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DraftNasty breaks down the ACC’s Top 10 2019 NBA Draft prospects

 DraftNasty's Troy Jefferson takes a look at the ACC's top prospects.  The conference projects to feature anywhere from three-to-six Top 10 selections. Here's how we rank and analyze them from top-to-bottom:

1. Zion Williamson  (6’7, 285 lbs) F-Duke

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Has the ability to affect every possession with his athleticism. Williamson is an efficient (68 percent from the field) scorer, who can dish the ball well for his size and position. “The freshman’s motor coupled with his athleticism stands out.  So far this season, Williamson has been able to separate himself with his work on the glass and his finishing ability in transition,” said Draftnasty’s Troy Jefferson during his Duke vs. Gonzaga in-game report in November 2018. On the defensive side, Williamson plays with a bulldog aggressiveness and has the necessary athleticism to defend next level wings.  

Weaknesses: Injury concerns. Williamson missed five games with a mild knee sprain. He played last year at 285 pounds, can he excel at that weight for an 82-game season?  As the projected first pick overall, Williamson will be asked to shoulder a heavier offensive load. Williamson’s ability to create his own shot one-on-one and score with more finesse will be key factors in his long term success. Zion was able to bulldoze smaller opponents in both high school and college, but his counter moves will be tested against stronger NBA competition.

Other Notes: Attended Spartanburg Day School (S.C.) and was ranked as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com • Earned South Carolina's Mr. Basketball and was the runner-up for USA's Mr. Basketball behind future Duke teammate R.J. Barrett • Mother ran track at Livingston College and father played basketball at Clemson • 2018: 22.6 ppg, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 68 percent shooting en route to first team All-ACC honors • Scored in double figures in every college contest • Scored at least 25 points in 15 games

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Williamson's size and athleticism resembles former Hornets and Knicks standout Larry Johnson, but even still Williamson is about 30 pounds heavier and more nimble on his feet.  It’s hard to nail down a consensus comparison for the Naismith College Player of the Year.  The former Blue Devil should contribute immediately as a double-double machine due to his motor and freakish athleticism.  His long-term success will be predicated on his ability to add more to his offensive repertoire while controlling his weight.

2. R.J. Barrett  (6’7, 203 lbs) SF-Duke

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Barrett impresses with his smooth offensive game that resembles a much older player. Barrett has the size scouts covet out of the wing and can do everything offensively.  Barrett showed the ability to handle the responsibilities of a top scorer after Zion Williamson went down with a midseason foot injury.  In the seven contests, Williamson missed Barrett averaged 25 points, three more than his season average. Barrett has the most polished NBA-ready offensive game of anyone in the draft and DraftNasty expects him to be an immediate contributor. 

Weaknesses: Takes plays off.  Can be inactive and view the action too often on the offensive end. Settles for a number of outside jumpers.  Becomes a score-first threat and fails to find open men (Gonzaga '18).  Tendency to try and do too much on the offensive end leads to unnecessary turnovers (3.2 per game). 10 games with five or more turnovers. Shot 30 percent from the three-point line. 

Other Notes: Attended Montverde Academy (Fl.) •Was named first team All-ACC •Earned the Gatorade National Player of the Year and was the winner of Mr. Basketball USA  • Father, Rowan, attended St. John's and played overseas for 10 years • 2018: 22.6 ppg, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45 percent shooting • Scored in double figures in every college contest • Godfather is former NBA all-star Steve Nash and has been known to work with Barrett on his game. 

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary):  Barrett will have to build his lower body as he gets older and scouts would like to see his free throw percentage increase (66%), but beyond that the former Blue Devil wing has the traits to excel in the NBA.  Barrett's one-on-one smooth step-back game and ability to lull defenders to sleep is reminiscent of James Harden's.  The offensive repertoire and bloodlines are there for Barrett to enjoy similar scoring success in the NBA.

