Cheatham brings 'good energy' to Fisher's Aztecs
SAN DIEGO (AP) He's known by the nicknames ''The Animal'' and the ''Junkyard Dog.''
Whichever handle fits best, Zylan Cheatham is expected to add some adrenaline to San Diego State's basketball team, which will be looking for its seventh straight NCAA Tournament berth and ninth overall in Steve Fisher's 17th season as coach.
Cheatham, a 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman forward, sat out last season with a broken foot. He watched from the bench as SDSU shared the Mountain West Conference regular-season title with Boise State and finished 27-9 after a blowout loss to eventual national champion Duke in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
In Monday night's exhibition victory against Cal State San Marcos, Cheatham quickly showed how he got those nicknames.
In just a few possessions after coming off the bench, Cheatham grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot. Later, he threw down an impressive, one-handed dunk.
''My passion for the game is completely restored. I feel like it's a new inner fire,'' Cheatham said. ''I don't take time for granted because I remember when I couldn't do it. I'm just ready to get out there.'
Cheatham is the last member of SDSU's heralded freshman class from last year to see action. He could become a crowd favorite like Malik Pope, another member of that class who pondered going to the NBA before deciding he wasn't ready.
''I feel like I play every possession like my last,'' Cheatham said. ''I'm pretty athletic. I bring a different kind of passion for the game. I play hard. I'm that guy that will dive into the stands if it means it'll get an extra possession for my team. I just try to play hard and control my attitude and effort no matter what's going on.''
SDSU lost seniors JJ O'Brien, Aqeel Quinn and Dwayne Pole II. Junior forward Matt Shirley tore up a knee during the summer and might miss the whole season.
The projected starting five includes senior forwards Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard, Pope, sophomore guard Trey Kell and freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley.
The Aztecs expect to run more this year.
''We have the potential to be a really good team,'' Pope said. ''We're extremely lengthy and athletic. That's a combination for disaster for opponents. That's the start of how good we can be defensively and offensively.''
Fisher said Cheatham ''plays with a motor that is hard to coach. He plays with good energy. He, at times tries too hard, but that is not unnatural for a guy that didn't play at all last year and is so anxious to get out there. He is a ferocious rebounder.''
Said Shepard: ''Zylan is my brother. Me, him and Malik spend a bulk of our time together, so I love Zylan. I hope all three of us get to have extended minutes on the court together.''
Cheatham said there's more of an emphasis on running this season.
''None of us came here to walk the ball up. Let's be honest,'' he said. ''We don't have traditional bigs like other programs. We can out-run guys, just do a lot of things to keep the defense on their heels.
''There's nothing better than ripping down a rebound, two dribbles, finding your teammate and just running, just getting out. Me and Malik, we love to get out and run. We love dunking the ball, we love throwing lobs to each other.''
The Aztecs believe they've found a true point guard in Hemsley. Last year, they suffered some offensively without a true point guard.
''You get him the ball, he pretty much beats the other team up the floor on the dribble,'' Cheatham said. ''That kid is ridiculously fast, bouncy. We all get out and run, and finish at the rim and defend. We use our length.''
The Aztecs face a tough non-conference schedule. They visit No. 16 Utah on Nov. 16, play No. 14 California in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 26 and host No. 4 Kansas on Dec. 22.
The program hopes to benefit from having its own practice gym, the Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, which opened in August.
Last week, the university named the hardwood at Viejas Arena the Steve Fisher Court.
A potential dark cloud is that SDSU reportedly is being investigated by the NCAA for potential rules violations.
Pope said the coaching staff has told the players, ''Just play. We've got a season to focus on. Don't let something on the outside affect you.''
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