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Next Up - San Diego State

The Aztecs are a proud, well coached basketball team that’s won 11 of its last 12 games. They’ll be ready.

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NCAA Basketball: Eastern Michigan at Duke
Nov 14, 2018; Durham, NC, USA; The Duke Blue Devils bench reacts to a basket during the second half against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 84-46. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

This Duke team, loaded with sensational freshmen, has been compared to Michigan’s Fab Five who were of course coached by one Steve Fisher, who inherited the program when Bill Frieder took the Arizona State job in 1989, before the season ended, only to be fired by A.D. Bo Schembechler, who thundered that he wanted a Michigan man coaching Michigan.

So Fisher stepped in and led the Wolverines on a magical NCAA run which saw them win the NCAA title.

He was an undefeated coach and national champion in his first season. Only six games, but still cool. No one else can say it.

Two years later, he picked up the Fab Five and the team rode off into mythdom before every one went their separate ways.

Fisher left after being caught up in the Ed Martin scandal in 1997 and ultimately landed at San Diego State where honestly, we expected him to disappear into obscurity rather quickly.

Didn’t happen.

Fisher built San Diego State into a highly respected program. It was never an elite program, but the elite programs gave him the ultimate level of respect and refused to play his teams whenever possible.

So the Aztecs became a program somewhat like Davidson or Wichita or Dayton, a significant regional power that won great admiration and occasionally shocked the basketball world.

Turned out Fisher was a hell of a coach.

He retired in 2017 though and SDSU turned to his assistant Brian Dutcher who was one of Fisher’s first assistants at Michigan, helping Fisher to reel in the Fab Five and later Kawhi Leonard to San Diego State.

So you can reasonably expect San Diego State to stay essentially the same: a dangerous regional power that is very well coached, plays outstanding defense, and that recruits well.

You may have noticed this week that we have pointed out a couple of articles that portray this team as cool as cucumbers. Playing a big-time program is nothing new for the Aztecs, nor is beating one.

You can be sure they’ll be ready to play.

Dutcher, obviously, is aware of the hype around Duke’s freshmen and probably has a very jaundiced view of it. It’s not that he disparages the talent, although he may privately in the locker room for all we know.

It’s just that first he’s a basketball coach with his own team, and second, while people like us enjoy the hype and the spectacular play we’ve seen, obviously opponents won’t.

Dutcher and the Aztecs are looking at video and finding flaws and ways to attack Duke. Will it work?

Well it could obviously. Depends on what they find, how well Duke adjusts to their strategies. This is a proud and successful program. They're certainly not going to roll over just because it’s Duke.

Will The Show continue? Is there some Maui Wowie coming our way?

We’ll see soon.

As for the Aztecs, they’re a much more experienced team than Duke with five upperclassmen, a redshirt sophomore, three standard sophs and a redshirt freshman (and a solid freshman class).

The Aztecs also have some real size, with four guys over 6-10.

Over their last 12 games, spanning two seasons, this team is a highly impressive 11-1 (the loss came to Houston in the NCAA tournament in a very exciting game as you may recall).

Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern aren’t great measuring sticks, but wins are wins.

APB fell by 16 and Texas Southern by 39.

The most promising Aztec is Jalen McDaniels who is from Federal Way, Washington.

Federal Way...McDaniels...hold the phone..yes, his little brother is Jaden, who has really blown up on the recruiting trail.

McDaniels thought about coming out last spring but decided to come back. Good thing for SDSU because he’s handy. At 6-10 and 195, he’s thin but a tough matchup for Duke.

Incidentally, he’s also related to former Fab Fiver Juwan Howard.

Point guard Devin Watson is a 6-1 fifth year senior who transferred from San Francisco. He’s averaging a team-high 35 minutes and 5.5 apg. Jeremy Hensley, (6-3/195 sophomore) Jordan Schakel, (6-6/200 lb. soph) and Matt Mitchell (6-6/240 lb. soph) round out the top five at least as far as minutes go.

Dutcher has already said he’s likely to start Mitchell on Williamson since they’re close in size (30-35 lbs is close?)