3. Coby White  (6’5, 185 lbs) PG-North Carolina

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths):  Explosive. Can get to the basket with either hand. White has the ideal height for the modern NBA point guard, standing at 6'5 despite having a shorter wingspan.  Willing passer.  Creates and scores for himself in one-on-one situations.  Changes speeds and gets to the bucket with regularity.   Doesn't need much space to get his shot off and can play the off-guard position and score off screens.

Weaknesses: Can White command the offense as the primary ball handler? That will be the question (his assist to turnover ratio was 3:2).  White could also stand to add to his thin frame. The former Tar Heel  has excellent lateral quickness, which is evident from his offensive prowess but, more often than not,  those traits didn't translate on defense.

Other Notes: Attended Greenfield School (NC)  • Was named second team All-ACC •Participated in the Jordan Brand Classic, McDonald's All American game  • Named North Carolina Mr. Basketball • 2018: 16.1 ppg, 3.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 42 percent shooting • Shot 80 percent from the free throw line and finished second on the team in points per game • Earned all- tournament honors in the 2018 FIBA Under 18 America Championship  

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): White will be a problem at the next level when he can initiate the offense from the high pick and roll to get downhill.  His seasoning as a traditional point guard will take time and his defensive capabilities are yet to be seen. The former North Carolina Mr. Basketball possesses the finishing moves at the rim, long range shooting ability and height to excel.

4. De'Andre Hunter  (6’7, 225 lbs) SF-Virginia

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Hunter is a Swiss army knife of sorts, who can do a little bit of everything. The former Cavalier will project best at the next level as a glue man off the bench.  Hunter averaged 11 points, four rebounds and 1.5 assists on 50 percent shooting during his two seasons in Charlottesville. As his playing time increased this season so did Hunter's production. Hunter was also the best player on a championship team, which says a lot about his ability to contribute to winning. 

Weaknesses: Hunter could be considered a man of many trades but a master of none. He doesn't project to be a prolific scorer at the next level or a top-level offensive creator.  Doesn't project as an NBA-level primary ball handler.  Hunter will have to make his name as a defensive stopper early on. 

Other Notes: Attended Friends' Central School (PA)  • Was named first team All-ACC, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and ACC six man of the year (2017)  • 2018: 15.2 ppg, 5.1 rebounds and two assists on 52 percent shooting • Scored 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the National Championship victory vs. Texas Tech •Named to ACC All Freshman team in 2017-2018

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Look for Hunter to enjoy a long NBA career as a do a little bit of everything type of wing.  Hunter's frame and glue guy skill-set is reminiscent of Andre Iguodala.  Like Iguodala, expect Hunter to contribute in a number of ways for any team that drafts him.

5. Cam Reddish (6’8, 218 lbs) SF-Duke

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Smooth offensive game. Can handle the ball well for his size. When Reddish is engaged offensively, he has the ability to take over games for long stretches with his ability to score in bunches. He played two of his best games this season against the Tar Heels during the regular season, posting 27 and 23 points respectively. However, when Zion Williamson returned against the Tar Heels in the ACC quarterfinals, Reddish posted six points. The season series against North Carolina was a microcosm of Reddish's Duke career. 

Weaknesses: Can be passive at times, as he deferred to both Willamson and Barrett.  Reddish has some of his best moments when Willamson was out with his injury but too many times when Willamson was in the lineup, Reddish would camp out at the three- point line and make himself easy to defend.  Reddish stands at 6'8" with a 7'1" wingspan and could conceivably contribute at three-to-four different positions but he must stay aggressive and engaged. His fans will point to his outstanding high school career as a barometer of how good he can be, but his detractors will point to his inconsistent play in college. 

Other Notes: Attended Westtown School (PA)  • On Jan. 19 against Florida State, he scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a game-winning three pointer.  • 2018: 13.5 ppg, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists on 35 percent shooting • Played in the Jordan Brand Classic and the  McDonald's All American Game •Rated as the number three overall prospect on ESPN and Rivals.com 

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Reddish is a versatile offensive weapon that can play multiple positions. However, the former Blue Devil will have to stay aggressive at the next level and compete more on the defensive end.  Reddish has NBA length but has a thin frame and in college didn't offer much resistance to wings that wanted to get to the rim.  Out of the draft's top prospects, Reddish has the most boom or bust potential. 

