Mountain West Conference preview: San Diego State University

One of the most memorable runs in the 2010 NCAA Tournament was San Diego State’s appearance in the Sweet 16, before they fell to powerhouse Duke. They were fiesty, determined and inspired. So it was no surprise that the Aztecs roared back last year.

They were undefeated in the Mountain West Conference, and won the MWC title. They only lost one game at home and were 25-7 overall. And they lead LSU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for most of the game, before succumbing by eight points.

Coach Beth Burns was not entirely dissatisfied, as the team had seven new players and had gone through an adjustment period.

This year SDSU is chomping at the bit, but they are dealing with a few injury setbacks first.

Three starters are back, including the two top scorers: senior guard Courtney Clements (17.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg), senior point guard Chelsea Hopkins (10.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.5 apg), and senior center Malia Nahinu (6.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

Junior guard Kiyana Stamps (8 ppg, 3.1 rpg) is on medical leave, but hopes to return in 5-6 weeks. Sophomore forward Dezi Culberson, a key rebounder for the Aztecs, will be out at least three more weeks with a knee injury. Burns is philosophical about the preseason setbacks.

“All teams will have injuries,” she said. “They will be huge adds for us when they get healthy.”

Burns said it was the development of Hopkins, a transfer from Duke, that keyed the Aztecs’ transformation last season, followed closely by the Clements effect.

“As a redshirt junior, Chelsea had practiced with us for a year and knew exactly what we needed to do to get our talented, but very inexperienced freshman, on the right page,” Burns said.

“Courtney totally committed herself to being the fittest player in the MWC, and adding fitness to her skill set changed her game. She was relentless on the track, and in the weight room. She took thousands of shots. How to get good isn’t a secret.”

Their leadership helped spur the performance of the entire squad.

“As a team, we did three things consistently well: Offensive rebounds, at 18+ per game, 74 percent free throw shooting, and we averaged less than 14 turnovers a game,” Burns said. “Chelsea’s assist-to-turnover ratio was fourth in the nation.”

The key to success for this year’s team, however, may lie in the younger players.

“The development of sophomores Erimma Amarikwa, Ahjalee Harvey, Khristina Hunter, redshirt freshman DeAjanae Scurry will be the difference in our team,” Burns said. “It’s the youngsters that will have to help us take the next step.”

Newcomer Danesha Long – a Midland College (Juco) transfer guard – will also be a factor, Burns promised.

The veteran coach, who enters her 15th season this year, said the goal every day is to get better. And she said the Aztecs have almost solidified an identity.

“We’re almost there,” Burns said.

One psychological boost came during SDSU’s “midnight madness” a few weeks ago, when Scurry dunked on an assist from Harvey in front of 8,000 fans. Burns said it was fun for the entire team.

The Aztecs take on UCLA, Auburn and Washington in preconference play, and they host a tournament the last week of the year that will feature Harvard, Oklahoma State and SMU.