San Diego State clinched the Mountain West regular-season title on Wednesday and it prompted me to dissect the squad.
It seemed a little surreal that the Aztecs were 14-1 in the conference – doesn’t matter if the league is down, 14-1 is hard to do – but I quickly realized the following:
We still have no idea if San Diego State is really any good or not.
I’m thinking we might have moved closer to the answer on Saturday when the Aztecs collapsed against Boise State by allowing the final 12 points to drop a 66-63 decision.
There was no clutch free-throw shooting, there were sloppy defensive breakdowns and … worse … there was no killer instinct against a team missing its top player in James Webb III.
And because of all that, a nine-point lead with 1:04 to play evaporated.
Oh yeah, the 164-game winning streak when leading with five minutes to play also disappeared.
But it wasn’t the worst meltdown of San Diego State’s Mountain West era. I covered the worst collapse back in 2005 when the Aztecs led UNLV by 10 points with 20 seconds to play and managed to choke the game way.
San Diego State thought the game was in the victory column but somebody forgot to tell the Rebels.
UNLV tallied 23 points over the final 1 minute, 45 seconds of regulation and forced overtime on Curtis Terry’s 3-pointer with no time remaining and then won the game in overtime.
Here was the beginning of my story from that Saturday afternoon game:
There were 62 seconds left in regulation when Marcus Slaughter began acknowledging the crowd, waving his arms to encourage the Cox Arena fans to salute an apparent San Diego State basketball victory.
With 28.5 seconds left, Matt Thomas hit two free throws to give the Aztecs a 10-point lead.
What followed was an abrupt collapse reminiscent of the stock market’s steep fall in 1929.
The Aztecs plunged to a new low by disintegrating over the rest of regulation to help Nevada-Las Vegas score an improbable 93-91 overtime victory before 5,897 stunned fans on Saturday.
Kind of funny to recall that the Aztecs were still only getting crowds that filled up half the arena 11 years ago.
But what people also forget is that San Diego State team fell apart after the loss to the Rebels. The defeat was the beginning of a six-game losing skid as the Aztecs lost seven of their final eight games.
That 11-18 season marks the last time San Diego State has compiled a losing record.
So now we get to see how this version bounces back.
Will there be a confidence hit and a hangover that stretches over to future games? Or will there be a much better brand of resiliency than what the 2004-05 squad led by Brandon Heath and Slaughter displayed?
What I do know is the Aztecs (21-8 overall) are now 14-2 in the Mountain West and that is no longer going to be good enough when it comes to the NCAA tournament selection committee.
When thinking it out the other night, I concluded a 17-1 conference mark and two Mountain West tourney wins would sew up an NCAA berth despite the shaky resume that doesn’t have many quality victories.
But that isn’t happening now. San Diego State now needs to play its way into the NCAA field.
Fail to win that tournament and the Aztecs can await on either the NIT or CBI to come calling.
That’s the position the Aztecs put themselves in with Saturday’s collapse.
San Diego State missed seven consecutive free throws during the meltdown. Seven.
That’s no way to win a game.
“If you have seven free throws, you have to be able to make a couple of them,” coach Steve Fisher said afterward. “It’s easy for anybody to say, but sometimes that rim gets tighter and tighter when you miss a couple.”
You have to figure Fisher never thought he’d never see another UNLV-type collapse.
Of course, there also is the infamous NCAA tournament collapse when the Aztecs had Indiana beat in 2006 with less than a half-minute to play and fell apart and lost the game.
The writer who covered the team for the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time came running toward me in the media room in Salt Lake City and he was screaming: “They choked. They f—ing choked.”
And for one of the few times ever, that guy was right.
Now the Boise State game gets added into the category of infamous San Diego State meltdowns. And something Fisher said after the UNLV loss could have been uttered again after the collapse against the Broncos.
“This was a game that you could replay a thousand times and you can’t lose that game, but we did,” Fisher said back then. “Unfortunately, it happened to us.”
And somehow it happened to them again.