San Diego State: California’s Best TeamPosted by AMurawa on December 2nd, 2012
Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and a Pac-12 microsite writer. He filed this report after Saturday night’s John Wooden Classic between UCLA and San Diego State in Anaheim.
When asked Saturday night following San Diego State’s nine-point win over UCLA at the Wooden Classic whether the Aztecs’ 26-game winning streak over teams from the state of California was proof that, for now at least, SDSU is the best college basketball program in the state, Bruin head coach Ben Howland was not about to play ball. “There are a lot of teams in California,” he said before changing the subject. When Jamaal Franklin was asked a similar question just minutes later, he wasted no time answering in the affirmative, with one caveat: “We are the best, but I’m not saying we’re the best forever.” And whether UCLA’s Howland (or USC’s Kevin O’Neill, or Cal’s Mike Montgomery, or Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett, or any other head coach of a California team whose scalp SDSU has taken recently) are ready to publicly admit it, it is hard to argue the point. Right now the Aztecs are ranked higher than anybody else in the state, and in recent history, they’re the team that has had the most success. The lone Sweet Sixteen appearance by a team from California in the past three years belongs to SDSU; arguably the most accomplished current player in the state (Franklin, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year) calls SDSU home; and as is rapidly become clear, the Aztecs have the best fan support of any team in the state this side of the Lakers.
When Steve Fisher agreed to become the head coach for SDSU 14 seasons ago, the announcement was little more than a curiosity. Having taken Michigan to the mountaintop in his first six games as head coach of that program back in 1989, and then following that up with the fabled Fab Five recruiting class, Fisher was unceremoniously run out of Ann Arbor for his tenuous connection to the scandal that resulted in a vacated Final Four appearances. When he showed up in San Diego, he was taking over a program with zero history that had gone 4-22 the previous season. Two years into the job, he had a .500 ballclub on his hands, and now, in the past seven seasons, his team has racked up a 177-63 record, including the Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010-11. But perhaps the biggest feather in Fisher’s cap has been the explosion of fan interest in the Aztecs. There was a time when this team played in the sterile and crumbling San Diego Sports Arena in front of a handful of diehard fans and maybe a small group of students. Nowadays, Viejas Arena (opened just in advance of Fisher in 1997) is regularly packed to the gills and roaring loud, in part due to its large and vocal student section, The Show. And, as Aztec fans proved Saturday night, they’re ready and willing to go on the road and change any venue within striking distance into a temporary home court; on Saturday night, of the 17,000-plus at the Honda Center, a clear majority of the fans were there to support SDSU.
Much like other programs where one iconic coach comes in and changes the culture (think Jim Calhoun and Connecticut, or Lute Olson and Arizona for the two most obvious examples), it remains to be seen whether the current batch of success will last beyond Fisher’s tenure, but it is undeniable that his achievements there have been extraordinary. And, despite pushing into senior citizenry, he shows no signs of slowing down. On the heels of his development of Kawhi Leonard into a fundamentally sound NBA-ready player, he landed one top-100 recruit last year and has another one coming in next season. While Franklin may not be much longer for this program (he, like Leonard, has improved every step of the way under Fisher and looks ready for the next level), Fisher has done a good job of stockpiling talent and making serious recruiting inroads into areas that had previously been dominated by his competition at bigger schools in the state. So, while schools like UCLA, California, and Stanford may have the history of success (and the spoiled and bored fan bases to go along with it) it is becoming very clear that the state of California now has a new lead dog, the nouveau riche program that Fisher has created at San Diego State.