If you stayed up late enough on Christmas night, you got to witness a bit of a basketball miracle. For Arizona fans, guard Nick Johnson's incredible game-saving block might qualify. The play rightly is being trumpeted as one of the season's best so far. The bigger unlikelihood, though, lay in the scoreboard digits Johnson helped preserve: Arizona 68, San Diego State 67. The Aztecs, erstwhile Kings of the Close One, had lost a one-possession game.
That almost never happened last season as the Aztecs scrapped, clawed and late-game executed their way to a Mountain West co-championship. According to head coach Steve Fisher, San Diego State won 10 of its 13 games last season that were decided in the final minute. Johnson's block was a potent reminder that, while the Aztecs returned a huge chunk of the core of that 26-win team, this is a different season, a different team. And in the end, that could end up being a very good thing.
What defines this 2.0 version is the much improved depth and length on the roster. Last season, four-guard alignments were the norm. Now, Fisher has selection problems with so many new freshman and transfer frontcourt options from which to choose. Pushed from the national spotlight because of an ugly, season-opening loss to Syracuse on a windy boat deck, the Aztecs' evolution has been a bit of a secret. A lengthy run of mostly inferior opponents (even UCLA, the one quality win so far, was in transition and badly outnumbered fan-wise at Anaheim's Honda Center) meant the Aztecs were thirsting for another test. They got one on Tuesday, and even in defeat, they passed.
"We've got a good team, and I know we're better than we were at the start of the season," Fisher said by phone Wednesday from Hawaii, where the Diamond Head Classic was held. "And we have to be."
Because of the number of shooters they put on the floor at times, the Aztecs can be perceived as an offense-first team, but that's really not true. This program under Fisher has, with the exception of the Kawhi Leonard Era, stamped its identity principally on defense. This year's model is establishing itself as an improved version within the fairly consistent footprint Fisher has established.
Offensively, his Aztec teams do nothing particularly great but everything decently. This one is a slightly better shooting team at this point (although schedule has had something to do with that). On defense, they do an excellent job of keeping teams off the glass and off the free throw line, without gambling. This version is trending well in those areas, although a physical Arizona hurt them in both categories. Fisher likes what he sees so far, especially from the Aztecs' "early offense," where his team has been able to capitalize opportunistically both in transition and against not-yet-settled defenses in half-court sets.
"We're much improved on that this year already then we were at any time last year, and I think it shows," Fisher said. "We're pretty good at getting the ball out and getting good, early looks. We're shooting the ball better on the perimeter, [too]."
There's no doubt that as established guys like Jamaal Franklin (leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game), Chase Tapley (established sharpshooter) and Xavier Thames (primary ball handler) go, so will these Aztecs, but there are more options and more balance this season.
Holdover big man Deshawn Stephens has been joined by Utah transfer JJ O'Brien, St. John's transfer Dwayne Polee and freshmen Winston Shepard and Skylar Spencer to give the Aztecs a much deeper and significantly more athletic group in the frontcourt. This has allowed Fisher to reduce his perimeter stars' minutes a bit and lets San Diego State go with a variety of big and small looks rather than last season's more one-note approach borne out of necessity.
It's taken some work to get used to more of a nine-man rotation than seven, but heading toward league play, the upside of this team is becoming clearer.
"I feel we're at a good point right now," Tapley said. "We still haven't had that one game where we're clicking and clicking and clicking, but our potential is as high as anybody."
This year's deep and strong Mountain West will be the proving ground. There are very few soft spots in the league schedule, and San Diego State's mettle will be tested early, as the Aztecs get their home games against three of the other main contenders (Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico) all within the first six league games. There will be significant pressure on the Aztecs to hold serve, as winning anywhere on the road in the league should once again prove very difficult. If things do get tight late, though, Fisher is very comfortable with his team's ability to handle it.
"We'll find out what this year holds for us. We've been good down stretches of games, we've been good in close games [in the past]," Fisher said. "I think a little bit of that may be good fortune, but it's more predicated on having good players that know what they want to do, what they need to do, and have done it before."
While experience is very valuable, John Calipari has proven in the extreme the last few years that talent can trump all. On Tuesday, the Aztecs showed how much talent they have to go with their typical resolve. Flipping the old axiom on its head, it's actually better to be good than lucky. Last season's success notwithstanding, the best way to win close games is to avoid them. This Aztecs team has the ability to do more of that, which was the real takeaway from a rare final-possession loss.