6. Nassir Little (6’7, 220 lbs) SF-North Carolina

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Little gets to the rim with aggression and is a strong finisher, who projects well at the next level as a slashing wing. On the defensive end, Little plays with a high motor and is active on and off the ball.  What's impressive about Little is his ability to power off either leg and get around defenders. 

Weaknesses: Little isn't a natural shooter and won't wow scouts with his ball handling. The former Tar Heel will have to make his mark offensively through hustling and bulldozing his way to the rim. His offensive splits left a lot to be desired in his lone season in Chapel Hill, averaging nine points, four rebounds and 0.7 assists on 48 percent shooting and 26 percent from the three point line. Scouts will question Little's inconsistency in a two-week time frame to end the season, the former Tar Heel scored 20 points on 72- percent shooting vs. Washington in a NCAA tournament win but a week before he shot 33-percent and scored nine points in a loss to Duke in the ACC tournament. 

Other Notes: Attended Orlando Christian Prep. (Fl.)  • Member of the National Honor Society in high school  • Both parents served in the military • Most Valuable Player in the McDonald’s All-American Game after scoring 28 points and was co-MVP in the Jordan Brand Classic •Plays the piano 

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary):  High intensity players can have a lengthy NBA career and Little fits the mold. Little will need more offensive seasoning but should be a Top 15 pick based on his athletic gifts.  Defensively, Little will have to carve out playing time by using his athleticism to stick to NBA wings.  Offensively, rebounding and getting opposing wings in foul trouble will be how he makes his most immediate impact. 

7. Cameron Johnson (6’9, 210 lbs) F-UNC

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Efficient shooter. Johnson brings five years worth of college experience to the table and has a silky smooth jumpshot (shot at least 34-percent from the three-point line in each season).  His tall and lean frame will remind scouts of former Tar Heel Justin Jackson. Johnson's best hope is to make it at the next level as a "3 and D" prospect, who could hold his own vs. wings and stretch fours.  He has improved statistically each season. 

Weaknesses: Johnson's draft stock could be hurt by his age (23). Historically, the first round has been reserved for younger prospects with more time to mold.  It will also be interesting to see how the University of Pittsburgh transfer will hold up physically vs. more mature NBA players.  Scouts will also question if Johnson has any other skills besides shooting that will translate to the next level.  Is Johnson a one-trick pony?

Other Notes: Attended Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Pa.)  •   Graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with honors• Father, Gilbert played basketball at Pittsburgh while his mom, Amy played at Kent State. His brother played at Clarion University  • 2018: 16.9 points per game, 5.8 assists, 2.4 rebounds on 50-percent shooting •Two time All-Academic ACC

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Johnson has gotten better in every collegiate season and has a defined skill that translates to the NBA, his sharpshooting. The modern NBA game is played in space with shooters that can spread the floor and defend on the perimeter.  Johnson is good enough at both to warrant a late first round look. 

8. Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6’5, 205) G-Virginia Tech

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Alexander-Walker is a slashing guard who is best when out in transition. The former Hokie will be an asset at the next level with his drive and kick ability. Alexander-Walker doesn't wow with his athleticism but his smooth in control game reminds me of Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal.  Like Beal, Alexander-Walker will be better served primarily working as an off the ball guard. His left-to-right crossover is his main go to scoring move.  It lulls defenders to sleep and gives him the ability to get around defenders. 

Weaknesses: Alexander-Walker doesn't have blow by speed and will have to score in the lane with body positioning rather than jumping over NBA big men. The former Virginia Tech guard will have to be paired with a more traditional point guard and improve his ability to score without plays being run for him.  At the next level, Alexander-Walker will also have to add strength to his build in order to absorb contact. 

