Aztecs in Top 10? Even They Don't Want to Believe It
SAN DIEGO -- As the San Diego State basketball story continues to grow, I have visions of pixie dust descending on the Aztecs. Their burgeoning success feels a bit unreal because there is no framework for it. San Diego State just does not matter in men's basketball. At least, it never did matter to the sport's poll-makers. Until a month ago, in fact, San Diego State had never been ranked in its 90 years of basketball. San Diego State was like Greenland -- large but largely inconspicuous. Here is a big public university in heavily populated Southern California. Yet: 89 years, never ranked.
Now, as if a higher force bestowed powers to make up for those decades, San Diego State is 12-0 and rising in the polls every week. Recent bursts of helium into the SDSU balloon likely will have the Aztecs among the Top 10 when the next polls come out (update: the Aztecs are No. 7 in the latest AP poll). How strange the sight will be: San Diego State with a single digit in front of it. San Diego State near some of the bluest of basketball's blue bloods; Duke, Kansas, Connecticut. Syracuse ... San Diego State.
I wrote three weeks ago that San Diego State is the best team in the West; nonetheless, the idea of SDSU as a national presence remains more concept than reality. It's only December, basketball's version of spring training. That's part of why it doesn't all feel real. It's only December.
"We lose a couple of games, and all of this goes away," said senior point guard D.J. Gay on Saturday.
He added: "As a team we talked about it -- that (rankings) number really means nothing until we get to the NCAA tournament."
A scenic view is its own reward, though, and when San Diego State trucks by on ESPN's rankings ticker this week, have no doubt that Tony Gwynn will smile. And Marshall Faulk will smile. And Michael Cage will smile. Heck, if she sees the polls, Raquel Welch might smile, too, because like the others, she attended San Diego State.*
* If you're too young to know who Raquel Welch is, Google her. You probably won't be disappointed if you're of the XY chromosome. Gwynn, who recently underwent radiation treatment for cancer near his salivary gland, is the baseball Hall of Famer after whom SDSU's baseball stadium is named. Less known is that he was a slick point guard for the Aztecs and is still the school's assist leader. Faulk was a Heisman finalist at SDSU. Cage was a second-team All-American who would go on to play 15 years in the NBA.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher remembers when it was strange not to be ranked among the sport's elite. Of course, Fisher was working then in Ann Arbor. The grandfatherly, yet still cherubic face of the SDSU program both to the outside world and within the SDSU media guide, where 31 photos of him appear, Fisher directed the University of Michigan to its only national title in 1989 and two more NCAA championship games in the early 1990s.
Saturday night, Fisher saw his swift players give a sellout crowd and the visiting opponent a taste of Showtime that would've made Michigan's famed Fab Five, and perhaps the nearby Lakers, exchange chest bumps. The Aztecs made 69 percent of their floor shots in the first half against UC Santa Barbara and led at halftime, 57-29. Three days earlier, UCSB (5-4) had won at No. 22 UNLV, so Gauchos coach Bob Williams was asked to compare the two Mountain West Conference teams.
He rated UNLV a tad quicker on the perimeter and perhaps more physical defensively but said SDSU "is so much better around the rim" that it will pose matchup problems for the Rebels and others.
"They are a really, really talented team," said Williams, who has directed the Gauchos to two NCAA tournaments and five Big West titles in his 12 seasons. "I don't see something they don't do. They have all of the pieces."
Defense, rebounding and unselfishness are SDSU's strengths. Free throws are its Kryptonite, but against the Gauchos, all nine of its first-half free throws were good, along with eight of 13 three-pointers.
"We could've shot it into a thimble and it would've gone in, without hitting a side," Fisher said after the 90-64 victory.
"You play maybe a little better than you are, and maybe we did that, but if we guard really hard, then we'll have opportunities to make easy baskets, which makes you feel good about yourself. Then, your 3s don't seem so forced (and) worrisome."
One of nine unbeaten teams and behind only Duke for the longest active winning streak, San Diego State will be 15-0 when the crystal ball and confetti usher in 2011. Unless, that is, San Francisco, IUPUI or Occidental tosses a banana peel under its feet.
Somewhere ahead, the Aztecs probably will miss too many open shots to survive. They got away with missing all 18 of their 3s against Cal Poly a week ago. In the Mountain West, travel fatigue and elevation will further test them beyond the competition.
Gay, for his part, is concerned about how the Aztecs are performing once the ball is tossed in the air, notwithstanding Saturday's fast start.
"We come out with low energy," he said. "We've been down 20 points. The games that we should be blowing teams out, we're keeping it close. That could come back to haunt us.
"Free throws are always something we can work at," he added.
Whether Fisher and his players can continue to exploit teams in ways distinctive to the calendar also is in question. Two coaches of SDSU's recent victims -- Randy Bennett of Saint Mary's and UCSB's Williams -- each said that San Diego State "exposed" flaws that may not be as pronounced later in the season.
Bennett said his team was still learning how to deal with the bedlam of bad stretches on the road when it withered before a boisterous crowd. Williams said his team panicked as the Aztecs made shot after shot.
"I'm sure they gave people a model of how to attack our zone," he added.
Schedule dynamics also have favored SDSU. "We floated into a perfect storm for San Diego State," Williams said, noting that his team's upset of UNLV, coupled with SDSU's near loss to Cal Poly, likely commanded full attention of Aztecs players leading up to the game.
But barring injuries, the Aztecs should remain the West's top team.
They can draw on both advanced athleticism and know-how when other variables work against them. Four seniors are among their nine regulars. The senior who is Fisher's proxy on the court, Gay, has played in all 114 games since stepping onto campus. He continues to evolve at the point, where he never played until a year ago.
It will take an unusually athletic team to contain SDSU's frontcourt. Take Gonzaga, which beat No. 9 Baylor in Texas on Saturday and lost at home to the Aztecs in November. The Zags were unable to match SDSU's springy group of 6-foot-7 sophomore Kawhi Leonard, 6-9 senior center Malcolm Thomas and particularly 6-8 senior Billy White. Saturday, when Fisher revved up the game's tempo, the quick, long-armed trio fronted SDSU's diamond-shaped full-court press and swarmed UCSB's guards and wings.
"Kawhi Leonard is special," said Williams, using a coach-speak term that means NBA prospect. "I don't know whether (Thomas) is a guy at that next level, but he's so quick, and he's so long, and he's so quick to the ball." A lefty who scored 30 at Gonzaga and is shooting 62.4 percent on the season, the 235-pound White thwarted UCSB's hottest scorer of late, James Nunnally.
At one point as he talked about the Aztecs, Williams smiled and shook his head.
"Boy," he said, "they're having fun."
Said Fisher: "It's fun when you're winning. You can smile. Losers say, 'Deal the next hand.' Winners smile and say, 'Forget about some of the turnovers we had.' "
The Aztecs are also discovering that in the rarefied air where they now live, there's no reason to surf the Internet or watch ESPN to find out where they stand in the AP and coaches polls. They were 11th and 10th, respectively, going into Saturday's game and knew of it almost through osmosis.
"I always wake up to a text message telling me where we're at in the polls," Gay said, smiling. "None of this stuff means anything until tournament time. So we take it for what it is. We enjoy this journey, but at the end of the day, we still have to go out and perform for it to mean anything."