San Diego State has become an NCAA tournament stalwart in recent years, having made each of the last six tourneys. More impressively, the Aztecs have managed to do so via an at-large bid in each of the last four years. Considering they play in the Mountain West conference, that’s no small achievement.
The Aztecs’ recent success, which includes reaching two Sweet 16s (2011 and 2014) and not receiving an NCAA seed lower than No. 8 since 2010, is a testament to the job done by head coach Steve Fisher. When Fisher took over, the Aztecs hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1985 and were coming off a 4–22 season. Fisher only added a single win that first year, but got them to .500 the following year and back into the Big Dance in 2001–02.
Getting to a seventh straight tournament is the goal for San Diego State this season, but it had a rough start in dropping six nonconference games. In fairness to SDSU, two of those losses were to current top-10 teams (No. 3 Kansas and No. 6 West Virginia), but the year hit a low point on Dec. 6 when the Aztecs fell by five to San Diego, a team currently ranked No. 277 on kenpom.com.
Since dropping consecutive games to Grand Canyon and Kansas in mid-December, however, SDSU has opened Mountain West play by winning five straight. None of those wins were bigger than the Aztecs’ 56–53 win at Boise State on Saturday, which snapped the Broncos’ 10-game winning streak. Boise State is likely the biggest challenger to San Diego State’s conference title hopes, and grabbing a road win over them was key.
It’s not surprising that the Aztecs are once again getting the job done on defense. After posting the No. 4 defense in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency last season, SDSU 2ranks No. 7 this year. It ranks fifth in both effective field goal percentage and two-point percentage on defense, ninth in block percentage and No. 20 in defensive three-point percentage.
San Diego State doesn’t beat you by running you out of the gym. The Aztecs play a grind-it-out style that produces scores such as 49–43 (a loss to Little Rock) and 56–53 (the win over Boise State) and leads to ranking No. 310 in the country in adjusted tempo. In their loss to the Aztecs, the Broncos shot just 31.5% from the floor and 5.9% (1-of-17) from three, scoring only .83 points per possession—that’s how San Diego State beats you.
In November, senior forward and reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Skylar Spencer set the conference record for career blocks, and he’s currently averaging 1.7 per game. (The previous career mark was 245, and Spencer has 261 and counting.) Spencer is seldom used on offense for the Aztecs, but his presence on the defensive end and in the paint is invaluable.
Speaking of offense, San Diego State may make its living on defense, but it does have some players who can put the ball in the bucket. Freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley, a former four-star recruit, leads the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game and is shooting 40% from three. Senior forward Winston Shepard averages 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds and has been heating up a bit of late, averaging 14.4 points in MWC games. The Aztecs also have sophomore forward Malik Pope, a former five-star recruit who has yet to live up to his potential (averaging 5.7 and 4.1 rebounds) but has been plagued by injuries in the last few years and is clearly highly talented.
San Diego State might not have had the start to the season it had hoped for with six losses before Christmas, but the Aztecs appear to be on the right course now. SDSU could clearly benefit from more offensive firepower, but this team knows how to close games—in fact, the Aztecs have won an incredible 156 straight games when leading with five minutes remaining in regulation or overtime, including the NCAA tournament. That’s right—156. The last time they lost a game they led with five minutes left on the clock? Jan. 9, 2010.
Obviously this is a stat that stretches several San Diego State teams over the years, but it seems to be a blueprint of Steve Fisher-coached Aztec teams. That kind of closing ability is uncanny and a major weapon. As a team, the Aztecs are like the Mariano Rivera of college basketball. No wonder this team has made six straight NCAA tournaments.
Player to Watch: Evansville guard D.J. Balentine
With a name that sounds like Denzel Valentine’s alter ego, D.J. Balentine has been one of the most consistent players in college basketball for the last three years and has shown no let up this season for the 16–3 Purple Aces. After averaging 22.8 and 20.1 points per game over the last two seasons, Balentine is scoring 21.2 points per game to go along with 4.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 2015–16. He takes 33.1% of his team’s shots and is shooting 47.8% from the floor.
Together with fellow senior Egidijus Mockevicius, who’s having a heck of a year in his own right in averaging 17.1 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, Evansville could push Wichita State for the Missouri Valley Conference crown.
Game of the Week: Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s, Thursday, 11 p.m. ET, ESPNU
If you’re on the East Coast, you'd be wise to stay up for this one. The two teams tied atop the West Coast Conference will be going head-to-head in the first of two meetings this season, and with both having suffered a recent conference loss they’ll be eager for revenge. Gonzaga will have its hands full on the road with Saint Mary’s very efficient and sharp-shooting offense, and the Gaels will be looking to beat the Bulldogs for the first time since the 2011–12 season. Grab some popcorn (and maybe some coffee).
Stat of the Week: 39.8
If you thought Balentine taking nearly exactly a third of his team’s shots was impressive, what do you think of Iona forward Jordan Washington, who takes nearly 40% of the Gaels’ shots? Granted, that number is probably aided by the fact that Iona was missing star A.J. English for five games earlier in the season, but Washington obviously plays a massive role in the team’s offense. Unfortunately, he was suspended two games over the weekend after slapping a Monmouth player following last Friday’s loss, and not having him for the first of those games hurt—Iona surprisingly fell 79–75 to six-win Rider on Sunday.