Scouting Report: San Diego State

Air Force defeated San Diego State at home last season, but that win came at a point in time when the Falcons had absolutely nothing to lose. This Saturday, the Falcons can legitimately throw themselves into the NCAA tournament conversation if they can conquer the Aztecs. It's showtime in Colorado Springs.


Let's make an important distinction here: Would Air Force be in the field of 68 according to the bracketologists' projections if it took down San Diego State at Clune Arena? Probably not. However, "being in the field" and "being in the conversation" are two substantially different realities. Air Force would be added to the list of tournament contenders if it can grab this game against the men from the Montezuma Mesa. So many teams across the United States – think of Oklahoma, Washington, Charlotte, and Massachusetts, to name just a few – have resumes bereft of high-value wins. Air Force has on its plate a bright and shiny object in the form of Los Aztecs. A win on Saturday would force the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee to give Air Force a good, long look; a loss would promptly remove the Falcons from the nation's radar screen.

When viewing this game in a larger context, one should realize that this showdown with SDSU marks the beginning of a five-game stretch that will very likely determine Air Force's postseason fate. After playing San Diego State, the Falcons visit New Mexico and Nevada, followed by home dates with UNLV and Colorado State. Air Force needs at least three wins in this stretch to improve its position, and four wins are the target. If the Falcons can defend their home floor in this five-game gauntlet, a road win at Nevada would enable them to meet that four-game goal.

Two wins in the next five games would hardly rate as a disaster – such an outcome would mean that Air Force will beat one of the top four teams in the Mountain West Conference. However, with the NCAAs in mind, a 2-3 record in the next five contests would likely leave the Falcons short of what they'd need to make the Big Dance, since this team did not get any top-quality wins in non-conference play. If Air Force does go 2-3 in its next five games, the Falcons would, at minimum, need to go 4-1 in their following five games from Feb. 20 through March 9, and they'd have to win their quarterfinal game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

A final note is in order before telling you more about San Diego State: Hardly anyone expected Air Force to make the NCAA tournament at the start of the season. It's quite impressive – a first-world basketball problem, to be sure – that we're even able to talk about Big Dance prospects at the beginning of February. This is a tribute to Dave Pilipovich and a group of players who were strengthened, not shattered, by that overtime loss to UNLV on Jan. 12.

SAN DIEGO STATE AT-A-GLANCE

If you remember last year's win over San Diego State, you know that it was a game in which the Aztecs were thoroughly flustered at the offensive end of the floor. Air Force got under the Aztecs' skin, bothering them from start to finish with rugged, persistent defense. The Falcons contested every shot and clogged the lane, forcing San Diego State to shoot without confidence, especially on mid-range and three-point attempts.

Indeed, the enduring vulnerability of San Diego State is that it lacks pure shooters. The Aztecs have built a winning identity under head coach Steve Fisher by swarming on defense and pounding the backboard. This is a very active defensive team and a relentless rebounding force. The Aztecs limited New Mexico to a grand total of 11 field goal makes in a 55-34 win last Saturday. You know that New Mexico is a terrific team, one that is contending for a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. San Diego State's ability to put Los Lobos in a straitjacket is no small feat, even though New Mexico has suffered through some other root-canal efforts this season in which the basket looked like the size of a needle.

The points of emphasis for any opponent of San Diego State are simple on a conceptual level, but they're hard to execute for 40 minutes: Match the Aztecs' energy on the glass, limit them to one shot, and give them nothing inside 12 feet of the basket. If you can turn SDSU into a jump-shooting team and turn the Aztecs into a one-and-done team at the offensive end, you will have a very good chance to foil Fisher's folks.

In terms of San Diego State's season, the Aztecs are hard to measure. They lost to Syracuse by 13 points, but that game was played in windy and sunny conditions that bore no resemblance to a normal basketball environment. Yes, the Aztecs played Syracuse aboard an air craft carrier in daylight hours, a reality which prevents that game from being examined in a conventional manner. San Diego State played Arizona on even terms and lost to the Wildcats on a blocked shot just before the final horn. SDSU doesn't own an overwhelmingly impressive resume, but the Aztecs' losses are generally good ones. Only a loss at Wyoming – caused by a nine-point first half – truly drags down this team's profile. SDSU's challenge is to improve that profile, and not merely guard against its erosion, in February. The Aztecs will do this primarily by racking up statement wins against the rest of the Mountain West, especially UNLV. Avenging its 2012 loss in Colorado Springs, though, would enable San Diego State to believe that this season can carry the program forward.

SAN DIEGO STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 48.1. National rank: 138 (out of 345).

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 32.8. National rank: 221.

Possessions per 40 minutes: 68.2. National rank: 162.

Turnovers per game: 11.9. National rank: 57.

Points allowed per possession: 0.869. National rank: 21.

Field goal percentage defense: 38.5. National rank: 23.

Three-point field goal percentage defense: 28.7. National rank: 12.

Starting Lineup

Forward – DeShawn Stephens –
Senior, 6-8, 225 2012-13: 6.3 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game

San Diego State, for all its successes since 2010 (three straight NCAA tournament appearances, closing in on a fourth straight bid this season), has never had a dominant big man in recent years. The Aztecs thrive based on the strength of their team defense and rebounding, and their foremost positional strengths are typically their wing forwards and point guards. San Diego State's low-post players are expected to be worker-bee types who provide active defense and competent rebounding. For the most part, Stephens delivers this, though his rebounding could stand to be a bit better. It has to be noted that Stephens is the tallest member of SDSU's starting five. This is a team that can be neutralized with size on the low blocks, especially since the Aztecs like to play at a slow pace.

