October 03, 2011
Maybe the only benefit to losing four starters off last year's historic 34-win Sweet 16 team for San Diego State is that the current Aztecs didn't have to search hard for motivation this offseason.
They found new inspiration each time someone told them it would be difficult to even return to the NCAA tournament without departed stars Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and D.J. Gay.
"You hear it from friends when you go back home, you hear it from random people walking down the street, you hear it at school and you see it on the internet," lone returning starter Chase Tapley said. "It doesn't make us mad. It just gives us a little extra energy. I know what we're capable of and my teammates know what we're capable of. We're just waiting for the season to start to prove the nation wrong."
Making skeptics look foolish is something the Aztecs proved especially adept at last season. They began the season unranked yet spent much of the winter in the top 10, winning the Mountain West tournament, notching the program's first NCAA tournament victories and coming within a couple buckets of ousting eventual national champion UConn.
What propelled San Diego State into the national consciousness last season was the steady leadership of Gay at point guard and the length, athleticism and rebounding ability of the front line of Leonard, Thomas, White and Brian Carlwell. The formula will have to be very different this season with LSU transfer Garrett Green the only player taller than 6-foot-8 on the roster and with Tapley and fellow guard James Rahon the only returners who averaged more than 8.1 minutes per game a year ago.
"You have to be realistic with who you are and who you've got," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "I knew going in a year ago we were going to be good. I didn't know we would be that good. This year we have a lot of question marks. I like our kids, but we in essence have two guys that played major minutes last year. Other than that it's guys who got minimal time, and they're going to have to step up and perform."
To challenge Mountain West favorites New Mexico and UNLV for the conference title and make a run at a fifth NCAA tournament bid in Fisher's 13-year tenure, San Diego State will have to overcome a lack of size and interior depth. It's a problem Fisher might not have anticipated facing at this time a year ago.
First Leonard had such a brilliant sophomore season that he had little choice but to turn pro. Then 6-foot-8 Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young reneged on his commitment to San Diego State in June and signed with Kansas instead. And finally the NCAA turned down Carlwell's petition for a sixth year of eligibility in August.
Out-dueling Indiana, Wichita State and Long Beach State for Green was a much-needed coup for Fisher, but not even the addition of a SEC-caliber big man who made five starts last season will solve San Diego State's frontcourt problems. The only other true big men on the roster are 6-foot-7 senior Tim Shelton, who has a long history of knee problems, and 6-foot-8 junior college transfer Deshawn Stevens, who is behind in conditioning as a result of having his knee scoped in August.
As a result of those frontcourt questions, Fisher is strongly considering a four-guard lineup with Green in the middle and athletic, speedy 6-foot-5 guard Jamaal Franklin taking the responsibility of guarding opposing power forwards.
"That's something we talk about and think about all the time: How will we play with the bigs we have and if we go smaller, how can we play?" Fisher said "Going small would make us hard to guard, but it also would be problematic against bigger teams that can make us pay rebounding-wise and defending the post."
If San Diego State's frontcourt is thin and unproven, at least the Aztecs have more depth at wing.
Tapley, a versatile scorer and stingy defender, averaged 8.6 points and 1.9 assists last year as a sophomore. Rahon, the team's top reserve a year ago, hit 43.4 percent of his threes. And Franklin, a 7-foot high jumper and all-section receiver and safety in high school, is primed for a breakout sophomore season once he returns from a likely suspension in the wake of his DUI arrest last month.
Battling for San Diego State's starting point guard gig will be Washington State transfer Xavier Thames and sophomore LaBradford Franklin, both of whom had the benefit of learning under Gay last season. Thames, Rivals.com's No. 106 recruit in the Class of 2009, made four starts and averaged 4.6 points per game as a freshman at Washington State, while Franklin played sparingly behind Gay a year ago.
"They have big shoes to fill," Fisher said "We need them to take care of the ball, get it to the right place at the right time and guard consistently. They won't be as good as D.J., but we need somebody to come in and run this team."
It's crucial the Aztecs don't allow the program to backslide too much this season because much of the momentum last year's team generated could go to waste.
Last winter, formerly half-empty Viejas Arena became one of the nation's most raucous and intimidating venues replete with standing-room-only crowds, derisive chants and a costume-clad student section. Despite diminished expectations this season, San Diego State has already sold more season tickets this offseason than any previous year in the history of the program.
"Coach Fisher tells us all the time, 'You saw what we had last year with the fan support. The only way we're going to get that again is to win,'" Tapley said "That's what we want. Last year I wanted to share that experience with every kid growing up because it was so much fun with all the fan support. But in order to get that again, we have to win."
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell
Big Ten: How Zack Novak became Michigan's emotional leader; Big Ten projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-Ohio State star Jim Jackson scouts the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big Ten games; Q&A with Michigan State forward Delvon Roe
Big 12: Big 12 projections and storylines to watch, Iowa State's Royce White aims to capitalize on second chance, Ex-Oklahoma guard Michael Neal projects the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league Big 12 games, Q&A with Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson