The Creighton men’s basketball team takes one of its most important road trips of the young season Wednesday, when they play San Diego State as a part of the MVC/MWC Challenge series. The Bluejays will put their #22 ranking on the line against a team that has a tendency to knock off ranked teams.
The Aztecs are 41-4 over the past two seasons and hardly ever lose at home against non-conference opponents. As for the MVC/MWC Challenge itself, the Bluejays are 0-2 losing last season to BYU and in 2009-10 at New Mexico.
The Bluejays have already broken some streaks this season when they opened their road slate with a win at UAB. What might happen on Wednesday night? To answer that question, we enlisted the help of San Diego State beat writer Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune. He gives us a look at the Aztecs before the 9:30 p.m. game on Wednesday night.
White & Blue Review: After the great season San Diego State had last season, many saw this year as being a rebuilding year. However, the Aztecs are currently 7-1 including recently knocking off a ranked Arizona team. Is this really a rebuilding year or just a reload?
Mark Zeigler: A little of both, probably. They lost four starters and 72 percent of their offense, but they’ve replaced that with a combination of returning players and newcomers. Starters Xavier Thames and Garrett Green are both transfers, and Chase Tapley, James Rahon and Tim Shelton are returnees. Tapley and Rahon played big minutes last season, but Shelton was limited to about 10 minutes per game by injuries. The key thing, though, is that everyone around last year, including the transfers sitting out, was infused with the culture of winning from a 34-3 season. And that, more than anything, seems to have rubbed off.
WBR: With the success that SDSU had last season, does the fanbase have higher expectations now? What is the fanbase like?
MZ: Unfortunately, I think they do. I’m not sure they appreciate how well this team is playing given how much they lost from last season. The other interesting development is that while season ticket sales increased more than 50 percent, not everybody is using them for all games. SDSU opened the season at home with a three-day, four-team tournament with Bryant, Southern Utah and UC Davis, and despite 11,000-plus tickets sold each night, 12,414-seat Viejas Arena was only about half-full. At one game, 2,500 student tickets were distributed and only 169 showed up (I counted). To me, that says people were spoiled last year.
WBR: What does Steve Fisher bring as a coach to this program? Is everyone happy at where he has taken the Aztecs?
MZ: Beyond happy. People remember the state of the program before he got here, and to see the team go 34-3 and consistently sell out Viejas Arena merely cemented his legacy. You also have to understand that San Diego is an awful sports town, with a long history of losing teams and franchises, and to have a true winner with a national profile has energized an otherwise cynical and apathetic fan base.
WBR: Who will the Bluejays need to look out for on Wednesday night that they may not be expecting?
MZ: Xavier Thames, the point guard. He is a sophomore transfer from Washington State who sat out last season and has been rusty at times. But he’s an incredibly “clutch” player, making the buzzer-beater against USC and taking over in overtime against Long Beach State, and he’s coming off his best game of the season against UC Santa Barbara: 20 points, 10 rebounds and one turnover in 41 minutes.
The other person would be Jamaal Franklin, a sophomore wing who will be the most athletic player in the arena. He was a 7-foot high jumper in high school and is known for his absolutely ridiculous dunks (he had one this year where he threw the ball off the backboard, caught it with elbows at rim level and dunked emphatically). He’s the kind of guy who does a lot of good and a lot of bad. He’ll make mistakes, then out of nowhere drain back-to-back threes or throw down a dunk that completely changes the momentum. A game changer.
WBR: If there was a weakness that Creighton could exploit from San Diego State, what would that be?
MZ: Interior offense has been a problem for SDSU this season. In the only loss, at Baylor, the three members of the front line combined to score four points. That said, the SDSU bigs are all very good defensively and the perimeter players are good enough offensively to compensate.
WBR: What will San Diego State do to try and stop Creighton’s imposing frontline of Doug McDermott and Gregory Echenique? Do they wish they had Kawhi Leonard and Brian Carlwell?
MZ: One of the amazing parts of this season so far is their team defense. Last year teams shot 39.6 percent against SDSU, a school record. This year it’s 40 percent despite not having the active, athletic front line of Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Kawhi Leonard. They don’t have shot blockers any more, but they do have Tim Shelton, who might be the best player in the nation at taking charges (he took an almost incomprehensible six in the win at Arizona and four against Long Beach State). That slows penetration from opposing teams and often gets their bigs into foul trouble.
WBR: The MVC/MWC Challenge has appeared to be a good series for both conferences. However, the Bluejays are 0-2 in the first two seasons of the series. What has been the view from the San Diego State and Mountain West Conference side of this challenge series?
MZ: To be honest, I don’t think people here pay much attention to it. Most fans probably don’t know it even exists or know that’s why Creighton and SDSU are playing for the first time since 1974. From the SDSU perspective, the pairings haven’t been exactly equitable. This is the second straight year SDSU has had to play the preseason MVC favorite (they beat Wichita State last season).
WBR: With all of the changes going on in the Mountain West due to conference realignment, where does San Diego State stand in this whole process? Are they with the MWC for the long term?
MZ: Good question. The latest is that SDSU is considering an invitation to form a western division of the Big East in football only with Boise State, SMU, Houston and possibly Air Force. That would force SDSU to find a new home for its other sports, since the Mountain West will kick out anyone who doesn’t play football (just as it did to BYU last year). The most logical destination would be the Big West, which makes sense in every sport except men’s basketball. For those who are interested, here’s a link to a story I wrote over the weekend after the ramifications of basketball moving to the Big West.
WBR: What is your final prediction? Will the home court be the deciding factor on whether the Aztecs win this game?
MZ: Who knows? On paper, Creighton appears to be the better, deeper, more experienced team. But despite having only nine scholarship players (and, really, only seven who play the majority of the minutes), SDSU continues to confound logic. They’ll play horrible basketball for long stretches. They’ll miss free throws (5-of-15 against Arizona). They’ll brick three-pointers (4-of-20 against UC Santa Barbara). They’ll blow late leads (USC and Long Beach State). But they just somehow keep figuring out ways to get it done. And at Viejas Arena, they haven’t lost to a team not named BYU in, if my math is right, 36 straight games. These guys think it’s impossible to lose at home.