Five decades into his coaching career, Steve Fisher appears to have found a type at San Diego State. When the Aztecs enjoyed their best season in program history in 2011 -- 34 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16 -- they did it behind a burgeoning young wing named Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is now mostly known for being the youngest NBA Finals MVP in league history just four years into his pro career, but his impression at San Diego State has not been forgotten by Fisher.
If Fisher hasn't tried to build the program in Leonard's image, he's certainly attempted to recruit players with similar skill sets. From Jamaal Franklin to current star Winston Shepard, you can always count on Fisher's San Diego State teams to have long, springy athletes who thrive on the defensive end and usually have trouble shooting three-pointers. This year's San Diego State squad is no exception with Shepard and human string bean Dwayne Polee II entering their junior and senior years, respectively.
San Diego State returns most of a roster that earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but it will have one crater-sized hole to fill. Xavier Thames came out of nowhere to become one of the best scoring guards in the country a year ago. As if replacing his production wasn't going to be difficult enough, the Aztecs have no obvious heir apparent at point guard. The job will likely belong to Aqeel Quinn, a career-long reserve who will get a huge opportunity in his senior season.
Fortunately, Quinn will be surrounded by size, athleticism and multiple elite defenders. The Aztecs ranked ninth in the country in defensive efficiency last season, according to KenPom, and they should be furious on that end of the floor once again. Good luck scoring against Shepard and Polee on the wings. Inside, junior center Skylar Spencer is one of the best shot blockers in college basketball. Spencer averaged 2.5 blocks per game last season and placed No. 23 in the country in block rate.
San Diego State has made five straight tournament appearances, with two Sweet 16s (including a trip last season) in the run. It'll be hard to top last season's team with Thames -- one that had a 20-game win streak that included a victory over Kansas -- but with so many veterans there's no reason to think the Aztecs are incapable of doing it again. As Fisher welcomes three top-100 freshman, per ESPN, San Diego State is showing no signs of slowing down. Fisher turns 70 years old this season, but if you didn't know any better, you might think he's just getting started.
Projected starting lineup
PG Aqeel Quinn, senior
SG Winston Shepard, junior
SF Dwayne Polee II, junior
PF J.J. O'Brien, senior
C Skylar Spencer, junior
Key bench players: SG Dakarai Allen (sophomore), G Matt Shrigley (sophomore), C Angelo Chol (junior), F Malik Pope (freshman), G Trey Kell (freshman), F Zylan Cheatham (freshman)
How the Aztecs can go deep this season: Defense, depth and star power
Shepard, Polee and Spencer give San Diego State three elite defenders within Fisher's man-defense scheme. The Aztecs are so good in part because their length and speed allows them to challenge nearly every shot. San Diego State finished No. 10 in the country in effective field goal percentage against last season (44.4 percent), and placed in the top 40 in opponents' three-point percentage, opponents' two-point percentage, block rate and steal rate.
That's no accident. The Aztecs are once again uniquely equipped to excel on that end of the floor this season. Any foreseeable issues start on the offensive end, where San Diego State needs to share the ball better while continuing to limit turnovers like it did last season.
Thames was a bit of a one-man army at times last season, and a big reason why San Diego State ranked No. 350 in the country in percentage of field goals that came off assists. It worked because he was such a dynamic scorer, but this year's team won't have the same luxury. The main thing Quinn should try to take away from his predecessor is Thames' ability to protect the ball. San Diego State's turnover percentage of 15.2 was No. 22 in the country.
The bench is deep. Dakarai Allen was a former top recruit who could start at the two and move Polee to the bench this season. Shrigley adds three-point shooting for a team that desperately needs it. Each of the freshman are talented too, though Pope (the best of the bunch) has been battling injury problems for months. Arizona transfer Angelo Chol might be a big addition, as well.
If the Aztecs are going to take the next step coming off a Sweet 16 season, they likely require Shepard to break out. A former top recruit, Shepard now has the keys to the car. At 6'9, 205 pounds, he enters the season as a fringe first-round NBA draft pick if he ascends the way some think he can. It starts with finding a way to get easier buckets, since Shepard shot only 41.2 percent from the floor last season while averaging 11.6 points per game. He's not a threat from three, so he needs to be able to pick up Thames' knack for finishing in the paint once he gets there.
How San Diego State might lose early: Lack of a true point guard
It's worth pointing out that Thames wasn't exactly on the radar entering last season. He averaged 9.5 points per game as a junior before increasing his volume and efficiency to averaged 17.6 as a senior. Quinn averaged only five points in 16 minutes per game as a junior, and his shooting splits weren't pretty.
Maybe Quinn emerges as a surprise. Maybe San Diego State tries to do it without a true point guard, calling on Allen, Shrigley and freshman Trey Krell to pick up the slack.
Regardless, San Diego State is going to be the heavy favorite in the Mountain West once again after winning the regular season title a year ago. With a group of talented upperclassmen and some exciting new faces on the bench, the Aztecs' reign atop the conference seems safe for the foreseeable future.