Take a look at this week’s NCAA men’s basketball rankings and you’ll find a who’s who of powerhouse programs. Ohio State. Pittsburgh. Duke. San Diego State. Connecticut. Kansas. Texas. Wait, San Diego State?
The fact that the San Diego State Aztecs (20-0, 5-0) are undefeated 20 games into the season and currently sit at No. 4 in both the AP Top 25 and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll is shocking.
We are talking about a program that, prior to this year, had never appeared in either of the major top 25 rankings. This is a program that has never won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Could the Aztecs really be the fourth best team in the country?
Many experts have recently claimed that this is a team nobody should have overlooked. Easy to say 20 games into a perfect season, right? But, the signs were there. The school is in the midst of its most successful run in school history, winning 20 or more games and advancing to the postseason five straight years.
Last year, the Aztecs finished 25-9 and lost a close game to the Tennessee Volunteers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Volunteers would come within one point of the Final Four.
The Aztecs returned all five starters from last year’s team, including more than 80 percent of the team’s points, rebounds, assists and minutes played.
Opening the season as the No. 25 team in the country, SDSU raised some eyebrows in its second game when it beat the then-No. 12 Gonzaga Bulldogs on their home floor. Gonzaga had only lost four times in its previous 77 home games at the Kennel in Spokane, WA.
The Aztecs finished their non-conference with a 15-0 record and a No. 6 ranking in both polls. Even though they didn’t face any other ranked teams, they were road-tested. SDSU played more road games in November and December than anyone else in the top 25.
SDSU picked up where it left off when its conference schedule got underway with three of its first five games on the road, a place it had become quite comfortable with. The Aztecs’ most recent victory over Air Force last Wednesday brought the team’s overall record to a perfect 20-0, a position even head coach Steve Fisher didn’t expect his team to be in.
“We knew we were going to be good,” Fisher said. “But nobody anticipates being undefeated at this point of the season. I’m smart enough to know there’s not a whole lot separating ourselves from the other undefeated teams and some of the others that have lost one to three games.”
Fisher knows what it is like to coach a prominent college basketball team. Only six games into his head-coaching career he was undefeated and hoisting the NCAA national championship trophy. And that was just the beginning for Fisher in his career at the University of Michigan.
Fisher coached eight-plus seasons at Michigan, compiling a 184-82 (.692) record, nine postseason tournament berths and three trips to the NCAA championship game.
Fisher is one of only three coaches to take three teams to the Final Four in the first five years of a head-coaching career and one of just six coaches to lead a team to the championship of the NIT as well as the NCAA.
When Fisher took over at SDSU in 1999, he took over a program that was accustomed to losing. The Aztecs had 13 losing seasons in 14 years and lacked the resources necessary to compete, even with teams in the Mountain West Conference.
In 11 seasons, Fisher has turned the Aztecs into not only one of the best programs in the Mountain West, but one of the elite programs on the West Coast. With their win against Air Force last week, Fisher has now led the Aztecs to at least 20 wins for six straight seasons.
What is even more remarkable is Fisher has accomplished this despite the inherent limitations in operating a program that lacks the resources of all major programs and most mid-level programs.
For example, while conference rival UNLV is preparing to open the 38,000 square foot, $12 million Mendenhall Center later this year, SDSU is still forced on occasion to practice on the short courts at the student rec center.
A fancy practice facility is the last thing on the minds of this Aztec team though. Despite the perfect record, they are still hungry and are seeking the respect that goes along with the lofty national ranking that has been bestowed on them.
“Some people think we are still a joke, but that is just going to motivate us more,” senior forward Billy White said. “We’re going to be here all year, and we are going to keep moving up.”
If SDSU is to stay in the top 10 and make a deep run when it counts in March, it will be with the balanced attack on both ends of the floor that has gotten it this far.
Sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard paces the Aztecs averaging 15.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Leonard has been pegged by many to be a first round NBA draft pick. He made an immediate impact last year when he led the team in both points and rebounds per game, 12.7 and 9.9 respectively, and was named the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year, first-teamer and tournament MVP.
At the other forward position, White, a three-time all Mountain West Conference selection, is currently averaging 9.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He came into the year as the nation’s active leader in career field goal percentage and is currently shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. White has the ability to disrupt offenses with his strength, length and ability to play the passing lanes.
Senior all-conference point guard D.J. Gay provides the leadership for the Aztecs. Fisher has said on many occasions that Gay is the most important player on the team. He is averaging almost 13 points while dishing out a team-high three assists.
Last week, Gay exploded, dropping a career-best 30 points on 7-of-11 from 3-point range in a 87-77 victory over New Mexico at the vaunted Pit and then put up a solid 20 points in a home victory over Air Force. The most impressive thing about Gay’s week was in 78 minutes during those two games, he had only one turnover.
Gay and the Aztecs’ biggest test of the season comes Wednesday when they travel to Provo, Utah to face the No. 9 ranked BYU Cougars (19-1, 5-0). The Cougars are led by national player of the year candidate, Jimmer Fredette, who averages a nation leading 26.7 points per game.
Not only will this be the highest-ranked team the Aztecs have faced all season, but SDSU has historically struggled at the Marriott Center, the Cougars’ home court, compiling a 3-28 record. With BYU defecting from the Mountain West Conference after the 2010-11 season, this may be the last chance the Aztecs will have to improve on this mark.
This game will likely be remembered as the “Game of the Year” that no one east of Provo watched. Because of the Mountain West Conference television contract, the game will be televised on the CBS College Sports cable channel beginning at 10 p.m. EST.
Regardless of the outcome of Wednesday night’s match-up, one thing is clear. The San Diego State Aztecs have captured the attention of the college basketball world. March cannot come soon enough.
Scott Jamieson is a Staff Writer for The Juice Online.