NC State wasn't expected to reach the NCAA Tournament in the preseason, but like its first-round opponent Friday, the Wolfpack exceeded expectations.
No. 11-seed NC State plays against No. 6 seed San Diego State at 12:40 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio, with the winner playing the Georgetown/Belmont winner Sunday.
San Diego State enjoyed the best season in school history and won its first NCAA Tournament game last year in going 34-3 and reaching the Sweet 16. The Aztecs lost 74-67 to eventual national champion Connecticut, and a rebuilding job was expected to ensue for veteran coach Steve Fisher, who previously guided Michigan to the 1989 national championship and a pair of runner-up finishes.
Seniors Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and D.J. Gay moved on, and standout sophomore Kawhi Leonard entered the NBA Draft and went No. 15 overall to the Indiana Pacers, who traded him to the San Antonio Spurs.
Junior shooting guard Chase Tapley was the only returning starter and the Aztecs were starting anew. Hall of fame college basketball writer Frank Burlison (@FrankieBur), who is also the dean of West Coast recruiting, said NC State is basically be playing a brand new squad this season.
"When you look at their team, you'll see kind of unorthodox sizes," Burlison said. "They fall in line with more mid-major type schools instead of having the traditional 6-10 center, 6-8 power forward, 6-5, shooting guard and 6-3 point guard.
"They have guys that weren't particularly heavily recruited but are good solid players, and who fit well of the structure of the way Steve Fisher coaches."
Several new players have emerged in leading San Diego State to a tie for first place with New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference, and a runner-up finish to the Lobos in the conference tournament.
Sophomore forward Jamaal Franklin has been the centerpiece of the reloading job. The 6-foot-5, 195-pounder won Mountain West Conference player of the year after leading the league with 17.2 points to go along with 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He scored a season-high 35 at Texas Christian on March 3 and has developed his three-point shooting to become an inside-outside force.
Franklin has 12 double-doubles and shoots 31.8 percent from beyond the arc. The former prep sleeper picked San Diego State over Long Beach State out of high school.
"Franklin was a sub on last year's team, and he's 6-5 and a great athlete," Burlison said. "He does a whole for them. He's kind of an undersized four that plays out on the perimeter. He's a very good player.
"In my mind, one of the great individual second-round matchups people will see is Jamaal Franklin probably going against [sophomore power forward] C.J. Leslie of NC State most of the time. They are both world-class NBA level athletes, but not traditional sized for the position."
Tapley averaged 8.6 points per game last year, but has improved to 15.7 this season. The 6-3, 195-pounder is shooting 43.3 percent from beyond the arc and hit a season-high 8 of 10 on three-pointers en route to 28 points in a 77-67 loss to Baylor on Nov. 15.
Tapley has scored at least 20 points in nine games, and had five three-pointers and 25 points against New Mexico on the Mountain West Conference title game March 10. He earned second-team all-MWC honors.
"He is a great catch and shoot guy," Burlison said.
Tapley and redshirt sophomore point guard Xavier Thames, a Washington State transfer, are both from Sacramento. The 6-3, 195-pound Thames averaged 10.3 points and 4.2 assists per game in his first season for the Aztecs. He is also is a great free-throw shooter, averaging 83.3 percent overall and 90.7 in league games.
Thames scored a season-high 22 at New Mexico on Jan. 18 in SDSU's lone victory against the Lobos in three tries. He struggled in the MWC title game, going 1 of 6 from the field for four points and added four assists.
"Thames played a good amount of time at Washington State and was a Tony Bennett recruit, but left after one year [after Bennett left for Virginia]," Burlison said. "He has evolved into being a very solid point guard for Steve Fisher.
"I think they'll try and take away [NCSU sophomore point guard] Lorenzo Brown's ability to initiate the offense."
Redshirt junior wing James Rahon transferred in after a successful first year at Santa Clara. The 6-5, 210-pound three-point shooter averages 8.8 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and is averaging 32.5 percent from beyond the arc this season. He shot 43.4 percent from three-point land last year off the bench for the Aztecs.
Rahon had a season-high 22 points in a 69-67 home win over UNLV on Jan. 14, and has reached double figures in 12 games.
San Diego State rotates three guys at center, or if Franklin needs some rest at power forward. Senior Tim Shelton has battled knee issues, but was first-team all-defense in the Mountain West Conference. The 6-7, 240-pounder averaged 5.3 points and 4.7 points per game.
LSU transfer Garrett Green took advantage of graduating early and transferring to SDSU, and not having to sit out a year. The 6-11, 240-pounder started 17 games and averaged 6.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He started 15 of the first 16 games during the non-conference schedule, but only twice in Mountain West action.
Junior college transfer DeShawn Stephens is a skinny 6-8, 215-pound jumping jack that averaged 5.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest off the bench.
Sophomore guard LaBradford Franklin, no relation to Jamaal Franklin, is the first backcourt sub off the bench. The 6-2, 175-pounder averaged 2.9 points and 1.7 assists in 12.3 minutes per game, and is the quickest guard on the roster.
Fisher has done an incredible job in reviving San Diego State, which had never won an NCAA Tournament game until last season. Outside of producing Michael Cage as a first-round draft pick in 1984, and having future baseball hall of famer Tony Gwynn play point guard, the Aztecs weren't known for much on the hardwood during the 1980s and 1990s.
Fisher went 5-23 his first season in 1999-2000, but built SDSU into a NCAA Tournament team by his third year in 2002. The Aztecs have reached the NCAA Tournament five times and the NIT four times since Fisher took over.
"His peers respect him a lot more as a coach than people who just remember him for the talent he had at Michigan," Burlison said. "He is a very good veteran coach and well respected."
Fisher has done a good job of hiring quality assistant coaches, including current New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies and UNLV assistant coach Justin Hutson.
SDSU head coach in waiting Brian Dutcher, who has been with Fisher since 1989. Tony Bland started off at Syracuse during his playing career and then transferred back to his home state to play for Fisher, and Fisher's son, Mark Fisher, round out the staff.
"It's a staff that is very cohesive, and you have Dutcher, who has a great relationship with Fisher," Burlison said.
The current Aztecs have three current players — Thames, Green and Rahon — that transferred in from four-year colleges. Three more players are on the way for next year in what could be a banner season for San Diego State — forward Dwayne Polee Jr. (St. John's), forward JJ O'Brien (Utah) and power forward/center James Johnson (Virginia). All three will be redshirt sophomores next year.