T-Birds Take On No. 23/24 San Diego State

December 16, 2013
By SUU Strategic Communication
Freshman wing Juwan Major
Freshman wing Juwan Major
Courtesy: SUU Strategic Communications

Southern Utah’s men’s basketball closes out 2013 and its’ 2013-14 non-conference schedule this week when the Thunderbirds travel to San Diego, Calif., for a two-game swing. The Thunderbirds face No. 23/24 San Diego State on Wednesday evening and the University of San Diego on Saturday afternoon.

SUU (1-6/0-0 Big Sky) is coming off a 73-51 home defeat at the hands of UNLV. Since opening the season with an 85-78 home win over Arizona Christian, the young Thunderbirds have been unable to break back into the winning column.

San Diego State (7-1/0-0 Mountain West) has been off since posting a 70-63 home win over Washington on Dec. 8. The Aztecs – who are ranked 24th in the USA Today Coaches Poll and 25th in the Associated Press Poll – have won six in a row since suffering a 69-60 setback at top-ranked Arizona on Nov. 14.

The Game:Southern Utah (1-6/0-0) at No. 24/25 San Diego State (7-1), Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. (PST), Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl (12,414).

Practice Schedule:While at home the Thunderbirds work out daily, beginning at 3:00 p.m. Practices are held in the Centrum Arena. All practices are open to the public.

Media Availability:Players and coaches are made available for interviews on Tuesdays prior to practice at 2:30 p.m., with occasional adjustments because of travel and class schedules.

Radio: All SUU men’s basketball games are broadcast live by Power 91 KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at www.power91radio.com. Art Challis is in his 40th season as the Thunderbirds’ basketball play-by-play voice. Dr. Challis is joined on home and selected road broadcasts by former SUU standout Dean O’Driscoll.

On The Internet:All of Southern Utah’s home games and Big Sky road games will be available on Watch Big Sky, at www.bigskytv.org. Audio of SUU home and road games is available at the Thunderbirds’ website at www.suutbirds.com or at www.power91radio.com.

Live Stats:Live stats of all of SUU’s home games and selected road contests will be available at www.suutbirds.com.

Video Highlights:Video highlights of the Thunderbirds’ home games will be available to accredited media outlets via SUU’s FTP site. For information on obtaining those highlights contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner.

The Series:The two teams have met four times in the past and split the four match-ups, 2-2. SUU, which is 1-2 in San Diego, came out on top of the first two meetings, taking a 104-82 win in Cedar City and an 87-78 win in San Diego during the 1991-92 season, but the Aztecs claimed the last two, both at home, a 70-69 win in 1993 and a 70-37 victory in 2011.

The Coaches

SUU  Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005), a 2013 finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award which honors the top first-year coach in the nation, has a record of 12-26 in his second season at SUU and his second season overall as a head coach. In his first year at SUU Coach Robinson led the Thunderbirds to a sixth-place finish in the Big Sky Conference, earning a BSC tournament berth in the school’s first season in the league. SUU posted an 11-20 overall record, including an 8-12 mark in Big Sky games last year, when two Thunderbirds, seniors Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, earned all-conference honors.  Coach Robinson came to Southern Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons on the staff. Prior to his time at LSU, Robinson spent a season at William Jewell College and two on the staff at his alma mater, Stanford. During his time as an assistant coach, Robinson helped guide his teams to a combined record of 87-47 and four post-season appearances, including two NCAA, one NIT and one NAIA Division I national tournaments. Coach Robinson is 0-0 vs. the Aztecs.

Robinson is assisted by Todd Okeson (Nevada, 2005), Drew Allen (Southern Utah, 2010) and Chad Bell (Nevada, 2006). Yahosh Bonner (Northern Colorado, 2010) serves as Director of Basketball Operations. Okeson and Allen were with the Thunderbirds last season while Bell and Bonner are in their first seasons with the program.

Aztec Coach Steve Fisher (Illinois State, 1967) is 288-172 in his 15th season at San Diego State and 472-254 in his 23rd season as a head coach overall. Prior to taking over at SDSU Fisher spent eight seasons as head coach at Michigan, where he guided the Wolverines to a national championship in 1989. Coach Fisher is 1-0 vs. the Thunderbirds.

Affiliations: Southern Utah is in its second season as a member of the Big Sky Conference. San Diego State is a member of the Mountain West Conference.

Captains:This year’s captains are seniors Jayson Cheesman and Jaren Jeffery and junior Chris Nsenki.

Pre-Conference Schedule:The Thunderbirds will have played nine official games when they open Big Sky play on Jan. 2 at North Dakota, but the non-conference schedule has been heavy with road contests as the team scheduled just three official games in the Centrum before the conference opener.

