Yes, San Diego State men’s basketball has come a long way. It has, indeed, been nearly a quarter of a century since Steve Fisher arrived at the school, a former national championship coach at Michigan taking on the challenge of a program that had one winning season in 15 years.
The season before Fisher and right-hand man Brian Dutcher arrived, 1998-99, the Aztecs had won four games and averaged 3,136 spectators per game with Fred Trenkle in charge. Fisher’s first season, the Aztecs were 5-23, and he’d walk around campus with a fistful of tickets, asking – pleading with? – students to come to the games in the beautiful on-campus arena.
But here’s the thing: San Diego State basketball has long since gotten past the “coming out of nowhere” stage, even if much of the public outside of its own city hadn’t noticed. And reaching the Final Four, which the Aztecs did by beating Creighton, 57-56, on Sunday, was a first for the school but far from the first time they’ve had the opportunity.
Try the spring of 2011, Kawhi Leonard’s final season as an Aztec before turning pro. San Diego State was 34-3 that year, and the season ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut at Honda Center in a game that might have turned on a second-half technical foul, when UConn’s Kemba Walker and San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin bumped on the way back to their respective benches and – well, let’s just say Walker did a little embellishing.
“I think he (flopped) a little bit,” Franklin said that night. “But that’s part of the game.”
Franklin was assessed the T, UConn responded with a 16-2 run and went ahead to stay, and the Aztecs went home, 74-67.
Then in the spring of 2014, San Diego State took a 31-4 record and a No. 4 seed into the Sweet 16, again in Anaheim. That time Arizona sent the Aztecs home, 70-64.
And 2020 might have been as painful as any near miss because of the what-could-have-beens. Dutcher, who succeeded Fisher in 2017, had San Diego State 30-2 and ranked sixth, and along with Dayton (29-2 and No. 3 in the AP poll) the Aztecs were considered a trendy pick to wreck lots of brackets and maybe take it to the final weekend. But after SDSU won the Mountain West Conference tournament, played a week earlier than usual, COVID-19 ended everyone’s season before brackets could even be unveiled.
“I didn’t play that much throughout the year,” forward Nathan Mensah, one of four players left from that team, told reporters during the Aztecs’ availability Saturday in Louisville. “I could only play 10 games, and I was hoping to get back on track and play (in the) NCAA tournament for the seniors. I feel like now we are here to represent them also and (that) they feel proud about what we have accomplished and what we are capable of doing in this tournament.”
These Aztecs are 31-6 and champions of a Mountain West Conference that received four tournament bids. They were 14th in the final NET rankings, and are 14th in the kenpom.com computer formula (and fourth nationally in defensive efficiency). They’re experienced (eight seniors, including three transfers), and they’re winning without stars. One player scores in double figures, 6-foot-4 Matt Bradley at 12.5, and seven others score 6.1 or more per game. Ten players average double-figure minutes.
“I tell them, if you are fortunate enough to play at the next level in the NBA, guess what? You’re going to be asked to come off the bench and make your first shot,’” Dutcher said. “If you can’t do that, you won’t play in the league very long. You have to embrace whatever role you play in. I’ve got a group that’s been able to do that.”
It’s not a sexy team, but it’s one with a chip on its shoulder that will force you to pay attention to it, and one that will defend you with extreme physicality. Case in point: The Aztecs held Alabama star Brandon Miller to 3-for-19 shooting, and 1 for 10 from the 3-point line, in eliminating the top-seeded Crimson Tide, 71-64, on Friday.
“They were good looks for him, I guess,” Bradley noted afterward. “But for us, they’re also good looks due to how we were guarding him. We just cause teams to take tough shots, and (with) our physicality, we just wear teams down with that and our depth.”
If there is ever a year to be a surprise team in the Final Four, this is it. The Aztecs get No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic in Saturday’s national semifinal in Houston, and if they get past that game they’ll be playing either a No. 4 (UConn) or a No. 5 (Miami) for the championship Monday night.
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To most of us, a Final Four without ones or twos or threes just sounds weird, but as Dutcher noted in Louisville, “We recruit and we say our goal is to win a national championship, so we can’t act surprised when we have an opportunity to advance to the Final Four.”
The irony here? The attention the Aztecs receive is limited because they’re in the Mountain West, but getting to the big stage could be a step toward getting them into the Pac-12. The departures of UCLA and USC have created openings, and SDSU’s location and athletic profile seem to have placed it first in line should the conference expand.
“I always thought the Pac-12 would not ask us in with UCLA and USC because they would put us on equal footing, and we would be too great a competitor to let in,” Dutcher said Saturday. “So now that they’re gone and Southern California has a really good team sitting in San Diego. I would think we would be desirable for the Pac-12, the Big 12, a lot of conferences.”
When you have an opportunity, you’ve got to run with it.