Gold: After years of dancing around the obvious, San Diego State is finally elite
There are people out there, many people, who have only existed in a reality in which San Diego State is a legitimate basketball program. With actual expectations. And goals. Dare I say dreams?
They don’t remember the dark ages, because, for them, there were no dark ages.
For 15 years — first under Steve Fisher, now under Brian Dutcher — SDSU has been on the cusp of something special, from Kyle Spain and Lo Wade to Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin to Xavier Thames and Jalen McDaniels to Malik Pope and Malachi Flynn to Matt Mitchell and Matt Bradley.
But for those of us who remember Chris Walton air-balling free throws and Brandon Heath going bottoms up and Tony Bland, Randy Holcomb and Al Faux re-writing what is possible … for those of us for whom “Fred Trenkle” is a four-letter word and Marcus Slaughter is a hero and the arrival of Evan Burns a core memory … for all of us, San Diego State’s Sweet 16 win over top-seed Alabama on Friday night at Louiville’s KFC Yum! Center was an almost unfathomable experience.
Aztec fans of the last decade-and-a-half have one reality that is entirely different then their forbearers. Those of us from the Red and Black Plague are waking up to a whole new world.
This is possible. This is all possible.
You’ve got to understand: San Diego State was terrible.
Not fun terrible. Not lovable terrible. Terrible terrible.
Put it this way: In the last four years, the Aztecs have won 106 games and counting.
In the decade between 1989-1999, the Aztecs won just 110 games. The wheels had fallen off at the tail end of the Smokey Gaines tenure in 1986-87, with SDSU going 5-25, and they stayed off for almost two decades. When Steve Fisher was hired by San Diego State in 1999 after being fired by Michigan in the wake of the Ed Martin scandal in 1997, it wasn’t even fair to call the Aztecs a reclamation project.
Forget Restoration Hardware. This was up-cycling from the Miramar Landfill.
It took Fisher a year to right the ship and another year to move it forward. SDSU improved from 5-23 to 14-14 to 21-12 in Fisher’s first three seasons, earning an NCAA Tournament bid in Year 3. It was the Aztecs’ first postseason game of any kind in 17 years.
Then came a 3-year slide, reaching a nadir once more in 2004-05 with an 11-18 season. The next year, with Heath and Slaughter leading the way, SDSU went 24-9, won their first conference title since 1978 and returned to the Tournament.
Since that season, SDSU has won fewer than 20 games just once.
And Saturday’s win over Alabama gave State its 4th 30-win campaign since 2011.
The Aztecs haven’t just been good. They’ve been great. For years.
And now they can say they’re Elite.
Facing one of the country’s top few teams, one that entered the NCAA Tournament allowing an opposing field goal percentage of 37.7 percent, one that leads the country in rebounding and ranks 9th in rebounding margin, the Aztecs were stronger, tougher, nastier and downright better. SDSU shot just 37.7 percent from the field, but the Crimson Tide shot 32.4 percent. The Aztecs made just 6-of-17 3-pointers, but Alabama made 3-of-27. SDSU turned the ball over 12 times, but the Tide turned it over 14 times.
Perhaps most crucially, facing the Windex of the Ratings Power Index, the Aztecs had 31 defensive rebounds to the Tide’s 32.
“They kind of got us off our drives,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “(Nathan) Mensah up with five blocks. They had eight blocks on the game. We needed to do a little bit better job being able to make better rim decisions. They’re tough, physical, big, strong experienced team, and especially in the first half we didn’t come out prepared. It’s somewhat on us, and somewhat the players have to get comfortable with the way they played.
Unlike their two previous Sweet 16 appearances — in 2011, when Kemba Walker torched the ‘Tecs for 36 points in a 74-67 UConn win en route to a national title; and in 2014, when a balanced Arizona squad sent them packing despite 25 points from Thames — the Aztecs did not wilt under the pressure.
In fact, if anything, SDSU tightened the vice on the Tide, particularly superstar Brandon Miller. Miller had one of his worst games this year, shooting just 3-of-19 and 1-for-10 from 3-point range, finishing with 9 points to go along with 11 boards.
That wasn’t enough to best an SDSU squad led by Darrion Trammell, who tied a season-high with 21 points.
Alabama led by as much as 9 midway through the first half, but Trammell scored 8 straight points to help SDSU steady itself, and then the Aztecs continued to push, increasing their lead to as much as 9 before closing out the Tide with 5 straight final-minute free throws.
“To our credit, when they came out energized the second half, they built a lead; we took a time-out I think right by the 12-minute mark, and then Darrion came out of the time-out and hit a three and a two, and he changed the momentum,” Dutcher said. “Then we got settled back in.”
During that first NCAA Tournament season in 2002, something funny happened at San Diego State. Literally.
The Show, Montezuma Mesa’s beloved — and hated — student section, was created to wreak havoc on opponents’ psyches. Between the “Aztecs Bombaye” chants and the Big Heads and Chet Carney, the Cartwheeling Cheerleader to Rule Them All, The Show became the The Show, worth the price of admission, even when the Aztecs were not.
But it would take another decade for their most famous tradition to take hold.
“I believe that we will win!” was not written by a San Diego State student, and it has been co-opted by countless other sports organizations, but it became the program’s rallying cry during its initial Sweet 16 season, when Kawhi led the way.
Fast forward another dozen years, and here’s the thing: Now the Aztecs believe it themselves. And they’re showing it.
“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,” Dutcher said. “That’s what we tell them when we recruit them, and it’s just not words to get them to come here. It’s words we believe in. So that’s why we celebrate it, but we’re not going to over-celebrate. There’s another step to be had. This is not the end of the journey.
“This is the next step, and we’re waiting to take it.”