SAN DIEGO (AP)—The deeper Steve Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs get in the NIT, the less they look at it as a consolation prize.
Especially with a trip to New York at stake.
Having reclaimed Cox Arena—they were forced to play a second-round game against Kansas State across town at the University of San Diego due to a women’s NCAA subregional—the Aztecs host Patty Mills and the Saint Mary’s Gaels on Wednesday night. The winner advances to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals next Tuesday night.
Disappointed to be left out of the NCAA tournament, both teams are trying to make the best of the tournament they ended up in.
“The only way that we can prove that we should have been in there is to win this,” SDSU guard Richie Williams said Tuesday.
Fisher, who won both the NCAA and NIT championships while coach at Michigan, doesn’t simply want to get to New York. He wants to win the NIT, which he did as Michigan’s head coach in 1997 and as assistant to Bill Frieder in 1984.
If any of the Aztecs are still steamed about the NCAA snub, they can talk to their coach about his experiences in the NIT.
“I think for those of us that are a little older, we remember when the NIT was not the stepchild that some might say it now is,” Fisher said. “We don’t view it that way. I don’t think the teams that are in it now view it that way. There’s still some bluebloods that are still playing, with Florida and Kentucky, people like that.
“So, yeah, to go into Madison Square Garden and walk in there, our kids will find that if we go, it is older, but the character that it’s got, the tradition it’s got. We’ve got some kids who’ve never been to New York City. To go there and see the hustle and bustle and the atmosphere, it would be immensely exciting and something we would all remember.”
But the Aztecs need to figure out a way to beat Saint Mary’s before they can book a flight.
There’s plenty of familiarity between the Aztecs (25-9) of the Mountain West Conference and the Gaels (27-6) of the West Coast Conference. This will be the fourth time they’ve met in three seasons. Saint Mary’s beat the Aztecs in consecutive appearances in the Wooden Classic, winning 69-64 in December 2007 and 67-64 last December.
“Our kids remember that we lost,” Fisher said. “Our kids know their names. They know our names. They know that they’ve got really good players. I guess the familiarity part will be there for both of us. I think there’s mutual respect.”
Mills, one of the country’s most exciting players, had 23 points and 10 assists while leading Saint Mary’s to a 80-68 victory against Stephen Curry and Davidson on Monday night.
The Aztecs found out in December that the Gaels are deeper than Curry. Diamon Simpson scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against SDSU in the Wooden Classic. Mills had 15 points and Omar Samhan had 13 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots.
“They’re keyed by Mills, but obviously they’ve got team,” Fisher said. “They’re a good team and they’re not a one-man show, and he knows that. All good players make others better. “He’s got the ball in his hands so often, so everything centers around how we’re going to play screens when he has the ball, how we’re going to stop him in conversion, the things that everybody talks about. He’s very, very good. He’s as fast from end line to end line as there is in the country.”
By now, the Aztecs know it’s a moot point to wonder if beating Saint Mary’s in the Wooden Classic would have helped get them into the NCAAs. They’re the last Mountain West Conference team still playing, set a school record for wins and this is the first time in their Division I history that the Aztecs have advanced beyond the second round of a national postseason tournament.
“It would be great for us to get to New York, but it would be even greater to be that last team cutting the net down a week from Thursday,” Fisher said. “And I think we have a chance to do it. I think Saint Mary’s has a chance to do it. I think this will be a really good game.”