Dorm Report: Aztecs continue to divide and conquer

9:58 AM, Jan 23, 2014   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Make that 16 wins in a row, thanks to San Jose State on Wednesday night.

The most dominant team in California right now, you ask? Could it be UCLA with new head coach Steve Alford, or maybe Stanford, Cal, USC?

No, on all accounts.

Believe it or not, the only team from the Golden State even in the Associated Press Top 25 at the moment is ... San Diego State?

The Aztecs (17-1) are not just in the Top 25, hovering on the fringe as if their next setback could banish them for the rest of the season, they entered the week ranked seventh in the country. That's right, only the big boys of basketball have a leg up on SDSU at the moment.

The Aztecs are not from one of the glamorous power conferences, nor do they appear in heavy rotation on sports show highlights, but that doesn't matter because it is wins they crave and success they've enjoyed.

Against the Spartans on Wednesday night, SDSU held the opposition to just 32 points through the first 33 minutes of action before taking its foot off the gas in a 75-50 win. With their 39th consecutive win over another school from the state of California, the Aztecs own the fourth-longest active win streak in the country behind Wichita State (20), Arizona (18) and Syracuse (18).

San Diego State is a perfect 6-0 in conference play (Mountain West) for the first time in 44 seasons at the Division I level. The last time an Aztecs squad opened league play undefeated through the first six outings was in 1966-67 when they were members of the CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) en route to the quarterfinals of the Division II tournament.

Way back on Nov. 14, San Diego State hosted sixth-ranked Arizona, and bowed to the Wildcats (now one of three undefeated teams in Division I and currently the top-ranked team in the nation), 69-60. It wasn't that big of a deal at the time, but looking back, that meeting was the impetus for the Aztecs to turn the corner and create their own destiny this season.

"It feels good, but like we've said all season, we're going for the No. 1 spot," says forward Winston Shepard of the team's current status. "That's where we ultimately want to be. So seventh is good and we're glad we're getting more respect, but we don't think we're done yet."

Head coach Steve Fisher has been the savior for this program since arriving to take over in 1999. Sure, the 1999-2000 version of the Aztecs had their struggles, finishing only 5-23 overall and winless in 14 tries in the new Mountain West Conference, but the growing pains were going to pay off in a big way.

Since stumbling out of the gate, Fisher's programs have had just one losing season and have taken the MWC Tournament title four times. Since 2001-02, the Aztecs have made it to the postseason all but two times, appearing in the NCAA Tournament each of the last four years. Unfortunately, as great as those SDSU teams have been during the regular season, the squad has come up short when it has counted most.

Coach Fisher has provided the program with plenty of exposure come tournament time, but at some point all of the experience and effort have to pay off, and this could be the year, considering how much the Aztecs have accomplished already.

Granted, the team generally flies under the radar on a national level, mainly because the program often plays games when it's late on the East Coast and much of the rest of the country isn't tuned in. However, in the last few years, there have been a couple of players who have managed to garner interest beyond the Golden State, namely Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin, so there is some hope for this roster yet.

Leonard, who was selected 15th by the Indiana Pacers in the 2011 NBA Draft, played a key role in the San Antonio Spurs making it to the NBA Finals just last season, while Franklin has yet to make a name for himself after being picked up in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft by Memphis (coincidentally, Leonard suffered a fracture to his right hand on Wednesday night versus Oklahoma City and will be out of action until further notice).

This season's group of Aztecs don't have much flash, very few highlight film clips, but they are a dedicated defensive bunch that could cause some trouble for more than a few more notable programs once March rolls around. As of Sunday, only Clemson had a better scoring defense than SDSU, limiting foes to 53.5 points per game while the Aztecs give up 55.7 ppg.

Opponents were hitting field goals at a paltry 35.4 percent versus Fisher's bunch, which in this case is the best mark among Division I schools entering the week. The squad is posting 6.2 blocked shots per contest - ranked 19th in the nation - and with a positive turnover margin of 3.8 per outing, San Diego State is in the top 20 in that category as well.

Considering the squad takes so much pride in shutting down opponents, it should not come as a surprise the Aztecs are seventh in the country in scoring margin with an advantage of 18.4 ppg prior to Wednesday night's meeting with San Jose State.

Xavier Thames, one of two players to have started every game, leads the program in scoring (16.9 ppg), assists (47) and steals (32), while Shepard is the only other Aztec in double-figure scoring with his 13.1 ppg. Josh Davis, a transfer from Tulane, accounts for 9.1 ppg and a team-best 11.5 rebounds per game, numbers that help to offset his mere 47.4 percent accuracy at the free throw line.

And there it is. If you are looking for a weak spot in the San Diego State assault, it is at the foul line, where they have converted only 64.7 percent of their attempts. Still, the squad has outscored the opposition by 126 at the line, and as long as the winning margins continue to be by a wide margin, the struggles at the line may not be too much of a concern.

Maybe the Aztecs don't have the bright spotlights shining down on them or are supplying the most popular sound bite of the day following another win, but it seems to be working just fine for Fisher and his players right now.

"We are excited about people talking about our ranking and how we have gone from not even receiving votes at the start of the season, to being No. 24 after winning in (the Wooden Legacy) and steadily creeping up the polls," Fisher said.

"You don't win on reputation. You win on performance and on coming out every day and being consistent with how you play, and that's why we're where we are. We've played hard, we've respected our opponents and we've played well together."

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