Other notes:   Attended three high schools: Vaughan Secondary School (Ontario), St. Louis Christian Academy (Mo.) and Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Tenn.)  • Cousin is former Kentucky guard and current Los Angeles Clipper Shai Gilgeous-Alexander  • 2018: 16.2 points per game, four assists, 4.1 rebounds on 47 percent shooting •Competed with Canada at the 2016 FIBA Under 18 Championship and help lead the team to a silver medal. He led the team averaging 17 points per game.

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Alexander-Walker will be best served as  mid-first round pick that can provide scoring punch for a second unit.  His quick release and under control offensive game should make him an immediate contributor on the offensive end. Alexander-Walker's ability to combat his lack of explosiveness when driving to the rim (or on defense) will determine his success in the NBA.

9. Jaylen Hoard (6’8, 216lbs) F-Wake Forest

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Hoard is a heady defensive prospect who can come over from the weak side and challenge baskets at the rim.  Offensively, Hoard can play on the perimeter and drive to the basket, but most of his money is made hustling around the rim as well as getting out in transition. The Wake Forest forward would be best served in a Golden State-type offense that is free-flowing and rewards the extra pass as well as interchangeable contributors. 

Weaknesses: Hoard doesn't have a specific skill that he does well offensively. The France native makes up for his lack of size with great awareness and length (7'1" wingspan).  Scouts will doubt if an undersized forward that can't shoot is worth a high pick, but early in the second round could be ideal for Hoard. The former Demon Deacon also could stand to improve his field goal percentage (45 percent). 

Other notes: Attended Wesleyan Christian Academy (NC)  • Born in France and played for France at the 2016 FIBA Under 18 Championship (averaged 22.4 points per game)  • 2018: 13.1 points per game, 1.5 assists, 7.6 rebounds on 45 percent shooting •Father, Antwon played at Murray State before playing professionally overseas and mother, Katia played for the University of Washington • Participated in the Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit 

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): We've seen players like Hoard make a niche for themselves in the NBA.  In recent years, players like former Louisville Cardinal and Los Angeles Clipper forward Montrezl Harrell come to mind.  Hoard isn't as strong as Harrell, but has a frame that could add more mass.  He plays with the same type of effort, energy and defensive intelligence. 

10. Ty Jerome  (6’5, 195lbs) PG-Virginia

What makes this player NASTY? (Strengths): Jerome has excellent height for his position and guided the Cavaliers to a championship from his point guard position. Most impressively, Jerome was able to initiate the different sets that Virginia used in its half court offense. Basketball is predicated on maximizing possessions and Jerome is one of the more efficient players in the class, boasting a 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  Jerome also has the ability to push the ball in transition and often gets it deep into the lane to create for others. 

Weaknesses: Jerome has excellent height but doesn't jump high off the floor.  His ability to finish at the rim against more athletic talent is a question mark.  Foot speed is also a question mark for Jerome.  At the point guard position he will be matched up on a nightly basis against far superior athletic and more agile opposition. The three- year point guard will have to compensate with basketball IQ.  Players may beat him to the spot to deny his penetration. 

Other notes:   Attended Iona Preparatory School (NY)  • Scored 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and had eight assists in the National Championship win vs. Texas Tech  • 2018: 13.6 points per game, 5.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds on 43 percent shooting •Missed only one game over his three seasons in Charlottesville and played in 105 games total• Named All-ACC second team in 2019 and All-ACC third team in 2018

Time to get NASTY (Our Summary): Jerome projects best as a backup point guard that can spell starters. He does offer a bit of position versatility, but much of that depends on his ability to adapt defensively to the NBA game.  Look for whoever drafts him to get creative with how they use him off ball screens as a shooter (38% percent career three point shooter in college).  Someone with his efficiency, shooting and strong ball handling skill will find a home somewhere on an NBA roster. 

