The warm-ups were spread across the two courts and eight baskets at the Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, and now San Diego State basketball coach Steve Fisher had gathered his players for the first drill of the first preseason practice.
It was a fast-break drill.
“We’re going to this every day,” Fisher told them.
One of the great misconceptions about the Aztecs is that, as opposing coaches and players regularly say, “they like to get out and run.” There is some truth to that; they do “like” to run. But they have struggled to actually do it in recent seasons, and the tempo statistics – measured as average number of possessions per 40 minutes – are a sobering reminder.
According to metrics compiled by respected college basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy, SDSU ranked 313th out of 351 Division I teams last season at 66.1 possessions per game. The season before, they were 333rd. The season before that, 300th.
Their average possession length last season was 18 seconds, 254th nationally. They were in the 200s for the previous two seasons as well.
This doesn’t mean Fisher and the Aztecs are going to race up and down the floor this season with a magical wave of the hand. It does mean, however, they’re going to try.
“Obviously, our offensive efficiency hasn’t come close to matching our defense,” associate head coach Brian Dutcher said. “So we’re trying to find ways to get easier baskets, to play at a quicker pace maybe, allow us to get more opportunities to score. We’re trying to increase our pace just a little bit.
“There’s theory and there’s reality. In theory, we’d like to get the ball up a little faster, get into some early offense, maybe not run quite as many early set plays, maybe have a little better flow offensively. We’ll see what happens.”
There are caveats. SDSU’s problem on offense is not necessarily that it doesn’t play fast enough but that it isn’t efficient enough. Only twice in the last decade have the Aztecs been in the top 70 nationally in Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency metric, measured as average points per 100 possessions (and adjusted for strength of opponent).
And more possessions don’t always translate to more points, or wins. Only one the top 30 teams last season in tempo made the NCAA Tournament (the Horizon League’s Green Bay), and Oklahoma at 93rd was the best that reached the Sweet 16.
Or take The Citadel. With Coach Dugggar Baucom’s “loot and shoot” system, the Bulldogs ranked first nationally in possessions last season but were 201st in offensive efficiency and finished 10-22.
The record for shortest average possession in the seven years Pomeroy has tracked it is 13.0 seconds in 2009-10 by Virginia Military Institute, also was coached by Baucom. VMI went 10-19 that season.
The more telling number is offensive efficiency. Thirteen of last season’s Sweet 16 teams ranked in the top 25 nationally. The Elite Eight teams looked like this: first, third, eighth, ninth, 10th, 13th, 16th and 50th.
SDSU was 170th and 164th the last two seasons.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to score 100, because our defense is never going to let the other team score that much and they’re going to run more clock,” Dutcher said. “We’re going to have fewer possessions than most teams. So we have to find a way to get better efficiency. Hopefully pushing the pace a little bit more will allow maybe a more athletic team to get more opportunities to score.”
The idea is to bump their offensive efficiency ranking into double instead of triple digits, which when combined with their top 10 defense might be enough to take that elusive next step. SDSU’s best team in school history, the 34-3 outfit of 2010-11, was ranked second nationally in defense and 27th in offense. Last season: fourth and 170th.
Last season: They scored in the 40s or 50s nine times (and lost seven of them).
“Last year we’d have patches where we didn’t score for four or five minutes,” junior guard Trey Kell said. “We’re trying to get rid of that.”
The trick, of course, is figuring out how. And in a weird way, the Aztecs have become their own worst enemy, the classic victim of their success.
This is a program built on defense, and typically Fisher’s staff spends the majority of its early practices installing the half-dozen variations of its extended pressure and encouraging its players to pick up full-court after made baskets.
“Ninety percent of the teams we play, we can get it out (of the basket) and push it up quickly,” Dutcher said. “But you play how you practice. And in practice, we’d pick up full-court on a made basket. We couldn’t get it inbounds in practice and just race it up the floor. We were trying to practice something that in reality, when we play ourselves live, we don’t get an opportunity to do.
“So we have to find a way to practice that without taking away from our defense.”
The tweak is waiting to implement the entire defensive package and allowing the offense to inbound quickly off made baskets. SDSU has always tried to run off opponent misses, but the next level – the Holy Grail – of uptempo offense is running off makes.
And they’re not the same animal. The former is less structured, more jail break. The latter involves defined roles and positions – the 4-man inbounding, the point guard dribbling up the floor, the 5-man sprinting to the low block, the wings getting wide. Then there are various triggers based on where the ball goes: a double screen, a flare, pick and roll, a post touch. (BYU is best at it.)
It also helps that the Aztecs no longer are starting a true freshman point guard in Jeremy Hemsley, or that they replaced departed seniors with faster, more athletic players.
They’ve got the horses. Why not let ’em run?
“On offense, I think we’ll be faster and I think we’ll definitely score more points,” Hemsley said. “We have a lot of scorers this year. I don’t think there will be many low-scoring games for us this year.”
Added senior Dakarai Allen: “We always have that Aztec energy on the defensive end, but I feel like the offensive end is really where we’re going to make our impact. We’re going to outscore people this year as well as shut people down. Our offense this year has way more pace, and a lot of guys have more confidence because they’ve been in the system a year or two.
“We’ve really been scoring, getting out on the break. We just have to translate that to the game now.”
Theory, and reality. We’ll see what happens.