Xavier Thames is the player most people know about for San Diego State but who else makes this team go?
Matthew Bain/Mountain West Connection: J.J. O'Brien. Looking at the stats, you'd almost wonder why O'Brien starts for SDSU, much less why Steve Fisher labeled him as one of his favorite players of all time. He gets the Aztecs 8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists in about 28 minutes per game. But he does so much that doesn't show up on the stats sheet that makes him probably the most important player out on the floor. He's SDSU's best on-ball defender and oftentimes matches up against the opponent's best scorer--and most of the time he shuts them down. For instance, J.J. Avila of Colorado State, whom NMSU fans know all-too-well from his 29-point performance against the Aggies, shot 4-17 for 9 points when the Rams came to Viejas. Why? Because O'Brien guarded him most of the night. O'Brien is also the best switcher on defense, which SDSU does quite often. He makes things happen without ever touching the ball. It looks like Dwayne Polee II has had a very good second half of the season, what’s been the key to his emergence?
MWC: Confidence. Polee played a grand total of zero minutes against Arizona and a whopping six minutes against Kansas. But Polee broke out for 15 points and five rebounds in SDSU's loss at Wyoming, and I think Fisher realized what a lot of fans had thought for a while: this guy can play. He's a feisty defender, with six games with three or more steals. Behind Xavier Thames, Polee is SDSU's most dynamic scorer: in his last five games, Polee has scored 26 from inside the 3-point line, 24 from long range and eight from the free throw line. He's feeling it right now and he immediately gives his teammates that energy when he gets off the bench to the roar of the crowd. Fisher doesn't even see Polee as a bench player anymore, even though he won the MWC Sixth Man of the Year. He told the media at the MWC Tournament that Polee is his "sixth starter." The Aztecs have a very stingy defense. What makes their defense so tough?
MWC: Length and speed. The Aztecs do a great job switching on defense and clogging up any lanes their opponents want to penetrate. They get their hands on a lot of balls--especially Thames, Polee and WInston Shepard--because of their huge wingspans and sheer speed. SDSU loves to run in transition, and its defense allows for that. Holes that normally dot college basketball defenses don't exist with SDSU. The Aggies are a very good rebounding team but the Aztecs are equally as good on the boards. With the Aggies’ size on the front line with Sim Bhullar at 7’5”, Chili Nephawe at 6’10” and Renaldo Dixon at 6’10”, how do you think the rebounding battle swing?
MWC: You hit it on the head: I think it'll be about equal. SDSU's best rebounder is Tulane transfer Josh Davis. At 6'8", Davis doesn't match the height of NMSU's bigs, but his vertical and great hands have very few matches in the NCAA. In fact, Davis is currently the 19th best rebounder in the country with 9.8 per game. The paint and boards will definitely be clogged tomorrow with SDSU and NMSU's bigs, and I think both teams will rebound will. Offensive rebounding will be key. SDSU has just four losses this season so the sample size is rather small but what would you say was the common theme across those four losses?
MWC: I honestly don't have an answer for that, Sam. SDSU's loss against Arizona came because it was the third game of the year, Fisher didn't play Polee or Aqeel Quinn, the team was still developing and it was playing one of the best programs in the country. The loss at Wyoming came because the players were lackadaisical and never fully got into the game. The loss at UNM came because SDSU simply didn't have a game plan for Cameron Bairstow. And the most recent, hard-fought loss against UNM came in a battle between two of the best 15 teams in the country. The narrative about San Diego State is that they have trouble scoring but it appears that they can play a game where they’ve got to keep up scoring (the win versus a high-scoring Creighton team early in the season being a big example). Does SDSU truly have trouble scoring or do they just prefer playing at a slower pace?
MWC: SDSU actually loves playing at a fast pace. It looks to turn its defense (rebounding and steals mostly) into fast break opportunities where players like Shepard and Polee can out-athlete anybody in the gym. When they aren't in transition, the Aztecs struggle mightily to score. SDSU's half court offense can look plain ugly at times, and very often Thames has to create a shot for himself. Now, when another Aztec has a great game like when Polee goes off or like when Matt Shrigley knocked down four 3-pointers off the bench against Utah State, the offense's flaws are hidden. But to answer your question, SDSU does truly have trouble scoring. Fortunately, the defense is quite good, so the scoring droughts don't hurt the Aztecs too much. But if SDSU's defense isn't on point? Oh dear. The Aztecs are making their fifth straight NCAA appearance and they’ve had a couple of disappointments the past two seasons. Is there a feeling that this team has something to prove or is there a chance that New Mexico State might catch them looking ahead just a little bit?
MWC: SDSU is 100 percent focussed on this game. The team has had so much success this year, especially during its 20-game win streak, because Fisher and Coach Dutcher and the rest of the coaching staff does a great job keeping these guys grounded. If NMSU wins tomorrow it'll be because it earns it, not because SDSU overlooked the matchup. San Diego State will win the game if…They play lockdown defense. NMSU hasn't seen a defense like SDSU's in the WAC, and although the Aggies are a tremendous shooting team, if the Aztecs play defense like they know they can, SDSU will win.
MWC: New Mexico State will win if…
MWC: Kevin Aronis absolutely goes off. Three-point shooters make upsets happen. SDSU will focus a lot of their defensive energy on NMSU's bigs, so if Aronis can knock down three out of every four 3-point opportunities he gets from a kick-out, NMSU has a chance for the upset.