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Cal Basketball vs. SDSU Aztecs Preview

It gets real now, Cal fans. The early round niceties have been completed. Now the Las Vegas Invitational proceeds in earnest with a neutral site game against the powerful San Diego State Aztecs.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a 27-9 season that ended in a 2nd round NCAA loss, SDSU is widely projected to win the Mountain West conference title yet again.

In his spare time between recruiting violations, Coach Steve Fisher has built the Aztecs into a formidable program with six straight tournament berths and five MWC conference titles under his belt.

Although the Aztecs lost three seniors to graduation and starting shooting guard Matt Shrigley to injury, there is talk around the program that there's enough young talent waiting in the wings for this season to be a re-tool instead of a re-load. Their front court is certainly imposing. Anchored by two senior forwards standing 6'8 and 6'10, their starting small forward also goes 6'10 and both reserve bigs are 6'9.

What might already have been one of Fisher's most talented squads got a (presumably legal) boost when uber-soph Malik Pope opted to return despite being projected as an NBA 1st rounder. Combined with redshirt frosh Jeremy Hemsley and Zylan Cheatham, both touted by Coach Fisher as "perhaps the best athletes we've ever had," and you have all the makings of a run-like-deer, jump-like-deer track team.

Unfortunately for the Aztec faithful, these youngsters often pass like deer and are one of the poorer teams in the nation with regards to assists per made field goal and turnover %. They're a decidedly average shooting team with no proven threats from beyond the perimeter...and I just jinxed someone into a career high. Not so surprisingly, they get themselves to the free throw line frequently. It makes sense since their Play #1 is "Go One on One" and Play #2 is "Run Into Someone."

Where the Aztecs have been consistently formidable is on the defensive end. Under Fisher, they've had a nationally ranked top-10 defense two years in a row, and this year's squad is currently listed at #9. Their length and athleticism translates very well to stifling man-to-man coverage backed up by constant rim protection. Similar to Colorado's approach, they are extremely disciplined at moving their feet and staying vertical rather than gambling for steals. Expect to see plenty of switching because each of their players is capable of guarding multiple positions.

The media might have us picked as the ranked team, but kenpom rates San Diego State above us and predicts a narrow 71-70 Aztec victory at 52%. Fortunately, under Common Core, that just translates to a bunch of boxes and circles. While the Aztecs are trying to research gunpowder and mine obsidian, we just need two baskets and a ball.

For the first time all season, we'll be facing a bigger team with arguably equivalent or superior athletes. We'll need to play smart, focused, and inspired ball on both ends.

This is one of three non-conference statement games with a chance to land that near-mythical Cal achievement; a quality win for the NCAA resume. Let's go earn it.

Projected Starters:

G Jeremy Hemsley(Fr), 6'3, 180 lbs, 13.7 ppg, 2.7 apg
G Trey Kell(So), 6'4, 210 lbs, 5.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg
F Malik Pope(So), 6'10 210 lbs, 6.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg
F Winston Shepard(Sr), 6'8, 210 lbs, 11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg
F Skylar Spencer(Sr), 6'10, 240 lbs, 6.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg


G Dakarai Allen(Jr), 6'5, 195 lbs, 11.7 ppg, 2.0 apg
F Zylan Cheatham(Fr), 6'9, 215 lbs, 7.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg
F Angelo Chol(Sr), 6'9, 215 lbs, 3.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg
G D'Erryl Williams(Jr), 6'3, 195 lbs, 6.0 ppg

Key Players:

Precocious frosh Jeremy Hemsley was a top recruit anointed as the "true point guard" SDSU has been missing. He's struggled at times with turnovers, but has otherwise been as advertised. Trey Kell lives his life as an unfortunate typo. He was probably meant to be "Tray" or "Treigh" because if you're going to be named for a triple, you should probably be able to shoot better than 20%. The aforementioned Malik "Toaster" Pope has started the year off with a blistering 1 for 12 through 3 games. However, he's a near 7'er who shot 41% from deep last year, so you know that at some point he's likely to heat up. Returning starter Winston Shepard is their most reliable inside scorer. Fellow returner Skylar Spencer provides the muscle and shot-blocking. Dakarai Allen has stepped up as their 6th man. He's been the one Aztec really hot from beyond the arc. Zylan Cheatham is really good at jumping.

Keys to the Game:

1) Stay out of foul trouble

The new "freedom of movement" rules are like eating gas station sushi. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the result is unwatchable crap. Without Rabb, Brown, and Wallace on the floor, we're simply not an elite team.

2) Ivan. Freaking. Rabb.

I could probably list this at least twice more. I fear for our collective souls if we have to watch Rooks/Okoroh match up against their uber-athletic bigs for extended minutes. Even so, this will be a huge challenge for our homegrown star. The Aztec bigs have a mix of experience, length, hops, and they can throw waves of bodies to wear down Rabb. For this contest, I'd sacrifice shot-blocking for minutes. Stay vertical and force them to make tough shots.

3a) Brown/Bird/Domingo vs. Pope/Shepard/Cheatham

Tough sledding for our 3/4 guys against their size. We've struggled all year guarding the 4, and Shepard is the best power forward we've faced. He went for 19 against Utah's Loveridge/Poetl, so he's probably going to have a big day against us, too. We'll have to do our work early to try to deny him the ball, don't give anything easy, and stay down so that he doesn't foul us all out. On offense, we're not going to go Dubs-lite and rain 3's on anyone. But, we can make Shepard and Pope run all over the place. Force them to guard on the perimeter and use action that puts Brown cutting towards the basket.

3b) Wallace/Mathews vs. Hemsley/Kell

Despite a forgettable day on offense, Mathews quietly acquitted himself very well defensively while shutting down two of ECU's very quick point guards. He's likely to draw the starting assignment on Hemsley with the primary focus of denying dribble penetration. I'd let Wallace freelance as our help defender with particular attention towards doubling in the post.

4) Win the turnover battle

Somewhere, Jeff Tedford is sighing with delight. Both squads have been charitably inconsistent from the perimeter, but have plenty of athletes who thrive at scoring in transition. Easy buckets could very well be the tipping point.

5) Make shots

I haven't busted this rare gem out yet for '15-16. It's time.

Go Bears!

Tip-off: 9pm(PST)
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: KGO 810