San Diego State known as king of Southern California basketball after beating UCLA

Posted: 12/01/2012 in college basketball
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When I was growing up in Southern California, UCLA was the undisputed king of college basketball.

The Bruins had their pick of the region’s plentiful talent and overshadowed everybody else on the Pacific Coast. There was never any debate over who had the top program in the West until Lute Olson built Arizona into a power out in the desert of Tucson.

San Diego State always was on the other end of the spectrum. A bad basketball program in a horrible basketball town that saw two NBA franchises flee and an ABA team fold. The Aztecs were bad when I covered them in college and then downright atrocious when I began covering them as a professional.

They hired a junior college coach named Fred Trenkle and played in dingy Peterson Gym, which wouldn’t even have ranked as a good YMCA gym in Uganda. The program moved into its current sparkling arena but was still so bad that it went 4-22 in Trenkle’s final season and 5-23 in Steve Fisher’s first campaign.

If somebody would have dared to whisper “San Diego State is going to beat UCLA someday,” the person would have been immediately shipped to a mental ward or designated as future food for the lions at the San Diego Zoo.

But here we sit on December 1, 2012 and guess who just beat the mighty Bruins in a college basketball game? Yep, the Aztecs of San Diego State.

The Aztecs defeated UCLA 78-69 in Anaheim in the Wooden Classic, named after legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, perhaps the top coach of ANY sport in the history of the planet. It was San Diego State’s first win over the Bruins since 1940 – five years before the 67-year-old Fisher was even born.

Jamaal Franklin scored 28 points, Xavier Thames tallied 19 and hit five of San Diego State’s 11 3-pointers and the Aztecs were better than UCLA’s ballyhooed crop of freshmen that are supposed to be boosting Ben Howland’s program back to elite status.

The victory was San Diego State’s 11th straight over a Pac-12 program and it definitely settles any debate on which program is the best in Southern California.

That would have been a highly ridiculous notion when Fisher arrived at San Diego State. I recall counting a total of five people in the student section at one of Fisher’s initial home games as coach. Later in the season, another reporter and I counted 13 and a school official joined in with laughter when I said, “Hey, the student section has almost tripled.”

It was a bleak situation much different than what San Diego State now enjoys – strong community and student support along with an elite program that has strung together seven straight 20-win seasons and even advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament two seasons ago.

The Aztecs and Bruins hadn’t played since 1991 prior to Saturday’s meeting. During Steve Lavin’s tenure as UCLA coach, Fisher told me that Lavin told him the Bruins would never come down and play in San Diego. So Fisher decided San Diego State wouldn’t play at UCLA either so I never once covered a game between the two schools in 13 years on the beat.

After Saturday’s neutral-court setting in Anaheim turned into a San Diego State home crowd, Howland may be afraid to play the Aztecs anywhere.

In fact, it perhaps is no longer his call. The best program in Southern California isn’t located anywhere close to Westwood.

It calls Montezuma Mesa home – and San Diego State punctuated that point home by impressively beating the Bruins.

That there is no longer any debate over who is the king of college basketball in Southern California must be a real uncomfortable feeling from UCLA’s end.

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