Just about anywhere else in the Western US, 83 degrees in August would be welcome relief. But not in Mission Valley, or any other neighborhood in San Diego that's anywhere remotely close to the ocean. But that's what it was this past week. And somehow 83 in San Diego feels oppressive. And for the freshmen at San Diego State it was orientation week. Which meant following old dudes and old chicks around campus – the small groups of students would find seating in the shade of a live oak and pretend to listen to whoever it was droning on about whatever was on their mind. It was hot. They were starting college. They wanted to get to the fun stuff.
Their view from freshmen registration was down a hill looking toward Viejas Arena, home of Aztecs basketball. Most of the new students probably didn't know – or care – whether San Diego State had a good basketball team. But a few must have been intrigued enough to wonder. They could picture themselves in the arena, decked in SDSU colors. But who was the team they'd be rooting for? Were they good? Was the place going to be packed?
Two years ago the Aztecs of San Diego State reached their first ever Sweet-16. But that team lost four starters – including Kawhi Leonard – and not much was expected of last season's team. But they managed to finish tied atop the stacked Mountain West Conference, and earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA Tournament. From there they were bounced by NC State, but still, it should be considered a successful season.
And for those freshmen staring off at Viejas Arena, it should be noted that last year made three consecutive appearances in the big dance. (SPOILER ALERT: It's about to be four).
The Aztecs are coached by Steve Fisher, who has had one of the most bizarre careers of any current head coach. Six games into his head coaching career, Fisher won a National Title. This was at Michigan, when then head coach Bill Frieder announced that he was taking the Arizona State job. Athletic Director Bo Schembechler stated that Frieder wasn't a "Michigan man" and turned the team over to assistant coach Fisher for the NCAA Tournament. And then, improbably, they won it all.
His "interim" title was removed and Fisher was now officially the guy at Michigan. A couple years later came the Fab Five. Fisher led them to the Title game in both their freshmen and sophomore seasons, only to lose to ACC teams. But still, Fisher had been a head coach for less than five years and played for 3 NCAA Titles.
And three years later he was out. He was a victim of the Michigan basketball scandal, and though he was later only faulted for allowing access to his players (and the man who was convicted of paying players had ties to the Frieder era), he had already lost his job.
Two years later he was hired at San Diego State. The team had won four games in the prior season. It took him six years to really turn the program around, but now he's headed into season No. 14 and he's responsible for five of eight career Aztec appearances in the NCAA Tourney.
What happened last year: As mentioned above, the Aztecs made their 3rd consecutive NCAA appearance. Of note was a return to the more uptempo basketball of Fisher's earlier career. For the three previous seasons SDSU had ranked as the 309th, 288th and 301st team nationally in tempo. Since there have averaged about 340 Division I teams over that period, it's safe to classify Fisher's teams as "really damn slow." Then last year they ran all the way to 138th. This was a reaction to having a bunch of new guys on the court. The good news is that they were able to control the ball like all Fisher teams (86th nationally). The bad news is that their offense just wasn't up to par. It was 94th nationally in efficiency (controlling for tempo), which was their worst since 2008.
Defensively they were slightly better (54th nationally), though this was the 2nd worst Aztec defense since 2006.
On the court this played out to a very successful early season which included wins over Arizona, Long Beach State, Cal, UNLV, and New Mexico (with losses to Baylor and Creighton). The latter part of the season saw them finish 8-6, with two of the wins coming in overtime.
They made it to the finals of the Mountain West Tournament, and then received a generous No. 6 seed in the Tourney (No. 11 NC State was actually the favorite in Vegas) and lost in the opening round.
What they lost: The Aztecs had two seniors in 2011-12 who were regular contributors. Senior Tim Shelton started 30 games. He was a solid contributor who rarely shot the ball. He's mostly remembered for his music.
The other senior was 6-11 Garrett Green, who started 17 games. He also wasn't much of a scorer, but was a solid rebounder, and blocked 2.7% of the shots when he was on the floor.
Alec Williams, a 6-6 junior who saw limited minutes, transferred.
And that's it for the losses.
What they have: The top four scorers all return, headlined by the Mountain West Player of the Year. 6-5 Jamaal Franklin was lightly used as a freshman (only playing 11% of the minutes), but exploded last year to the tune of 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. He made over half his twos, and not only was an 80% free throw shooter, but also got to the line more often than any other conference player. He also played his best hoops in the 2nd half of the season, averaging 19.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in conference play. The weakness in his game was that he was a 32.5% 3-point shooter. If he improves there he'll be among the best players in the nation.
The other high volume scorer is senior guard Chase Tapley, who averaged 15.8 a game. He's the best outside shooter they have (43% on threes), but he's not a 3-pt specialist, and has a very balanced game. Only 40% of his shots were threes. Junior Xavier Thames was the final double-digit scorer (10.1). The combo guard – who transferred from Washington State – carries most of the play making duties, and averaged over 4 assists a game. The final returning starter is 6-5 James Rahon, who was expected to play a bigger role offensively prior to the breakout of Franklin.
That's four returning starters, but none of them are taller than 6-5.
Senior DeShawn Stephens has a shot at earning the starting role. He's 6-8 and started three games last year. He's low volume offensively, but is solid at performing his role – play defense, rebound, don't screw up. 6-2 junior LaBradford Franklin was a highly regarded recruit, but has yet to pan out.
But Stephens doesn't have the starting spot locked up due to the presence of three transfers and three freshmen. 6-9 James Johnson was a consensus top-60 recruit who ended up at Virginia. He redshirted his first year, and then was lightly used early last season and decided to transfer. He'll be eligible following the fall semester and will make an immediate impact on a team who needs bigs. 6-7 J.J. O'Brien – a Utah transfer – struggled as a freshman and then sat out last year. 6-7 Dwayne Polee II came in from St. John's. Two years ago he was a stick-thin freshman who put up decent numbers (made half his twos, had a 4.0% block rate), and now he's added about 15 pounds. All three transfers are originally from southern California.
The most anticipated newcomer isn't a transfer though. It's true freshman Winston Shepard, who is the first consensus top-100 recruit they've landed out of high school since Kawhi Leonard. The 6-8 Shepard has the talent to make an immediate impact, but his college career got off to a bit of a rough start. If he can focus, he could be the difference maker for this team. The other two freshmen are 6-8 Matt Shrigley and 6-9 Skylar Spencer. Both have legit D1 talent, but might find themselves buried on the depth chart this season. They'll be competing with O'Brien and Polee II for minutes.
Where they're going: It took a while for Steve Fisher to elevate this program from one that is solid to one that reloads, but that's where the Aztecs are at. They lost Kawhi Leonard and three other starters two years ago and still finished tied atop the conference. And now they're going to be better, and deeper. But so will the Mountain West.
Aztec fans can be confident that they have the best perimeter play in the conference. But what they need is for a couple of the six newcomers to step up and make a major impact. Right now it's wide open. There are seven guys 6-7 or bigger, and six of them are new. If that group can defend and rebound, then this team has a chance to make it's 2nd ever Sweet-16. If that group does more than that – this could be a historic run.