San Diego State may be the best team on the West Coast
BERKELEY -- By the end of the game, when the San Diego State Aztecs were beating the reigning Pac-10 champions on their home court by 20 points, it was very loud in Haas Pavilion.
The raucous chant that rang out on the Cal Bears' home floor?
"Let's Go Aztecs!"
The Aztecs are making their presence known, not just in Berkeley but all up and down the West Coast. San Diego State, a school that has never won an NCAA tournament game and had never cracked the top 25 rankings until this fall, is off to its best start in school history, at 9-0.
The Aztecs may be the best team on the West Coast. "They're certainly one of them," said Mike Montgomery, who joined Saint Mary's Randy Bennett and Gonzaga's Mark Few as coaches who have lost to the No. 14 Aztecs this season. "San Diego State is good."
And San Diego State is excited. The
"That was, what, October 23rd?" coach Steve Fisher said. "I told them wait 'til December 9th. Then we'll find out if we're tough enough."
Along the way the team handed Gonzaga a rare home loss, beat Saint Mary's at home and snapped a 20-game losing streak to Pac-10 opponents, winning on a Pac-10 court for the first time in 28 years.
So what is Fisher saying to his team this morning, on Dec. 9?
"It means we haven't fallen on our face, which sometimes happens," Fisher said.
Fisher knows about that. He won a national championship as the interim coach at Michigan in 1989 and then took the Wolverines back to two more Final Fours with his Fab Five recruiting class. But he was fired in 1997 during an investigation into program improprieties -- though he was later cleared of wrongdoing by the NCAA.
Fisher was hired at San Diego State in 1999. He inherited an afterthought of a program, with 13 losing seasons in 14 years. Fisher had to give away tickets on campus.
He's been steadily growing the program. The Aztecs have won 20 or more games for the past six seasons. Last March, they were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament in a close loss to Tennessee that the players knew could catapult them to bigger things.
"We knew this year could be very special for us," said point guard D.J. Gay. "This past summer we stuck close together and worked out and bonded. It really helped our team chemistry. The players are absolutely willing to buy in."
The Aztecs have a winning formula: senior leadership from Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White; an NBA prospect in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard; and depth. Sophomore James Rahon, who transferred from Santa Clara, came off the bench to score 15 points Wednesday, stretching the Bears' defense with his three-point range.
The team centerpiece is the 6-foot-7 Leonard, who started slowly Wednesday but finished with 20 points, including three three-pointers.
"He's clearly one of the better players on the West Coast," Montgomery said. "He's a pro."
All the Aztecs are learning to handle attention. They're the new kings of San Diego, a town without professional basketball. The school, with an enrollment of 35,000 and alumni all up and down California, has ignored its basketball team in the past. But now students and citizens are clamoring for tickets and taking over opposing gyms.
"Our town, they're a bit unrealistic in terms of what they think," Fisher said. "They think we could probably play the Celtics, and if Kevin Garnett didn't play we'd have a chance.
"I learned that San Diego is an event town and if you win they'll come. We had 3,500 students for the last two [sold-out] games. But if we go into the tank and lose a few we'll be back to having 5,000 in the building."
No one expects San Diego State to go in the tank. The Aztecs have navigated the treacherous part of their schedule flawlessly. Now they have a smooth path to early January and the start of Mountain West Conference play. A top-10 ranking could be in their future and a 15-0 start isn't out of the question.
Fisher thinks 15-0 talk is a little unfair, but he doesn't mind if his team hears about rankings and possibilities. He wants to let his underdog of a program know how good they are.
"We don't have a legacy of excellence in basketball," Fisher said, adding that when his team was ranked for the first time he told them "embrace it ... you're good."
"I think when you're home at night, you can close your eyes thinking about how good you are," Fisher said. "And I think we're pretty good."
And the rest of the basketball world is starting to think it, too.