Forward – J.J. O'Brien – Sophomore, 6-7, 225; 2012-13: 6.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg

It's too early to apply a lot of pressure on O'Brien, because he's a second-year player who is not yet ready to carry the lion's share of the workload for this team. The next two seasons will ask something more of him. Yet, it's impossible to ignore that O'Brien has the same height and weight of Kawhi Leonard, the man who – more than anyone else – powered the Aztecs' resurgence and is now succeeding for one of the best teams in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. San Diego State, in the persons of Leonard (2010-2011) and now Jamaal Franklin (2012-2013), regularly seems to come up with a tweener wing player whose body is balanced, agile and powerful, who is rangy on defense and formidable on the glass. Leonard ripened into a solid shooter, which is what made him a complete player. O'Brien has very little of Leonard's shooting touch and scoring ability at the present moment, but if he works on his game in the coming offseason, he could very well be the heart of the next two SDSU teams, ensuring that the program continues to make NCAA tournaments.

Guard – James Rahon – Senior, 6-5, 205; 2012-13: 6.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg

It's hard to believe, but Rahon's height and weight are the same as those of teammate Jamaal Franklin. Whereas Franklin's 6-5 plays like 6-9, Rahon's 6-5 height plays like a 6-1 guard. Rahon, a conspicuously limited player, has none of the reach or quickness Franklin possesses in abundance. He is a standstill jump shooter who can knock down shots off the catch but cannot create good looks with the dribble. This is the player who – more than anyone else on the SDSU roster – must elevate his game if the Aztecs want to win the Mountain West championship and make the second weekend of the NCAAs.

Guard – Chase Tapley – Senior, 6-3, 195; 2012-13: 14.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.4 assists per game, 1.3 steals per game

Remember what was said earlier in this scouting report: San Diego State's two strongest positions are typically the point guard and the wing forward (or big guard). Tapley is the successor to D.J. Gay, the previous point guard who made SDSU into a force. Tapley hits just over 41 percent of his threes. He takes almost five and a half threes per game (107 tries in 20 games), so he has to be taken seriously as a long-distance threat. He is a great "bad-shot shooter," meaning that he'll throw up ridiculously tough off-balance 17-footers and hit them. He did this in the overtime period of a win against Colorado State a few weeks ago. What do you do against that kind of player? You don't panic. Air Force must make sure that Tapley doesn't get clean looks; if he (or any player like him) is going to beat you with low-percentage shots, you can only try to ensure that Tapley is shooting twos and not threes. If he owns the magic touch, just tip the cap and move on.

Guard – Jamaal Franklin – Junior, 6-5, 205; 2012-13: 17.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.5 steals per game, 1 blocked shot per game

Franklin is the holy terror of a wing player who has taken the torch from Kawhi Leonard and kept San Diego State in position to make the NCAA tournament once again. Yes, Leonard operated a lot more in the low post and was more of a true forward than Franklin – that point is not in dispute. Yet, Franklin's "Plastic Man" reach and his ability to affect a game in so many ways are quite comparable to Leonard's toolbox of skills. Franklin stuffs the stat sheet, but the key point to realize is that while San Diego State's big men produce relatively pedestrian rebounding totals, Franklin – at 6-5 – is gobbling up almost 10 boards per outing. He's 6-5, but he plays like a 6-9 power forward in halfcourt situations. He is also a dazzling athlete in the open floor; his throw-a-pass-to-himself-off-the-glass dunk on a fast break against Fresno State a month ago will remain one of the top five plays of the college basketball season, no matter what else might happen in the coming two months. Air Force would be best served to focus on denying Franklin easy access to the rim, making him shoot contested shots from at least 10 feet. The Falcons must also contain him on the glass, making sure Franklin doesn't give the Aztecs a copious amount of second-chance points.

Bench

In a rotation that generally goes eight deep but is sometimes stretched to nine players, Fisher uses three players with regularity off the pine: guard Xavier Thames and forwards Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard. Thames averages 9.4 points and 2.4 points per game, making him by far the best reserve in the Aztecs' stable. Spencer and Shepard both average just over three rebounds per game. They are both freshmen who will be expected to carry the load for the Aztecs next season. Occasionally, Fisher will call upon forward Dwayne Polee II as his fourth reserve.

Keys to the Game

1) Own the real estate that matters.
Air Force has to view this game as a turf war, a rugged and physical challenge in which the protection of the painted area is primary. Opponents of San Diego State have to neutralize the Aztecs on the glass and prevent both Franklin and Tapley from getting into the lane. Franklin and Tapley will score their share of points, but they must be forced to work very hard for everything they get. Allowing cheap baskets off putbacks is obviously harmful for any team in any situation, but such a deficiency is particularly magnified against undersized teams that don't shoot particularly well. San Diego State is just such a squad. The Aztecs don't give the ball away often, thriving precisely when they can accumulate more possessions than their opponent. Not every team works that way. Locking down on the boards and protecting the six feet near the rim must be Air Force's primary points of emphasis.

2) Attack from the inside out, not from the outside in. Air Force's various offensive statistics are off the charts. The Falcons shoot the ball well from every spot on the court and run one of the more efficient offenses in the United States. San Diego State is going to present the kind of obstacle Florida provided for Air Force in late December, but that Florida team had more weapons than SDSU possesses. The Falcons need to make the Aztecs work for the full 35 seconds on the shot clock. This means no quick jacks from 25 feet. If a clean three-point look presents itself, the Falcons should take it, but for the most part, they need to get into the paint and create passing angles for kickouts or angled cuts to the basket. If a possession doesn't feed the ball to the low post at any time, Air Force can't expect to pry open good opportunities on a consistent basis.

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