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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 9 San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State’s athleticism and defense should bring them back to the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Houston vs San Diego State Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 22-11 (11-7 Mountain West), 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament
Key Returning Players: Jeremy Hemsley (Sr. G), Jalen McDaniels (R-So. F), Matt Mitchell (So. G), Devin Watson (R-Sr. G)
Key Losses: Trey Kell (G), Malik Pope (G), Kameron Rooks (C)
Key Newcomers: Edward Chang (No. 284 247 composite), Joel Mensah (No. 203 247 composite), Nathan Mensah (No. 296 247 composite)

The 2018 Mountain West Tournament Champions took a peculiar path to the NCAA Tournament. Picked second in the preseason MWC polls, the Aztecs were three PAC-12 losses away from a perfect non-conference record. After a gritty home win against No. 12 Gonzaga, it looked like San Diego State was for real.

Conference play was a tale of two halves. The Aztecs struggled against the contenders in the Mountain West — especially during a three-game skid against Boise State, Fresno State and New Mexico — and faltered to a 4-5 record at the midway point. Something must’ve clicked the second time around, because San Diego State closed conference play on a six-game winning streak that included a five-point win over Nevada.

Around this time, redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels cracked the rotation and gave the Aztecs another gear. The 6’10 forward nearly averaged a double-double (12.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG) as SDSU carried its winning streak through the MWC Tournament with convincing wins over Fresno State, Nevada and New Mexico.

San Diego State couldn’t quite carry the momentum into the Big Dance, mainly because they ran into Houston’s Rob Gray:

By returning 62.9% of its minutes and adding promising freshmen, the Aztecs aim to flip the script this season.

Key Non-Conference Games

Get used to the bubble, San Diego State fans. The Aztecs have the best shot at the conference’s second at-large bid thanks a schedule with plenty of opportunities to build their NET rating.

A brutal Maui Invitational field highlights the non-conference. SDSU opens the three-game tourney against national title contender Duke, then play either Auburn or Xavier in the next round. December doesn’t get easier for the Aztecs: The Illinois State game looks like the marquee Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge game, the BYU game will be a thrilling clash of styles, and in-city rival San Diego is looking for a defensive slogfest.

Nov. 19-21 @ Maui Invitational
Dec. 1 @ Illinois State
Dec. 5 at San Diego
Dec. 8 at California
Dec. 22 vs. BYU

Three Things to Watch

Nevada who?

If any Mountain West team is tailor-made to usurp conference-favorite Nevada, it’s the Aztecs.

Unlike most MWC teams, San Diego State has Power-5 athleticism couple with Brian Dutcher’s trademark tough-as-nails defense that clamps down opponents on any given night. Led by stud sophomore Jalen McDaniels, San Diego State’s quartet of 6’10 bigs are best equipped to go toe-to-toe with Nevada’s Trey Porter, Jordan Brown and Tre’Shawn Thurman. Although both teams look very different this season, it’s worth noting that the Aztecs held Nevada to two of its worst offensive performances last season.

Basic Stats Table
Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Scho Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo Oppo
2018-02-10 @ Nevada L 58 83 21 62 .339 10 30 .333 6 10 .600 11 34 12 5 0 11 17 28 60 .467 11 34 .324 16 20 .800 10 38 18 3 2 9 13
2018-03-09 N Nevada W 90 73 28 54 .519 8 23 .348 26 34 .765 10 36 17 5 2 12 19 27 68 .397 7 29 .241 12 17 .706 10 25 14 10 3 10 21
2018-03-03 Nevada W 79 74 30 61 .492 7 18 .389 12 22 .545 11 35 19 4 4 9 16 29 59 .492 8 24 .333 8 12 .667 7 27 14 4 4 10 17
Provided by CBB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 10/22/2018.

It’s no surprise the Mountain West runs through Reno. Take care of the conference’s lesser teams, beat Nevada in the Viejas Arena, and the rematch on Mar. 9 could have crucial postseason ramifications.

Will SDSU’s young frontcourt deliver?

San Diego State’s success hinges on five underclassmen. That last sentence wouldn’t inspire confidence for most teams, but the Aztecs aren’t most teams.

On paper, SDSU’s frontcourt is the Mid-Major Monstars. To put this team’s athleticism into perspective, freshman — and former Washington commit — Ed Chang’s 6’11 wingspan is somehow the smallest wingspan of the bunch. Head of the snake Jalen McDaniels has NBA length at 6’10 coupled with nimbleness on the court. Mensahs Joel and Nathan (no relation) fit the traditional power forward molds at 6’10; both should start right away. And say what you will about preseason scrimmages, but freshman Aguek Arop played so well during an Oct. 20 scrimmage that San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Mark Zeigler called him the best of the newcomers:

[Arop] was arguably the best player on the floor in the first scrimmage two weeks ago and was equally effective Saturday.

The 6-foot-6 wing with the 7-foot wingspan (and 36-inch vertical) did this in the opening few minutes: Grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a charge, had a steal, handled the ball on the break and fed Flynn for an and-one layup, grabbed another offensive board for a put-back.

On defense, he largely neutralized McDaniels. He also was the red team’s top rebounder.

Guarding these freshman is going to be nightmarish. Trying to score on them might be worse.

How high will Jalen McDaniels’s draft stock rise?

Aforementioned stud sophomore McDaniels could have a breakout season. He’s projected as a late first-rounder but should raise his stock with another year of college development and a larger role; McDaniels started only 22 of 33 games last season and nearly averaged a double-double in only 24.7 minutes per game. Although his jumper could use a little work — 76% of his field goal attempts were at the rim, per Hoop-Math — his nose for rebounding and ability to defend multiple positions will be paramount.

X Factor

Whenever the Aztecs need a big shot, expect Devin Watson to take it. The one-time volume scorer at San Francisco took a backseat to Trey Kell and Malik Pope last season, but still averaged 12.2 PPG and led the Aztecs by shooting 39.5% from three. Now that Kell and Pope have graduated, the backcourt needs Watson to be his San Francisco self. If he can have a season closer to his sophomore campaign (20.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 65 threes), then SDSU will be a deadlier, more balanced team.