Think about this for a moment:
Had SDSU not come from six points down with 7½ minutes left in the Mountain West tournament final to beat New Mexico and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament, there’s a good chance no one on the San Diego State men’s basketball roster next season would have been to the Big Dance.
The chain, so impermeable for so long, would have been broken.
It’s an unconscionable thought for a program that has defined itself as a regular participant in March Madness, a rite of passage for players going back more than a decade. The magical run to the NCAA Tournament earlier this month, then, was as important for the program’s present as its future.
It rewarded the three seniors. It also stuck a giant, glistening carrot in front of the underclassmen, giving them a nibble now and motivation to take a bigger bite one day.
“Talent is one thing, and we obviously have that,” said coach Brian Dutcher, whose program has now been to the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last nine years. “I mean, we have some wonderful players coming back. But desire is another thing. You can have talent, but then you want to direct it towards something. And now they have something to direct it toward, which is getting back here.”
And that’s important when next season’s success relies largely on what happens between now and November, on the expected improvement of a core of promising players, on good freshmen (Jalen McDaniels, Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel) becoming really good sophomores, on a sophomore post who showed flashes (Nolan Narain) becoming a consistent contributor, on junior guards (Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley) becoming mature, senior leaders who provide positive examples for a redshirt and three incoming freshmen.
They got a taste in Wichita, Kan., earlier this month. Now we’ll see how big their appetite is.
Not long after SDSU’s charter flight landed in San Diego following the 67-65 loss against Houston, Schakel tweeted this:
“Man … March Madness lit a (fire) in me like nothing else. We had a great run. Time to grind even harder to get back and win big next year. I believe.”
The tweet went into cyberspace. Schakel went into the gym and began preparing for 2018-19, a season filled with promise and, now, a purpose.
Before the Aztecs can start crystalizing a vision for next season, they have to determine who’s going to be around for next season.
Already, we know three seniors who combined for 71 starts last season are gone: Trey Kell, Malik Pope and Kameron Rooks. And midway through the season, Missouri transfer Montaque Gill-Caesar left the team.
There could be more. No player struggled more to adapt to Dutcher’s ever-shifting rotation than fourth-year junior Max Montana, and the 6-foot-9 forward needs only two summer school classes to graduate, which he says he intends to do. That allows him to transfer for his final season of eligibility without sitting out a year.
Montana was non-committal when asked in the locker room after the loss against Houston, saying: “I’m just taking it day by day at this point.”
There’s also McDaniels, who provisionally entered the NBA Draft but didn’t hire an agent to allow him to retain his college eligibility. Logic suggests he’ll return – he currently does not appear in any of the major mock drafts – but those around him believe there’s a legitimate chance he could turn pro and privately say he’s no lock to come back.
Another possible departure is associate head coach Justin Hutson, whose name is annually connected with head coach openings across the West (as it should be). This year, it’s Fresno State. Hutson grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and won a pair of NCAA Division II titles at Bakersfield, but the opening is just now entering the interview phase.
The scholarship math: The Aztecs have three for their departing seniors, one for Gill-Caesar and one they didn’t use this season. And they have three incoming freshmen: 6-10 Joel Mensah, 6-10 Nathan Mensah and 6-2 guard Jordan Campbell.
That leaves Dutcher with at least two open scholarships and possibily more, should Montana or McDaniels leave.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in what could be a volatile offseason for college basketball. Programs like Arizona and USC could face upheaval if the NCAA comes down on them for their connections to the FBI corruption probe, and SDSU might be an attractive destination for players looking for a new home in this time zone.
“The transfer market,” Dutcher said, “is just starting to heat up.”
In addition, the Aztecs have been scouting junior colleges more than usual and are among the five finalists (with SMU, Dayton, Grand Canyon and Texas A&M) for former Baylor guard Wendell Mitchell – considered by some the nation’s top JC player. A top juco wing is said to be in their sights as well. Assistant coach Tim Shelton spent last week at the JC national champion tournament in Hutchison, Kan. (which was won by Texas JC South Plains and former SDSU guard Ben Perez).
What are the most pressing needs: A scoring guard, a slashing wing, a shot blocker, all of the above?
“It’s almost like the NFL Draft: You can say you need this position, but you have to take the best available player and then see how it shakes out,” Dutcher said. “But we’re well positioned. We’ve got scholarships where if the right player comes along, we can go after him. And if we don’t take anybody, we’ve got a good team anyways.”
