Away with an Aztec
For the first time in the 21st century the San Diego State University men’s basketball program will be starting a season without legendary basketball coach Steve Fisher. The members of the Aztec family are still trying to adjust to the absence and manage their expectations for the upcoming 2017-18 season led by new head coach and longtime Fisher assistant Brian Dutcher.
“Some people were shocked to hear that coach Fisher was stepping down but many were not surprised,” says SDSU alum David Frerker, chief executive officer of San Diego Sports Domination, a popular local blog and media outlet. “In reality, it was only a matter of time before he retired, he wanted to spend more time with his family and he was signing contracts year-by-year.”
Although in recent times Fisher’s contracts were year-by-year, the stability he provided to the Aztec program for nearly two decades exceeded all expectations from when he took over as Aztec head coach in 1999. Fisher was fresh off a one-year stint as an NBA assistant head coach with the Sacramento Kings after recruiting violations forced him to end his time as coach of Michigan in 1997. After starting his run there with a championship as interim coach in 1989, he cemented his coaching legacy with Final Four appearances with the famous ‘Fab Five’ Michigan teams in 1992 and 1993.
When Fisher joined San Diego State University, the Aztecs had not been to any basketball postseason tournament since their NCAA tournament appearance following the 1984-85 season.
It only took Fisher two seasons to implement his system at San Diego State, so by the third season in 2001-2002 the Aztecs went 21-12 and won their first-ever Mountain West Conference tournament title, and made their first apperance in the NCAA tournament in nearly 20 years. From there the Aztecs became a perennial player in postseason basketball, making either the NCAA or NIT tournament 10 times in the next 13 years, including memorable runs to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in 2011 and 2014.
Needless to say, Dutcher has some big shoes to fill, but his longtime relationship with Fisher has Aztec students, alumni and fans confident in his abilities.
“Dutcher has been with Fisher since his days in Michigan and his entire time at San Diego State, so that is a relief to the Aztec faithful,” says Frerker. “Many believe his coaching style will be almost be the same as Fisher’s which is great because he built an amazing program. We all look forward to seeing Dutcher elevate the program to new heights.”
Putting it on the Players
In order for Dutcher and San Diego State to reach new horizons, he has to build the hopes of the season on two players who have never played a minute of basketball in an Aztec jersey–junior Devin Watson and redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels.
Watson transferred to San Diego State from the University of San Francisco after the 2015-16 season and was forced to sit out one season, as per standard NCAA rules. During his final season with the San Francisco Dons Watson led the team in points per game, assists per game and steals per game.
“He is going to be an exciting player to watch,” says Frerker. “He also may get a ton of playign time as the team’s point guard.”
Watson will have the ball in his hands a lot and hopes to be racking up assists to redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels, a top 100-nationally ranked recruit from the Seattle area. He was named preseason Mountain West Co-Freshman-of-the-Year in 2016 before deciding to redshirt and sit out the 2016-17 season.
“Having basketball as a pride point on a national level is something I would have never expected to see on a national level,” says alumnus Rachel Bowers, who was enrolled at SDSU when they appeared in the NCAA touranment during the 1984-85 season. “With the departure of Fisher we hope that we are not going back to mediocrity and irrelevancy.”
Before Christmas the Aztecs team will get an early season test when they host 2017 national championship runner-ups, the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Viejas Arena in San Diego. This will be the most highly-anticipated game for the Aztecs since their run to the Sweet 16 in 2014.
“When the Aztecs are winning Viejas Arena is the hottest ticket in town,” says Frerker. “This game will be great for thoe program’s national visibility.”
Leaning on Leonard
Another advantage to maintaining the Aztecs’ men’s basketball program is the visibility they receive by having a former player, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, as the NBA’s best all-around player.
“In my opinion the real rise of San Diego State basketball coincides with Leonard’s arrival on campus and the Cinderella season we had in his second season and final season in 2011,” says Frerker. “We sold out over 80 home games in row and Kawhi has single-handedly put San Diego State on another level. The Spurs broadcast teams drop the ‘Aztec 3’ call sometimes when he makes a three-point shot, so every time San Diego State is mentioned in his games it helps out our recruiting.”
What also helps out with recruiting and continuity is that Leonard returns to San Diego during the offseason and works out in the Aztecs premier state-of-the-art basketball facility. With hopefully another decade to play in the NBA, it is a responsibility and legacy alumni are happy are on the well-built shoulders of Leonard.
“He knows how much he means to this program,” says Bowers. “This is an extremely important season for Aztec basketball so with Kawhi providing the visibility and Dutcher providing the continuity we should be just fine.”
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