Second Scouting Report: San Diego State

Air Force's dream of an at-large bid in the 2013 NCAA Tournament is done. The Falcons will have to win three games in Las Vegas at the Mountain West Tournament to make the Big Dance, so this Wednesday's road game at San Diego State offers coach Dave Pilipovich a chance to talk to his team about the importance of composure in an unfriendly environment.


When Air Force lost to Colorado State a few weeks ago, the Falcons played brilliantly despite the ultimate outcome. This past Saturday against Fresno State, the Falcons lost and performed quite poorly. Why did Air Force play so well against the Rams yet score only 41 points against Fresno State? Location, location, location. Dozens of other college basketball teams face the home-road split-personality problem, but this issue now becomes acutely important for Air Force. The Falcons know they'll need to win three neutral-court games in succession next week in Vegas. Handling this game in San Diego is important; a win would be great, but the biggest thing the Falcons must take from this tilt is a sense that they can hang with a quality opponent for 40 minutes without flinching. If Air Force can get that one benefit from Wednesday's meeting with the Aztecs, it can go into Las Vegas knowing – not merely hoping – that it can win three games and throw a Dance party as an automatic bid recipient.

SAN DIEGO STATE AT-A-GLANCE

Every college basketball season, you'll find a few teams which don't do anything special, for better or worse. These teams avoid bad losses and fail to produce impressive wins. Their seasons are bland, bereft of notable achievements yet unstained by shocking losses. These teams quietly slip into the 8-9 game in the NCAA tournament, making no splash whatsoever but collecting revenue and publicity from the Big Dance. The 2013 edition of San Diego State is just such a team. The Aztecs will almost surely be in the tournament yet again this season, but it's not as though they've created any magic memories or forged any towering feats. This team's season has been as exciting and zesty as a loaf of 99-cent white bread.

San Diego State was picked to reside in the top tier of the Mountain West this season, but New Mexico claimed full control of the conference while Colorado State gained national attention by pushing the Lobos until Feb. 23, when UNM put its foot down in Fort Collins. San Diego State, like UNLV, will be a part of March Madness, but the Aztecs (and the Rebels) will enter Bracketville in search of validation. Why? They haven't burnished their credentials all that much over the past four months.

San Diego State is one of dozens of teams in college basketball that has done a lot of work at home and practically nothing in road or neutral games. The Aztecs lost on neutral floors to Syracuse and Arizona, though they did beat UCLA and Indiana State. (Beating Arizona or Syracuse would have made a statement, but the Aztecs' wins over UCLA and ISU at least gave their resume the heft of a tournament team.) In the Mountain West, SDSU has lost just once in San Diego, but it has whiffed on the road against the top three teams in the league (UNM, Colorado State, and UNLV) while losing at Air Force as well. It's not as though this team has performed terribly; its losses at Air Force, CSU, and UNLV were all immensely entertaining, down-to-the-wire affairs. However, the Aztecs were deficient enough to fall short in all three contests. Basketball invites close games, and SDSU has not won enough of them to become an elite team in 2013.

SAN DIEGO STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 49.2. Change: +1.1 percent (48.1 on Feb. 2).

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 33.4. Change: +0.6 percent (32.8 on Feb. 2).

Possessions per 40 minutes: 67.8. Change: -0.4 possessions (68.2 on Feb. 2).

Turnovers per game: 11.9. Change: none.

Points allowed per possession: 0.906. Change: +0.037 points allowed (0.869 on Feb. 2).

Field goal percentage defense: 39.3. Change: +0.8 percent (38.5 on Feb. 2).

Three-point field goal percentage defense: 31.4. Change: +2.7 percent (28.7 on Feb. 2).

Starting Lineup

Forward – DeShawn Stephens –
Senior, 6-8, 225 2012-13: 6.3 points per game, 5 rebounds per game

Stephens' scoring average has not changed over the past month, and his rebounding average has decreased by 0.3 boards per game (from 5.3 on Feb. 2). For a senior, Stephens is not offering the value-added presence the Aztecs could sorely use from him. San Diego State needs to become a more imposing team in the paint, precisely because its perimeter shooting is so unsteady and unreliable. Stephens has to elevate his game if the Aztecs are going to win at least once in the NCAA tournament.

Forward – J.J. O'Brien – Sophomore, 6-7, 225; 2012-13: 7.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg

O'Brien's scoring has increased a full point since Feb. 2 (6.6 points at the time), and his rebounding has improved by 0.5 boards per game (4.4 on Feb. 2). This is the emergent player who will likely star for the Aztecs next season. Air Force has to be ready to match O'Brien's energy, especially on the glass.

