In Defense of San Diego State Basketball

There's a lot of things we can be sure of in college basketball.

Duke will stay at the top of the AP 25 for most of conference play this spring, more people will be talking about Connecticut's congressional races than about its women's basketball team, and a No. 12 seed will upset a No. 5 in the first round of the tournament. But this winter, one team has stood out as a contender. One team has stood out as a squad who will go deeper in the tournament than many will give them credit for. One team will score a couple of upsets and progress further than its university ever has in the postseason.

And that team is San Diego State.

Never mind that San Diego State, which has five seniors listed on its roster, is playing at the highest level of its school's history. Or the fact that the Aztecs have gone undefeated in non-conference play, a feat which has never been done. Those things are impressive, but they aren't why San Diego State will, in my opinion, rock and roll its way into the Final Four. The reason San Diego State's basketball program is firing on all cylinders wears glasses because he's nearsighted, was born in Herring, Illinois and will turn 66 this year.

From the beginning, Steve Fisher, the head coach of the San Diego State men's basketball team, has taken this program to heights it never thought possible. When he started in 1999, he was taking over a program that hadn't seen the NCAA tournament in 17 years. It had only one winning season since the Reagan administration and even in his first year, the Aztecs only mustered five wins. It was a bad program Fisher inherited, but his skills as a coach shined through.

Fisher has quietly turned that around in the last decade. He's triumphed through five straight winning seasons and reached the NIT semifinals in 2009. His Aztecs have never made it past the opening round in the NCAA tournament, but that's because they are continually snubbed by the selection committee, always garnering just a high enough reputation to be a part of the postseason, but just a low enough seed to get shell-shocked by some Big Ten powerhouse on the opening weekend.

With an undefeated record heading into conference play, and the strongest roster in recent history, San Diego State will be the feel-good story of the postseason tournament.

Let's start with forward Kawhi Leonard. Not only is the guy averaging a double-double (15.7 points per game and 10.0 rebounds per game), but he's durable (has only missed one game), has incredible endurance (has played at least 33 minutes in nine out of 14 games), and plays at his highest level during the stiffest competition (18 points, 12 rebounds and three steals against No. 12 Gonzaga). Mix in that this rising star is only a sophomore with no plans to leave early and you've got the centerpiece for a beautiful future for Aztec basketball fans that begins with some upsets in March.

The Aztecs are also scoring a lot of points, shooting a phenomenal 51.0% from the floor. That's third in the nation. Not third in the Mountain West Conference, third in the nation. Duke is shooting 50%, Syracuse is shooting 47%, Kentucky is shooting 47%, and San Diego State is making 51% of their baskets. Precise shooting is what carries underdogs through the stumbling block of the Sweet 16 and into championship contention and the Aztecs most certainly have that.

But most of all, San Diego State has a coach who knows what he's doing and has built a powerhouse basketball team that will fly under the radar and sneak attack March Madness. Fisher, in his 11th season with the Aztecs, has compiled five straight 20-win seasons and five straight postseason appearances. And all of this was without much to entice recruits. High school players dream of wearing a Blue Devil uniform, or a Buckeye uniform, or putting on Notre Dame's colors. Blue-chip recruits grew up watching Hoosiers, not paying attention to what was happening in a little-known university in Pasadena Valley.

But Fisher is a whiz when it comes to recruiting. Remember how he enticed former Syracuse great Tony Bland to come and put on the Aztec uniform? Billy White, who is shooting over 62% from the field, could have gone to a number of other mid-major schools, but chose San Diego State. So could D.J. Gay.

What brought Bland, White, and Gay to San Diego State? Steve Fisher.

Who developed them once they got there? Steve Fisher.

Who is going to lead a ragtag squad of mid-major stars to victories against opponents in the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10? Steve Fisher.

Comments and Conversation

January 5, 2011

Peggy Thompson:

It will be hard for a 5-seed to beat an 11 in the NCAAs, since 5s play 12s….

January 6, 2011


As an SDSU alum and season ticket holder for most of Steve Fisher’s tenure at SDSU, I believe what makes him a great coach is that he requires accountability both academically and on the basketball court. McDonald All-Americans and Elite 8 transferees who were not accountable made their way out the door. Coach Fisher is a great evaluator and developer of talent. At the end of each season he tells each player what skills they need to improve upon to be a better player. Kawhi Leonard took his message to heart and has improved his game, ball handling and perimeter shooting in addition to already being a rebounding demon, offensive and defensive star. What sets this team apart from many equally talented teams is their unselfish play and team chemistry. I expect great things from them but nothing less than they do themselves. Blue Devils meet the Aztec Warriors!!!!

January 6, 2011

Pat McDonell:

State never had a chance until they built Cox Arena (now Viejas) and out a coach in — and a long-term contract — so players knew they were getting a coach who would not bail, kicked out the bums, had a good on-campus facility, and went to NCAAs many times. If I’m a parent in LA, he’s the coach I want to build my kid’s credentials and personality for what comes after college. I hope they stay healthy. And that kid Leonard is so good, and sooo smooth and “solid” mentally, he’s headed to the NBA for a long career. I hope he stays, but for these kids who have no money and are given no money while at college, the millions of NBA dollars for family are tough to turn down. Would you?

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