The San Diego State men's basketball team will take the court for the first time this season when the Aztecs host Cal State San Marcos Thursday evening at Viejas Arena.
This is the first time we'll get to see SDSU in action since its loss to North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament back in March, and although it's just an exhibition, it's a valuable opportunity to catch a first glimpse at the most hyped team in school history.
Here are the story lines and specific players we'll be keeping an eye on Thursday night:
The fresh faces and young guns
J.J. O'Brien and Dwayne Polee Jr. sat out last season due to transfer rules, being limited to just practicing with the team and have been patiently waiting for the first opportunity to lace up their sneakers and hear their names called out during pre-game introductions at Viejas Arena.
With his ability to bring the ball up the floor at 6-foot-7 and defend anyone on the opposing team from the point guard to the power forward, O'Brien has been lauded by his coaches and teammates alike as the player who will surprise everyone this season. With his versatility he'll be counted on to do everything for SDSU, from running the point at times to crashing the boards and playing solid post defense. Polee -- the preseason pick for co-Mountain West Newcomer of the Year -- is a lengthy, freak athlete who will give SDSU fans plenty of highlights with his above-the-rim style and can play up-tempo and block shots. James Johnson won't be available until mid-December, but when he's available he'll be counted on heavily to provide post defense and inside scoring as the team's biggest body down low, and we'll likely see some of that in these exhibitions.
Which brings us to the three freshmen -- Winston Shepard, Skylar Spencer and Matt Shrigley -- who comprise the most heralded SDSU incoming recruiting class ever.
Shepard has been hailed as Jalen Rose 2.0. With point guard skills that belie his 6-foot-8 frame, Shepard is unselfish, can fill up a stat sheet without scoring (although he can get buckets as well) and is one of the premier defenders in the 2012 class. With Johnson out, Spencer will get thrown into the fire early in the season and get a chance to show off his shot-blocking prowess. His offensive game remains a work in progress, but head coach Steve Fisher is just expecting him to set picks on offense, finish in transition and convert easy dunks inside. Shrigley wasn't as highly-regarded as the other two freshmen coming into the season, but is a gifted scorer and has a chance to crack the rotation coming off the bench.
How many different sets of lineups will we see?
Fisher and associate head coach Brian Dutcher have already named four of the five starters for Thursday's exhibition: Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley, Jamaal Franklin and DeShawn Stephens. Our best educated guess on the fifth starter is O'Brien, but the coaches can go a number of different ways here both on Thursday and for the rest of the season.
The Aztecs could go small like they did last season and add another guard (James Rahon), or they could play big with another versatile forward (O'Brien, Shepard, Polee, etc.). SDSU's opponents will dictate the starting lineup throughout the course of the season, and Fisher said that he will likely play two different starting lineups in both exhibitions.
But things will get more interesting as the game goes on, and we'll be keeping an eye on how many different sets of lineups Fisher will trot out there onto the floor. This team could realistically have an 11-man rotation, and everybody on the roster (besides the walk-ons perhaps) will see playing time in these two exhibitions. The Aztecs could have many different combinations out on the floor together. They could go for size with O'Brien or Shepard in a point forward role and have all five players in the game 6-foot-5 or taller, and Fisher has even said that he's not afraid to have five perimeter players out on the floor as well with O'Brien, Shepard or Polee as the big men and SDSU double-teaming when the opposing team passes into the post.
Jamaal's outside shot
After Fisher initially asked Franklin to redshirt his freshman year, he ended up cracking the rotation late in the season on a 34-3 team. Then the following year, Franklin exploded onto the scene and led the Mountain West in scoring (19.5 points per game), finished third in rebounding (9.9 rebounds per game) and earned conference player of the year honors.
What does the electric junior have for an encore performance?
Answer: show the country that he's an improved perimeter player.
Franklin spent the entire offseason working on his ball-handling and developing more consistency on his outside jumper, and is anxious to show off his improved perimeter skills and that he's taken his game to the next level.
From neophyte to dynamite?
After not playing much organized basketball in high school (he even got cut from the varsity team as a senior), Fisher called DeShawn Stephens a basketball "neophyte" last season.
Neophyte: (noun). A person who is new to a subject, skill, or belief.
But now Fisher doesn't consider Stephens a neophyte at all. On the contrary, the SDSU head coach says that he is the team's best post player right now, and you can bet that for the Aztecs to have a successful season, Stephens must provide a solid post presence, especially while James Johnson is out.
We started to see Stephens emerge towards the end of last season, and Fisher counted on him more and more in March when the games really mattered. There was never any question that Stephens is a tremendous athlete and runs the floor like a gazelle, but how much has he actually improved this offseason?
We should find out a little bit of that in these two exhibitions, as well as all the things we touched on in this article.