I walked into Viejas Arena this week knowing next to nothing about the 10th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs.
Be honest: Unless you live within a short drive of this gorgeous campus that’s a few miles from the beach, you don’t know anything about this basketball team either.
OK, you probably know its coach is Steve Fisher, the former Fab Five maestro at Michigan whose on-court energy belies his 68 years. And maybe you noticed that senior Xavier Thames could be the best point guard on the West Coast, likely is one of the more underrated players in the country and surely is a top-10 point guard in the nation with those NBA pull-up jumpers and floor leadership. And there’s a chance you looked at the stats and noticed bouncy graduate transfer Josh Davis is fourth in the nation in rebounding.
But more likely you’re like me, and San Diego State – with its lack of national exposure – pretty much escaped your attention. Then you looked at the Aztecs’ No. 10 ranking, saw that they hung as well as anyone with now-top-ranked, still-undefeated Arizona and raised your eyebrows at their three wins over ranked opponents – Creighton, Marquette, and then Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, breaking the nationâs longest nonconference home winning streak – and wondered: Who the heck are these guys?
That’s what I thought when I settled into one of the better home-court environments in college hoops to see the Aztecs face Fresno State this week, before their biggest Mountain West rivalry game of the season Saturday against UNLV.
And I’ve been able to condense this team’s identity down to one word:
Grinders as in the Aztecs truly value team defense over individual offense. And not just in some sort of repeat-a-coaching-cliche sort of way. They rank 11th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
Grinders as in that they’re long and athletic, yes – eighth in the nation in average height – but theyâre more proud of using that length to lock down on defense instead of to posterize opponents with dunks.
"We’re so much bigger and more athletic than a lot of teams we play," said 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Winston Shepard, who is one of the best examples of San Diego State-style basketball. "We just want to crash the glass."
Grinders in that, after an ugly 68-60 win over a less-talented Fresno State team, a reporter asked about SDSU not making a field goal in the final eight minutes. And Thames, whoâd scored 28 points, said this and meant it: "We’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about the defensive end."
If words have ever come out of a player’s mouth that more define him as a grinder, I don’t know what they are.
The Aztecs press teams into mistakes, they turn opponents over while not turning the ball over themselves, they rebound.
And, so far at least, they win.
One insane stat is that Fisher’s Aztecs have won more than just about any other program in the nation in the past four seasons. San Diego State ranks sixth in the country in winning percentage during that span, just behind bluebloods such as Kansas, Duke and Syracuse.
I asked Fisher about the grinding identity of this team. He said it was purposeful and that before the season Thames took a page out of the Memphis Grizzlies’ book from last year and said he wanted the Aztecs to define themselves as grinders.
"When we started the season, that’s what Xavier wanted to be our theme," Fisher said. "We’ve talked about it in the locker room. We just made it a point of emphasis to play harder than they do."
OK, sure, it’s a cliche. But let me tell you this: San Diego State did not play a good game the other night. The only player who could make a shot seemed to be Thames. Fresno State kept dropping threes. But the Aztecs played hard. Their press forced mistakes, they went to the free-throw line 26 times more than their opponents, the crowd got riled up, and – to my eyes at least – the result never really seemed in doubt, even though San Diego State trailed halfway through the second half.
I didn’t expect this San Diego State team to live up to its success of the past several seasons. It had lost top two scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. But I hadn’t counted on Thames being healthy, on the impact of Davis’ transfer and, most important, on the grind-it-out character so many of us overlook.
What Fisher has done here has been one of the most masterful rebuilding jobs in the country. Calling it rebuilding is a bit of a misnomer, really; it’s actually just building from scratch because before Fisher came here 15 years ago, San Diego State never had anything to rebuild. His first season the Aztecs went 5-23 and Fisher walked around campus giving away tickets. Now they sell out and are well on their way to a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Here’s the rub: This program has experienced great regular-season success in the Mountain West, but March hasn’t been too kind to it. Last season, the Aztecs won only their third NCAA tournament game in school history. Outside of Thames, the team I saw this week just couldn’t score buckets. Of course, teams that win in March are grinders, teams that press and don’t make mistakes. See: Louisville, 2013.
And the difference this season could be Thames. In virtually the same minutes as in an injury-affected last season, Thames has nearly doubled his scoring average and is shooting at a far more efficient rate. An experienced, talented point guard in March might be the most valuable commodity in college hoops.
"Xavier Thames is exponentially better than when he walked in the door as a transfer from Washington State," Fisher said. "He has made himself better. When X was a sophomore, he had a knee injury that impacted his conference season. Last year on New Year’s Eve, he hurt his back, and it affected everything he did the rest of the season. He was never healthy.
"His success has grown his confidence. Heâs doing things now with confidence, things that he was unsure he could do even when he was healthy. His playing well in games against good people have made him think, ‘I can do this against anybody.’ "
A grinding, defensive-oriented team, with length and athleticism, an aversion to turning the ball over and an experienced point guard who is peaking in conference play?
That"s the identity of the San Diego State team that’s skyrocketed up the polls. And it might be the recipe for this program to finally get over that March Madness barrier.