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2018 Walk-On’s Independence Bowl, In-game report: Duke vs. Temple, 12-27-18

A dominant second half by the Blue Devils was enough to help them cruise to an Independence Bowl victory. Duke scored 35 unanswered points to defeat Temple, 56-27.  DraftNasty’s Troy Jefferson gives his impressions in this in game report:

17 Daniel Jones (6’5 220) Duke QB-Junior

With Oregon’s Justin Herbert returning to Oregon for another season, Duke’s Daniel Jones should get some attention earlier in next year's draft.  That is if the redshirt junior decides to declare early.  The Blue Devil signal-caller finished with one rushing touchdown, five passing touchdowns and two interceptions against Temple.  A throw that stood out to me was his pump-and-go pass for a touchdown to T.J. Rahming, the slight pump was enough to get the defensive backs attention and clear the way for Rahming.  Jones not only sold the pump with his legs, head and arm moving in sync but he threw a good pass as well.  The game was a microcosm of his season: a mixed bag of good and bad.  Scouts will question his pocket awareness.  Against Temple, he was sacked three times and for his career, he’s been sacked 82 times. I would like to see the internal clock in his head operate a little quicker and if plays aren’t developing, see him throw the ball away.  The positives for Jones is that he has good size, great athleticism for his stature, can throw on the run and has worked with David Cutcliffe, who has enjoyed a myriad of success with young quarterbacks. 

Jones (No. 17 pictured) connected with Rahming (No. 3 pictured) on a career-long 85-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter of Saturday's Walk-On's Independence Bowl against the Owls.
3 T.J. Rahming (5’10 170) Duke WR-Senior

You can’t help but think of former Duke wide receiver and Redskins current slot receiver, Jamison Crowder, when you see T.J. Rahming. The two have identical builds and are used in similar situations. Rahming is used on jet sweeps as a motion man and works mostly in the slot.  Rahming might be a little faster straight-line than Crowder but he doesn’t have the same agility as his elder.  Like Crowder, Rahming also can help out in the punt return game (5.9 yards per punt career average).  Against Temple, Rahming caught 12 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. 

9 Michael Dogbe (6’3 280) Temple DL-Senior

Dogbe is a little light for a defensive tackle but his activity and constant movement is never lacking.  In a time where defense is more about reacting than dictating, Dogbe is a throwback see ball/ get ball type of player.  In the Independence Bowl, Dogbe impressed with his ability to attract double teams and follow and stick with the play from behind.  He projects best as a 4-3 defensive tackle or a 3-4 defensive end at the next level.  At Temple, single digit numbers are reserved for tough and hardworking players and Dogbe has earned his stripes.  For the season, Dogbe finished with 12.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three forced fumbles. 

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Gonzaga vs. Duke, 11-21-18: In-game report

A November contest between two Top 5 teams had the feel of a Final Four game in Hawaii.  Gonzaga defeated Duke, 89-87, to remain undefeated and handed the Blue Devils its first loss of the season. DraftNasty’s Troy Jefferson gives his impressions in this in game report:

1 Zion Williamson (6’7 285) Duke forward-Freshman 

Williamson is a highlight reel waiting to happen. The freshman’s motor coupled with his athleticism stands out.  So far this season, Williamson has been able to separate himself with his work on the glass and his finishing ability in transition.  For the season, the Spartanburg, South Carolina, native is averaging 20 points per game and nine rebounds.  Williamson should be a top three pick in the upcoming draft.  As the season goes on, look for head coach Mike Krzyzewski to find creative ways to get Williamson involved without the ball. 

23 Zach Norvell, Jr. (6’5, 205) Gonzaga guard-Sophomore 

Norvell, Jr. is one of the best guards in the country at getting in the lane, slashing and finishing at the rim. The Chicago native used a crossover against Duke forward RJ Barrett and up-and-under finish to avoid Williamson from blocking the ball in the first half.  Norvell, Jr. can also run the fast break and initiate the half court offense with his ability to pass on the perimeter and into the post. The Gonzaga guard is shooting 42-percent from the field and 37-percent from beyond the arc.  Standing 6-foot-5, he will have to answer questions about which position he will defend at the next level but the combo guard skill-sets are evident in the sophomore. 

