SCOUTING THE AZTECS
San Diego State pulled a perceived upset of #14 California late Thursday night (Friday morning in the East) with a 72-58 win over the Bears, but it certainly wasn't a surprise of the stature of some of the other knockdowns that have permeated the early college hoops season. Coached by veteran Steve Fisher, the Aztecs were tabbed as potential Top 25 material in their own right prior to the start of the season, but suffered a torturous 49-43 loss to Little Rock a week ago, which dropped them out of the view of pollsters. They're now primed to make a move with another victory over an undefeated Top 25 team, which would go a long way in bolstering their run toward a seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Holding a 4-2 overall record overall, SDSU is led by freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley, who, like a couple of previous WVU backcourt foes, is proficient in both scoring and playmaking. He's averaging 13.7 points per game, and also leads the squad with 14 assists. Shooting a dead level 50% from both the field and 3-point line, he'll be a focal point for the Mountaineer defense.
Fellow backcourt mate Dakarai Allen (6-5, 195 lbs.) isn't quite as efficient, but the junior is still adding 10.2 points per game in support of Hemsley, while senior forward Winston Shepard (6-8, 210 lbs.), a preseason all-Mountain West Conference pick, is tallying 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Fisher has shuffled his starting lineup through the first six games, but is expected to go with sophomore guard Trey Kell (6-4, 210 lbs.), along with either senior forward Angelo Chol (6-9, 215 lbs.) or redshirt freshman forward Zylan Cheatham (6-9, 215 lbs.). Cheatham is the more productive at 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while Kell adds 6.3 points per outing.
Like WVU, the Aztecs go ten players deep, but their game is built around half-court defense and a deliberate offense. They've held opponents to just 35% shooting from the field, and do a good job in retrieving those misses, as they hold a +6.5 rebounding edge per game. With the ball, they are patient, and combined with their shot-clock draining defense, try to keep the game at a slower pace.
West Virginia, in addition to its normal pressure, will look to keep the ball out of Hemsley's hands when the Aztecs set their offense. Keeping the ball on one side of the court is always a point of emphasis for head coach Bob Huggins, but making the offense run through someone else will be a big factor. Hemsley is good in multiple play phases, but if he can be reduced to one dimension, the Mountaineers will up their winning chances considerably.
The Aztecs haven't been particularly good on the offensive end themselves, as they rank 217th nationally (out of 351) in effective shooting percentage, so West Virginia, if it cuts down on the transition opportunities it yields out of the press, should be able to keep their scoring total in the 60s. That's a recipe for a WVU win
After a good start in terms of fouling, WVU was back to some issues of last year against Richmond. Jonathan Holton saw just 12 minutes of playing time, while Jaysean Paige was limited to 14. Nathan Adrian managed 20, but fouled out. Having both Holton and Adrian in foul trouble changes a lot for WVU, as they play the same position on the press when they pressure the inbounder. When they are out, WVU must either go to a different press, or change lineups entirely (Devin Williams and Elijah Macon together) or to a smaller lineup. That was ok against Richmond, but SDSU has good, athletic height across its frontcourt, so the Mountaineers need to keep their rotation at those positions intact. Was this just a one-game aberration, or a harbinger of things to come? The goal: no one with two fouls before at least 12 minutes have elapsed in the first half. That might be too much to ask for, but WVU is far less effective when it can't change up its presses.
For the second game in a row, WVU appeared stagnant at times on offense, and while Huggins said that simply making shots will cure some of those ills, there's a lingering concern about the Mountaineers' consistency in simply running its sets or the motion offense. Cuts need to be more timely and performed with more urgency, and passes better considered. Several sloppy turnovers, combined with that offensive lethargy, weren't fatal in early games of this tournament, but would likely prove so against the Aztecs.
Finally, which team will be able to handle the quick turnaround the best? The Mountaineers have a bit of an advantage, having finished their game around 7:00 p.m Eastern, while the Aztecs didn't wrap up until after 2:00 a.m. The tip time of 10:30 p.m. Eastern is a concern, but fatigue probably won't be the biggest factor in this game. Still, it could play a small role, and in this battle, any edge is one that could make the difference.
SDSU rallied from 15 points down in the second half to defeat Cal on Thursday, which was their second largest such comeback for a win since 1996-97. The victory was its third straight over the Bears, and gave the Aztecs a 15-7 record in their last 22 games against Pac-12 opponents.
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As might be expected, WVU is holding opponents to a low assist-to-turnover ratio, given the large number of the latter generated by the Mountaineer defense. However, it also points out that WVU is doing well in cutting down passing lanes and keeping its foes from moving the ball and running effective offense. Granted, there's still much work to be done in the defensive halfcourt, but building from this strength is a good thing for Bob Huggins' crew.
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The Aztecs are one of the most deliberate teams in the nation, averaging just 68.8 possession per game this year. That puts them 298th nationally. WVU is 74th with 76 possessions per outing.
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Just because they aren't a "name" doesn't mean they can't play. The Aztecs are 145-38 over the last five-plus seasons, ranking them seventh in winning percentage nationally.
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WVU is now second nationally in offensive rebounding, having collected 17.8 such boards per game. Only Washington, with 18.0, leads the Mountaineers in that category.