It's Showtime at San Diego State, but Aztecs Have Work to Do
People who may not have known basketballs from pumpkins endure slow traffic and fill the arena on this hilltop campus, then yell and clap for two hours.
SDSU's amazing season is about a 65-year-old coach who looks like Orville Redenbacher, but crackles and pops like the rowdy students who zing opponents.
"Coach always tells us before the game, 'You know the student section is going to cheer, but let's get these old people out of their seats, let's get 'em cheering,' " said senior center Brian Carlwell.
Fun, that's the ticket.
Coach Steve Fisher believes in fast-break basketball. Building on his recruiting victories, he has his athletic Aztecs defending, rebounding and running to red-line their RPMs.
Especially inside their bowl of a gym, where they've won 17 consecutive games, the No. 6 Aztecs (24-1) feel the need for speed, like the Top Gun pilots who trained north of San Diego
"The most fun thing about basketball is getting out there and running, just having fun," point guard D.J. Gay said late Tuesday, after the 85-53 blow-by of pitiful Utah.
People in Flyover Land or on the Evil Coast can choose to watch snow or watch grinding basketball. Here on the best coast, Showtime is needed to get people into seats. Fisher gets this.
For entertainment value, these Aztecs have given the school a return on investment that even Gotham crook Bernie Madoff would envy. Unable to sell out Pauley Pavilion two hours north of here, UCLA should do the same -- run, run, run.
SDSU's hyper defense is bound to ignite at least one scoring spree that raises 12,414 fans to their feet.
"If we go out and put the pressure on people, especially here, in this environment, a lot of people get down," Carlwell said of opponents. "They get down on themselves, they get down on each other.
"We want to make people quit."
Five Aztecs rammed dunks home on Tuesday, the party enhanced by Utah quitting on defense. One student drew a Facebook thumb's up onto a clever sign --- 12,414 people like this.
No complaints here, but what happens when the calliope isn't playing? When the Aztecs are in the NCAA tournament, locked in a grinding duel?
That's when a team needs a sturdy half-court game. Bulletin: SDSU doesn't have one.
For all the roars the Aztecs generated, Tuesday's loudest was for Marshall Faulk, recently elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.*
*(Faulk inspired a debate among NBA scouts here. Who was the better NFL running back, Faulk or Emmitt Smith? Allow us to settle this one. They were equal as runners. Smith was better between the tackles. Faulk was good between the tackles, lethal in the open field. Faulk gets the nod because he was a mismatch in the passing game.)
Faulk, like the Aztecs ballers that he cheers, impelled old folks to rise from their seats. But as entertaining as he was, all three of his seasons here ended with a losing streak. Largely because of State's flimsy defenses, there was no postseason victory for the three-time All American.
These Aztecs basketball players have earned house money -- the first national ranking in the program's 90-year history -- but the NCAA Tournament, where SDSU is 0-6, will define them to the outside world. And Gay acknowledged that a better half-court offense could be needed then.
"If we're hitting shots, our offense is looking great," he said.
But the Aztecs are still learning how to play without the ball when confronted by a worthy defense. Their only loss, at BYU two weeks ago, owed as much to clunky offense as Jimmer Fredette's 43 points.
"Some of the players are standing there, watching everybody, instead of moving without the ball," said Gay, who has 29 assists against two turnovers in his last seven games. "It's about everybody being on the same page. Sometimes we get a little clustered out there. The ball's in the post, and we're just standing there instead of reacting to the post.
"We still have a lot of learning to do. But I think overall, when it comes to March, we'll be ready."