21 Rui Hachimura (6’8, 230) Gonzaga forward-Junior

Hachimura has doubled his point production from last season. Through six games he is averaging 22 points per game after averaging 11 points a year ago.  The junior forward was one of the more experienced players on the floor against Duke and it made a difference.  Hachimura showed his ability to be a threat in the screen and roll game by either rolling to the rim or fading to the three point line. The junior also impressed with his face-up game from the pinch post.  Like Norvell Jr., he is a bit undersized and will have to find a home defensively at the next level.  When switched onto quick forwards like RJ Barrett, Hachimura wasn’t quick enough to stay in front defensively.  Hachimura showed enough offensive skills to continue to intrigue NBA scouts.

5 RJ Barrett (6’7, 202) Duke forward-Freshman

Barrett has the most polished, NBA-ready game of any of the players who saw the floor in Wednesday’s game. The freshman forward is quick enough to blow by taller guys and can also handle the ball in pick-and roll.  On the season, he is averaging 22 points per game, five rebounds and four assists. Barrett did struggle when forced to go right, missing two layups in the last minute of the game when driving in this direction.  Coach Krzyzewski runs a free-flowing offense and relies on his players making plays one-on-one.  More times than not, Barrett will make a better decision in crunch time but so far the freshman has impressed in limited action.

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2018 Season Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

 Season outlook

Larry Fedora will have to make do without 13 suspended players to begin the season. Nine of the 13 players including sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt will miss four games. Since multiple players share the same positions, Fedora will have the option of staggering the suspensions. However, even with a fully equipped roster, it will be an uphill climb for the Tar Heels, who finished 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC. The Tar Heels will be able to hang their hat offensively on their skilled positions. The trio of sophomore running back Michael Carter (5'9, 195), junior tight end Carl Tucker (6'2, 255) and junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams (6’1, 205) will be the core of the offense. Defensively, the position most hurt by the suspensions will be defensive end. Sophomore Tomon Fox (6'3, 250) and senior Malik Carney (6'3, 245) will both miss four games apiece. Junior defensive back Myles Dorn (6'2, 210) is one player Fedora will be able to count on. Dorn finished last season with two interceptions and 71 tackles. Dorn has the skill to join fellow former defensive back M.J. Stewart in the NFL one day.

Troy's player to watch

17 Anthony Ratliff-Williams 6’1 205 WR-Junior

"Do it all" is the best way to describe junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ratliff-Williams, a former quarterback, has made the transition to wide receiver and kick returner over the past two seasons.  In 2017, Ratliff-Williams averaged 26 yards per kick return and returned two kicks for scores.  He added 35 receptions for 630 yards and six touchdowns.  Look for Ratliff-Williams to once again be featured early and often on special teams and as a receiver in 2018.

Game of the season 

October 20th at Syracuse

The Tar Heels won just one game last season in the ACC. Games against Virginia Tech and Miami could be tough, but North Carolina has to be able to win games against teams that finished with similar records as them last year. Syracuse finished with two wins in the conference a year ago. Both teams will need every victory to become bowl-eligible. Their midseason matchup could decide the postseason fate of both teams.

DraftNasty's Prospect Watch

36 Cole Holcomb 6’1 215 LB-Senior

Holcomb, pictured, posted a career-high 115 tackles in 2016.

Holcomb has always impressed in the weight room and he can notably squat nearly 600 pounds.  He has decent foot speed and has even been used off the edge to rush the quarterback.  In 2017, he turned in his second-best season and that produced 93 tackles and 2.5 tackles for losses.  Equally adept in coverage, he has gotten his hands on a number of balls.  While only adequate taking on lead blockers, he still needs to add slightly more mass.  He injured his right shoulder in 2017.

