On The Beat: Breaking Down The Aztecs

San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mark Zeigler is heading up to Columbus today as he will be covering San Diego State's run through the NCAA Tournament. Zeigler spoke in-depth with Pack Pride about the Aztecs, and here is Part I of our interview.

San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mark Zeigler is heading up to Columbus today as he will be covering San Diego State's run through the NCAA Tournament. Zeigler spoke in-depth with Pack Pride about the Aztecs, and here is Part I of our interview.


San Diego State was extremely good last season and made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but they lost four starters off that team and seemed to not really have skipped a beat. Is that the case and why do you believe that is?
They haven't really missed a beat in that they are still winning games, but how they are winning is completely different. They are a completely different team, and I believe they have really overachieved based on what they have coming back.

I think the biggest thing for San Diego State is there is a culture of winning that was established by last year's team and the team from the year before that. That culture of winning has carried over to this team. They just expect to win and don't listen to anyone who says they aren't suppose to win this year, make the tournament... they were picked third in the conference. All they know how to do is win and that's what they have done.

What are the strengths of the team?
I think their biggest strength is resilience and the culture of winning. If you look at them on paper and what they have coming back... individual parts you would probably say they are okay but nothing really special.

But they play well together and they are incredibly resilient. There have been games where they were down and you think there is absolutely no way they win, but they find a way.

They are extremely good in the last five minutes of games. They have won 69 straight games when they were leading with five minutes to go. Now, part of that was last year's team being so strong, but this team has had a lot of two-point games.

Jamaal Franklin
They had a stretch this year where they had six straight games decided by six points or less, and they won five of them with two in overtime... all of the games were against quality opposition, postseason teams. They found a way to make a play, get a stop, get a defensive rebound... just do what it took to win.

That has epitomized how they have been, and I think it's their biggest strength. They have a lot of experience in tight games and if it's a tight game they might have an edge because of that experience.

Also, they have veterans and are pretty savvy. They are the best game-planning team they've ever had there. They absorbs game plans and scouting reports like no one else, and that is why this extra day will help them. They make subtle changes in their defense, how they play in the post, on ball screens... help and rotate. They are great at changing and tweaking based on their competition. It is subtle but very effective.

What types of teams have given them trouble this year?
It's interesting because someone asked Steve Fisher who NC State is like and he paused for a second, said that's a good question, thought about it some more and didn't really give an answer because there really isn't anyone like them.

The Mountain West Conference is really small this year. It's good, but it is a small conference. There is only one team that plays two post players and it is New Mexico and they won the league.

Colorado State plays all small ball with guys 6'5 and under. UNLV has a couple of bigs but they don't play them that much. Air Force is small, Boise State isn't that big, San Diego State isn't that big, so they've been able to get away with a small-ball lineup.

Now they will face a team with multiple starters who like to play inside and with a great shooter on the perimeter. I think it's going to be a tough matchup for them because they haven't played anybody like NC State.

When you look at San Diego State you see their four-guard lineup and that looks unique to us because we cover the ACC, a league where teams all start two post players. But it sounds like San Diego State's lineup isn't unique at all in the Mountain West Conference.
Correct. It has allowed them to play small ball. They play Jamaal Franklin at power forward, but he's not a power forward... he's a three-man, a guard. They just use him there. Now, it doesn't alter their lineup because they do play him at the power forward position. They will get him on the perimeter with an awkward matchup and he drives, or he can shoot three's. It will be a matchup problem the other way too.

But in the Mountain West they were able to get away with it because there are no bigs. Drew Gordon at New Mexico was the only dominant big man. The rest of the big men are stretch four's who like to play on the perimeter.

What do you think is San Diego State's biggest concern with NC State?
They keep mentioning the size and transition. I think those are their biggest worries. They have to handle those guys, box them out, play defense, and obviously who is going to guard C.J.? Do you front him, backside help, do you go to another big man early because of the size issues? I think those are the issues that concern them.

It seems NC State is a sexy pick as an early round upset by a lot of the media. Has that got back to San Diego State, and if so what are they saying about it?
They were asked a lot about that at the media press conference. For instance, CBSSports.com put up eight expert brackets and seven had NC State winning... it seems the ESPN experts are all picking NC State to win.

The players said they are used to it. They went through it last year in that they were 34-3 and no one thought they were good. They just said we're so used to proving people wrong that it is just standard.

What is really motivating and fueling this team is they want to create their own legacy. They don't just want to be viewed as leftovers from last year's team. Last year's team won, but they want to be known as winners and seem to have a chip on their shoulders.

C.J. Leslie

I think on paper it is fair to say NC State is every bit as good or better than San Diego State even though they may not have the overall resume but based on how they are playing.

The big x-factor is almost everybody for San Diego State has played in multiple NCAA games. Last year they played in three games and they know how the media works, how the practices are open... the press conferences. Tim Shelton made an interesting comment about how NC State was celebrating when they got in. He said San Diego State was doing the same two years ago. It's great to have that excitement, but he felt like it hurt them when they got there because they didn't know how to control it when they missed shots, were in a tight situation.

On paper NC State might be a little better but in terms of intangibles that might sway things. It doesn't mean San Diego State will win, but every coach I talk to has said it is a big deal having the experience of going through the tournament once already.

Given San Diego State's four-guard lineup, do they play at a fast pace? State is really good in transition and they want to win, is that the case with SDSU?
Players say they want to go to San Diego State to get out and run, but last year's team was one of the slowest tempo teams in country, and they play most of their games like that.

This team will run when they have a chance. They have fast guys and are good in transition... they are athletic and get up and down the floor but they don't try to run. They are more opportunistic and not being a great rebounding team makes it hard for them to run.

They will run if they have a chance, but it is not their primary focus. They will come down and run some offense.

Both teams seem to run a lot of 1-4 offense with NC State being a high post rub/UCLA offense... San Diego State is a different 1-4 offense. They don't normally drop a guy in the post. They'll bring the big men out and face up on the perimeter and guys will run around off them.

Has San Diego State faced anyone similar to NC State with what they do offensively?
No. There aren't any big men. They are perimeter-oriented and ball screen teams. There are a lot of dribble handoffs and much more perimeter-oriented offenses in the Mountain West.

You'll see pick-and-pop but not the power game. There is not a point guard in the league like Brown who can come off a UCLA screen/cut and post on the block. There is no one like him that can take guys off the dribble, spin, get in the lane, and finish off the glass. There isn't anyone like that.


Tomorrow we will have Part II of our interview San Diego Union-Tribune beat writer Mark Zeigler when he will break down San Diego State's personnel.

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