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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 10 San Diego State Aztecs

Will the Aztecs finally put it all together this year?

NCAA Basketball: San Diego State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 21-13 (11-7 Mountain West), no postseason
Key Returning Players: Nathan Mensah (F, So.), Matt Mitchell (F, Jr.), Jordan Schakel (G, Jr.)
Key Losses: Ed Chang (Salt Lake Community College), Jeremy Hemsley, Jalen McDaniels (NBA), Devin Watson
Key Newcomers: KJ Feagin (G, Sr., via Santa Clara), Malachi Flynn (G, Jr., via Washington State), Yanni Wetzel (C, Sr., via Vanderbilt)

At this point, there really shouldn’t be any doubts about whether or not Brian Dutcher has succeeded as Steve Fisher’s predecessor.

After making the 2018 NCAA Tournament in his first season at the helm, Dutcher’s San Diego State teams have been a consistent player in the Mountain West. Granted, last year’s 21-13 record probably didn’t live up to expectations — especially with future Charlotte Hornet Jalen McDaniels and fearless bucket-getter Devin Watson on the roster — but the Aztecs’ floor this year is a third-consecutive 20-win season. They’re good enough to roll out of bed and finish in the top-third of the Mountain West; the question becomes whether or not they can jostle past Utah State and New Mexico for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

On paper, this should be a postseason team — whether it’s the Big Dance or the NIT (historically, SDSU has opted out of the pay-for-play tournaments). SDSU’s patented, plague-ball zone defense is still here. So is Matt Mitchell, who at 10.3 PPG is the Aztecs’ top returning scorer. Throw in an athletic backcourt of 6’10” Nathan Mensah, Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzel and super-athletic wing Aguek Arop (6’6” with a 7’1” wingspan), and the Aztecs have the talent to compete with anyone in the conference.

But what really sets this team apart is its pair of transfer guards. Despite missing out on wooing McDaniels’ five-star younger brother Jaden McDaniels, San Diego State landed two of the conference’s most talented transfers in Washington State point guard Malachi Flynn and Santa Clara grad transfer KJ Feagin. Both averaged around 15 PPG at their former schools.

The one problem? The Aztecs were in almost this exact position this time last year.

In order to not repeat last year’s mistakes, the Aztecs will have to improve on offense. But given their glacial pace of play and tendency to rely on a couple high-volume players to pail them out, whether or not SDSU turns the corner will be the biggest question mark going into this season.

Key Non-Conference Games

San Diego State’s non-conference schedule is bolstered by the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, which features No. 13 Texas Tech, Creighton and an Iowa team that made the tournament last season. Aside from that, there’s an opening weekend clash with former MWC foe BYU, a game against Utah in Los Angeles and a home game against Grand Canyon. Everything else is filler.

Nov. 9 at BYU
Nov. 13 vs. Grand Canyon
Nov. 28 vs. Creighton (Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational)
Nov. 29 vs. Texas Tech or Iowa (Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational)
Dec. 21 vs. Utah (in Los Angeles)

Three Things to Watch

Will SDSU’s offense finally keep pace with its defense?

If pace, smart-shooting and exciting offensive possessions sound good, then do not watch the Aztecs.

Historically, San Diego State has been a defense-first team. Ever wonder why every NBA pundit was surprised when Kawhi Leonard became an all-around offensive threat? The last time this program averaged 80 PPG was 1985. Coincidentally, averaging 77.1 PPG in Dutcher’s first season was the closest SDSU has gotten to this mark — but keep in mind the shot clock was 35 seconds back then and now it’s 30. The Aztecs have consistently attracted elite college basketball talent, yet haven’t completely capitalized on it on offense.

Something resembling consistent offense — and no, those “let’s have Devin Watson bail the team out with a step-back three” possessions don’t really count — is the missing piece for SDSU. After all, the Aztecs will have to keep up with Utah State and New Mexico somehow.

Take the MWC title game, for example. The Aztecs held Utah State to one of its worst shooting nights of the season (45.2 eFG%), yet they countered it by giving up a 15-0 run to start the second half and by shooting 33.3% from the field. That’s not sustainable. Neither is shooting 47.9% from inside the arc throughout last season with as deep and talented of a froncourt as the Aztecs had..

Now, the Aztecs appear to be a team capable of bucking the trend, thanks to two transfer guards. Speaking of...

Is the Mountain West sleeping on San Diego State’s transfers?

While San Diego State doesn’t the hype that New Mexico’s bevy of transfers are receiving, the Aztecs’ backcourt of Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin are two of Bart Torvik’s top 20 incoming transfers. With a wide-open backcourt and a need for scorers, this pair of score-first point guards will automatically be one of the best units in the conference.

Malachi Flynn is one of the best point guards you’ve never heard of — mostly because he played for some horrendous Washington State teams. Flynn started 60 of 61 games as an underclassman at WSU and was expected to be one of the guys who could turn things around for head coach Ernie Kent. Unfortunately for the Cougars, this didn’t happen, although he was pretty damn close to being one of the Pac-12’s best point guards. Flynn averaged 15.8 PPG, 4.3 APG and 1.6 SPG as a sophomore, and consistently bailed out Wazzu on both ends of the floor like this:

The Sparknotes version: One team in the MWC has two 20-point threats in its backcourt. That team is San Diego State.

How will the frontcourt replace Jalen McDaniels?

Enter Nathan Mensah, the 6’10” rim-protector who played his way into a starting role in early January and didn’t look back. Mensah averaged 6.1 PPG (on 53.3% shooting) and 5.9 RPG as a starter while turning in a couple promising performances, including a 10-point, three-block effort in a win over Utah State, a 13-and-11 against San Jose State and a career-high 16 points against New Mexico.

He’ll be flanked by Joel Mensah (no relation) and Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzell, who only averaged 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18.5 minutes of play during his lone season in Nashville. The frontcourt situation is intriguing nonetheless, and will be key when facing up against the likes of Colorado State’s Nico Carvacho, Utah State’s Neemias Queta and New Mexico’s Carlton Bragg.

X Factor

KJ Feagin’s health

Now, all that talk of the conference’s best dual-point guard attack is all well and good, but keeping Feagin on the court is the key to unlocking this team’s potential.

Feagin’s career has been marred with untimely injuries right as he was gaining momentum. He broke his left hand against UC Irvine, but missed his final season at Santa Clara with a right foot injury. As a sophomore, he missed the first 14 games, including a 12-game stretch to open the season.

The Aztecs will have to be mindful of Feagin’s health throughout the season. Perhaps having another starting point guard on the depth chart will alleviate these concerns, but that remains to be seen.