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Top 25 Countdown: No. 11 San Diego State Aztecs

Oct 19, 2012, 12:00 PM EST

NCAA Basketball Tournament - North Carolina State v San Diego State Getty Images

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-8, 10-4 Mountain West (t-1st); Lost to NC State in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Key Losses: Garrett Green, Tim Shelton

Newcomers: Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee II, JJ O’Brien, James Johnson, Matt Shrigley, Skylar Spencer

Projected Lineup:

- G: Xavier Thames, Jr.
G: Chase Tapley, Jr.
F: Jamaal Franklin, Jr.
F: Winston Shepard, Fr.
C: DeShawn Stephens, Sr.
Bench: James Rahon, Sr.; Dwayne Polee II, So.; JJ O’Brien, So.; James Johnson, Jr.; Matt Shrigley, Fr.

Outlook: To get a feel for where the Aztec program is right now, think about this: after losing their top four players from the 2010-2011 season — including Kawhi Leonard — SDSU was in full-on, rebuilding year mode heading last season. But the Aztecs won 26 games and took home a share of the Mountain West title, watching as Jamaal Franklin went from a seldom-used bench piece to a starter early in the season to the MWC Player of the Year by the end of the year, racking up averages of 19.5 points and 9.9 boards in league play.

The Aztecs, who prior to 2011 had never won an NCAA tournament game, were knocked off in the opening round of the tournament by No. 11 seed NC State, and instead of enjoying their third straight — and fifth-ever — trip to the Big Dance, the Aztec faithful were upset about getting upset. That should tell you something about the expectations this team has heading into this season, as an influx of talented transfers and a crop of quality freshmen has the Aztecs sitting pretty as arguably the best team on the west coast.

For Fisher’s club, everything starts out on the perimeter, and Franklin’s name is the one to know. It took him a while to break into the starting lineup a year ago, but over the last couple of months of the season, he looked like an all-american. If Franklin had scored seven more points and grabbed just one more rebound in the 13 conference games he played, the 6-foot-5 wing would have averaged 20 and 10. There are two areas that Franklin needs to improve upon: he turns the ball over far too often, and he settles for too many three-pointers. But when he’s putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim, he’s one of the best players in the country.

And he’s far from alone in SDSU’s back court, a junior Xavier Thames and seniors James Rahon and Chase Tapley make-up SDSU’s four-guard attack. Tapley is the leader in this group. He’s SDSU’s best shooter and the guy that often has the ball in his hands in crunch-time. He can do a little bit of everything on the floor and has been through the battles — barring a disaster this year, he’ll be the first player in program history to play in four NCAA tournaments. Thames is SDSU’s play-maker, and his ability to get out and run the floor is one of the reasons SDSU will be looking to push the pace this season. Rahon is a sharp-shooter, but he struggled with his consistency last year, making just 32% from distance.

The front court is where things get interesting for SDSU. Garrett Green graduates, but Deshawn Stephens returns for his senior season to provide Fisher with some bulk inside. He’ll be joined by James Johnson, a former top 100 recruit and a transfer from Virginia, in December. Neither Stephens nor Johnson are particularly promising, but at some point size becomes a necessity.

The three other newcomers along the front line are the ones that have increased the level of hype surrounding this group. We’ll start with Winston Shepard, who is an athletic, 6-foot-8 small forward known for his versatility and playmaking ability. He’s a consensus top 50 recruit that has been labeled s five-star prospect by some outlets, and he should have an immediate and significant impact this year.

He’ll be joined by two sophomore transfers in Dwayne Polee II and JJ O’Brien. Polee is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-7 string bean that had a promising freshman season on the St. John’s team that made the tournament with a roster full of seniors. O’Brien, like Polee, is more of a wing forward than he is an interior presence, but he’s quality player that came on strong late in his one season at Utah.

Predictions?: The Mountain West is loaded this season, and given the strength that a number of the programs have historically had in their home venues, it’s easy to picture a scenario where the league’s champ ends up with four or five conference losses again. I peg SDSU as the favorite. They have the best player in the league in Franklin and the perfect roster makeup to become a team that plays a faster, more-uptempo pace.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.