Fisher puts SDSU on NCAA tourney map
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Once upon a time, Steve Fisher was a fixture in late March, almost as much as Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Calhoun or Old Roy Williams. Fisher coached an NCAA championship team in 1989, a runner-up in '92, a runner-up in '93, a regional finalist in '94. There was an NIT championship in '97, his last as a Michigan man. And then, poof, Fisher was gone from Ann Arbor, to a school, San Diego State, that couldn't even qualify for its conference tournament, much less the Big Dance. "I didn't listen to anybody other than my wife when I went looking at this job," he recalled the other day.
It's a good thing Fisher didn't entertain other voices because most of them, considering San Diego State had suffered through 13 losing seasons in 14 years, would have told him to run as fast as possible in the other direction. Thursday, a dozen years of building and patience finally paid off when San Diego State beat Northern Colorado 68-50. Fisher's team had won a game, at long last, in March. Not just his first, but also the school's first -- ever. "It's well-documented," Fisher said, "this is our first NCAA postseason win."
And while his players, who have lost a grand total of two games this season, tried to dedicate the game to Fisher, the coach said at the end of their testimonials, "This win wasn't for me. This win was for our program, our team and everybody that's been involved in our program. This was a win for everybody that's been associated with San Diego State. And I need to go beyond our 12 years. For everybody that's put on a San Diego State uniform or walked the halls and gone to class there, we got a lot of proud Aztecs today. I would have been despondent had we not won today."
It's too big a school to be a March Cinderella story, but a decided absence of basketball pedigree makes San Diego State a curiosity as a No. 2 seed in the West, even coming off a 32-2 regular season, with both losses coming to conference rival Brigham Young. Fisher surely is expected to last in this tournament longer than his former school, Michigan, even though his current team is far from what we usually consider complete. He's got a couple of notable players, starting with first-team All-Mountain West forward Kawhi Leonard and ace point guard D.J. Gay. There's a nice rhythm shooter named James Rahon, and plenty of guys who can go get it off the glass.
The team's strengths (and weaknesses) are pretty obvious. They play with a Tasmanian Devil sort of energy level. Inescapable man-to-man defense is no problem and neither is rebounding. Fisher makes no bones of this when he says, "We're a good defensive team. We led our league in [opponents'] field goal percentage and [opponents'] 3-point field goal percentage. We've done a really good job of not giving teams transition open looks. And that wins for you. We have a defense that we hang our hat on. And it starts with how you guard. We've got a variety of people that can go after the ball and we've got length. We pursue the ball."
The question about the Aztecs, as they move into games with tougher opponents -- like Saturday's second-round game (regardless of any nonsense the NCAA puts out there, Saturday's and Sunday's games are indeed second-round games) against Temple -- is whether they're up to the task offensively. In their first loss to Brigham Young, the Aztecs made only 22 of 62 shots. And in the regular-season rematch, in San Diego, the Aztecs were a little better but still made only 25 of 63 shots for a two-game total of 37.6 percent against BYU.
A composite of the notes of several different NBA scouts would essentially say that opponents should make the Aztecs make basketball plays, particularly tough shots, not athletic plays, because they're not an especially skilled team. Athletic feats they can perform all day. Set the pace you want and don't let them dictate the terms of the game because they're particularly capable of that, less so of reacting to it. Northern Colorado Coach B.J. Hill spoke to elements of that after his team's loss when he said, "With how hard they push the ball in transition, and they have so many guys that can bring the ball up in transition, it puts so much pressure on your defense that it's just difficult to defend for 40 minutes."
So, while it's not exactly Fisher's Fab Five Michigan team, San Diego State does have an identity and one that Fisher is comfortable with in this, his 20th full season as a head coach. That, of course, doesn't count the first season, the partial season, the one where Michigan AD Bo Schembechler appointed Fisher head coach before the 1989 NCAA tournament to replace his departing boss, Bill Frieder, who ironically, was sitting courtside Thursday working the broadcast of Fisher's game. Fisher went 6-0 that season and a career was born, one which has seen him win 415 games, including Thursday's.
His old Fab Five team, particularly one of his favorite players ever, Jalen Rose, is back in the news because of the ESPN documentary by the same name and Rose's comments about Duke which have sparked national conversation. Fisher still talks with Rose, who'll call and send his old coach text messages after a tough loss (not that there have been many lately). Rose even called Fisher and insisted on sending him an advance rough cut of "The Fab Five" when it was finished. "I watched it," Fisher said. "I smiled. It brought back a lot of memories. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good portrayal of who they were and what happened. Our kids found we had a copy. We bused home after the game and they wanted to watch it. Most of them weren't even born when the Fab Five played, but they had fun with it." You think the hype machine will be churning if Fisher's team advances to play Duke, the object of all that Fab Five hate, in the regional final in Anaheim next weekend?
If there's anything Michigan and San Diego State have in common, it's that recruiting was the critical element to each building effort. "I felt that from the city to the university to the brick-and-mortar to our arena -- and some of you have been in our building; we've got a really, really beautiful state-of-the-art arena -- I said, 'Why can't we be good?' I knew other coaches had been there, guys with résumés who had been there and struggled. But they didn't have the luxury of having that building. So I had an advantage over the others. We said, 'We love the kids that we have but we've got to get better players.' So we went out and worked hard on the recruiting trail, which is what everybody has to do if you are going to get good. And you know, we got good. And now we've gotten real good."
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
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