Thursday, March 17, 2016

Aztec Basketball, Hard to Predict

After their convincing 79-55 win over IPFW, the Aztecs now face the Washington Huskies here in their second NIT game. It’s safe to say anything could happen. Our Aztecs have not been exactly 100% predictable. After being left out of the NCAA for the first time in seven years, thanks to their loss to Fresno State in the MW Tournament championship game, the Aztecs are determined to keep going in the NIT. Who knows how far they will go. All the way to Madison Square Garden?

Think back to the start of the season. They fought #12 Utah right to the end before losing, 81-76, on the road. A few games later they beat #24 California, 72-58. In between, they got beat by Little Rock, 49-43, in what is labeled one of our “bad” losses. Obviously not a well-played game, but you have to question how bad a loss it was when you see that Little Rock is now 30-4, champions of the Sun Belt Conference and they beat Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

If you’re looking for the one absolutely BAD game, it was the 48-43 loss to USD in the horribly staged, horribly managed, horribly played game at Petco Park. I just wish I did not remember that one so clearly.

That one was the real dagger in our heart!

Then, prior to the start of the Mountain West schedule, our Aztecs uncharacteristically lost two in a row. First to little-known Grand Canyon, who has turned out to be one of the top teams in the WAC, with a 23-6 overall record. The second loss was a lot more excusable. Kansas, America’s #1 ranked team, came to Viejas and turned the tables, 70-57. That left the Aztecs with a 7-6 overall record.

There was some grumbling among our fans, but mostly disappointment and puzzlement. Unlike football’s early stages, there certainly was not any call for the coach’s scalp, but serious concern about how we’d fare in the conference race.

Starting with a home win over Wyoming and a tough road win at Utah State, the Aztecs proceeded to roll up 11 straight victories and clinch the title well before the conference season ended. The final 16-2 record was marred only by the heartbreaking 58-57 loss at Fresno State, and then the shocking 66-63 loss to Boise State at home, doomed by missing seven straight free throws at the very end.

Making up for that, the Aztecs destroyed New Mexico by 27 in The Pit, where the Lobos almost never lose, even by a few points. On Senior Night at home, the Aztecs crushed UNLV by 36 points.

There were two separate All-Conference Teams. The media had Steve Fisher, Coach of the Year, and Skylar Spencer, Defensive Player of the Year. No Aztec made the 1st Team! Winston Shepard made 2nd Team; and Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley, 3rd Team.

Skylar Spencer; Winston Shepard (photos by Ernie Anderson)
Coaches had a different view — more accurate, I’d say. Again, Steve was COY, and Skylar DPOY. Added to that, Jeremy was named Freshman of the Year. Trey made the 1st Team, Winston the 2nd Team, and Jeremy the 3rd. There also was a Defensive Team named, including both Skylar and Winston.

Next season? We lose Shepard, Spencer and Chol. That’s a lot. But think of the talent returning. A young but experienced team. Jeremy Hemsley, as a true Freshman, proved to be a very talented point guard, who will just get better and better. Trey Kell, moved into a more familiar role, was our top scorer. Zylan Cheatham, who was a RS Freshman, will learn to control his natural body skills and be a very productive Sophomore. Malik Pope seemed to find his true skills late in the year and should be a very dynamic force. Dakarai Allen, in the shadows much the year, came on late to be a big factor on both sides of the game. Dakarai, Matt Shrigley and D’Erryl Williams will be the only Seniors among the regulars. Sophomore Ben Perez could be a big contributor, too.

Jeremy Hemsley; Steve Fisher (photos by Ernie Anderson)
Our three redshirts, who got a lot of opportunity to become familiar with our system, will also play a role in 2016-17. Nolan Narain, a 6-9 Freshman, is a Canadian out of an Indiana HS where he was a 4-star recruit. Two transfers will bring added strength. Max Hoetzel, 6-9, played for Indiana before transferring, and Montague Gill-Caesar, 6-6, transferred from Missouri.

Will they be more predictable? My guess is they will be. More experience overall, and who could be less predictable than those great Aztecs who did so many good things for us this season?

For now, let’s concentrate on Monday’s game with Washington. Had a big crowd of more than 8,000 Tuesday; let’s pack Viejas on Monday!