You, San Diego State, Are Best Basketball Team in West
If anybody east of the Mountain Time Zone can identify you, the prize is a free trip to San Diego for your February showdown with Brigham Young University. We'll even arrange a side trip to Sea World.
Take a bow, San Diego State.
The season is still young, but you're looking like more than a flavor of the week or month.
You went to the NCAA tournament last March as a No. 11 seed, welcomed back five seniors and a sophomore star this summer and unveiled a shooter who practiced with you last year.
Then you came out ready to play.
You defeated No. 11 Gonzaga in its home, The Kennel, where the Zags treat most foes like chew toys.
You won a tournament in Flyover Land, culminated by a rout of Miami of Ohio on its court.
Wednesday night, playing in your arena before a sellout crowd, you were ranked higher than you've ever been -- 17th by the Associated Press -- and you acted like you belonged.
It wasn't so much that you defeated another good club from the West, Saint Mary's. More, it was the growth and depth that you showed en route to the 69-55 victory.
"They're a year more mature," former University of San Diego starter Rob Jones said of you after scoring a team-best 17 points for Saint Mary's. "They grew up a little bit."
With your best player -- NBA prospect Kawhi Leonard -- on the bench because of spotty play and two fouls, you outscored the Gaels by eight points over the final 9:31 of the first half. You won the second half, too, even as Leonard, the sophomore star, again cheered from the bench.
Saint Mary's received six votes in the latest ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, but your defense made Gaels coach Randy Bennett feel a breeze in front of the 12,414 spectators.
"They exposed us," said Bennett, who a year ago directed the Gaels to the Sweet 16. "They exposed a lot of things. Most of all, we've got to get mentally tougher."
Four days earlier, the Gaels (6-2) lost by a point to No. 23 Brigham Young on a neutral court in Texas, where Cougars star Jimmer Fredette sank a go-ahead three-pointer with 10 seconds left.
Against you, Aztecs, the Gaels fell behind 14-2 and never caught up.
"San Diego State was tougher for us," Bennett said. "Tougher to score on. BYU is good, though. They're different. BYU is more perimeter oriented. They play off Fredette more. And these guys have more of an inside attack."
When the Gaels (6-2) worked the ball inside, your 6-foot-9 pogo stick, Malcolm Thomas, swatted aside six shots and spooked several other attempts.
When Gaels leading scorer Mickey McConnell got the ball or tried to get it, your senior point guard D.J. Gay made amends.
Gay showed that he's a far better defender than he was a year ago when McConnell rang up 24 points on him in the Gaels' lopsided win at Saint Mary's.
McConnell ended up with two points in 37 minutes. Gay had only one turnover in 40 minutes.
Aztecs, your coach, Steve Fisher, talked afterward more about Gay than any other performer. He's proud of the guard who until a year ago had never run the point. Now Gay looks like he's a point guard.
Fisher told of the latest what-a-difference-a-year-makes moment for Gay that came earlier Wednesday at your practice.
"D.J. watched the game film from last year," Fisher said."I came in and told them, 'I'm so mad about the way we played a year ago.' I said, 'I'm most mad at who DJ?' And he goes, 'Me.'
"I said, 'No, ME. Because it starts with me.' "
With Santa Clara transfer James Rahon now eligible, Aztecs, you all have more room to operate because Rahon's long-distance threat merits attention, as Gonzaga discovered when Rahon hit two long shots and put up 12 points in 29 minutes. So, of course, Saint Mary's crowded the 6-foot-5 sophomore -- and Rahon countered with drives that yielded the majority of his nine points in 20 minutes on Wednesday.
The NBA scouts can't take their eyes off Leonard, your 6-foot-7 small forward who has 22 career double-doubles, yet in the win over Gonzaga it was 6-8 senior forward Billy White who led your offense with 30 points. And if there's an emerging leader behind the scenes, it's the senior Thomas.
"Malcolm, I can't say enough about him," said sophomore guard Chase Tapley, an eager defender who zapped Saint Mary's with 10 quick points late in the first half. "He's improved tremendously. He's more of a leader. He works hard every day at practice and it feeds off on us."
While the frontcourt of Thomas-White-Leonard remains your strength -- and loses little when 7-foot senior Brian Carlwell comes off the bench -- your backcourt is deeper than a year ago not only because of Rahan but also freshman LaBradford Franklin. "L.B. can play," Fisher said after the quick point guard's impressive 10-minute outing against the Gaels.
But listen up, Aztecs.
The easy part is behind you.
Winning your first seven games is good for the RPI and ticket sales, but Fisher's only other Aztecs team to start out 7-0 ended up 22-11 and in the NIT, where it lost in the second round four years ago.
People in San Diego are expecting you to become the first Aztecs team to win an NCAA tournament game.
Historically, SDSU's football and basketball teams have lapsed after everyone tells them how good they are.
Heck, the hometown NFL Chargers have been at their worst when favored to win playoff games at home.
You, Aztecs, no longer are cuddly upstarts.
"We have the targets on our backs now," Tapley said. "It is tough."
How will you respond?
"We're humbling ourselves," Tapley said. "We're going to handle it good because we trust ourselves."
The way Tapley sees it, your defense will carry you, Aztecs, across the inevitable stretches when your shooting goes awry. He cited a "bond" that developed under Fisher's defensive coordinator, Justin Hutson, late last season and would lead to your championship run in the Mountain West Conference tournament and the scare that you put into sixth-seed Tennessee in the NCAAs.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Tapley said. "And we have a great coaching staff. If we listen to them, you're going to see the results like you did (Wednesday) against Saint Mary's."
Bennett said it's "hard to get a good look" against your defense. How to beat you? "Be even more patient," he said.
Fisher insisted that your egos will not run away with you, even though it is nice, he said, "to see a number in front of our name" when San Diego State appears on the ESPN ticker.
He said that the five seniors will not allow you to get "too full" of yourselves.
He said your team captain, Gay, will continue to command your attention.
"He is very, very steady," Fisher said. "You never see him get overly excited. You never see him get too down in the dumps, regardless of what happened. Our team has taken on his personality a little bit."
The best part of this journey, Aztecs, is that Fisher has only one job now -- to coach you.
When you were in elementary school, Fisher was in his first year of trying to resurrect the SDSU program that in no way resembled the blue-blooded Michigan enterprise that he'd overseen.
Those Aztecs of 1999-2000 usually played home games in front of about 2,600 fans and some 10,000 empty seats
"When I first started out here, I was the 'Ticket Man,' " Fisher said late Wednesday, sounding, and looking like, a grandfather to the program. "I probably could've been put in jail. I had tickets in every pocket. I'm going all over campus trying to give 'em away."
Wednesday morning, Fisher looked out of his office window and saw a line outside the arena's ticket window. Used to be, that only happened when Prince or another musical performer was on the marquee--not Saint Mary's.
The line had grown by the time you Aztecs headed past for the early afternoon walk-through practice.
"Now we're a hot ticket," Fisher said. "It makes all of us feel good. And we're appreciative of the fact our fans have supported us tremendously. And we need to keep 'em coming. It makes you feel good when you've got a lot of folks here."