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MWC hoops preview: Aztecs have the talent to fill roster’s holes

San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball coach Brian Dutcher. (Geoff Grammer/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in an 11-part series previewing UNM men’s basketball opponents for this season. The series runs in reverse order of the Mountain West preseason media poll and concludes with a nonconference schedule preview. To see all of the capsules and previews, CLICK HERE.

There’s no denying what the Aztecs lost.

Gone from last season’s San Diego State team are multiple-year starting guard Trey Kell (10.5 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds per game last season and 112 career starts), forward Malik Pope (12.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 69 career starts), Max Montana (6.9 points) and Kameron Rooks (3.4 rebounds in just 11 minutes per game).

But what the Aztecs have returning and how it closed out the 2017-18 season have fans on Montezuma Mesa again thinking its place as one of the league’s elite will be back in firm grasp this season in the second season under head coach Brian Dutcher.

And the league’s media seem to agree, voting SDSU No. 2 in a preseason media poll that also had the Aztecs receiving the lone first-place vote that didn’t go to defending league champion and preseason national Top 10 Nevada.

After all, once healthy last season, the Aztecs won nine games in a row before losing in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. That hot streak included beating the UNM Lobos in the Mountain West tournament title game, 82-75, and twice beating Nevada (79-74 in San Diego to close the regular season and in blow-out fashion 90-73 in the MWC semifinals).

Now, what may have the league a little worried is that head coach Brian Dutcher seems to think the program is in a better place now than a season ago.

“You’re always more comfortable,” Dutcher, a longtime assistant under former head coach Steve Fisher, said of going into his second season as a head coach. “As much as you can say you’re comfortable (in your first season), you waited your turn and you saw a lot of basketball. Now I’m more comfortable with myself. I’m more comfortable dealing with the players, trying to having relationships with them now. It’s a different relationship.”

And as for all that talent and production that left, it will be missed. But the returners — especially in a pair of senior guards in Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley and a pair of sophomore forwards in Matt Mitchell and Jalen McDaniels, who some national media project as the league’s next NBA first-round draft pick — could be special.

“I’ve got two senior guards (this season), and that’s a great way to start,” Dutcher said of replacing Kell and Pope. “We have 11 guys eligible. Eight of them are freshmen or sophomores. The position it’s always good to have experience at is guard play. And with Devin and Jeremy, I’ve got two senior guards.”

Likely more important to the success of the Aztecs’ season, however, is how well Mitchell and McDaniels progress in their second season on the court (McDaniels is in his third season in the program as he redshirted in the 2016-17 season).

If you ask Watson, the fifth-year senior point guard who started his career at San Francisco, McDaniels’ development as a perimeter threat could pose a problem for the rest of the MWC as it helps open things up for everyone else on the floor.

“Just how versatile he is,” Watson said. “Last year he was in the post a lot. Now, this year, he can do everything. He just keeps getting better. The sky’s the limit.”

San Diego State Aztecs

2017-18: 22-11 (11-7 Mountain West, t4th)
2018-19 preseason poll: 2nd
Head coach: Brian Dutcher (22-11, second season at SDSU and overall)
*Starters/letterwinners returning: 3/6
vs. UNM: Jan. 15 San Diego, Calif.; Feb. 5 the Pit
*started at least 50 percent of 2017-18 games