Every now and then you find a game on Duke's schedule that makes you think there must a printer's error
Every now and then you find a game on Duke's schedule that makes you think there must a printer's error. Say hello to San Diego State University. How a team from the Mountain West decided to fly across the country for a non-home and home game is somewhat baffling until you take a closer look. For Duke, it's a chance for a little West Coast. Duke has been more than willing to schedule games against California teams ever since UCLA got tired of losing games on the court and SoCal recruits off the court. Bruin Coach Steve Lavin cried "no mas" after a 36-point trip to the Cameron woodshed in 1998 and the long-running series between the two schools was terminated.
For the Aztecs, the reasons are a little more obvious. First there's that $50K and then there's those two non-conference SDSU games that ESPN will be showing next year. Not to mention that Saturday's game at Duke will be the first time San Diego State has ever been on a network telecast. The cash and the exposure are critical to the Aztecs program which is entertaining thoughts of post-season play for the first time since-- well, for the first time ever. Just three seasons ago SDSU was coming off a 4-22 record which was pretty much the way things went under former coach Fred Trenkle. Trenkle, who had just one winning season in 5 years at SDSU, is now a firefighter in Idaho. I hear the fire house team won't let him coach their rec league games.
Things were bad enough at San Diego State that the administration decided to totally ignore Ed Martin, NCAA investigations, and payoffs to Chris Weber and hire Steve Fisher. Fisher, who was last seen sleeping at the wheel of the Michigan program, has done an admirable job in turning things around in San Diego. After a 5-23 suckfest in 2000, the Aztecs went 14-14 last year, including wins over Oklahoma State and UNLV. This season, San Diego State is 7-3 and 57th in the Sagarin ratings, just 112 spots ahead of the Tar Heels.
A key factor in the development of this year's Aztecs team has been the addition of backcourt player Tony Bland. The Syracuse transfer has the size to play the small forward spot and handles the ball well enough to play the point. That presents a lot of matchup trouble for opposing teams and Bland has taken advantage of that to the tune of 18 points per game. He's been asked to play point guard quite a bit this year as he's been more effective than returning point guard Deandre Moore.
Bland is only a marginal outside shooter, but loves to get into the lane where he can use his size to shoot pull up jumpers over smaller defenders. When he's playing the point, he can be a little selfish, although this year he's averaging 4.4 assists per game. Still, Bland is much happier shooting the ball than he is passing it. He can be turnover prone - against Texas Tech he turned the ball over on a 5-second count on 3 separate occasions. When Moore is in the game, Fisher will probably Bland him to defend Jason Williams as he is very active on defense and can use his size to frustrate opposing guards.
Moore is another transfer, having originally started his career with Vanderbilt. Last year was his first season with the Aztecs' and he was the starting point guard for most of the time. As you would expect, at 5-10, Moore relies on his quickness. He's a reasonable shooter, but needs plenty of time and space to get a shot. What he would rather do is get into the lane and create scoring opportunities for those around him. This season has been somewhat of a disappointment for Moore as he's been struggling with shin splints that have limited his game and practice time. The other thing that has limited his game time is the fact that Bland is clearly outplaying him.
At the other guard spot Fisher starts Al Faux, a 6-2 senior. Faux is a walk-on, but that's in the Trajan Langdon sense of the word. Faux had scholarship offers from two other Div. I schools, but opted to walk-on for the Aztecs. He leads the team in scoring after rejoining the team following a 4-game suspension for the always-popular "violation of team rules." Faux is the most dangerous of the SDSU outside shooters, hitting on 40% of his three-point attempts and is also a great finisher on the break.
There has been lots of hype surrounding Duke's backcourt of Williams and Chris Duhon. The same can be said for Boston College's Troy Bell and Ryan Sidney. Although they don't get the same level of publicity, the Aztecs guards are a talented pair. There's nothing ordinary or fake about the backcourt of Bland and Faux.
In addition to Moore, Fisher also counts on senior Karlo Kovacic and freshman Tommy Johnson for backcourt depth. Kovacic is your basic 6-5 European guard - decent spot up shooter, plays well without the ball, doesn't like the physical contact under the boards, and played a few games on a European club team. In Kovacic's case, that last one cost him a couple of games earlier this season as he was suspended from the Aztecs team.
Like many players on Fisher's roster, Johnson's path to San Diego hasn't exactly been a direct route. Johnson originally signed with Washington State as part of the 2000 recruiting class. Once he got to Spokane things began to get a little confusing, as it seems that he never actually graduated from high school. So, it was back to night school for Johnson where he graduated last year and then signed with SDSU. On the floor, he's a good defender and a streaky shooter on offense.
Last year, forward Randy Holcomb lead the team in both scoring and rebounding. This year, he's happy to share some of that scoring responsibility with Bland and Faux, especially since that means the team is winning more. The 6-9 senior still leads the team in rebounding and is their primary weapon on the interior - when they can get him to play there. Holcomb likes to float on the perimeter and try to drive the ball to the basket. The problem for the Aztecs is that Holcomb's not a particularly adept ball handler and that combination equates to over 4 turnovers a night.
That's not to say that Holcomb is an ineffective player - in fact he's averaging more than 16 points a game and is shooting over 52% from the field. He may look familiar to Duke fans as he is one of two Aztecs players to have faced off against the Devils before. Holcomb, like many of the players on Fisher's roster, is a transfer. In his case he was originally on the Fresno State team that Duke dispatched in 1999 in the Great Alaska Shootout. Like Johnson, Holcomb took the long way to San Diego. He spent two years at Fresno State, sitting out the first one as a Prop 48 student. After that, he played a single season at LA City College before finally transferring to SDSU. In his one previous game against Duke, he scored 2 points in 17 minutes of action. You can expect him to have a greater contribution on Saturday.
