SAN DIEGO — Expectations are high once again at San Diego State, thanks to a remarkable run to the NCAA tournament and Jalen McDaniels' decision to return for his redshirt sophomore season.
Although the Aztecs are the decided second choice behind No. 7 Nevada to win the Mountain West Conference regular-season title, they showed last year they can play well when they're focused.
.@Lindyssportsmag has the Aztecs in the 2019 NCAA tournament and highlights some of this year's players (McDaniels, Watson, N. Mensah, Chang) in its preseason magazine.— Aztec M. Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) October 24, 2018
Story: https://t.co/KRUzswcOlD#GoAztecs pic.twitter.com/2e0cuNBeWe
In mid-February, the Aztecs were 13-10 and in eighth place in the MWC. Even a berth in the NIT seemed farfetched in their first season under coach Brian Dutcher, who was promoted after Steve Fisher retired.
The Aztecs then won nine straight games, including a three-game run through the conference tournament to return to the NCAAs after two seasons away. They beat Nevada twice during that run, at home and again in the MWC tournament semis.
SDSU had a heartbreaking end to the season when senior Trey Kell couldn't knock down a 3 at the buzzer of a 67-65 loss to Houston.
"Everybody knows the bar isn't last year," senior guard Jeremy Hemsley said. "We want to go higher than that. We don't have a ceiling. We want to prove ourselves to the world, to the fans and everybody else and I think we're doing a good job of that right now."
Last night at the @SDSUFootball game, our program celebrated the 2018 Mountain West tournament championship one last time. We are excited to go after our 12th MW title this season.#GoAztecs pic.twitter.com/cQ1sXZmgfe— Aztec M. Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) October 21, 2018
The Aztecs finished 22-11. After reaching the NCAA tournament six straight seasons, SDSU was relegated to the NIT in 2016 and missed the postseason entirely in 2017, Fisher's last season.
"That nine-game win streak left a good taste in everybody's mouth, and making the NCAA Tournament," Dutcher said. "Now we've got to find a way to compete for a title against a very good conference and an outstanding Nevada team that will be clearly the preseason pick to win the conference."
While losing Kell and big man Malik Pope, the Aztecs got a huge boost when McDaniels decided to forego the NBA draft and return to SDSU. The 6-foot-10 forward had several workouts with NBA teams.
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McDaniels was SDSU's leading rebounder with 7.5 per game, and tied for third in scoring at 10.5 points.
"We're excited to have Jalen back on the roster, and not just last year's Jalen," Dutcher said. "A Jalen that's had NBA workouts, that knows he has to get better, that's worked on his game and we'll have a much improved Jalen. That's the good news."
McDaniels of Federal Way, Washington, is the older brother of highly recruited Jaden McDaniels, who has narrowed his choices to San Diego State, Washington, UCLA, Kentucky and Texas.
Even if Jaden McDaniels were to pick SDSU, it's unlikely he'd get to play with his brother because Jalen likely will turn pro if he has a good season.
While Dutcher can't talk about recruiting Jaden McDaniels, he said the Aztecs landed Jalen in part because he's related to Juwan Howard, one of the Fab Five that Dutcher helped recruit while on Michigan's staff under Fisher.
"We did a great job recruiting Jalen," Dutcher said. "He knew we wanted him, but then we had somebody in his past that he knew who cosigned us. ... Now because we recruited Jalen, we have that family feel."
"You face a lot of good athletes, and then you throw that skill in there, that’s a separator."— Brian Hamilton (@_Brian_Hamilton) October 17, 2018
Jalen McDaniels' talent is obvious, but he put off the NBA for cauliflower tots and jump shots with @GoAztecs hoops. A look inside his plan @TheAthleticCBB: https://t.co/yWRYQNPOgf pic.twitter.com/31aW2XSANJ
Jalen McDaniels returning is "big because obviously he's a great player, but I think it's big for him to show everything that he can do," Hemsley said. "Even last year people didn't get to see everything that he can do. He does stuff in practice where I'm just like, 'Wow, that's crazy.' Usually guys like him don't realize how good they are. He doesn't even realize how good he is. Everyone around him sees it."
McDaniels smiled when told that.
"I like what he said. We've just got to see. I feel like I work hard. Just being in the gym makes you more confident of yourself. I feel that takes you to a higher level," he said before adding: "I feel I'm really good."
McDaniels' main goal is to help the Aztecs get back to the NCAAs and avoid a rough start like last year.
"Us being on point early can help us get to that goal," he said.
The Aztecs are high on a freshman class that includes 6-10 forwards Joel Mensah and Nathan Mensah — who aren't related — of Ghana.