicated on reading the defense, and with freshmen and sophomores getting major minutes that took time to learn and understand. You’re starting to see players like Trey Kell, Jeremy Hemsley and Malik Pope flourish offensively as they better identify and exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. They’re getting far better shots. They just don’t always make them every night. They did in the second half at UNLV and San Jose State, and the result was rare blowouts.
Wyoming and San Diego State opened league play back in late December. Has much changed with the Aztecs since then?
The biggest change, in my opinion, is confidence. This a program that hadn’t been 7-6 in a long time and, quite honestly, didn’t know how to react. There seemed to be a perceptible change after a short Christmas break. Practices became less business and more fun, and you saw glimpses of that in the first meeting. Since then, the team has regained the demeanor and swagger of its predecessors. A 13-1 record will do that, even if practically every game has been close. So close, in fact, that the Aztecs have led by one, trailed or been tied in the second half of their last 12 games. It’s a weird dichotomy: They’re a runaway winner in the conference race but not in the games themselves.
How do you see Wednesday’s game at Wyoming playing out? What trends or match-ups are you most curious about and who wins?
My prediction: It will be close late, and San Diego State will win. That’s not based on any inside knowledge of this particular game, just how practically every conference game has gone for the Aztecs this season. Their streak of winning 163 straight games when leading with five minutes to go is no accident. This team plays a lot of close games, and wins almost all of them. The key match-up, as it is with everybody facing Wyoming, is stopping Josh Adams. The Aztecs are good guarding any kind of player but their expertise this season seems to be shutting down perimeter threats. They “held” Adams to 16 points in the first meeting, making it hard for him to penetrate by switching screens and wearing him out with their press. Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris shot 4 of 20. Utah State’s Chris Smith shot 1 of 10. Boise State’s Anthony Drmic didn’t score. It’s hard to put a number on it, but for Wyoming to have a chance I think Adams has to score close to his average.
Bonus question: Is the MW a one-bid league to the NCAA Tournament, and how would you assess the league from top to bottom this season?
Whether this is a one-bid league comes down to this: Can San Diego State get through a tough stretch of four closing games (it also has Boise State and UNLV at home, and New Mexico on the road) with only one loss? If it can and then wins a couple games in the conference tournament, I think it has a 50-50 shot of getting an at-large NCAA bid. Otherwise, this is a one-bid league. And it certainly is if San Diego Stat wins the conference tournament. It’s shocking to me how far – and how quickly – the Mountain West has fallen. I think the league office is in denial, thinking this is merely cyclical and everything will return to normal next year. I’ve got bad news: It’s not. I don’t see the league improving much, if at all, next season. The glory days of multiple NCAA bids, sadly, might be over.
Cowboys game day
Game: San Diego State (20-7 overall, 13-1 Mountain West) at Wyoming (13-15, 6-9)
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Arena-Auditorium, Laramie
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KFBC (1240 AM) Cheyenne; KCGY (96.1 FM) Laramie
Tickets: UW Athletics Ticket Office, 877-996-3261 or gowyo.com