Coming into this season there were two things we all thought we knew about the Mountain West Conference. One, the revamped 2011-12 edition of the league was saying goodbye to Brigham Young, and hello to Boise State. And, two, in this new-look MWC the team that was going to garner the headlines and carry the league's banner deep into the NCAA tournament was UNLV.
The Runnin' Rebels may indeed live up to that billing, but at this point in the season there's a surprise team atop the league standings. Say hello to San Diego State. Yes, the same San Diego State team that lost four starters from last year, including and especially NBA first-round pick Kawhi Leonard. The Aztecs entered the season with less returning experience (as measured by possessions weighted by playing time) than any other Mountain West team. And while the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world can routinely offset any player departures with newly minted blue-chip recruits, SDSU didn't appear to have any big names entering the program this season. It looked like a recipe for a rebuilding year.
Instead, head coach Steve Fisher has whipped up his own concoction, one heavy on wins and light on the rebuild. SDSU enters this weekend's game at Colorado State sporting a gaudy 18-2 record (4-0 in the Mountain West). Incredibly, this young and still-developing team is currently projected by ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi as on-track for a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. If Fisher's team can perform at this level in a year where they're breaking in four new starters, are we seeing a new era of Aztec dominance in the Mountain West? Or can SDSU's rivals learn from their example and copy their formula? Let's take a closer look at the surprising, young, and thriving San Diego State Aztecs.
Defense is a young team's best friend.
In a way, what we expected to happen this season in San Diego really did come to pass. This young team is nowhere near as good as last year's veteran squad -- on offense. Leonard, Malcolm Thomas (two players who are still teammates, by the way, only now it's for the San Antonio Spurs), Billy White, and D.J. Gay led an offense that scored 1.08 points per trip in Mountain West action last year. That number has fallen all the way to 1.01 this season, making SDSU merely the fourth-ranked offense in an eight-team league.
Granted, the Aztecs are capable of putting points on the board should the need arise. In their pivotal road win at New Mexico last week, for example, Fisher's men racked up 75 points in a 60-possession contest. But night in and night out this team isn't going to get it done with firepower. San Diego State's offensive rebounding might be charitably termed as "nonexistent." This lack of offensive boards, combined with a scarcity of free throw attempts, means the Aztecs are uniquely vulnerable when the inevitable cold shooting night arrives, usually on the road.
Then again none of the above will matter one bit if SDSU keeps playing defense the way they have been. This is far and away the best D in the Mountain West, holding conference opponents to just 0.89 points per possession. Opposing offenses have simply been unable to make shots against San Diego State from either side of the arc. And one shot is all those opponents get: for the season the Aztecs are a very good defensive rebounding team (although, interestingly, that ability is yet to surface in conference play). Take your hat off to Fisher. Last year he had the best defense in the Mountain West. This year he replaced four starters...and the in-conference defense is as good as ever.
This defensively-oriented team relies heavily on Chase Tapley's offense
Tapley is the lone returning starter from last year, and he's responded to that situation the way any lone returning starter should: he's taking a lot more shots. More shots usually translates into less efficiency, but the 6-3 junior from Sacramento has turned that tendency on its head, hitting 54 percent of his twos and 47 percent of his threes as a dual-threat combo guard. On paper Tapley and 6-5 sophomore Jamaal Franklin are more or less co-equal, both scoring between 15 and 17 points per contest. But in truth Franklin has required an inordinately high number of shot attempts to get his points. (If you want to give Franklin your most accurate and well-informed praise, salute him for being this team's best defensive rebounder at a listed height of 6-5.) Tapley, on the other hand, has been both prolific and efficient. As he goes, so goes the SDSU offense. If you're filling out your 2012 All-Mountain West ballot today, you have to make room for Tapley on the first team.
But if all that's true, why are laptops so skeptical of this team?
San Diego State has risen to No. 12 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, and indeed the Aztecs have almost perfectly threaded the needle this season in terms of doing what it takes to impress both pollsters and the Ratings Percentage Index (where SDSU currently ranks No. 21). Fisher's team has won 18 of 20 games, and they further had the good sense to lose only to teams ranked in the top 25 (Baylor and Creighton). Most importantly, the Aztecs defended their home court when UNLV came to town a couple weeks ago, defeating the Runnin' Rebels 69-67.
Yet even with that loss the Rebels have been the more impressive team in per-possession terms early in the Mountain West season. Fortunately for SDSU, conference crowns aren't awarded on the basis of per-possession performance. The Aztecs already have a win at New Mexico in their pockets, a feat UNLV may be hard pressed to match. The most likely scenario is that laptops will continue to view San Diego State with some suspicion, but that Steve Fisher's team will emerge with at least a share of the Mountain West regular-season championship anyway.
Note additionally that with four starters projected to return for 2012-13 (Tapley, Franklin, 6-3 point guard Xavier Thames, and 6-5 wing James Rahon), it's entirely possible SDSU could defend such a title next season, their last before they head to the Big West. Leagues may change and stars may leave, but San Diego State's tenacious defense looks like it's here to stay.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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