Dutcher has two 6-10 guys from Akkra, Ghana, both named Mensah, but they’re not twins. They are good buddies though (they’re can’t be too many good 6-10 players named Mensha in Akkra).

Nathan is getting more minutes so far.

You might also look down the roster and see the name Ed Chang and think cool! Another Asian-American basketball player emerging on the West Coast. We see may see more Asian players in the US than we do Asian-Americans, so it’s always good to see someone doing well. To the best of our knowledge, there is still only one Asian-American in the NBA, Jeremy Lin.

As it turns out though Chang is an African-American kid who grew up in Nebraska who moved West only as a high school senior.

Six-foot-six Aguek Arop, another talented freshman Dutcher has brought in, is also from Nebraska.

Nolan Narian is a sturdy 6-10 big from Hamilton, Ontario, continuing the story of improving Canadian basketball players moving south for college and beyond.

Trivia break: the first Asian was in the NBA when?

Try 1947-48 and Wataru Misaka.

Misaka played for Weber State and Utah during the internment years. He’s still alive, in his mid 90s, and it would be a great story to tell either in a movie, a documentary or a book. We may miss the chance.

And trivia break #2: to the best of our knowledge, Duke has had just one Asian-American player. Do you remember or know (if we’re wrong we’d love to know who else).

Back to the hype for a minute.

Perhaps the most startling part of it is that Zion Williamson’s emergence has overshadowed - to an extent - the guy who is still seen by many as the #1 pick in the NBA Draft next summer, RJ Barrett.

No one in college, and few anywhere, can rival Williamson’s athleticism. However, we think that Barrett’s personality has had a major impact on this team, and not least of all on Williamson himself.

Not that Zion isn’t competitive - obviously he is, and magnificently so - but Barrett is a relentless player on both ends and we won’t be surprised if Duke takes on a lot of his ferocity.

What we think is happening is that each is pushing the other, somewhat like John Lennon and Paul McCartney when they were writing Beatles hits, and that via friendly competition, each is sharpening his craft faster than anyone could have predicted.

Leave talent out of it for a minute. These two are, from where we see the game, clearly the most competitive guys Duke has. They’re setting a tone that any coach would love.

The fun part is on the breaks with alley-oops and breathtaking passes, but the most important is when they dive on the floor or show extraordinary effort defensively.

They’re freshmen. Offensive talent is offensive talent, but defense is desire+maturity.

And you can’t overlook Tre Jones either, who is a passionate defender.

When you have guys who are taking their defense to a higher level, everyone else tends to follow.

So while this is a young team and they’re on a major road trip, and playing an experienced team Monday, could they brush greatness again?

They might.

Will they? That’s harder to say.

We’re seeing something pretty unique.

But there’s a lot right now they don’t know too.

They don’t know how to prepare for a road trip like this. They may not understand jet lag after one of the longest flights they’ve ever had or how to take advantage of breaks in the day. They almost certainly don’t understand the level of discipline required to excel simultaneously as athletes and academically when you’re in a tropical paradise and eye candy is all around you. Who does at 18? You can study later, right?

In other words, there’s a lot more involved than just basketball, not that that’s as simple as these freshmen have made it look either.

Duke is going to rely more on upperclassmen this week than you might imagine because, if Duke wins, then the competition is going to get really intense. We’re not expecting to see romps every time out like we have so far. Just consider a few programs - Auburn, Arizona, Gonzaga, Xavier, San Diego State.

These are programs that are used to winning and are not scared of the big stage.

Duke could win, but it’s not likely to be as easy as it has been so far and if the upperclassmen stumble or get in foul trouble, Duke’s got a situation on its hands because none of the freshmen have seen any kind of game pressure so far at all - and it’s coming.

Incidentally, speaking of upperclassmen, Jack White’s dad is coming from Down Under and will see his son play for Duke for the first time.

One final thought: for years when you see GU and a bulldog, you thought only of Georgetown. In recent years though, Gonzaga has begun to take that identity away. It’s kind of strange when you think about it.

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