SAN DIEGO — Walk into Viejas Arena on a game day this winter, and it's easy to forget San Diego State's magical 2010-11 season ever ended.
Same sellout crowds. Same irreverent student section. Same thunderous ovations.
If the consensus entering the season had been that San Diego State would fade from the national spotlight after losing four starters from last year's 34-win team, then the Aztecs have already proven that wrong. They've bolted to an 18-2 start, sweeping Pac-12 foes Cal, Arizona and USC in nonleague play and defeating fellow Mountain West contenders UNLV and New Mexico to start the conference season.
San Diego State lacks the pedigree to consistently out-duel major-conference teams for blue-chip prospects, so the Aztecs' recent surge is a testament to their staff's ability to unearth talented but underexposed recruits or find castoffs in need of a second chance.
Last year's team made the school's first-ever Sweet 16 behind a dominant frontcourt headlined by San Antonio Spurs rookies Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas, two players who Pac-12 schools once didn't bother to recruit. This year's team doesn't start a single player taller than 6-foot-7, yet it's on the cusp of a top 10 ranking thanks to a deep, talented backcourt made up of former transfers and marginal recruits.
Chase Tapley, Jamaal Franklin, Xavier Thames and James Rahon have performed so well this season that San Diego State has been able to win despite subpar rebounding and a lack of interior size and depth. This is the story of how San Diego State discovered each member of that quartet and developed them into the West Coast's most formidable backcourt.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
How did the Aztecs land Chase Tapley? They got him by taking a risk no other program would.
When Tapley landed awkwardly attempting a layup and broke his left leg midway through his sophomore season at Sacramento High, most of the high-major schools that had recruited him stopped showing interest. In fact, the only school whose staff consistently kept calling or showing up to see him was San Diego State.
Tapley was still recuperating in the hospital when then-San Diego State assistant Justin Hutson sent word via a Sacramento High coach that the Aztecs wanted to offer the 6-foot-3 guard a scholarship. Almost immediately, Tapley realized the significance of San Diego State making that commitment to him at a time when even doctors weren't certain how he'd respond to such a devastating injury.
"It meant everything to me," Tapley said. "I was like, 'Jeez, my leg's broken and these guys still want me?' I really appreciated that. In the back of my head, I knew that was the school I wanted to be at."
San Diego State's faith in Tapley looked astute when he delivered a dominant junior season even while regaining his strength and explosiveness. He averaged 22.2 points and 4.6 steals per game and led Sacramento High to California's Division III state championship game, where he scored 35 points but lost a memorable duel to Klay Thompson-led Santa Margarita High.
That performance coupled with a strong summer with his AAU team caught the attention of other programs with greater prestige than San Diego State at the time. Baylor, Cal and Saint Mary's offered scholarships and Stanford requested more time to decide whether to follow suit, but Tapley rewarded San Diego State's sustained interest by signing in November of his senior year.
"We loved him," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "Some of the late-comers waited and waited and waited to see if he was going to be the same, but we were there the whole time. I think — no, I know that helped us, no question."
Even though Tapley cracked the starting lineup by January of his freshman year and emerged as a dependable perimeter shooter and defender last season, San Diego State required more from him as a junior. With last year's other four starters gone, Tapley entered this season as the obvious candidate to assume the role of go-to scorer for the Aztecs.
Although Tapley averaged a modest 8.6 points per game as a sophomore, he has thrived with greater responsibility this year. Not only has he averaged 16.4 points per game and eclipsed 20 points six times this season, he also is doing it while shooting a career-high 50.6 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from behind the arc.
Tapley credits his improvement to the work ethic he developed watching Leonard transform himself into a first-round draft pick the previous two years. Whereas Tapley often relied on natural ability to get by in the past, he worked out three times a day this summer in Sacramento, running daily at 6 a.m. and going to the gym at his former junior high to work on ball handling and shooting.
"I didn't like working out when I was little. I admit that," Tapley said. "But when I got to college and I saw one of the best players on our team worked hard and was still in the gym when everyone else was leaving, that really clicked something in my head. If Kawhi was doing that and he was the best player on the team, what am I doing? That really forced me to change my work ethic."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
How did the Aztecs land Jamaal Franklin? They got him by having faith he'd be worth an extended wait.
