SDSU aims for glory against UConn
Dr. Stephen Weber of San Diego State jokes that although he might be a university president, he's not stupid.
Yes, he knows who Kemba Walker is. Yes, he knows his Aztecs have an RPI that's among the highest in the country. In fact, Weber has been following the NCAA tournament closely in advance of the school's regional semifinal game against Connecticut on Thursday.
"The thing that is most striking right now is how many Big East teams have gone down in flames," said Weber, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame. "Just an observation."
Unlike a storied UConn program that has reached its 16th Sweet 16 and has won the NCAA championship twice, No. 2 seed San Diego State had no history of NCAA tournament success before last week.
The Aztecs didn't become a Division I program until 1970 and ended 40 years of frustration with their first two NCAA tournament victories, against Northern Colorado and Temple.
The breakthrough into the Sweet 16 has set the stage for 34-2 San Diego State to take an even bigger leap as a program if it can defeat the No. 3-seeded team led by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun and Walker, one of the best scorers in the country.
"A win against UConn, I think in the image for the city and the people that have been watching us, would be huge," said Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay. "But for us as a team, a win in the tournament against anybody is a big deal. I think the politics behind it, it would be a nice thing on the résumé."
Aztecs fever has spread beyond Southern California, where, as of Wednesday evening, fans hoping to purchase a ticket on StubHub were being asked to fork over at least $419 to sit in the upper corner of the Honda Center.
When the UConn showdown was set, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher received a call from former guard Kelvin Davis. The Waterbury, Conn., native started on last year's Aztecs team that lost by three in its first-round upset bid against Tennessee and wanted to offer up his scouting report on the Huskies. He had been watching this year's tournament among UConn fans.
"Everybody in the country knows it's a great team," Davis said of UConn.
And there is at least one huge Aztecs fan in Valladolid, Spain. That's where Marcus Slaughter, the third-leading rebounder in school history, plays professionally and has been watching the NCAA tournament while bragging to anyone who'll listen about his alma mater.
"People are calling me for tickets to the games while I'm in Spain," he wrote in an email.
Fisher has repeatedly told the story of how, in the early years after taking the San Diego State job in 1999 and going 5-23 that first season, he would walk around campus with tickets stuffed in his pockets, looking to give them away for free.
Smokey Gaines, who coached the team from 1979 to 1987, recalled the days when the team facilities were so lacking that his office was in a trailer. He managed to lead the Aztecs to the program's last NCAA tournament appearance before Fisher's arrival. San Diego State lost by five points to UNLV in that 1985 first-round game.
"They were big-time," Gaines said. "We were little kids from San Diego and the sunshine."
San Diego State has had other opportunities to shock the world in the NCAA tournament. In 1976, the Aztecs lost by 10 to defending national champion UCLA, a team that would ultimately reach the Final Four. Under Fisher, they lost to No. 4 seed Illinois in 2002, to No. 6 seed Indiana in 2006 and to No. 6 seed Tennessee last season. Gaines said a win against UConn would be especially meaningful.
"They would move up in the higher echelon," he said. "San Diego State would take another step up.
"But really what put the program on the map is when I saw they beat Gonzaga at the beginning of the year."
San Diego State began the season ranked in a national poll for the first time and needed only its second game to prove it belonged, going to Spokane, Wash., and beating the Zags 79-76 on national television. The Aztecs started the season 20-0 before losing at BYU, the only team that has beaten them this season, and went on to set a school record for wins.
Gonzaga, which has won 11 consecutive regular-season WCC titles and has gained national recognition as a mid-major power, is the program Slaughter envisions San Diego State becoming.
"Now if they make it past UConn I feel like this will set the program up for success from here on, becoming a program like Gonzaga which has been consistent in making the tourney as well as having deep runs in it," he wrote.
San Diego State is being set up for future success. The program has focused its recruiting efforts on bringing in a mix of high school players and transfers, mostly from California, and the exposure it is receiving can only help.
Kawhi Leonard, a former California Mr. Basketball, has emerged as not only the team's leading scorer and rebounder but also a likely future NBA draft pick. He is a walking billboard for Fisher, who, when asked last March about luring Leonard away from higher-profile schools, said, "We don't have to get on knee pads to recruit against the Pac-10."
Said Leonard: "Next year, people will still look at us as San Diego State, so we've got to win a game and keep going on."
Weber, who is retiring at the end of the school year, departs at a time when school pride is high. Donations made to the athletic department have quadrupled, as have new lifetime memberships in the alumni association during the basketball season.
He received the ultimate parting gift March 5 after the Aztecs' 66-48 win against Colorado State in the regular-season finale that clinched a share of the Mountain West Conference title, climbing a ladder to snip off a piece of the net.
Before the game, Weber had agreed to lead The Show, the school's raucous student section, in its traditional chant, and he jumped up and down right along with the delirious fans at Viejas Arena.
"I believe that we will win!" they declared. "I believe that we will win "
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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