COLUMBUS, Ohio – San Diego State should have no chance. None. The Aztecs lost four starters from last season's Sweet 16 team. They have just nine scholarship players and use only eight. They start a lineup of four guards and a short forward with knee problems.
This has been a crazy season of blown leads and nail-biters and buzzer-beaters, and now the Aztecs have come across the country, face a 9:40 a.m. PT tip-off Friday and face an opponent from the vaunted ACC. How can they win?
But here they are again in the NCAA tournament, and coach Steve Fisher has a smile on his face as he talks about being part of "the greatest sports spectacle known to man." Here they are for the third season in a row, and their lone returning starter, Chase Tapley, seems so cool as he says he is "not new to the lights."
Somehow San Diego State is not an underdog. Not at all. The Aztecs are 26-7. They are the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region; North Carolina State is the No. 11. Fisher has built this program from near nothing and was the consensus national coach of the year last season, and no matter what happens now, this is even more impressive.
"We are tremendously proud of what has been accomplished … particularly this year with this team," Fisher said. "Even our alumni were going around saying, 'Boy, this might be a little bit of a quote "rebuilding year," but wait till next year.'
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"And I think our kids didn't like to hear that. They said, 'Hey, what about me?' "
Hey, facts were facts. The Aztecs returned only 27.1 percent of their scoring, 19.8 percent of their rebounding and 31.2 percent of their minutes played. Their returning players had combined for only 39 starts last season.
No major preseason publication picked them to finish higher than third in the Mountain West Conference. No one picked them to make the tournament.
"People asked me, 'What are we going to be like, Coach?' " Fisher said. "My stock answer was, 'I'm a bit nervous.' And I was. Then I would follow that with, 'I think we have a chance to be pretty good.' I did, and we were."
The wild card – and best measure of Fisher's coaching – has been Jamaal Franklin.
As a freshman last season, Franklin was buried on the bench. Fisher suggested he redshirt to work on his shooting and defensive fundamentals. Franklin didn't. Instead, he went from not playing to barely playing to willing his way into the rotation for a team that went 34-3. Still, he averaged just 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 8.1 minutes.
As a sophomore this season, Franklin was suspended – reportedly for a DUI – and wasn't part of the starting lineup until mid-December. He ended up averaging 17.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 30 minutes, and became Mountain West player of the year.
"I didn't dream he could be as important to our team as he has become," Fisher said.
At times, Franklin has to be reined in. He committed a costly technical foul in the Sweet 16 last season, bumping Connecticut's Kemba Walker after a timeout had been called, helping the Huskies rally from a five-point deficit. He commits a lot of turnovers. He raised his middle finger when he wasn't getting calls in the Mountain West tournament title game last weekend.
But Fisher, 66, hasn't pulled too hard on the reins, allowing Franklin room to run, more room than he might have given a player when he was a younger, more micromanaging coach. The result is a player who can make mistakes and also can make a difference, unafraid to match up with a guy such as North Carolina State's C.J. Leslie, who is 3 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Franklin (6 feet 5/195 pounds).
"C.J. Leslie is a great player, but I don't really feel me being intimidated," Franklin said. "Any man, I'm ready to play against. I'm not intimidated by nobody."
Fisher is not a rigid coach. He does not install one system and stick with it. He adjusts to his players and his opponents. He works with what he has.
His point guard is Xavier Thames, a transfer from Washington State. His tallest starter is forward Tim Shelton, who is listed at 6-7, might be more like 6-6, has had two microfracture knee surgeries and says he still hasn't fully recovered.
Other than Tapley, the player with the most starting experience is James Rahon, who, despite headaches, a sore throat, doctor visits, blood work and medication, Fisher said is "excited to be here and raring to go."
This is a team that has played NCAA tourney-type thrillers all season, the type of team that tests a coach's patience and blood pressure. Thirteen Aztecs games have gone down to the final possession, and 10 times, they have won.
"Maybe he'll curse a little bit," Shelton said of his coach. "But he also keeps his reserve, and maybe five minutes later he'll bring it back down and go talk to you and be a man about it. … There's nothing that really fazes him or surprises him in terms of like, 'Oh, this is happening. Now what am I going to do?'
"He's never on his heels. He always has a game plan for each situation."
The NCAA tournament? Remember that Fisher is 22-10 in the NCAAs, including his famous 1989 national title run at Michigan and those later, scandal-tainted seasons with the Wolverines.
North Carolina State played its way into the field with a late-season run, winning four of its final five regular-season games. But while the Aztecs are 6-6 against RPI top-50 teams, the Wolfpack are 1-8.
"Whatever they want to play, we can play," Thames said. "We could play a slowdown game. We could play a transition game. That's the beauty of what Coach Fisher brings to the table. So whatever they want to play, we'll be ready."
No need to wait until next year.
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