Can the Aztecs avoid another Mountain West postseason flop?

Monday January 20th, 2014

Steve Fisher speaks with leading scorer Xavier Thames, who has blossomed in his senior season.
Kent Horner/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO -- The student section at San Diego State is a delightful din of snark, stomping and chanting, an edgier evolution of the Cameron Crazies. They're pithily summed up by their Twitter bio: "You won't like us. We won't care."

The defining cheer of The Show comes before every game, as they chant out every word of the phrase, "I believe that we will win," consecutively. Each word gets louder, and when they finally arrive at "win," the chant crescendos into a defiant sing-song mosh pit that sets an acidic tone for every home game.

This San Diego State team has won 15-straight games, crashed the Top 10 and emerged as a team that many, well, believe will win deep into March. The Aztecs are 16-1, with their only loss coming at home to now top-ranked Arizona.

But after watching the Aztecs twice this week and studying the Mountain West's tortured NCAA Tournament history, there are also plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

The Mountain West is 3-9 in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, including San Diego State getting filleted by No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in the Round of 32 last year. The Aztecs also fell to No. 11 N.C. State in the Round of 64 the year before.

So why has the league struggled so much when it matters?

"Those of us in the league have the same question," UNLV Coach Dave Rice said. "I'm not going to be very helpful to you because I don't know the answer."

The Aztecs have a long and athletic roster that would pass the look test in any high-major league. They play six transfers, lead the country in defensive field-goal percentage and won at Kansas earlier this month.

This San Diego State team, even with the departure of Jamaal Franklin to the NBA, is deeper and more talented than the past two versions. But they'll enter the postseason less tested, as the Mountain West has tanked and only projects to get two teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the Mountain West sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament, ranked No. 1 in RPI and produced No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett of UNLV.

This year, it's the No. 10 league RPI and could feasibly get just one team into the NCAA Tournament. The second best team in the conference is New Mexico, which projects as a No. 7 seed.

And if that wasn't reason enough for the NCAA Selection Committee to be skeptical, Mountain West teams lost to No. 13 (La Salle), No. 14 (Harvard) and No. 15 (FGCU) last year. (Proving again what a useless metric the RPI is).

"You have to find a way to win," admits San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher. "Until we do that with more regularity, people will say, 'It's an OK league.'"

And there's no doubt that the Aztecs are the best team, as they will be favored in the rest of their games, likely until the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. They could end up as a No. 1 seed, as they have a marquee win, depth and a clear identity as a defense-first team.

Washington State transfer Xavier Thames (17 ppg), finally healthy after back issues dogged him last season, has blossomed into the frontrunner for Mountain West Player of the year. Fifth-year transfer Josh Davis, who came from Tulane, is the country's fourth-most prolific rebounder (11.3 rpg). Six-foot-8 sophomore wing Winston Shepard drips with potential, as he's scoring 13.5 per game.

But the looming problem for the Aztecs is they can't shoot. Their two-point field goal percentage is No. 324 in the county. Their effective field-goal percentage is No. 292, according to And while their adjusted efficiency on offense is No. 69 because they rebound so well and get 26-percent of their points from the free-throw line, they are largely susceptible to bricking their way out of the NCAA Tournament.

San Diego State is talented enough to end up in the Final Four, but flawed enough to be home in the second round. They'll be one of the bigger potential migraines on Selection Sunday when folks are filling out their bracket. Can you trust a team that can't shoot?

Need a capsule to understand how San Diego State wins? Against UNLV on Saturday, the Aztecs shot 2-for-11 from 3-point range, finished under 34-percent from the field and still managed to comfortably beat UNLV, 63-52. They grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, scored 19 second-chance points and essentially clubbed their way to victory. "Their size," Rice admitted, "bothers everyone."

One reason the Mountain West has flopped so badly this season is that UNLV has fallen flat. The Rebels epitomize one of the league's problems -- it lacks high-end bench coaching. Outside of Colorado State's Larry Eustachy, Wyoming's Larry Shyatt and Utah State's Stew Morrill, the Mountain West is short on sideline top-notch sideline tacticians.

Rice's UNLV team, picked second in the league to start the year, has been one of the country's biggest busts. UNLV's two flameouts in Rice's first two NCAA Tournaments have branded him with a reputation as collector of talent, not a molder of one. Bennett's career arc spiraling more toward Olowokandi than Olajuwon isn't Rice's fault, but he certainly wasn't broken out of his habits of being overweight and ambivalent while at UNLV.

UNLV starts five transfers -- four from four-year schools and one JUCO -- and can win any match-up in the media guide. But the Rebels play with the collective discipline of a spring break fraternity party at the Hard Rock Hotel Pool.

They had five assists on Saturday, living up precisely to the billing that New Mexico forward Alex Kirk gave them. Kirk told the Albuquerque Journal: "That's a hell of an AAU team."

That comment inspired UNLV to upset New Mexico at the Pit last week, but the Rebels (11-7, 2-3) are still a lousy college basketball team. (UNLV's season of underachievement fittingly began with a loss to Division II Dixie State in the exhibition season.)

Rice's first two seasons as head coach ended with first-game NCAA Tournament upset losses to double-digit seeds. No. 11 Colorado upset No. 6 UNLV two years ago, and No. 12 Cal outlasted No. 5 UNLV last year. The good news for UNLV is that the Rebels won't have a chance to get upset in the NCAAs this season. The Show taunted them on Twitter with the reality of their postseason -- the CBI.

Too many transfers can spoil the delicate balance of a roster, as great AAU teams don't equate to solid college basketball teams. Former McDonald's All-American Khem Birch hasn't developed offensively since transferring from Pitt. He looked lost in the post on Saturday, finishing with four points in 33 minutes. He's still an elite shot-blocker, but the only other all-conference team he'd make is for bad body language.

UNLV is the fourth collegiate stop for another vagabond McDonald's All-American, Jelan Kendrick. He went 0-for-6 on Saturday, including balletic back-to-back possessions. On the first, he tripped over his own feet and traveled. He followed that up with a driving lay-up attempt that he to flipped over the backboard. He finished with zero points in 22 minutes.

"I don't have any regrets because I thought we had to win basketball games," Rice said of his transfer-laden roster.

He added an interesting point about modern roster building.

"I think the expectation at a place like UNLV is such that from a talent level you have to try and keep up," he said, "but you also have to balance that with building a program with young guys."

Fisher has been able to strike that balance this season, with Rice pointing out the difference being that SDSU's transfer-laden roster has had more time together.

Fisher has always been more lauded as a program-builder than a tactician, as he's considered an adequate bench coach. With Steve Alford gone from New Mexico to UCLA and BYU's Dave Rose now in the West Coast Conference, the league's marquee coaches have dwindled. And with only two teams likely dancing in March, the Mountain West's chance for a shining moment rests with San Diego State.

"We've been saying that for about a decade now, we've got to do better in the Tournament, we've got to have a run," said Craig Thompson, the Mountain West Commissioner. "People don't remember that New Mexico won 30 games and got a No. 3 seed, they remember they got beat by Harvard."

Only four teams in the Mountain West's 14-year existence have reached the Round of 16. San Diego State has the squad and the talent to be the fifth.

Do you believe they will win with the same confidence that The Show chants with? If you feel a migraine coming on, you're not alone.

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