Heading into this season, it was widely believed San Diego State would endure a rebuilding year following a record-setting campaign that ended with its best NCAA tournament finish.
The 18th-ranked Aztecs, however, managed to exceed those expectations and will try to move a step closer to adding to their unprecedented run of Mountain West titles when they open the conference tournament Thursday in Las Vegas against Boise State.
San Diego State won a program-best 34 games in 2010-11, sharing the MWC regular-season title and winning the conference tournament crown before reaching the NCAA tournament regional semifinals. With All-American Kawhi Leonard among the four starters they lost from that team, the Aztecs were predicted to finish third in their eight-team league before this season and not expected to contend for an NCAA bid.
Instead, coach Steve Fisher’s team earned a share of the regular-season title and is on the verge of a school-record fourth straight campaign with at least 25 wins.
“In terms of preseason expectations from the outside looking in and what he’s been able to do with this group of guys … coach is amazing. He’s the national coach of the year in my eyes, again,” forward Tim Shelton said.
The emergence of Jamaal Franklin played a big part in that success. The sophomore swingman, named the conference’s player of the year Monday, averaged a league-best 17.1 points and was fourth in rebounding with 8.0 per contest.
Top-seeded San Diego State (24-6) has won either the conference’s regular-season or tournament title each of the past four seasons, something no other MWC team had ever accomplished. Now its sights are set on a third consecutive tourney crown.
A matchup with the last-place Broncos (13-16) wouldn’t seem like it should stand in their way, but the Aztecs struggled against them Feb. 1 in San Diego. They had to rally from a 12-point deficit and only escaped with a 58-56 win after Boise State’s Thomas Bropleh missed an open 3-pointer as time expired.
“We got a very big break when we didn’t lose to them at the buzzer,” Fisher said. “It’s a challenge no matter who you play. … They’ve proven that they can play with anybody, including us.”
San Diego State fared better during its visit to Boise last Wednesday as Franklin had 18 points and 12 rebounds in a decisive 66-53 victory.
Franklin followed with a career-high 35 points in a title-clinching win at TCU on Saturday, and he’s averaging 28.0 points and 13.7 rebounds over the last three games.
“He’s had a major impact in scoring, rebounding, getting on the floor first, with his energy and really being vocal out there on the court,” said guard Chase Tapley, who averages 15.2 points. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous progression from last year. … He has one of the biggest hearts on the team, and when you have somebody like that, you just want to play harder and that’s what we all try to do.”
A sprained ankle caused Franklin to miss a loss at Air Force last month - that defeat marked San Diego State’s first three-game skid in four seasons - and his return sparked the Aztecs’ current four-game win streak. However, they needed overtime Saturday and in a victory over Wyoming on Feb. 22.
The Broncos are on a four-game losing streak, dropping each of those games by double digits while shooting a combined 37.3 percent.
Their leading scorer, freshman Anthony Drmic (11.8 ppg), has failed to reach double figures in three games during that skid. He’s among the MWC leaders with 54 3-pointers made but is 3 for 31 over his last six.
San Diego State has won all three meetings between the schools.