 Prediction: 5-7

DraftNasty's Troy Jefferson is predicting a slim improvement over last season. Fedora's team will win five games and narrowly miss out on bowl eligibility. The Tar Heels will fall to Miami, California, UCF, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Duke.

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DraftNasty spotlights Duke PF Wendell Carter, Jr: 2018 NBA Draft

Wendell Carter, Jr. averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game for the Duke Blue Devils in his freshman campaign. The 6'10, 251-pound power forward has a good chance to hear his named called in the 2018 NBA Draft lottery later this month. We go inside his game in our video spotlight.

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Tuesday Throwback Report: Party Crasher in San Diego

There are a multitude of names that come to mind when one contemplates the prospects of elite NCAA basketball teams each season. Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse are just a few that break through the conscious initially. But San Diego State?

Laughably, one could have been locked away from all things hoops related for nearly a decade and still log that the likes of the Blue Devils and company would have a formidable presence in the midseason rankings. It’s simply that predictable sometimes.

But there are wrinkles. Just as easy as one might be on point in expecting the Jayhawks to be in early contention, one might also blunder and find that the Tar Heels are nothing more than average this season.  And in spite of this type of blunder being less likely, there have been times when North Carolina has found itself mending its wounds.

But San Diego State?

Amazingly, the Aztecs provide a wrinkle that is as much surprising as it is refreshing.  As it stands, San Diego State sits at the head table with top-ranked Duke and the usual suspects such as Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh and the Orangemen, who round out the top-five in the AP poll.

Head coach Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are a polished 17-0 and remain as one of only five teams in Division I with an undefeated mark. This in itself is not surprising.   It started three seasons ago when the Aztecs finished with a 20-13 mark and landed an NIT berth. A year later, San Diego State improved to a 26-10 record, advancing to the NIT semifinals.

The development didn’t hit a snag last season when the Aztecs ran off an impressive 25-9 record and emerged in the NCAA Tournament, where it fell short in the first round to Tennessee. Despite the early exit, San Diego State proved that it had promise, pushing the Volunteers in that contest before narrowly losing 62-59.

So no, that the Aztecs have torn through the season thus far is not startling.  That they are being given credit for doing so this early is a different story. Typically, a team like the Aztecs wouldn’t even be on the radar until March - two, three games into the Big Dance. Butler, for example, wasn’t even ranked at this point in the season a year ago. They, of course, went on to play for the national title against Duke.

And no, the rankings aren’t usually built with the San Diego States, the Butlers, the Davidsons, or George Masons in mind. But here the Aztecs are, boasting a higher ranking than powerhouses such as Connecticut (10th), Kentucky (13th), Louisville (18th) and Georgetown (22th). And here they are, 17 games into the season, demonstrating more staying power than elite programs like Michigan State, North Carolina, and Florida, who after opening the season ranked second, eighth, and ninth respectively in the nation, are now out of the top-25 altogether.

The picture cannot be painted that San Diego State came into the year as a dismissed program. After all, they were ranked a modest but respectable 25th in the country in the preseason AP poll. But Fisher’s squad wasn’t comfortable with modest and quickly launched a stone at the pollsters when it toppled then 11th-ranked Gonzaga 79-76 on November 16th.

Critics who devalue San Diego State’s schedule strength thus far should factor in that the Aztecs also knocked off Pac-10 stalwart California handily, 77-57, on December 8th, less than two weeks after the Bears had beaten then 20th-ranked Temple.  And those who condemn the Aztecs for competing in the Mountain West Conference should consider that Brigham Young also hails from that conference.

And the Cougars are as well off to a fast start, sitting at 16-1 with a No. 11 AP ranking. This not only bodes well for the Conference, having two highly ranked clubs, but it also means that the attention of the college basketball world should be captured when San Diego State and Brigham Young face off on January 26th and February 26th. What’s equally intriguing is that the highly touted Aztecs defense will get an opportunity to slow down NBA prospect Jimmer Fredette, who is averaging 24.9 points per game.

