To the surprise of no one, the San Diego State Aztecs were the media pick to win the regular-season Mountain West basketball championship for the fourth straight season.
The Aztecs have won or shared the last three MW regular-season titles under the guidance of the legendary Steve Fisher, who has had just three losing season in 17 seasons at SDSU. San Diego State has made 11 straight trips to the post-season (7 NCAA, 4 NIT).
Expect the Aztecs to play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder this year after being shunned by the NCAA despite winning the MW regular-season title and 28 games overall.
Fisher’s team returns three starters — 6-9 sophomore forward Zylan Cheatham (7.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), 6-3 guard Jeremy Hemsley (12.0, 2.4) and 6-4 guard Trey Kell (12.6, 3.7).
Also back are 6-5 guard Dakarai Allen (6.4, 2.7), 6-3 guard Ben Perez (2.9, 0.8) 6-10 forward Malik Pope (7.3, 5.0), 6-6 forward Matt Shigley (2.4, 1.0) and 6-3 guard D ‘Erryl Williams (1.3, 0.7).
Montaque Gill-Caesar, a 6-6 sophomore transfer from Missouri, and true freshman Jalen McDaniels are the top newcomers. Caesar was named the Newcomer of the Year and McDaniels was tabbed the Co-Freshman of the Year. Another talented newcomer is graduate student 6-10 Valentine Izundu, who blocked 50 shots at Washington State while averaging 3.8 a contest.
With a talented roster once again, the expectations are extremely high. The biggest losses were Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard, who averaged 12 a game. Izundu is expected to pick up part of the slack for losing Spencer.
“I like our team,” Fisher said at the recent Mountan West Media Day in Las Vegas. “We have a lot of guys who can play and it starts with the two guys here (Trey Kell and Dakarai Allen). We have good players.
“We’re good and we expect to be good. We still have to go out and compete. Trey told a reporter that when you sign up with San Diego State it comes with expectations both individually and as a team.”
Since Fisher took over, expectations have risen each year, and failure to make the NCAAs puts a damper on things.
“We hear about it (the expectations) all the time,” Kell said. “This is a tough conference. Every game is a battle.”
When you talk to other MW players about San Diego State, the talk turns to defense, and with good reason. The Aztecs held opponents to 37.3 from the floor, including 30 percent beyond the arc. The Aztecs were a plus-5 in rebounding during the season. San Diego State is long and athletic.
“We’ve had the Defensive Player of the Year the last two years, and I expect we’ll have it again, and I expect Dakairi to be it,” Fisher said. “If Dakairi starts guarding player A and player B gets hot, we’ll move him over to that player. He is a defensive stopper.”
Being the team’s defensive stopper is a blue-collar job. It means sacrificing the chance to score and focusing all your energy at one end of the floor, and Allen enjoys and wants that challenge. He started 17 games a year ago, and certainly is expected to be a full-time starter this season.
The Aztecs allowed just 60 points a game and forced 16 turnovers a contest. Those type of numbers will keep you in a lot of games.
The combination of Kell and Hemsley is a good one. Both are double-digit scorers.
“Jeremy and I are opposites,” Kell said. “I’m more of a change of pace guy. I’m the shooting type (from the outside) and Jeremy drives and gets to the basket.”
Kell shot 40 percent from the floor overall, including 38.4 from beyond the arc. Hemsley shot 43 percent overall and 35.6 from beyond the arc.
McDaniels averaged 21 a game in high school while Caesar averaged 9 a contest in only one year at Missouri.
“Jalen is 6-9 and 195, and right now he’s getting bounced around like a pinball,” Fisher said. “He is going to be a good player. Cesar can score. He can score inside and outside.”