25 Most Intriguing Teams for 2010-2011: #18 San Diego State Aztecs

A traditional pre-season top 25? They’re fairly ubiquitous this time of year. Everyone has one, but from Duke to Mississippi Valley State and in between, there’s a lot of intriguing teams for the upcoming college basketball season.

In ascending order of squads that pique our interest, our list consists of teams with a rare chance to make noise, have a lot to prove, quirky schedules, or are just named Kentucky.

Follow along. Story lines aren’t just for the nation’s elite.

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With key players returning on a team that won 25 games and reached the NCAA Tournament, it's no surprise that expectations are admirably high for San Diego State basketball heading into the year. But if veteran head coach Steve Fisher has any say in the matter (and we think he does), then his team will take the necessary steps to avoid getting caught up in their own hype.

Upon hearing that his squad was picked to win the Mountain West Conference at the league's media day, the 65-year old coach tried to keep his guys in check: "We didn’t think we were going to sneak up on anybody anyway. But talking about it and doing it are two different things. I hope in March we are what they say we are."

It makes sense. Especially because Fisher, of all people, knows how a situation can go from ideal to tumultuous in a very short amount of time. His tenure at the University of Michigan (from 1988-1997) epitomized this, and today that part of his career reads like a Hollywood marriage gone terribly wrong. The ensuing scandal severely damaged his perception as a coach, but his ability to win basketball games remained intact.

So with virtually the entire roster back for another shot at greatness, the Aztecs deserve all of the same praise their coach is so hesitant to buy into. The desire to succeed is pushing Fisher to reclaim his spot atop college basketball for a second time, but Father Time seems to be pushing in the opposite direction. Nobody knows how much longer Fisher plans to coach this team. Though you hate to say it, he really doesn't give the impression that he has very many years left on the bench. We also know that opportunities like this don't come around everyday. San Diego State's time in the spotlight begins now...

What happened this summer?
Two newcomers (freshman LaBradford Franklin and Washington State transfer Xavier Thomas) were added. Tyrone Shelley, a 6'6" guard who started eight games last year, left the program and transferred to Georgetown Baptist College. The lovable Dickie Vitale heaped some praise.

Games that really matter

  • 11/16 @ Gonzaga
  • 12/8 @ California
  • 1/12 vs. UNLV
  • 1/15 @ New Mexico
  • 1/26 @ BYU
  • 2/2 @ Colorado State
  • 2/12 @ UNLV
  • 2/16 vs. New Mexico
  • 2/26 vs. BYU

Most intriguing player
Kawhi Leonard (6’7" forward; sophomore) – Originally rated the 25th best small forward in the '09 freshman class by Scout.com (that number has since been changed to 16th), Leonard came to the Aztecs and immediately earned a starting role. And with the opportunity to succeed right away, it didn't take the versatile rookie very long to prove how grossly underrated he was by every recruiting publication in the business. By season's end, Leonard emerged as the go-to player on a top-40 program that reached the NCAA Tournament. He also led SDSU in both scoring (12.7) and rebounding (9.9), and was one of only four freshman from last season to make that claim. Clearly NBA scouts are watching this kid like a hawk. With a year under his belt, look for this double-double machine to emerge as one of the most highly touted players in ALL of college hoops.

What’s on the line?
A sixth straight 20-win campaign. Leonard is the type of player that could stick around and bring SDSU to another level if he keeps improving, but their window for national success really hinges on the senior core of D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. All three are returning starters, and each guy brings something significant to the table on a nightly basis. Gay, the unquestioned leader, is a scrappy point guard who never wants to leave the floor. Thomas (6'9") and White (6'8") are the big bodies on the inside who can score, rebound and block shots with regularity. All three exist in a way that still allows Leonard to develop into the star we know he can be. With that said, all three will be sorely missed when they graduate this spring. 

Projected finish
New Mexico did a nice job blazing a trail for prospective MWC schools to follow. The Lobos, who were dominant throughout most of 2009-10, lost in the semis of the conference tourney (to SDSU) and were still handed a No. 3 seed by the selection committee. And with a majority of its high-profile players back, the MWC could be even more highly regarded than it was last year. That fact plays right into San Diego State's hands. The Aztecs bring a wealth of talent and experience to the table, and there's no reason why they won't be in the thick of the conference race all season long. For a team that spent wallowing on the bubble for most of last year, SDSU could have a bid locked up by March 1st in 2011.   

    -  Conference: 2nd
    -  Postseason: NCAA second round

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