San Diego State received just a single vote in the AP preseason poll after last season’s trip to the NCAA regional semifinals, an indication of the rebuilding job many felt Steve Fisher faced after losing his top four scorers.
Turns out the 16th-ranked Aztecs might be capable of an even deeper run this March.
Coming off perhaps the program’s two best victories of the season, San Diego State tries to avoid a letdown and extend its winning streak to 10 on Saturday night against visiting Air Force.
Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and D.J. Gay are all gone from the team that gave eventual national champion Connecticut all it could handle in the round of 16 last spring, but the Aztecs (16-2, 2-0 Mountain West) have hardly missed a beat.
Wins over Arizona and California along with a respectable loss at then-No. 11 Baylor in non-conference play seemed to indicate San Diego State might again be a contender in the Mountain West, but its first two conference games proved it.
The Aztecs held off then-No. 12 UNLV 69-67 last Saturday behind a combined 46 points from Jamaal Franklin and James Rahon, then got 22 points from Xavier Thames on Wednesday in an impressive 75-70 win at New Mexico despite being 11-point underdogs.
The Lobos, who came in 48-5 in their last 53 games at home and had won 13 straight overall, scored the game’s first 10 points.
“I don’t have to say how sweet a victory it was,” Fisher said. ” … We’ve won five or six really close games and it has never been the same guy and, again tonight, we had a lot of people who made big contributions.”
The last two victories have come without much from San Diego State’s leading scorer. Chase Tapley, whose 16.7 points per game are 1.2 more than Franklin averages, was held to a combined 23 points on 7-of-21 shooting against UNLV and New Mexico.
While Tapley, Franklin, Rahon and Thames have done an excellent job making up for the loss of last season’s top four scorers, the one area that could hurt the Aztecs is their rebounding.
After posting a plus-6.6 differential on the boards through 16 games - reminiscent of last season’s team that was 12th nationally in that category - San Diego State has been outrebounded by eight in each of its last two contests.
That’s something Fisher says a team simply “can’t do,” but holding opponents to 35.5 percent shooting - as the Aztecs have in their last seven games - can mask some troubles.
“We’re a good team,” Fisher said. “We have to do it a different way. We’re not going to overpower you. But we’re going to fight all the way. We’re going to make good decisions. We’re going to shoot the ball and take care of the ball.”
SDSU has certainly defended well against Air Force (11-5, 1-1) in recent years. Fisher’s team has won seven straight in the series, holding the Falcons to 47.1 points per game while outrebounding them by an average of 10.1.
After two huge wins, it’d be easy for the Aztecs to overlook Air Force, which is coming off a 64-53 home loss to Wyoming on Wednesday. The Falcons haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since knocking off No. 21 UTEP on Feb. 15, 1992.
Air Force got leading scorer Michael Lyons (15.6 points per game) back Wednesday from a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for six games, but lost senior forward Taylor Stewart to a broken ankle.