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The Daily Wildcat

 

San Diego State provides Arizona Wildcats’ first tough test

Photo+courtesy+of+The+Daily+Aztec
Photo courtesy of The Daily Aztec

San Diego State’s Viejas Arena may be the most difficult stadium No. 6 Arizona will play at during its non-conference schedule this season.

The Aztecs posted a 14-1 record last season at home. The season included victories over UCLA and then-No. 15 New Mexico.

However, this SDSU (1-0) team looks a lot different than last year’s. The Aztecs lost four key players from last season, most notably Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin. But that doesn’t mean this year’s team will be an easy win for the Wildcats (2-0).

SDSU head coach Steve Fisher has built the Aztec program into a constant contender. Someone is bound to step up for Fisher and replace Franklin, who did the same when former SDSU star Kawhi Leonard was drafted into the NBA in 2011.

Who that will be this year is unknown for now, but in the Aztecs’ first game of the season against UC Riverside, which they won 77-41, senior point guard Xavier Thames posted 15 points and four steals in 21 minutes of game action. Thames, one of the two returning starters for the Aztecs, is going to need to be a leader of this team if the Aztecs want to go far.

Like how former Arizona guard Mark Lyons was eligible to play immediately after transferring from Xavier, SDSU senior transfer Josh Davis is eligible this year after graduating from Tulane. Davis, a rebounding machine, finished the 2012-13 season with the eighth-most rebounds, averaging 10.7 a game to go along with his 17.6 points per game. The 6-foot-8 forward may be the most talented SDSU player, but he most likely will not be the key to the Aztecs’ success. That belongs to sophomore forward Winston Shepard.

Shepard, a former high school teammate of Arizona guard Nick Johnson, came to SDSU with high expectations. The former Findlay Prep star showed signs of excellence in his freshman season but for the most part proved to be more of a project than a on-and-done.

At 6-foot-8, Shepard has the length to be an excellent rebounder, especially on offense. He has a high motor and is known for out-sprinting fellow forwards on fast breaks.

However, in 2012-13, he struggled with finishing in heavy traffic. The athletic forward also needed to establish a better jump shot to be a more dangerous threat. If he has improved in those areas of the game, Shepard could be an early season dark horse who will be a household name by the end of the season.

What we do know is that Shepard can make plays on the break and will be targeted on turnovers.

Fisher, now in his 15th season at SDSU, has built a program that is centered on playing lockdown defense and doesn’t turn the ball over often on offense. Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell will be the key to Thursday’s game for the Wildcats. He will need to continue to set the tone by pressuring Thames into making poor decisions. But that will be difficult, as Thames averaged fewer than two turnovers a game a season ago.

If McConnell can disrupt the guard play of SDSU and set the tone in Arizona’s favor early on, the Wildcats should escape Viejas Arena with a big early season non-conference road win, one that they can ride until the end of the season.

The Wildcats play at 8:05 p.m. MST on CBS Sports Network.

*Who are the San Diego State Aztecs? *
2012-13 record: 23-11 (9-7 Mountain West)
2012-13 notable victories: 78-69 versus UCLA, 55-34 versus No. 15 New Mexico

Top recruit
Besides Davis, the Aztecs have a solid freshman class this year, led by guard Dakarai Allen. The 6-foot-5 freshman could be a key player off the bench for Fisher and might find his way into the starting rotation because of his length and excellent passing skills. In the Aztecs’ first game this season, Allen played 20 minutes off the bench and contributed seven points, all coming from free throws. He also grabbed three rebounds.
What could keep Allen off the court is his lack of athleticism and his below-average ball handling ability for a wingman.

Player to watch for
Senior forward Josh Davis is a little undersized for the position and gives up roughly 4 inches to Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski. But Davis is a proven rebounder in the frontcourt, and with the Aztecs still looking to find their leader on offense, Davis is probably the early-season answer.

He said it
“The last time that we went to San Diego State was my first year,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller. “That was probably as big of a whooping as I had ever taken since I was in about second grade. We respect San Diego State a great deal.”

Projected Starting Rotation
F Josh Davis Sr.
F JJ O’Brien Jr.
F Winston Shepard Soph.
W Skyler Spencer Soph.
G Xavier Thames Sr.

—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella

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