Guard – Xavier Thames – Junior, 6-3, 190; 2012-13: 8.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg

Thames has replaced James Rahon, marking the one change in San Diego State's starting five. Thames had been averaging 9.4 points and 2.4 rebounds as a primary reserve for this team on Feb. 2, so his production has slightly decreased over the past month. What's worth noting about Thames, relative to Air Force, is that the junior did not play on Feb. 2 in Colorado Springs. He's been dogged by back problems for much of the Mountain West season, and if San Diego State fans want to tell outside observers why the Aztecs haven't flourished as much as they were expected to in 2013, they'd cite Thames's injury issues as the main reason. In many ways, Air Force will want to game plan for Thames on offense, not defense. Thames adds ballast to the Aztecs' defense, thanks to his quickness and instincts. Head coach Steve Fisher said on Jan. 24 (in an article from the Sporting News ) that Thames is the Aztecs' best help defender.

Guard – Chase Tapley – Senior, 6-3, 195; 2012-13: 13.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.7 assists per game, 1.2 steals per game

Over the past month, Tapley's scoring has decreased by 1.2 points per game (from 14.6 per game on Feb. 2). His rebounding average has declined by 0.2 rebounds (from 3.3 per game on Feb. 2), and his steals per game are down 0.1 (from 1.3 on Feb. 2). His assists are up 0.3 (from 2.4 a month ago). What's worth noting about Tapley, who has not been fully healthy this season (due to a knee injury), is that he hit just 1 of 7 shots in the Feb. 2 loss at Clune Arena. On that afternoon, San Diego State's starters scored 61 of the Aztecs' 67 points. Tapley scored only two of those points, a central reason the Falcons defeated SDSU. Watch for Tapley to attack the basket and play with a gleam in his eyes on Wednesday night.

Guard – Jamaal Franklin – Junior, 6-5, 205; 2012-13: 17.2 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 steals per game, 0.9 blocked shots per game

Franklin's scoring, compared to Feb. 2, is slightly down (0.2 points from 17.4 per game). His rebounding is down 0.3 boards in that same span of time (from 9.4 per game). His per-game averages for steals (unchanged) and blocked shots (down 0.1) have barely changed, if at all. Yet, if Franklin's numbers are slightly down, will that change the way Air Force should look at him? Not at all. This is still the heartbeat of the Aztecs, one of the best players in the sport. Fans of the Falcons watched Franklin score 18 second-half points inside Clune Arena a month ago. Air Force will have its hands full with SDSU's star performer.

Bench

In a rotation that generally goes eight deep, Fisher relies on three reserves: guard James Rahon (formerly a starter, as noted above) and forwards Skylar Spencer and Winston Shepard. Rahon averages 7.1 points per game, up by 0.7 points from Feb. 2 (6.4 points per contest). Shepard has bumped up his scoring average to 6.3 points per game, the product of three double-figure outings against the lower-tier teams in the conference (Fresno State, Wyoming, and Nevada). Air Force needs to show that it is not a lower-tier team in the Mountain West when it goes up against the 6-8 freshman.

Keys to the Game

1) Get a better performance from the post players.
Let's not mince words: Air Force faces a tall order in this game, not just because the odds of a sweep against a good team are minimal, but because the Falcons got away with a few deficiencies on Feb. 2 in Colorado Springs. Air Force was smashed on the offensive glass, gaining only 3 offensive rebounds while surrendering 13 to the Aztecs. That kind of differential usually translates into a loss, but AFA's 12-of-30 three-point shooting, combined with SDSU's 2-of-19 performance from three-point range, proved to be decisive. Air Force will need different sets of factors and different collections of advantages to line up in its column for this rematch with Los Aztecs. The Falcons' post players have to be able to fight the likes of Stephens, O'Brien, and Franklin on even terms for rebounds and 50-50 balls. If SDSU finishes plus-10 on the offensive glass once again, Air Force will probably not win this contest.

2) Win the free-throw battle. The other deficiency Air Force survived on Feb. 2 was the foul-shooting differential. San Diego State earned nine more trips to the charity stripe (18 to 9) and made seven more tries (15 to 8). This time around, the Falcons can't expect to outscore San Diego State by 30 points from the three-point line. Maybe Air Force can make five or six more threes than the Aztecs, but it will need to make more than 15 foul shots at the very least if it wants to fly out of Southern California with a win.

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