San Diego State in 2013-2014 was not considered to make much noise in a season in which its basketball squad lost a number of quality talent to graduation and the pros.
But with a savage defense that was ranked second in the nation in points allowed per game (57.0), and reigning Mountain West Player of the Year in Senior G Xavier Thames, the Aztecs pulled off a MWC regular season title, and an overall 31-5 record.
SDSU’s run ended last night in a hard-fought game against the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats. In a rematch of a regular season loss in November, and a game that took a last-minute offensive explosion from G Nick Johnson for Arizona to pull off – he ended up scoring the team’s final 15 points of the game – San Diego State gave the tournament favorite all they could handle for the first 35 minutes of the contest.
Powered by Thames’ 25 points, and double-digit contributions from Forwards Dwayne Polee II (13 points) and Winston Shepherd (11 points), the Aztecs made up for an overall lack of offensive production with their superior rebounding skills. F Josh Davis snagged 14 boards in the losing effort.
While SDSU led by as much as 8 on multiple occasions, the underdogs were ultimately more efficient in scoring chances (47.9% for Arizona vs. 38.9% for SDSU), and via timely shots by Johnson and freshman phenom F Aaron Gordon (15 points, 6 rebounds) down the stretch. Arizona also won the turnover battle (7 TO for Arizona; 10 TO for SDSU), which made all the difference in the final minutes of the game.
It was a tough loss for a team that held the lead for a majority of the game, but they showed the nation that they could stand up to the best teams in the nation. It wasn’t like they were written off before this game, either – NCAA Basketball analyst Jay Bilas believed that SDSU could move past Arizona.
Now, it will be interesting to see how the Aztecs basketball program responds moving forward. After all, despite their recent success (two Sweet 16 runs in the past 4 years), the program has still been under the radar, especially as a team residing in the West Coast.
While they will lose their best offensive player in Thames – most likely to the first round of the NBA Draft – and their best rebounder in Josh Davis, the Aztecs will return a number of talented players, including Polee, Shepherd and C Skylar Spencer. Their recruitment of SF Malik Pope – ranked #14 in the ESPN 100 high school prospects list – will also be intriguing for the Aztecs. His size (6’10”) and versatility may serve to be a college player the likes of a Kawhi Leonard.
Not bad for a team thought to have been rebuilding before the 2013-2014 season began.