Since Franklin grew up in a remote high desert community about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, he didn't attract as much attention as would be expected for one of the state of California's highest scoring wings. Even many of the programs that knew about him didn't bother to recruit him since it was apparent by Franklin's junior year at Serrano High he'd need at least a year of prep school to qualify academically to play in college.
That created an opportunity for San Diego State, which spotted Franklin on the summer circuit, offered him a scholarship in spite of his grades and helped make sure he knew the classes he needed to pass to qualify. High-profile programs like UConn and Oregon eventually tried to land Franklin once he averaged a team-high 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds at Phoenix's Westwind Prep during the 2009-10 school year, but he remained loyal to the Aztecs.
"San Diego State knew Jamaal wasn't going to qualify, but they kept after him," said Mike Browning, Franklin's coach at Serrano High. "There are probably a lot of Pac-12 teams now that are wishing they hadn't shied away."
What makes it difficult to believe so many programs initially passed on Franklin is that his jaw-dropping athleticism and fiery competitiveness were hard to miss. Franklin starred on Serrano's football team as a senior and also cleared 7 feet as an all-state high jumper, yet he remained resolute in his belief that his future was in basketball.
As a sophomore at Serrano, Franklin made his first start in a season-opening scrimmage because the upperclassman ahead of him pulled a groin muscle. Franklin was so impressive in throwing down five highlight-worthy dunks that the injured player approached Browning the next day worried his starting job was in jeopardy.
"All of a sudden the groin injury healed real quick for the kid," Browning recalled with a chuckle. "He told me, 'Coach, I'm feeling a lot better.'"
Hutson was the San Diego State assistant in charge of recruiting Franklin, so he made the 150-mile trek from campus to Serrano High several times to confirm his initial evaluation from the summer circuit and build a relationship with the 6-foot-5 wing and his family. Even though Franklin wowed Hutson by averaging 31.7 points per game as a senior, what the coach remembers most about recruiting him were the harrowing wind-swept drives to and from his hometown of Phelan, which is nestled in the shadow of a mountain ski resort.
"He said he liked to snowboard and I was like, 'Snow in California? Where does he live?'" Hutson recalled. "I thought it would be an easy drive but you just keep going and going and you turn up into the mountains. You definitely don't want to make that drive at night."
It's abundantly clear two years into Franklin's college career that all Hutson's long drives were worthwhile.
After showing flashes of promise while playing sparingly as a freshman last season, Franklin has thrived in an expanded role as a sophomore, averaging 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds and doing a credible job guarding opposing wings and power forwards. He has improved the mechanics of his jump shot and learned to play more under control now, no longer making the head-scratching passes or displaying the erratic shot selection he did earlier this season.
"People remember the spectacular, the good plays and bad plays, and he still does some of both," Fisher said. "But the bulk of his game has gotten more consistent, more steady. We have to keep helping him grow in that regard."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
How did the Aztecs land Xavier Thames? They got him because the school he chose initially didn't turn out to be what he expected.
Thames signed with Washington State expecting to inherit the starting point guard job for a program coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Instead, coach Tony Bennett left for Virginia, new coach Ken Bone signed Reggie Moore to be his point guard in late April 2009 and Thames ended up playing mostly off the ball and off the bench as a freshman.
Thames felt miscast in that role since two of his greatest strengths were his ability to run an offense and attack the rim. As a result, the Sacramento native informed Bone after his freshman season that he wanted to transfer and began his search for a school where he could blossom at point guard.
"He was not going to get the chance to be a full-time point guard in Washington State's system with the guys they had there," his father Ray Thames said. "He felt in his heart it wasn't the right place for him to be anymore."
Thames hadn't bothered to visit San Diego State during high school because at the time it seemed that a Pac-10 school ranked in the Top 25 offered greater exposure, but the Aztecs instantly became an option the second time around.
They were very familiar with his game because they recruited him in high school. They also had immediate playing time available since starting point guard D.J. Gay would graduate after the 2011 season.
