SAN DIEGO (AP)—A dozen seasons after Steve Fisher inherited one of the worst basketball programs in the country, his San Diego State Aztecs have finally arrived.
Ranked in The Associated Press poll for the first time—they’re No. 25— the Aztecs are ready to begin what they hope is their most successful season ever.
The Aztecs return all five starters and nine letter-winners from a team that won the Mountain West Conference tournament and finished 25-9 after losing to Tennessee in the NCAA tournament.
The next logical progression is to actually win a game in the NCAA tournament. The 62-59 loss to Tennessee dropped the Aztecs to 0-6 in the NCAAs.
“I think we’ve got an opportunity to take that next step,” Fisher said. “We need to, before I get out of here, find a way to win in the tournament. We’ve got a team that’s capable of doing that. But there are a lot of teams like us. They need to perform to get there. If they can get there, they can win and make a lot of noise.”
Fisher, of course, doesn’t want to look past the season opener at Long Beach State on Saturday. Or the rest of a tough non-conference schedule that includes a game at No. 12 Gonzaga next Tuesday.
It’s just that he’s built up the program to the point that long-suffering fans expect the Aztecs to eventually get that elusive NCAA win. Three of the school’s six NCAA appearances have come under Fisher, as well as its first five postseason wins, all in the NIT.
“That’s something that we haven’t done as a program, is win an NCAA game,” senior guard D.J. Gay said. “That’s probably the highest goal on our list is to get back in and win a game, not just to get there.”
Starting forwards Malcolm Thomas and Billy White also are seniors, while guard Chase Tapley and forward Kawhi Leonard are sophomores. Leonard was the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year and MVP of the conference tournament. He and Thomas are on the preseason all-league team.
“I like looking down the roster at five seniors,” Fisher said. “I like looking at five starters from last year, two of whom are seasoned sophomores, Kawhi and Tapley. We’re better served when we go on the road, especially early. We stubbed our toes so badly out of gate last year on the road. I hope this year we’ll come out a little better prepared, and I’m positive we will. We’re still a group that likes one another. We have some good, hard—and I mean hard— practices where go at each other right away. We have depth. We have a lot of people who can play.”
That’s why the Aztecs were able to crack the Top 25.
“To be the first to do anything in a positive light is something special,” Gay said. “We’re all excited, the fans are excited. We have the potential to have a very special thing here.”
Fisher was accustomed to high rankings in his days as coach at Michigan, where he won the national championship in 1989 and made two other championship game appearances.
“We feel as if we’ve earned the honor and respect we’ve been given,” Fisher said.
In some unwanted publicity, police are investigating a 30-year-old man’s claim that he was jumped by four or five SDSU basketball players at a downtown nightclub early Saturday. No arrests have been made. Police expect to turn over the case in the next few days to the City Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether anyone will be charged.
Fisher took over the Aztecs in 1999, two years after he was fired at Michigan. He inherited a team that won only four games the previous season while going winless on the road. His first team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West and, once again, winless away from San Diego.
The Aztecs have now turned in five straight 20-win seasons that culminated with postseason berths. Two seasons ago, Fisher took the Aztecs to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“We had to work smart,” Fisher said about turning around the program. “It took the willingness to not buy into what some people were saying: ‘You can’t recruit him, he’s too good for you.’ We knocked on the door of every good player in California. Sometimes we didn’t get them on the first crack, but we might have gotten them on the bounceback. We’ve really worked diligently to sell our program and ourselves and what San Diego State has to offer. Then, when you win a little bit, that helps. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve hung in there.”
The 65-year-old Fisher isn’t in a hurry to leave.
“Every job I’ve had, I felt like it very well could be the job where I finished up,” he said. “I came here with no notion that, ‘Boy, I hope we get good in five years so I can get something better.’ I’ve got an awfully good thing right where we are. We love living in San Diego. I’m at a stage of my life where there might be something that would pay more money but I love where I am in my career and what we’re doing here. The nice thing about it is I get excited every day going into the gym, thinking there’s more to do before we get out of here.”