The other player who has faced off against Duke is the Aztecs' other forward, 6-7 senior Brandon Smith. Smith's arrival in San Diego seems almost tame compared to that of Holcomb and Johnson. He's simply a transfer, although he's still an interesting story as he originally signed with Michigan when Fisher was the coach. Fisher left town before Smith ever played a game in a Wolverine uniform. Now, as a senior, he finally is playing his first year for Fisher. That first year was almost delayed as Smith had major knee surgery in the summer of 1999 and was forced to undergo further surgery in November for a cartilage tear.
Smith is a versatile guy who plays a complimentary role on the team. He's not a threat from the outside and isn't going to see any set plays run for him.
In the pivot is another transfer, California JUCO player of the year, Mike Mackell. At 6-9, 240 lbs., Mackell will enjoy a size advantage over most centers in the Mountain West but he'll be giving up 40 lbs. to Duke's Carlos Boozer. Surprisingly, Mackell has been an indifferent rebounder for the Aztecs, averaging just 4.2 a night. He's still a good inside scoring force, hitting on nearly 60% of his field goal attempts. Defensively, he's foul prone and when he goes to the bench the Aztecs can be exploited inside.
San Diego State is one of just two schools in America that can make non-Duke fans happy to see Dick Vitale broadcasting a game in which they participate. Why? Because playing major minutes for the Aztecs is Chris Walton, son of Bill and brother of Luke. Anyone who listened to the elder Walton's incessant nasal droning about Arizona and Luke last year would gladly suffer 2 hours of Vitale as an alternative. Remember, Luke was like the 12th man on that Wildcat team and by the time the tourney was over we knew how old he was when he executed his first pick and roll and how happy Bill was to find out that little Luke inherited his mother's ankles. Just the thought of hearing Bill screech about "Chris's presence on this Aztecs team helping them reach their post-season goals" is enough to make me long for Dickie V's tired shtick.
So, about this Chris Walton fellow anyhow--. Walton is a 6-9 sophomore who sees about 16 minutes a night. As a testament to genetics, he's a good passer who plays with poise. He'll remind you a lot of say, Luke Walton.
Also off the Aztecs' bench is 6-6 senior Myron Epps, a guy who has paid his dues after suffering through the Trenkle years. It's a tribute to how far Fisher has taken the program that Epps, a guy who was once a leading scorer for the team, has only taken about 3 shots a game this season. Epps is a good rebounder, as is fellow frontcourt reserve Aerick Sanders, a 6-8 sophomore. You'll recognize Sanders as at just 198 lbs., he looks much like Duke's Casey Sanders did as a freshman.
Typically, when you see a home game right after the Christmas break, you can expect to see a blow out. But San Diego State falls under one of Jimmy V's rules; "Never play a state that's not a state." Fisher has used an assortment of transfers and JUCO players to make an immediate impact and turn the Aztecs program around. They come into this game with a 7-3 record that's somewhat misleading as two of those three losses came before Faux returned from his suspension.
This is a team that has over-achieved despite not having all their players available until well into the season. Smith, Faux, Moore, and Kovacic have all missed games at some point in the season. Since getting everyone back in uniform, the team has gone 5-1, including a big 15-point win over then-ranked Fresno State.
Duke will go into this game with three primary goals; contain the Aztecs guards, improve defensive rotation, and rebound the ball. All of those things are related. If the Devils can do a good job of containing Bland and Faux they should face fewer defensive rotations and find themselves in a much better position to rebound on the defensive end of the floor.
Containing Bland and Faux is much easier to type than it is to do on the floor. Duke did a reasonable job of containing the Kentucky guards early in the game. But down the stretch, the fresher Wildcat players repeatedly beat their defenders off the dribble as Tubby Smith employed an offensive set that was hauntingly familiar to 1998 in Tropicana Field - a place that should never host a basketball game again.
No matter what happens with the rest of the defense, the Blue Devils will undoubtedly be focusing on improvement on the glass. Krzyzewski and everyone associated with Duke would rather not count on Jason Williams scoring 38 points every night to offset a 17-rebound differential. To do minimize that rebounding spread, Duke must do a better job of identifying opposing players and getting a body on them. That's not always an easy job when you play a defense that scrambles as much as Duke's, but then again Duke isn't looking to do things the easy way.
On offense the Devils have to be happy with the contributions they are getting from the big three - Williams, Dunleavy, and Boozer. They're probably pretty happy with what they're getting out of Chris Duhon in terms of distributing the ball. But Duke needs Duhon to be more than just a distributor of the basketball. To do that he needs to realize that do more than just shoot the occasional 24-foot jump shot.
Look for Duke to try and get more dribble penetration out of Duhon and also more movement without the basketball from Dahntay Jones. The offensive stagnation that Duke experienced in the Kentucky game came at a point in the game when the team became focused on individual play rather than team play. After a brief eternity in which Duke's reserve players actually trimmed the Wildcat lead, the starters returned to a more team-oriented offense. Either that or Jason Williams just went off - your choice.
Steve Fisher has been saying all week that an Aztecs victory would not be the biggest upset in college basketball. Hey, it wouldn't even be the biggest upset in the Triangle this year. Fisher may be trying to get his team to believe they can win, but he's also right. The Aztecs are a much, much better team than most casual fans would believe and should give Duke a good test on Saturday. They have a talented and veteran backcourt and some size up front. What they don't have is experienced playing in this type of game. Playing #25 Fresno State at home is one thing. Playing #1 in their house is another.
The danger for Duke is to approach this game like they can win it on talent alone. The biggest difference between Duke and the Aztecs is that experience of playing at this level and Duke must execute with their customary intensity or Saturday could become an uncomfortable afternoon.