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San Diego State gets a second chance at the top

SAN DIEGO — What once seemed like the pinnacle in the history of San Diego State’s men’s basketball program happened just over three years ago.

After a 26-0 start, the Aztecs were 30-2, ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll and expected to be seeded No. 1 or 2 in the NCAA Tournament. They were well on their way to realizing the shared vision of Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher, the two men whose brilliant build turned the tide of a program known for decades for chronic underperformance.

Then the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone went home, sad and scared.

“Sometimes we take for granted just going to lose in the first round,” said Dutcher, who is in his sixth season as Aztecs head coach recently after 27 years as Fisher’s assistant at Michigan and in the state of San Diego. “Just getting a chance to play would have meant the world to these guys.”

Schools like San Diego State don’t usually get a second chance to catch a dream. That’s what makes his rise to prominence in this year’s NCAA Tournament both remarkable and inspiring. And the Aztecs don’t take a second for granted.

Set to take on Florida Atlantic in a national semifinal on Saturday in Houston, San Diego State is not only in its first Final Four, it’s also the first team in the Mountain West Conference to advance this far. .

Before stunning top-seeded Alabama and then passing Creighton last weekend, the school had never made it past the knockout stages. 20 team, and each is only playing due to NCAA rules allowing those affected by the pandemic an additional season of eligibility.

“It’s a blessing,” Seiko said. “It really is a blessing.”

The same is true for those with ties to the state of San Diego who have experienced growing up difficulties. The school has only one national championship in anything – men’s volleyball in 1973 – then eliminated the sport due to budget cuts in 2001.

The football program saw some glory in the 1960s with Air Coryell – the eponymous high-powered passing offense of coach Don Coryell, who would be posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August – and again briefly in the early 1990s with star running back Marshall Faulk. But the basketball program had mostly remained lost in the desert.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. San Diego State poached Wyoming coach Jim Brandenburg after the Cowboys upset UCLA en route to a round of 16 in 1987. But it turned into a disaster and Brandenburg was sent back to his fifth season.

The Aztecs explored the possibility of signing Jerry Tarkanian when he was in exile from college basketball after leaving the University of Nevada-Las Vegas amid a battle with the NCAA in the early 1990s, but he was too controversial for school administrators.

“It’s been a long and arduous journey for college,” said Michael Cage, a San Diego State star forward from 1980-84 who played 15 seasons in the NBA and is now a broadcaster for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Cage added: “There’s no prouder alumni in the world than me right now. Because when I got there, the technical staff didn’t even have offices. They had caravans. across from the Peterson Gym.

The Aztecs played some of their home games in the 1980s and 1990s at the Peterson Gym, an on-campus building that was essentially a glorified high school. It was a sight to behold in December 1992, when a 22nd-ranked UNLV, led by coach Rollie Massimino, arrived like rock stars and played the Subdivision I structure in front of 3,538 people.

The rest of the home program took place in the city’s sports arena.

“I had to drive almost half an hour for my own home games,” said Cage, the NBA’s highest draft pick — No. 14 overall in 1984 — from San Diego State. . “And we didn’t have a training center, we just had the Peterson Gym. I spent a lot of time after practice on the basketball courts outside shooting at night because someone else had to come into the gym.

Viejas Arena opened in 1997, giving the program an on-campus home on par with other Division I. Fisher and Dutcher programs, in part because they could use the facilities — including a practice gym – to their advantage when recruiting, arrived two years later. At that point, the Aztecs had only played three NCAA tournaments in three decades. The program was so decrepit that Fisher’s first team was 5-23 overall and winless in the Mountain West.

Now, Dutcher has been on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach for 21 of the program’s 24 tournament games and for his 10 wins.

Until Kawhi Leonard, who is now with the Los Angeles Clippers, the most well-known Aztec basketball player other than Cage was Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. A point guard from 1977 to 1981, Gwynn remains the school’s career assists leader (590) and coached the school’s baseball team after his retirement.

“Completely different worlds, quite frankly,” said Tony Gwynn Jr., who played baseball for his dad in school from 2000 to 2003 and is now the Padres’ radio analyst after a major league career. . “I remember Coach Dutcher personally walking around campus and inviting students to games. He was on campus all the time, it was like.

Even with Leonard and, finally, a plush arena with a boisterous student section, the Aztecs felt capable of more. What they thought was a winnable game ended in a loss to Connecticut in the Round of 16 of the 2011 tournament in front of a friendly crowd in Anaheim, California. It was a contest that resulted in two questionable technical fouls against San Diego State, including one against Leonard. UConn won the national title this season.

UConn, which faces Miami in the other semifinal on Saturday, is hiding in Houston, but for now it’s a 35-3 Florida Atlantic team the Aztecs are focusing on.

“It would be like us with our 30-2 team, people asking, ‘Do they look like a Power 5 conference team? ‘” Dutcher said. “We were 30-2 and had the best record in the country, and they’re the same way right now. They should be respected for that.

San Diego State’s 31 win percentage is tied for third in Division I. And since the start of this 2019-20 season, the Aztecs’ 82.9 winning percentage ranks third behind Gonzaga and Houston.

The Aztecs prove themselves on defense and, in four games, this tournament holds opponents to 17 percent on 3-point shooting (16 for 94).

“It’s a testament to the culture that Coach Fisher and Coach Dutcher have built at SDSU,” Gwynn Jr. said, referring to the team’s two 30-game winning campaigns in four years. “These kind of seasons don’t happen all the time, even for blue bloods, do they?”

Where they rarely filled the tiny Peterson Gym, the Final Four Aztecs were greeted by students and supporters as they returned to the South Regional campus in Louisville, Ky., at 1 a.m. Monday. Guards Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell, who made the game-winning free throw in the regional final against Creighton, spoke on Tuesday about posing for selfies and receiving kudos during a trip to the beach later during the day. Cage, who was excused from two Thunder shows this weekend so he could attend the Final Four, said he’s heard from more Aztec fans this week than ever before.

According to Dutcher, the basketball program is now the “gateway” to a “great university.”

“We can’t say the Final Four is the end of everything,” Dutcher said. “It’s the start. So now we have to try to find a way to win two games and hang a championship banner.

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