San Diego State On the Rise?Posted by rtmsf on December 11th, 2011
Four years ago, the San Diego Toreros were taking their turn as the latest mid-major Cinderella, upsetting No. 4 seed Connecticut in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. That same year, San Diego State was smashed in the first round of the NIT, losing 73-49 to Florida. Oh, how things have changed. The Toreros and the Aztecs met at Jenny Craig Pavilion on Wednesday night, and although San Diego put up a good effort, SDSU came away as the clearly superior team. Although the Aztec defense appeared lackadaisical and out-of-whack for stretches of the game, SDSU did what superior teams do, which is to find a way to win the games you should win, even if the team isn’t firing on all cylinders.
At 9-2 on the year and heading into a weaker part of their schedule, San Diego State has once again asserted itself as a team to be reckoned with. This is no small task considering the Aztecs lost four of their five starters from last year’s magical Sweet Sixteen run, including NBA-bound Kawhi Leonard and all-important point guard D.J. Gay. It’s a sign that coach Steve Fisher has truly built a program with staying power, a team that has won 20 consecutive games against California opponents, with quality wins this season over ranked Cal and Arizona teams.
Now, amidst news that SDSU’s other sports besides football will most likely move to the Big West starting in 2013, Steve Fisher is able to respond positively, asserting that the program could stand alone regardless of the conference they played in. He complimented the fiercely loyal fans that some Pac-12 schools are envious of, and he cited the positive factor of the Big West ESPN TV deal. But most of all, Fisher can point to the near-Top 25 success of this year’s team as a sign that the 2011 NCAA Tournament run was not a one-time fluke. SDSU basketball has officially arrived as a program, firmly entrenching itself as the basketball darling of not only San Diego, but quite possibly the entire region of southern California.
A sign of a truly premier team is usually solid depth. Although it remains to be seen whether the Aztecs can perform as strongly in the conference slate, performances like the one by junior DeShawn Stephens against San Diego was a good sign. Usually not a major scorer, the junior college transfer who did not even play basketball in high school filled a void down low as senior forward Tim Shelton played limited minutes due to a knee injury. The 6’8” Stephens repeatedly showed off his superior athleticism, beating the slower USD guards for putbacks and layups. He finished with 16 points and nine rebounds on the night, shooting 7-8 from the field. Having such quality athleticism on your bench, albeit in rather raw form, is a sign of a deep team, one that can sustain injuries and foul trouble.
After the game, USD coach Bill Grier remarked that he was happy that his team competed, which they did. But the talent gap was noticeable, the expectations vastly different. Trying to recover from multiple scandals and several players being dismissed from the team, USD has gone in the opposite direction of SDSU, completely failing to hold on to its potential NCAA Tournament momentum from a few years ago. Considering that USD’s magical run during Grier’s first year in San Diego was led by a roster of former coach Brad Holland’s recruits, Grier’s overall tenure in San Diego has been tenuous at best. Instead of turning USD into a southern Californian version of Gonzaga, Grier has faced FBI investigators knocking on his door in regards to a gambling ring accusation surrounding former star Brandon Johnson.
Although SDSU and USD are very different schools with separate niches in San Diego, SDSU is now clearly the big brother to its next-door neighbor Toreros. The precedent has been set over the last four years, and while Fisher and Grier are both still at their respective gigs, it will be a nearly impossible bullfight for the Toreros to change this fact.