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December 7, 2010
Poll Position
Rise of the Aztec Empire

by John Gasaway

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With 11:15 to play in the first half of San Diego State's game against Wisconsin-Green Bay on November 20, the Aztecs most certainly did not look like a team I'd be writing about anytime soon. Steve Fisher's group trailed the Phoenix by the rather remarkable score of 28-6 on a neutral floor in Oxford, Ohio. "At one point," Fisher said after that game, "I leaned over to my son, [assistant coach] Mark, and said, 'Do you think we'll score 10 points this half?'"

For the record SDSU ended up scoring 33 points that half, on their way to a 79-70 victory. The Aztecs now stand at 8-0, and their schedule gives them at least a fair chance of reaching the New Year undefeated. Fisher's team is ranked in the top 15 in both major polls. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a new Aztec empire?

If so it's an empire built on offense. In this article I'm going to toss out the game that SDSU played against an NAIA opponent (San Diego Christian College) and instead look at just the seven games the Aztecs have played against D-I competition. In those seven games San Diego State has scored a very good 1.15 points per possession. In fact the Aztecs are yet to be held under a point per trip by any opponent this season. You've probably heard of Kawhi Leonard, SDSU's outstanding 6-7 sophomore. But, a little like Butler last year and their star sophomore (Gordon Hayward), SDSU is much more than just a one-person show.

Here's what you need to know about the Aztecs in 2010-11.

Point guards need not apply.
Every year when March rolls around you hear a lot of talk about how important it is for a team to have something called a "true point guard." I'm not so sure, if you'll forgive the expression, that this is really true. After all, West Virginia made the Final Four last year without one of those true point guards. And as for San Diego State, they actually have a "true" point guard (freshman LaBradford Franklin) but he can't even get on the floor. Basically his team's scoring too many points without him.

My own view is that any offense that takes care of the ball and puts its players in a position where they can score is receiving all the benefits that a true point guard is supposed to provide. How tall the players are or whether they look like a "coach on the floor" is entirely beside the point. Take the Aztecs. This year they're committing a turnover on 19 percent of their possessions. That's not necessarily outstanding in terms of taking care of the ball, but it is decent. If Michigan State ever brought their TO rate down to 19 percent they'd be illegal.

The Aztecs reign supreme inside the arc.
The SDSU offense clearly goes through Leonard and his frontcourt mate Billy White, who respectively account for 29 and 26 percent of the shots taken during their minutes. (Again, these figures are culled from just the seven games played against D-I opponents.) And, just as clearly, Leonard and White are doing something right, because as a team San Diego State has made an excellent 56 percent of their twos so far on the young season. Strong two-point shooting often indicates that an offense is on-track to achieve good results on a more or less consistent basis. In addition Leonard and White are both very good offensive rebounders, with the result that the Aztecs have hauled down 40 percent of their own misses this year. Good shooting plus strong offensive rebounding -- that nets out to a lot of points.

Leonard's the one attracting the NBA buzz -- he's variously listed as a late first-round selection in either 2011 or perhaps 2012 -- but if anything White's had the better year on offense so far. The senior has made an incredible 66 percent of his twos, the kind of number you'd expect to see from a seven-foot role player but not from a 6-8 featured scorer.

As a team San Diego State rarely attempts threes but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention D.J Gay and James Rahon, who together have made 53 percent of their admittedly infrequent attempts from beyond the arc. In other words Gay and Rahon present opposing defenses with a legitimate perimeter threat, thereby making Leonard and White all the more effective down low.

SDSU's more than just a really good offense.
Just because Fisher's offense is better than his defense (and it is) doesn't mean the D is anything to sneeze at. In particular the Aztecs have been strong in the paint, holding opponents to 43 percent shooting inside the arc. Leonard's an outstanding defensive rebounder (which explains a lot of the NBA's interest), one who's pulled in 27 percent of opponents' misses while he's on the floor. And 6-9 senior Malcolm Thomas provides shot-blocking, swatting away nine percent of opponents' twos. If an opposing team is going to outscore San Diego State, it figures to be from the perimeter.

That being said, it's time for the Mountain West to deliver the March goods.
Of course SDSU's hardly lacking for company when it comes to undefeated and highly-ranked Mountain West teams. UNLV and BYU are both 8-0, just like the Aztecs. Then again last year all of those teams, along with New Mexico, figured to make some noise come March, and all four were gone by the end of the NCAA tournament's first weekend. That's been something of a recurring theme for the Mountain West in recent years. Since 2000 the conference has sent no fewer than 26 teams to the Big Dance. Of that number just two -- Utah in 2005 and UNLV in 2007 -- reached the Sweet 16 (where both lost). The Mountain West's winning percentage in the tournament this century stands at a not very intimidating .257.

Maybe this is the year that changes. If so it could well be the board-crashing, no-point-guard, interior-heavy Aztecs who usher in the new era.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider. John will now find a team nicknamed the Incas and tout them on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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