Kawhi Leonard’s basketball future is forecasted to be very bright. His present isn’t too bad either.

The San Diego State star freshman had 16 points and a tournament-record 21 rebounds as the Aztecs defeated Nevada-Las Vegas 55-45 in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game to secure an NCAA tournament bid for only the sixth time in school history.

Leonard not only grabbed every loose basketball in sight but he knocked down eight consecutive free throws during the final two minutes of the contest as the Aztecs (25-8) pulled away from the host Rebels.

It was a big-time performance by Leonard, who was named Tournament MVP after averaging 14.3 points and 13.0 rebounds over San Diego State’s three consecutive tournament victories.

“Every ball that comes off the board is his and he goes and gets it,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said afterwards. “(Kawhi) plays unafraid and was sensational from the moment he walked on campus.”

Leonard broke former San Diego State standout Marcus Slaughter’s record for rebounds (19) in a Mountain West Conference tournament game. Ironically, Slaughter was the tournament MVP four seasons ago when his rebounding helped the Aztecs reach their most recent NCAA tournament appearance.

“I just came out wanting to win, so I just crashed every board and just got the opportunity to get the rebound,” Leonard said. “And when I stepped to the free-throw line, I was just thinking ‘just win.’ So I just had to make all my free throws for us to win.”

The more I see Leonard play, the more convinced I become that there’s no way he will spend four seasons on San Diego State’s campus. The NBA Draft is more about potential than college stardom and Leonard is only going to get better and better as his offensive game grows. By the time his San Diego State career ends, he’ll be mentioned along with former NBA rebounding champ Michael Cage as the top players in school history.

One leading NBA draft entity already projects Leonard as the No. 19 overall choice in the 2011 NBA Draft, which would be pretty excellent territory for a San Diego State sophomore, particularly since the Aztecs seldom have a player drafted. Randy Holcomb, a second-round pick in 2002, is the only San Diego State player drafted in Fisher’s 11 seasons at the school.

But that topic can wait for another time. Leonard and the Aztecs are more worried about playing NCAA tournament games this March. Billy White, who had 28 points in the semifinal upset of New Mexico, joined Leonard on the all-tournament team and helped fuel the run through the Mountain West tournament.

The Aztecs will find out their NCAA tournament destination on Sunday as one of four Mountain West teams participating in March Madness. New Mexico and Brigham Young have long been locks for the tournament and UNLV (25-8) will receive an at-large berth despite losing to the Aztecs.

San Diego State has never won an NCAA tournament game. The 2006 Aztecs led by Slaughter and Brandon Heath led Indiana in the final half-minute of a first-round game before an untimely turnover by Heath turned a possible victory into a painful defeat.

It was a banner day for San Diego State basketball programs as the school’s women’s team is also heading to the NCAA tournament. Beth Burns’ team defeated Utah 70-60 in overtime behind 22 points from Tournament MVP Quenese Davis and 21 points from standout guard Jene Morris.


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