It was a valiant effort worthy of the team entering the NCAA Tournament ranked #6 in the country. But in the end, they just didn’t play well enough to overcome 36 points from superstar Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, and 24 points from freshman wing man Jeremy Lamb, as the Huskies ended the Aztecs’ season last Thursday night 74-67 in Anaheim’s Honda Center, a mere 94 miles from the SDSU campus.
Think about that for a moment: Two players accounted for 60 of UConn’s 74 total points. No one else scored in double figures. Conversely, the Aztecs had four different players score in double figures, spreading the wealth evenly. But that’s the way it goes in college basketball sometimes. Recall that BYU’s Jimmer Fredette accounted for 43 of his team’s 71 total points in their meeting in Provo, Utah back on January 26th. In other words, it is nothing new for the Aztecs to have one or two players beat them.
But that’s not the point. The bottom line is that while the Aztecs certainly played well enough overall to win the game (it was still a four point game with 1:39 left to play, and a six point game with 21 seconds left), but they made far too many stupid mistakes. And on this stage—the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament—and at this level of play, every little mistake gets magnified by a factor of 100. Too many untimely turnovers; too many missed free throws (SDSU was 6-13 from the line); too many missed wide open looks, particularly by the previously red hot shooting Chase Tapley who shot 2-10 from the field against Connecticut, including 1-7 from three point range in scoring a total of 5 points on the night. In the previous game against Temple, Tapley shot 4-5 from three, and against Northern Colorado he shot 5-11 from the field for a total of 14 points.
Add to that the referees interjecting themselves into the game by calling two very questionable technical fouls on the Aztecs at very inopportune times, both times snuffing out a huge run of momentum that the Aztecs had built up. But I digress……
Still, Kemba Walker is a very special talent, and on this night, he simply would not let his team lose. He put the Huskies on his back and carried them to victory, hitting contested shot after contested shot and raining down from three, which is not usually his forte, unlike the aforementioned Jimmer Fredette.
Despite the loss, the Aztecs proved that they belonged. And the highly partisan SDSU crowd inside Honda Center proved that yes, America, people do care about the San Diego State Aztecs. SDSU fans accounted for at least 40% of the crowd inside the sold out 17,000 seat arena, and they were loud and they were proud! And believe me; tickets were not easy to come by.
So what happens next for San Diego State men’s basketball? How do they follow this unprecedented and historic 2010-2011 season where the Aztecs earned a 34-3 overall record; the first ever ranking in school history in either major poll, climbing as high as #4 nationally in one; that saw the first two NCAA Tournament wins in school history; an unprecedented year not only on the court and in the polls, but at the ticket office? The Aztecs sold out 13 regular season games this past year, when they had sold out a total of eight games in the previous 13 years since the opening of Cox/Viejas Arena. This team became not only the most talked about team in all of San Diego County (and that includes the Chargers), but the hottest ticket in town, something unimaginable 10 years ago.
The team loses three senior starters in forwards Billy White (a four year starter), local product Malcolm Thomas, and point guard DJ Gay (another four year starter). They could lose 6’11, 300lb. bench player Brian Carlwell, who is applying for a 6th year of eligibility after missing almost all of his sophomore season at Illinois following a major car accident that resulted in life threatening injuries. Also uncertain is the future of sophomore sensation Kawhi (pronounced ka-WHY) Leonard, who is a likely NBA lottery pick and is currently weighing his options for the NBA draft.
The look and style of play next year will certainly be very, very different. The team is losing the strength of the 2010-11 campaign; its front court. But it has a ton of back court talent returning. Chase Tapley, a two year starter who will be a junior, will surely play a more prominent and featured role, and James Rahon, typically the first guy off the bench for Coach Steve Fisher and an excellent shooter, will likely be promoted into the starting lineup. Washington State transfer guard Xavier Thames will be eligible. Thames was one of the top rated players in the country according to the scouting services two years ago coming out of high school, and will finally get to ply his trade in an Aztec uniform.
Current freshman Jamaal Franklin will wiggle his way into a more prominent role, as he showed tremendous potential late in this season and possesses fantastic athletic ability.
The real unknown, though, is what the front court will look like. This version of the Aztecs thrived because of the athletic, rebounding, and defensive prowess of Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and Kawhi Leonard. Few teams in the country had a front court that could match the Aztecs athletically; few teams had three such big men who could run the court like these three could, and who could dominate the boards like these three.
It will be a very tall task for the two incoming transfers to live up to the legacy those three leave behind. DeShawn Stephens from Santa Monica Junior College and Kevin Young, who sat out a year after deciding to leave Loyola Marymount, will have to adjust and gel quickly. Alec Williams will also get a chance to bull his way onto the floor and show that he belongs at this level, and the Aztecs will likely need his big body. Forward Tim Shelton, whose career has been marred and limited by a series of serious knee injuries dating back to high school, has at times been a very productive and valuable asset, despite his physical limitations. Hopefully Shelton’s knees will be strong enough for him to play with the flashes of brilliance he showed when he arrived on campus four years ago as a freshman (he has already redshirted a year).
Steve Fisher—after 12 years at the helm—has finally built something very special on Montezuma Mesa. It would be a damn shame if he were unable to capitalize on the momentum this group created.