When Steve Fisher arrived in southern California 15 years ago, the Aztecs
program was abysmal.
This is San Diego State basketball's 44th Division I season. In the 29 years prior to Steve Fisher arriving on campus, the Aztecs had 12 winning seasons, four postseason tournament appearances – three NCAAs and one NIT – and zero postseason wins. Now they’ve made four straight NCAA Tournaments, eight straight postseason tournaments, and have turned into a fixture on the national stage. They scored their first NCAA Tournament win in 2011 and turned that into a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Marcus Slaughter and Brandon Heath and Kyle Spain turned into Kawhi Leonard and Billy White and D.J. Gay. That group turned into Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin. Those two moved on last year and now Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard and Josh Davis step up. And the Aztecs just keep on keeping on.
After winning the Wooden Legacy by knocking off Creighton and Marquette in back-t0-back games, Fisher said: “We’ve got a group of guys that will compete and adapt and adjust. And whatever the moment is, we’ll be able to to play that way.” Take that quote out of context, and he could be talking about the philosophy of the program as a whole. Back in 2005-06, with Slaughter and Heath on campus, the Aztecs were a great offensive team that liked to get out in transition and hit a lot of threes but weren't so good defensively. In 2010-11, they were a fantastic defensive team with Leonard and a big front line, but they were one of the slowest teams in the country. Last year it was the two-headed attack of Tapley and Franklin. This year, they’re great athletically and get after it on defense; but aside from Thames, they may have a different secondary scorer every night. Adjust and adapt and compete. And, when it comes time: next man up, get in there and get the job done.
Given the limited history of this program, there is still more to accomplish. For example, Sunday night marked the first time in program history that San Diego State had won back-to-back games against teams ranked in the Top 25. When the AP poll came out on Monday, the Aztecs were the only Mountain West team present. Along the way, they’ve also built a nice following. At an Anaheim tournament, San Diego State brought in several thousand vocal and involved supporters. Last year, in this same venue, the Aztec fans significantly outdrew and out-vocalized the vaunted UCLA program. The Viejas Center on campus is regularly packed to the brim and rocking for every Aztecs' home game. Given that San Diego State basketball was a complete afterthought 15 years ago when Fisher took over, the creation and ascendance of this program from scratch is nothing short of amazing.
Fisher summed it up on Sunday night, reflecting on the state of his creation: “Our commitment when we came here was to build a program. And it’s not make a tournament one year, and then go two years and not be heard from, and then all of a sudden be good again. We’ve got a program. And I think that we have a program now that people who know basketball would say that they can compete with anybody, any place, anytime, anywhere. And that makes all the difference for us. But we do have a program. Our fan base has grown exponentially with the success we’ve had. They traveled up here and they feel pride about what we’re doing. Rarely do coaches stay in one spot for 15 years. And we’ve been here 15 years. And Dutch (associate head coach Brian Dutcher) and I have been together since 1989. So there is continuity, stability and trust. And now we’re getting better players. And we’ve won and now we start believing that we’re going to continue to win. And, we’ve got a program.”
Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is the Rush the Court Mountain West correspondent.
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