COACH AND PROGRAM
Steve Fisher has been through this before, and if history is any indication, it should be a big season for his San Diego State men's basketball squad.
As Fisher enters his 20th full season as a college head coach and 12th with the Aztecs, he returns all five starters. In the two previous times Fisher has had this luxury, his 1992-93 Michigan team reached the NCAA Tournament championship game and his 2008-09 San Diego State squad won a school-record 26 games and advanced to the NIT semifinals.
The Aztecs were 25-9 last season, and even though they tied for third in the Mountain West regular-season standings, they won the conference tournament and were one of a record four MWC teams to advance to the NCAA Tournament, where they narrowly lost to Tennessee in the first round.
"This truly was a team, which made it even more enjoyable," Fisher said. "We had a lot of really nice young men on our team that felt like when the team wins, we all benefit." San Diego State returns 82.8 percent of its points, 80.4 percent of its rebounds and 86.7 percent of its assists from last season. Five players averaged double figures in scoring, but no one more than 12.7. Seven different players led the team in scoring.
"Great expectations are had by all, starting with ourselves," Fisher said. "Our players expect us to be better. Our coaches expect us to be better. Our parents expect us to better and our fans expect us to be better.
"But that's all easy to say. With the other teams in our league, there is stiff competition everywhere you go. We're not the lone ranger when talking about having high expectations."
D.J. Gay spent his first two years as a backup at point guard to four-year starter Ritchie Williams. But last season was Gay's first as the starter and primarily running the point, and the 6-0 junior didn't disappoint (10.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.2 apg) as he earned honorable mention all-conference honors. He's also made 146 career three-pointers, fourth in school history.
San Diego State Aztecs
Last Season 25-9 (.735)
Conference Record 11-5 (t-3rd)
Starters Lost/Returning 0/5
Coach Steve Fisher (Illinois State '67)
Record At School 198-149 (11 years)
Career Record 382-231 (19 years)
RPI Last 5 years 61-60-85-31-25
"We were very pleased with what D.J. delivered," Fisher said. "I knew he was going to be able to perform as our primary ball handler. He did an admirable job in every regard. He grew in leadership. His play was steady to spectacular as the season went on. We expect him to be our leader on this ball club."
Joining Gay in the backcourt is 6-2 sophomore Chase Tapley (7.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.2 apg). Tapley scored in double figures in 13 games, shot 50 percent from the field and broke into the starting lineup at the midway point of the season. He also showed some toughness.
"Chase had a spectacular freshman year," Fisher said. "He broke his hand in our last [regular-season game] against Colorado State and came back for the conference tournament and scored 15 points in the first game.
"Now he's got to get better. But we really like what he did for us last year, and what he has the potential to bring to our team this upcoming season."
There isn't much proven depth behind Gay and Tapley. Sophomore James Rahon is 6-5 and sat out last season after he transferred from Santa Clara. He averaged 11.3 points and shot nearly 41 percent from three-point range in his lone season at Santa Clara. Fisher hopes Rahon will give the Aztecs a boost in perimeter shooting; they shot only 31.7 percent from three-point range last season.
LaBradford Franklin is a freshman point guard that should back up Gay. The 6-2, 180-pound product of Temecula, Calif., averaged 17.6 points and 4.8 assists as a senior and turned down scholarship offers from Gonzaga and Washington State.
At 6-5, Jamaal Franklin is a freshman wing player Fisher and his staff like. Franklin could see playing time early, as 6-6 sophomore Tyrone Shelley (6.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) transferred after last season to seek more playing time.
The strength of the Aztecs is their frontcourt, which is arguably one of the best in the nation.
Sophomore Kawhi Leonard entered last season with a lot of hype. The 6-7, 225-pound forward was a top-rated high school player coming out of California, and players of his caliber don't usually sign with Mountain West teams.
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Leonard lived up to the hype, leading the team in scoring (12.7 ppg) and the conference in rebounding (9.9 rpg). He garnered first-team All-MWC honors, was the MWC Tournament Most Valuable Player, and the league's Freshman of the Year. Leonard enters this season as a legitimate All-America candidate.
"Kawhi is as good a rebounder as I've ever coached," Fisher said. "Kawhi is a guy that can get you double figures rebounding every night. Rarely do you live up to all the hype that a guy like him had, but he did that. He's a remarkable player."
"But yet, he's got to get better. He's got to shoot the ball better from the perimeter. But the nice thing about Kawhi is there's a lot more upside."
Then there's senior Billy White. At 6-8 and 235 pounds, White is the NCAA Division I leader in field-goal percentage among active players (.617). Sure, White (11.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) gets most of his points near the basket, but that's because of his size and athleticism. Hand and knee injuries hampered White last season, and injuries have also been a problem for him much of his career. But White saved some of his best basketball for the Aztecs' postseason run last year.
"I think Billy White is the best overall athlete in our league," Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said last season.
"When he was on his game, he's as good a forward as we have in this league," Fisher said. "We're hoping we'll have the consistency that a four-year senior player is able to provide."
In his first season after transferring from San Diego City College, 6-9 senior forward Malcolm Thomas (10.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 bpg) earned second-team All-MWC honors.
"Malcolm Thomas is as good a passing big man as there is on the West Coast," Fisher said. "He garnered lot of double teams early, and he struggled with it. But he became a skilled passer from the low post as a result of that. He's very athletic, quick off his feet, moves well in and around the basket. He needs to improve his free-throw shooting to become the kind of player that he's hoping and we're hoping he will be."
Senior Mehdi Cheriet, a 6-9 forward, redshirted last season but has played in 35 games. Fisher describes the French native as a typical European player with good perimeter skills.
The Aztecs also have bulk down low in 6-11, 297-pound senior Brian Carlwell (4.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg), who transferred from Illinois.
"He gave us valuable minutes off the bench," Fisher said. "He's big and strong, but also skilled. He was a threat to make a 15-foot jump shot, and was very efficient offensively [.615 FG]. He probably felt he should have played more minutes, but I thought the minutes he got other he delivered a lot of good things for us."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Aztecs have to be considered the favorites to win the conference title based on what they have coming back from last season. There is some concern about depth, especially in the backcourt, but Fisher seems to find a way to make it work.
If Franklin can be a solid backup to Gay at the point, and the team stays focused and relatively injury free, it is more than capable of not only making its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance but making a run in the tournament.
"One, you have to stay healthy," Fisher said. "Two, people have to make sure they don't have agendas and play as a team. Three, I'm hoping [the MWC] have four teams again make the NCAA Tournament. We could be that good again."