“This league is very good,” Fisher noted in a press conference this week. “We said last year of those teams that went in that it might have been the best ever. I think the depth is genuine; the disparity between 1 and 9 has shrunk significantly.”

Before matching wits with the Cougars, San Diego State will have their perfect record tested in the Mountain West. One such obstacle, for example, will come Wednesday, when the Aztecs takes on a potent 13-3 UNLV team.  Nevertheless, Fisher is as much excited about his team’s possibilities as he is its current place.

“We are pleased obviously with the undefeated mark, but I am happy that we appear to be getting better physically,” he stated.

One sign of this improvement is the recent Mountain West Player of the Week honor that was bestowed upon star forward Malcolm Thomas. It’s the third of such honors this season for the senior who earned the award after averaging 17.5 points per game, 12 rebounds, and two blocks, in wins over Utah and TCU. For the season, the 6’9’’ San Diego native is pumping in 12.3 points per contest, complimented by 7.6 rebounds. As well, Thomas is shooting a precise 59 percent from the field.

“It’s good to receive an award like that,” Thomas said Monday in the Aztecs weekly press conference. “But I have to give credit to my teammates. They give me the confidence to score, rebound, block shots, or do whatever I need to do to win. I really feed off their energy and that is why I get player of the week.”

The energy Thomas speaks of comes from what has thus far been a balanced act. Sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard leads the team in scoring and rebounding, pouring in 15.9 points per game and pulling in 9.6 rebounds. And senior guard D.J. Gay chips in with 11.8 points per contest.

Gay, for one, credits several factors for his team’s play so far.

“I think it has a lot to do with our condition, our athleticism, our ability to turn it up on the defensive end,” the senior professed. “We start to press and create havoc for the other teams and that’s just taking it to another level. Our ability to do that is the reason we are having the success we’re having now.”

And thanks to an anomaly in the national rankings, the basketball community at large is able to witness this striking success in January, rather than postponing credit until March. By then, the Aztecs are being asked to be great twice, as March Madness is a separate season in itself.

Assuredly, the Aztecs haven’t been overly dominant this year, but they’ve been consistent and resilient. Their unblemished mark could be broken Wednesday against the Running Rebels or sometime between now and their meeting against Brigham Young. And even then, it won’t change the fact that the Aztecs have been one of college basketball’s best teams this season.

What this team will or will not do in the NCAA Tournament is irrelevant. Most certainly, a team’s failure in the Big Dance does not undo what perhaps was gained during the regular season. Some will be quick to hold San Diego State to this standard, discrediting this run if Fisher’s crew folds early in the NCAA tourney, forgetting that at this point in the season a year ago Texas was ranked No.1 with a 15-0 mark. Kentucky was ranked second, also with an undefeated record (14-0).

As most recall, neither the Longhorns nor Wildcats played for the national title. In fact, none of the top five at that point even made the Final Four. Duke, the eventual champion, was ranked eighth. It is apparent that the rankings are not a forecast of who will win the national title; what they do provide is a glance at who is playing well. And without question, San Diego State fits the bill.

Gay, who Fisher calls his most important player, admits to recognizing this accomplishment, even while still trying to build upon it.

“We do take each game one at a time, but sometimes you have to realize the situation that we are in and be able to enjoy it,” he acknowledged. “To sit down and reflect on what is going on now and know that we are in a situation a lot of people would dream of being in, you have to be appreciative of that. We take time to think about it but we know that we still have a lot of work that needs to be done.”

-          Patrick Green, DraftNasty.com staff writer, has been writing professionally for more than a decade. He is the author of two novels, Josie’s Missing Syllabus and Son Down; and while both works deal with topics beyond the athletic landscape, each exposes a social scope involving sports as an underlying theme. Green has covered high school, college, amateur, and professional football during his career, having written for newspapers in Augusta, Ga., and Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about Patrick Green, visit www.greeninkpub.com.  

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