SUU  So Far:The Thunderbirds are averaging 59 points per game on 35.5 percent shooting (.284 threes) while knocking down 74 percent of their free throws. SUU has allowed opponents an average of 80 points on .478 shooting (.380 threes) and has been out-rebounded by an average of 41.9-29.7 through the first seven games. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy leads the team in scoring at 12 points per game, with sophomore wing A.J. Hess second at 7.9 ppg and freshman wing Juwan Major contributing 7.6 ppg. Sophomore forward Casey Oliverson leads the team in rebounding with 5.0 per game while senior forward Jaren Jeffery is second on the squad with 3.6 caroms per game. Kennedy also leads the ‘Birds with 2.7 assists while freshman guard John Marshall averages 2.4 dimes and a team-high 1.14 steals per game, and senior Jayson Cheesman averages a team-best 1.3 blocks per outing.

About the Aztecs:

San Diego State has won six straight games and at 7-1 has equalled the third-best start in the program’s Division I era. The Aztecs are 2-1 against nationally-ranked teams this season, having defeated then-No. 20/18 Creighton (86-80) and then-No. 25/RV Marquette (67-59) and losing to then No. 6/5 Arizona (69-60).

Three Aztecs carry double-figure scoring averages, let by senior guard Xavier Thames’ (6-3, 195) 17.6 ppg. Sophomore forward Winston Shepard (6-8, 205) averages 11.8 ppg and 4.5 rebounds, while junior forward J.J. O’Brien (6-7, 220) adds 10.6 ppg and 5.4 boards. Senior forward Josh Davis (6-7, 215) leads the team with 9.5 rebounds per game while chipping in 8.1 points per contest. Sophomore Skylar Spencer has made his presence known on the defensive end with 19 blocks, including at least one in 12 straight games.

As a team the Aztecs average 73.8 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting (.422 threes) while allowing opponents 58.6 ppg and limiting them to 37.8 percent shooting (32.8 threes). SDSU has knocked down 68.5 percent of its free throws and has out-rebounded its opponents by an average of 38.8-to-33.2 caroms per game.

Thunderbird Notes:

• Southern Utah has five true freshmen (not including walk-ons) on the roster and all five have played in every game. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy has started every game while wing Juwan Major has started four games. The others had come off the bench in each contest until John Marshall and McKay Anderson started alongside Kennedy and Major at Cal State Northridge. Marshall was back in the starting lineup vs. UNLV.
Casey Oliverson also got his first start at Northridge and the sophomore forward responded by scoring a season-best 10 points and pulling down eight rebounds, his second-highest total. Oliverson hit five of the seven shots he took and had four offensive rebounds against the Matadors. He started again vs. UNLV and scored six points with two rebounds and an assist before being knocked out of the game with a cut above his eye after 18 minutes on the court.
• Senior forward Jaren Jeffery was back in the starting lineup vs. UNLV after coming off the bench the previous two games. He responded with season-highs of 10 points and two blocks in 21 minutes.
• Kennedy hit 6-of-12 shots en route to a season-high 17 points at Northridge.
• Marshall came off the bench to dish out a team season-high eight assists at Portland. In the “stating the incredibly obvious” category, the total was also a career-high for Marshall.
• Kennedy has led or co-led the Thunderbirds in minutes played in all but one game. He logged a game-high 32 minutes vs. UNLV.
• The Thunderbirds combined to block a season-high seven shots at Portland. Jayson Cheesman, Cal Hanks and Oliverson each tallied two rejections while Major had another.
Jayson Cheesman leads the team with nine blocked shots. After going without one in the opener he has blocked at least one shot in each subsequent game, with two at Utah State, two more at Cal, another vs. UC Riverside, two at Portland and one both at Northridge and vs. UNLV. He now has 69 in his career. His block vs. UNLV broke a tie with Tarvish Felton (1996-98) to put him all alone in fourth place on the SUU career list. He now needs 16 to tie Felton’s teammate Kenyatta Clyde (1997-99) in third place with 85. Junior center Cal Hanks blocked a shot in each of the first two games and had two more at Portland, giving him 40 in his career, the 10th-best total at SUU; he is five behind Richard Barton’s (1990-93) 45.
• Until going without a rejection vs. UNLV Oliverson had blocked six shots in three straight games. He blocked his first shot as a Thunderbird vs. UC Riverside and finished with three in that game, had a pair at Portland and one more at Northridge. He is second on the team’s blocks list with six.
• Jeffery and sophomore wing A.J. Hess both had season-high rebounding efforts vs. UC Riverside. Jeffery pulled down eight boards while Hess reeled in seven, one shy of his career-high.
• Kennedy and junior guard Chris Nsenki both had career scoring highs vs. UC Riverside, with Kennedy leading the team with a career-best 15 points and Nsenki tying his career-high with 10. Nsenki also tied his career-best with three rebounds vs. the Highlanders.
• SUU had 16 offensive rebounds at Cal. The team had 16 or more offensive boards just four times last year, 17 twice and 18 twice.