Saint Mary's and Miami also made a strong push for Thames once he left Washington State, but one of the reasons San Diego State landed him was because Fisher outlined a plan for how he would help the 6-foot-3 guard improve during the year he had to sit out.
"That was really impressive to me and my wife," Ray Thames said. "They already had a plan in mind how they were going to make him better when he was out. Nobody else really talked about that, but they did."
It's the hard work Thames put in while sitting out last season that enabled him to beat out fellow sophomore LaBradford Franklin for the starting point guard job and average 11.1 points and 5.0 assists per game. Thames tightened his ball-handling skills, put on muscle in the weight room and improved his shooting off the catch and off the dribble so that opposing defenders can no longer play him exclusively to drive.
"Nobody worked harder in my tenure here as a redshirt than he did," Fisher said. "So I'm proud of what he's done. He's made himself into a much better player."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
How did the Aztecs land James Rahon? They got him because he realized he made a mistake by not signing with them in the first place.
Heavily recruited by San Diego State throughout his illustrious career at nearby Torrey Pines High School, Rahon caught the Aztecs by surprise when he chose to go to Santa Clara instead. Fisher recalls feeling "devastated" in late 2007 when Rahon told him he preferred to leave his hometown for college.
As the centerpiece of a Santa Clara recruiting class that also included current standouts Kevin Foster and Marc Trasolini, Rahon appeared to have a bright future with the Broncos. The 6-foot-4 guard started 15 of Santa Clara's final 16 games during the 2008-09 season and averaged 11.3 points, but he stunned Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating the Monday of spring break by calling to say he intended to transfer.
Neither Rahon nor his father was willing to expand on what went wrong at Santa Clara except to say "it wasn't the right fit." In a 2009 interview with Santa Clara's student newspaper, however, Rahon said he wasn't enjoying his experience with the Broncos and he felt he was playing out of position at small forward.
"I just didn't feel the same about the program as I did when I was recruited to come," Rahon said at the time.
A handful of schools expressed interest in Rahon once he left Santa Clara, but he had his eye on San Diego State from the outset. Not only was Rahon's relationship with Fisher and the staff strong, he also realized during his year away that he missed his friends and family and that he wanted to be able to watch his younger brother play in high school.
"It's great playing for your city every night," Rahon said. "Growing up in San Diego, I initially wanted to experience something different. I wanted to move up north and experience a different area. It didn't work out for me and I was fortunate enough to be able to move back here."
Whereas Rahon averaged 7.0 points and hit 43.4 percent from behind the arc as a shooter off the bench last year, he has showcased a more complete all-around game as a junior since recovering from a November foot injury. His 3-point percentage has dropped, but he has made up for it by getting in the lane more often and creating for himself and his teammates.
"James came off ball screens and made plays for others all the time in high school, so we knew he could do that," Fisher said. "He's more than just a catch-shoot player and he's more than a scorer. He's a good basketball player."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Thanks to the rapid development of their guard quartet, the health of their undermanned frontcourt and the emphasis on defense up and down the roster, San Diego State has a terrific chance to put up a record nearly as gaudy as last year's. Aside from a matchup at UNLV next month, the Aztecs will be done with their toughest Mountain West road games following their trip to Colorado State on Saturday.
What's even more exciting for San Diego State is that only big men Tim Shelton and Garrett Green graduate off this year's roster. The Aztecs return their entire backcourt, add another solid freshman class and add impact transfers J.J. O'Brien (Utah), Dwayne Polee Jr. (St. John's) and James Johnson (Virginia).
Next season was the year Fisher was confident San Diego State would be nationally relevant again, but he admits some aspects of this year's success have surprised even him. He didn't expect the Aztecs to be this good defensively, he wasn't sure if Shelton's balky knees would hold up and he still doesn't know if the team rebounds well enough to sustain this success.
"I was a little nervous before the season because I didn't know what we were going to be, but I liked our kids," Fisher said. "I thought our backcourt had a chance to be very good."
Three months into the season, that backcourt has only exceeded expectations. And that's the biggest reason San Diego State has too.