Aztecs Best in West?
Best believe San Diego is dangerous.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
It was easy to dismiss the San Diego Aztec hype going into their showdown at No. 12 Gonzaga. I was a believer in Kawhi Leonard, Billy White, James Rahon and company’s chances to win the ultra-competitive Mountain West Conference, but not in their ability to go into Spokane and claim a non-conference road win at The Kennel this early in the season. But after a gutsy 79-76 victory over Gonzaga last night, we may have to revise our expectations for the Aztecs this season.
Is Gonzaga a tad overrated? Definitely (the potential loss of forward Elias Harris to an Achilles injury doesn’t help). Does it make this win any less impressive? No way. You can say that San Diego State can’t rely on Billy White to go off for 30 points and 9 boards every game, but they still had to overcome what Mark Few called a “superhuman” 35-point performance by Zags guard Steven Gray and a couple thousand Four Loko crazed “Dog Pound” members.
Big picture: Assuming Steve Fischer’s team performs as expected the rest of the year, this second win of young season may have clinched an at-large NCAA berth for the Aztecs (should they lose in the MWC conference tournament). But if you break this team down, there’s no reason to think San Diego State can’t be the most dangerous team on the West Coast. No. 16 Washington also has a legitimate claim to the “Best in the West” title, but I need to wait until after the Maui Invitational (where the Huskies could potentially face Kentucky and Michigan State) to truly judge Lorenzo Romar’s team.
As of now (and I understand “now” is pretty meaningless since we’re barely one week into the season), it’s hard to argue with the Aztecs. They have a stud in versatile forward Kawhi Leonard, a coach’s dream player in that he doesn’t need the rock in his hands to score and impact the game. While he can break down players off the dribble, Leonard proved against Gonzaga that he is much more dangerous slashing, mixing it up inside, and snatching up offensive rebounds (sometimes more than one in a possession). The Aztecs have athletic game changers in Billy White and Santa Clara transfer James Rahon who can put the ball in the basket, a heady and poised point guard in DJ Gay, and enough athleticism in the frontcourt to make up for what they give away in size. Finally, they have a coach that’s won a championship. Say what you want about Steve Fischer’s controversial days at Michigan, but it’s really easy to forget that he coached the Rumeal Robinson/Glen Rice Michigan team through the 1989 NCAA Tournament, not Bill Frieder.
With the possible exception of Ohio State, the Aztecs made the biggest statement of the recently completed 24-hour hoops marathon. No one is saying San Diego State is this year’s Butler, but a deeper tournament run than last season (when they were bounced by Tennessee in the first round) should be an expectation now if it wasn’t already.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.