SDSU basketball expected to rise again this season

SDSU Aztecs basketball player Skylar Spencer with a slam dunk during the NCAA Tournament

The results are in and there’s a familiar face predicted atop Mountain West basketball.

San Diego State is heading for another MW title, according to this week’s preseason poll.

“It’s not automatic,” Skylar Spencer said. “Just because we were voted No. 1.”

But expectations are better than the alternative.

That’s what we want,” assistant coach Brian Dutcher said. “We want to be the team, that when they talk about the Mountain West Conference, they talk about San Diego State first.”

The Aztecs shared the title with Boise State last year. Although with the Broncos bucking SDSU twice, the nod goes to Boise State.

But it’s clear the Aztecs aren’t small potatoes.

Not with returners Winston Shepard, Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Spencer. Not with newcomers such as Jeremy Hemsley.

Not with savvy coach Steve Fisher and his staff presenting another solid product to rock Montezuma Mesa.

“That is what we came to San Diego State for to put ourselves in a position where we can be on the biggest stage, playing for a hall of fame coach,” Shepard said.

Dutcher promises the squad will do something it always does.

“The type of team we’re going to have is what you’ve seen in the past,” Dutcher said. “We’re going to be very good defensively. 

“I think that all starts with having Skylar Spencer on that back line blocking shots. He makes up for a lot of mistakes people can make on the perimeter and they can be more aggressive on the perimeter defensively knowing he’s behind them.”

Spencer is the reigning MW defensive player of the year, but it was Shepard who earned preseason All-MW honors.

“He’s been through the wars and has filled every role on the team we’ve needed him to fill — whether it’s the big assist guy, the big rebounder, or making the big corner 3’s in a game or two this year,” Dutcher said. “Winston continues to grow his game. As he grows it, we’ll find out where he’s at his best on the floor and we’ll put him in that position.”

Dutcher said coaches are open to what works best. 

“I think that’s a great thing with what we do,” he said. “We come in with preconceived notions of what we think we’ll be good at but that all proves itself on the floor. As soon as (Shepard) starts showing he’s able to make plays, we’ll put him in position to make those plays. That goes for everybody.”

Including the 6-foot-10 Pope, the promising sophomore who gave a hint of his talents with increased playing time last season.

His skills continue to blossom — among other things.

“Malik Pope is growing as his hair grows,” Dutcher said. “I don’t know if he’s grown any but as his flat top gets taller, we add inches to his height. So, he may be 7-foot before the end of the year if he doesn’t get a haircut.”

What Pope has is his legs underneath him.

“Malik didn’t get healthy last year until December,” Dutcher said. “He started practicing in December so he’s not even a full year healthy in the program. I think the strides he’s made as a player on the floor is something we’re excited about. He’s getting better daily. 

“That’s the key to a good player. It’s not what we want him to be but what he shows on the floor. The challenge to him is to maintain that consistency with his effort, where he does get better every week and doesn’t get satisfied where, ‘I had a good week and that’s good enough.’ If we’re going to be as good as we want to be, we’re going to need Malik to be at his best and I think he’s heading in that direction.”

The Aztecs figure to keep rising, after six straight years of making the NCAA Tournament. Last season SDSU (27-9, 14-4) won 23 games for the seventh consecutive season, and 20 triumphs for the 10th year in a row.

There’s still work to do, of course.

SDSU needs to figure out a role for redshirt freshman Zylan Cheatham.

Shepard needs to make good on a promise.

“I will be a triple-double threat,” he said. “I still haven’t achieved one yet, but this is the season.”

It’s one that opens Nov. 13 against visiting Illinois State.

 

+ Contact Jay Paris at jparisbcaradio.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jparis_sports.

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