Yearlong offensive struggles have finally caught up.
By Andy Cohen
The San Diego State Aztecs plummeted from 6th in the AP poll and 7th in the Coaches poll to 13th in both yesterday after losing to New Mexico 58-44 in Albuquerque on Saturday night. Perhaps “plummeted” is a bit much. This isn’t the Aztec basketball apocalypse…..yet.
Let’s not take anything away from the Lobos here. They are a very good team who just happens to be playing its best basketball of the entire season right now. The Aztecs hit a buzzsaw at the wrong time.
But to say that the Aztecs have been in an offensive funk since the first quarter of the conference season would be a bit of an understatement. This team has prided itself on its effort and effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor all year, and through the non-conference season they were able to do just enough offensively to power them through some very big games, most notably against then #20 Creighton (now ranked #9 in the AP poll) and at then #16/17 Kansas (now #5/6), who just secured their 10th straight conference title to go against only their ninth home loss that the Aztecs dealt them on Jan 5 during that same period.
Throughout the year this team has, for the most part, struggled to score. The defense has powered them. Well, the defense and Xavier Thames, who carried his team through most of conference play, including scoring 31 points in an overtime win at Utah St. (including 10 in OT), 23 points in a last second, come from behind win at Boise St., and 24 in a home win over Colorado St. less than a month ago.
The last four games, different story. Beginning with the team’s first conference loss at Wyoming on Feb 11, Thames has averaged only 9.25 points per game, hitting only 20 percent of his shots and 17 percent from three point range. Compare that to 18 points, 44 percent shooting overall and 44 percent from three point range prior to the last four games.
As a team, SDSU is hitting an overall respectable 43 percent of its shots, which looks good on paper but is misleading. They are a team completely dependent on gritty play in the paint and second chance points off of rebounded misses. From the perimeter they’ve been dismal. And as a team they only shoot 65 percent from the free throw line, buoyed by Thames’ 82 percent, but with Skylar Spencer and Josh Davis shooting at a 46 percent and 45 percent clip respectively, which is embarrassingly bad for a major college basketball team.
Other than Thames, no one has been able to hit an outside shot consistently, and there are no other viable three point shooters on this team at the moment. SDSU has made their living in the paint offensively, but that doesn’t work out so well when the opponent doesn’t respect your perimeter game and packs the key, as New Mexico did.
Someone besides Xavier Thames is going to have to step up if this team expects to accomplish anything in March….or even win a conference title at this point. He can’t and should not be expected to carry the team every night. The trouble is, this program has never been known to produce quality shooters, and there aren’t any that have identified themselves on the roster right now. Matt Shrigley was supposed to be one of those guys, but he has struggled after coming out of the gate hot in this his redshirt freshman season. Dwayne Polee has shown flashes, but hasn’t been consistent enough to be considered that go-to alternative. And Winston Shepard? Terrific athlete who does a lot of great things on the court, but shooting isn’t one of them.
This team’s offense has been broken for some time now, and yet to date nothing’s been done to fix it. At least not noticeably. This team has been hanging by a thread since the first Utah State game and second Boise State game, confident that they’ll be able to somehow, some way find a way to win even when they struggle. That cockiness has finally caught up to them in a big way, and they appear to have no answers entering a critical final four game stretch of the regular season, which includes road games at a suddenly resurgent Fresno State and a dangerous UNLV team before returning home to for the regular season finale against the same New Mexico team that made them look so silly the first time.
They’d better find some answers fast, otherwise a pretty exhilarating 23-3 season (to date) that saw them climb as high as #5 in both national polls will have been for naught if they crash and burn in the Mountain West Conference and NCAA Tournaments. Success is measured by what you do in March, and this team’s trajectory has been headed in the wrong direction for the better part of a month.
There’s still time, though. They’ve got four games and a conference tournament to either prove that they’re as good as everyone thought they were, or if the New Mexico and Wyoming games are a more accurate reflection of who they really are. It will be a true test of the character of this team, and how they respond will go a long way toward telling us how deep they could go into March Madness. And that, after all, is what really matters.