High school recruiting heats up later this month with a two-week evaluation period, followed by a three-week window in July. The Aztecs currently have three seniors on the 2018-19 roster – Montana, Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley – and you’d expect them to use at least two of those scholarships on high school seniors from the class of 2019.
The list of targets will expand and contract over the coming months, reaching into the dozens, as the coaching staff watches an endless stream of AAU games between Las Vegas and Atlanta, and points between. But right now there are two primary names linked to the Aztecs for obvious reasons:
Jaden McDaniels and Rejean “Boogie” Ellis.
McDaniels is the 6-9 younger brother of Jalen McDaniels from the Seattle area. Jaden is considered more polished offensively than Jalen at this age and a slightly higher-rated prospect, but the raw length and athleticism and basketball IQ are similar.
Jaden is getting interest from schools in power conferences, although SDSU appears firmly in the mix. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s had a front-row seat to the meteoric development of his brother from redshirting freshman into NBA prospect. There’s also the enticement of playing together in college, although that would require Jalen to play two more seasons before turning pro.
Ellis, also a high school junior, is a 6-2 point guard who led Mission Bay High to the CIF San Diego Section Open Division championship. SDSU was among the first to recruit him, and he’s only now getting the attention he deserves nationally – as a throwback floor leader who directs traffic and involves teammates with quick handles and improving 3-point range.
A go-to guy
After years of trying to improve offensive efficiency, the Aztecs actually did it – going from 183rd nationally in 2016-17 to 77th, according to the respected Kenpom.com metric. They were even more impressive over their nine-game win streak to close the season, averaging 78.4 points while shooting 48 percent and outscoring teams. Five players finished the season averaging double figures.
Much of that firepower returns with Watson, Mitchell and, they hope, McDaniels. What doesn’t, however, are the offense’s two main triggers.
Halfcourt sets often entered through Pope on the low block, where his size and experience allowed him to find the open man when the inevitable double-team came. And late in games, Dutcher got the ball to Kell at the top and had him drive off ball screens, trusting he would make the right decisions.
The logical progression for McDaniels is to expand his offensive arsenal, sharpening a promising perimeter stroke and developing the ability to score with his back to the basket. But who assumes Kell’s role?
Is it Watson, now that he’s had two years in the system? Or Mitchell, blossoming with a full spring and summer of conditioning? Or Hemsley, if he can recapture the offensive spark he showed as a sophomore?
Or someone else not yet on the roster?
Or all of that combined?
For all the Aztecs’ defensive struggles, for all those games where opponents lit them up in the second half, they still finished 30th nationally according to Kenpom.com.
It’s relative, of course – 321 teams were statistically worse in Division I, but it also was SDSU’s worse defensive rating in six seasons that included a fourth, fifth and seventh.
Like the offense, though, it was trending in the right direction late in the season. And like the offense, the key for the spring and summer is capturing and building on that momentum.
It helps that in incoming freshman Nathan Mensah, they’ll have something approaching a rim protector – maybe not quite Skylar Spencer 2.0 but better than anything they had this season, when opponents routinely got to the basket off dribble penetration. They’ll also have redshirt freshman Adam Seiko, billed as one of the top prep perimeter defenders at Sierra Canyon High – a guy who routinely locked up the other team’s best player.
Waiting until February again to begin defending at SDSU levels, however, is not advised next season. The nonconference tournament, during Thanksgiving Week, is the Maui Invitational. The eight-team field includes No. 3 Xavier, No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 9 Duke, No. 12 Arizona and No. 19 Auburn, plus Iowa State and Illinois.
Zigging and Zagging
One of the most influential offseason developments could come next week, when Gonzaga will presumably decide whether to join the Mountain West, perhaps as soon as the 2018-19 season.
The most immediate impact is the scheduling. With a pair of conference games against the Zags and the overall bump they would provide to the Mountain West’s RPI, there’s no real need to ramp up the November and December schedule given the Maui field, a home game against USD and a road game at Cal.
But on a larger scale, it instantly changes the dynamic of your league by inserting a program that has been to 20 straight NCAA Tournaments and a year ago played in the national championship game – a national, not regional or local, brand with the basketball resources to match anyone in the country. SDSU has won a record 11 Mountain West regular-season or tournament titles; it won’t be the big dog any more.
That’s a good thing, if you’re willing to accept the challenge. The status quo, suddenly, isn’t good enough anymore.
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