Posted: 3:00 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013
By Jeremy Mauss
The San Diego State Aztecs have the building blocks to once again make a competitive run for the Mountain West Conference crown. Coach Steve Fisher has accomplished one of his primary goals he set upon taking the job back in 1999. He has turned a doormat into a consistent winner. He has established San Diego State as a basketball program that has spent considerable time in the Top 25, won NCAA tournament games and delivered at least 20 win seasons each of the past seven years. When you look at the history of San Diego State men's basketball, the glory days are now.
Going into the 2013-14 campaign, the Aztecs will need to make up for the loss of three starters from last year's squad that went 23-11.
The biggest challenge will be replacing junior guard Jamaal Franklin, who led the team in points, rebounds, steals and assists. Franklin was a second round NBA draft pick of the Memphis Grizzlies in June. Additionally four-year starter Chase Tapley is no longer around to provide an even keel and clutch shooting. The Aztecs also lose one of their few big men, DeShawn Stephens, as well as former starter and three-point shooter James Rahon.
Transfer Josh Davis will be looked upon as the difference-maker this season. If he can replace the offense of Jamaal Franklin and the defense of DeShawn Stephens, then the Aztecs should be near the top of the conference. Davis was one of the most coveted transfers who could take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and not have to sit a year. The 6" 8" senior forward averaged 17.6 ppg and 10.7 rpg while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor. This earned him all-Conference USA first-team honors while at Tulane.
The Aztecs do return six letter-winners from a year ago and have better than average depth going into the upcoming season. Senior point guard Xavier Thames is a two-year starter who is the leading returner in scoring and assists. His leadership is invaluable as the Aztecs struggled when he missed games due to injury last year. Winston Shepard is the second leading returner in rebounding and assists. In his first season, this highly ranked recruit showed glimpses of greatness and doses of inconsistency. He can play and defend just about anyone on the court and an extra year of maturity could do wonders for his game.
Returning junior forward J.J. O'Brien is a glue guy with a high basketball IQ. He is not the best athlete on the court, but he does the little things very well and rose to the challenge against last season's toughest competitors. He can defend down low and also bring the ball up as a point-forward. Skylar Spencer excelled at the defensive end of the court in his first season, blocking a San Diego State freshman record of 51 shots. If the Aztecs choose to go big, he could find himself in the starting lineup.
The team returns a couple of other transfers for another season in Dwayne Polee and James Johnson. Polee made a splash in his freshman season at St. John's but only saw limited playing time in his first season on Montezuma Mesa. This athletic wing should see an increase in minutes and have an opportunity to make a much bigger impact this year. Johnson became eligible at mid-year last season and was used sparingly. He has the size that the Aztecs need in the middle but hasn't proven he can make an impact at either end of the court so far.
Newcomers include two freshman teammates from Sacramento and a couple of players who sat out last season but were able to practice with the team. Small forward Dakarai Allen is a four-star Rivals.com ranked player, who along with three-star guard D'Erryl Williams, led Sheldon High in Sacramento to a No. 5 ranking in California and No. 27 nationally. Reunited at San Diego State, this duo will provide athleticism and a defensive presence coming off the bench. Matt Shrigley and Aqeel Quinn are now eligible to play.
Shrigley is an athletic wing player who can hit the outside jumper or slash to the basket. After a red-shirt season, he has a great opportunity to play valuable minutes and compete for a starting role. Quinn is a transfer from Cal State Northridge with two years of eligibility remaining. He will provide depth at the guard position.
Looking beyond this season, the Aztecs received a commitment from Arizona forward Angelo Chol. He will have two years of eligibility starting with the 2014-15 season. And class of 2014 recruit Kevin Zabo gave a verbal commitment to the Aztecs in August. He will help replace the loss of Thames at point guard after this season.
The Aztecs have won 11 of their last 12 games against the Pac-12 and will host home games against Arizona and Washington this season. Their dominance in the state of California is even more impressive, with a current winning streak at 33 games. San Diego State will face eight more opponents from California this year.
While San Diego has often been viewed as a fair weather sports town, there is nothing mild mannered about the enthusiasm for Aztec basketball. For the first time in school history, the team sold out every game prior to the start of last season. As a result, the team had the top average home attendance in California at 12,414 per game. For comparison, UCLA was a distant second in California, drawing 9,549 fans per game.
San Diego State also boasts two of the top assistant coaches. Justin Hutson, back for a second tour of duty following a brief stint at UNLV, is ranked No. 8 and associate head coach Brian Dutcher is ranked No. 19 according to an ESPN poll.
Thanks to San Diego State, men's college basketball is now a tough ticket to get in San Diego and one of the best entertainment values in America's Finest City.