San Diego State team capsule
San Diego State (25-8)
COACH: Steve Fisher, 11 years at SDSU, two years in NCAA Tournament
HOW THEY GOT IN: Automatic bid (Mountain West)
MATCHUP BREAKDOWN: San Diego State’s first-round game against No. 6 Tennessee on Thursday in Providence, R.I., will feature plenty of long, athletic frontcourt players … plus the Vols’ beefy center Brian Williams. Will he eat enough space to keep SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard from crashing the boards? The Aztecs might be tempted to pack it inside and let Tennessee launch from the outside, because the Vols hit just 31.3 percent from 3-point range and don’t have super drive-and-create players.
GO-TO GUYS: Freshman Kawhi Leonard is 6-7, 225 and he would head the list of nominees if you asked which player in the country goes hardest after a rebound. Relentless and hungry, strong and savvy, he grabbed an amazing 21 rebounds as San Diego State dispatched UNLV in the title game of the Mountain West tournament. He averages 12.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and became the first freshman ever to earn first-team All-MWC honors. San Diego State has four players scoring in double figures, and five players either led or tied for the team high in scoring in the past five games. Second-team all-league Malcolm Thomas had a 28-point game against Utah and fellow inside player Billy White had 28 in the conference semifinals against New Mexico. Point guard D.J. Gay (10.6 points per game) is the team’s most important player, according to coach Steve Fisher, and is likely to play 40 minutes in any NCAA Tournament game that isn’t a blowout.
THEY’LL KEEP WINNING IF: The opponent doesn’t have somebody who can keep Kawhi Leonard off the boards. "He may set the standard for strong athletes, combination of both strength and athleticism," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. Leonard led the Mountain West in overall rebounding and in offensive rebounding. San Diego State plays with an attitude, and will be hoping its skilled frontcourt gets a matchup with a stiff front line. Malcolm Thomas and Billy White can really smother opponents, able to defend from the low block to the 3-point line.
STRENGTHS: San Diego State is a mix of four-year transfers, junior college transfers and key high school recruits, and the pieces fit to form an athletic team that flies around on defense and holds teams to 40.5 percent shooting and out-rebounds them by nearly seven per game. The Aztecs enter the NCAAs having won nine of 10 games, usually preferring to keep the game somewhere in the 60s by relying on defense, rebounding and sheer will. All that left Arizona coach Sean Miller envious after the Aztecs slapped down his Wildcats in December. Said Miller: "They were the bigger, stronger, nastier, deeper and more athletic team."
WEAKNESSES: The Aztecs lack an elite scorer and have too many poor shooters taking 3-pointers. Kawhi Leonard has attempted 74 3-pointers, making 21.6 percent. Kelvin Davis has taken 125 3-pointers, making 28.0 percent. And Tyrone Shelley has hit only 26.2 percent of his 61 attempts from behind the arc. SDSU would be better off leaving the long-range efforts to D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley. The shooting woes continue at the free throw line, where the Aztecs make a league-worst 61.7 percent. Malcolm Thomas has been especially awry, hitting just 84 of 161 attempts.