Column: Aztecs’ fall from grace falls on senior leaders


Photo by Samantha Bonpensiero

Freshman forward Matt Mitchell attacks the basket during SDSUs 85-49 win over San Jose State.

by Zach Engberg, Sports Editor

One of the pinnacle moments in San Diego State men’s basketball came on March 8, 2014.

In front of a sold-out Viejas Arena – and an incredulous Reggie Miller – the scrappy, Sweet 16-bound No. 10 Aztecs defeated The University of New Mexico to claim a Mountain West Conference championship.

Facing a 41-25 deficit late in the second half, SDSU completed a 19-1 run on its way to a 51-48 win and a court-storming by the ‘The Show,’ which at that point was still known as being the most raucous crowd in college basketball.

That team was highlighted by its senior leadership, defensive intensity and ability to turn up the heat when the game was on the line.

The 2017-18 Aztecs are missing on all three fronts, something we saw come to the forefront in their embarrassing 79-75 loss to New Mexico last Saturday.

Leading by as many as 13 in the game and by seven with five minutes left, SDSU let the Lobos scratch and claw their way back into the contest.

Senior captains Trey Kell and Malik Pope combined to shoot 2-14 in the fateful second half on the way to the Aztecs’ third straight conference loss.

Granted, the loss was on the road, but to a New Mexico team that is under .500 on the season and that has nowhere near the firepower and leadership that SDSU has, and that is nowhere near the talent that it had in 2014.

One surprising and optimistic sign in an otherwise disappointing season has been the emergence of true freshmen forwards Matt Mitchell and Jalen McDaniels, both of whom have earned a spot in the starting lineup over proven veterans.

The pair has led the team in scoring in six different games this season, including in SDSUs marquee win over then-No. 12 Gonzaga, in which each freshman logged 15 points and made big late-game plays.

McDaniels has recorded six double-doubles this season – a team-high – and has successfully filled in for Pope when he is in foul trouble or out with injury.

But the freshmen should not have to shoulder such a load right now.

Kell, Pope, and junior guard Devin Watson have been tasked with closing out games and coming up in big moments, and have failed time and again.

The lack of a late-game offensive strategy was painfully evident in the last two comeback losses.

In the final possession of each contest, Watson held the ball at the top of the key, waiting for someone to make a cut or set up for a screen-and-roll.

After some time, Watson settled for a prayer layup that fell well short.

This is painfully familiar to last year’s late-game ineptitude that led to the first missed postseason on the Mesa since 2004-05.

Those famous Steve Fisher teams that terrorized the Mountain West and made deep NCAA Tournament runs were magnificent in their late-game execution, consistently making the right, impact plays down the stretch.

That has been a trend during SDSUs string of painful losses, first to UC Berkeley and then to the University of Wyoming, Fresno, and New Mexico.

And if that doesn’t change, the losses will continue, and the senior leadership will be to blame and will earn the distinction as the only group of Fisher-recruited freshmen to never win a conference championship.