Posts Tagged ‘Brian Dutcher’

Steve Fisher has retired as San Diego State basketball coach and it certainly is the right time for his departure.

His final team wasn’t all that good — 19-14 to snap a streak of 11 straight 20-win campaigns — while playing in a Mountain West that was mediocre at best and now firmly entrenched as a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

Several times this season, I tossed out social media comments that it would be Fab Five Fish’s final season. It just had that feeling about it.

Longtime assistant coach Brian Dutcher — one of the most genuinely nice people in college basketball — takes over the program.

Fisher, 72, went 386-209 in 18 seasons with the Aztecs and posted 12 20-win seasons and led the program to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a string of six straight.

Making six straight NCAA Tournament appearances was surreal for a program which was among the worst in the nation when Fisher was hired.

Remember, I was covering that awful program when Fisher was hired and he was far from the preferred target.

I broke the story that then-Utah coach Rick Majerus interviewed for the job and Majerus was close to taking it a few days later before he said no. Fran Fraschilla also was offered the job (nope, I didn’t break that one) as was then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson (yep, broke that one and was waiting at the airport for his Sunday night flight to arrive and when he didn’t come out of the jet way, I knew that was a problem for San Diego State).

At that point, then-athletic director Rick Bay turned to Fisher, who was desperate to get back into college coaching. He had been fired at Michigan a few years earlier and I still remember how stunned I was upon meeting him that he had gray hair in 1999, just a few years after having a full head of brown hair while coaching the Wolverines.

The Aztecs were putrid in his first season and went 5-23 and then Fisher booted five inherited players off the team to free up scholarships.

Two seasons later, led by junior-college transfer Randy Holcomb, the Aztecs made the NCAA Tournament. Credibility had arrived for a program that previously had none.

Eventually, the 20-win seasons became an annual thing but there was still the matter of the program having ZERO NCAA Tournament wins. And you really don’t have a program if you’ve never won an NCAA Tournament game.

Finally, the Kawhi Leonard-led Aztecs had the best season in program history in 2010-11 with a 34-3 mark — a season that will still be the best in school history in 2117 if the world exists.

San Diego State finally got that elusive NCAA tourney win by beating Northern Colorado and eventually lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Connecticut. The Aztecs also topped 30 wins when they went 31-5 in 2013-14 and again reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Arizona.

If you haven’t figured it out, 30-win seasons aren’t supposed to be accomplishments achieved by the San Diego States of the college basketball landscape.

Last season’s final hurrah was not a good one for Fisher but he certainly elevated the program to heights nobody foresaw. Dutcher has been his right-hand man for all of those 18 seasons so the program philosophy won’t change.

The challenge for Dutcher is to have last season’s subpar campaign be an aberration. Once programs like San Diego State fall back into being just another mid-major program in a poor basketball league, it becomes harder to rise back up. Isn’t that right, UNLV?

But know this: Dutcher steps into a far better situation than the one Fisher inherited. The days where nobody cared that San Diego State even had a basketball program seems like centuries ago.

It was a good run for Steve Fisher but good for him to recognize that it was time for him to depart.

Advertisements

The opportunity is there for San Diego State to elevate its stature to a national-caliber level.

All the Aztecs need to do is defeat Arizona in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game in Anaheim.

Yeah, I know, much easier said than done – particularly since the Wildcats have more talent, won on San Diego State’s home court earlier this season and just destroyed Gonzaga in the round of 32.

But you know what – No. 1 seeds like Arizona do get upset in the Sweet 16. Heck, one-seed Wichita State has already been bounced from this tournament prior to the Sweet 16.

So no matter how terrific the Wildcats looked last Sunday, anything can happen when Arizona and San Diego State tip off at the Honda Center. Doesn’t hurt that many Aztecs’ fans will make the 90-mile drive up Interstate 5. (see stellar preview here — http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/ncaab-preview.aspx?page=/data/NCAAB/matchups/g6_preview_14.html)

Perhaps the real question is whether or not the fourth-seeded Aztecs are ready to make their breakthrough. Remember, San Diego State entered this year’s tournament with THREE NCAA WINS in school history.

Last week’s two wins were against double-digit seeds – No. 13 New Mexico State and No. 12 North Dakota State – so the Aztecs still remain without what can be termed as a top-flight NCAA tournament win.

San Diego State’s two NCAA victories in 2011 were against No. 15 Northern Colorado and No. 7 Temple and last season’s victory came against No. 10 Oklahoma.

As you can see, the Aztecs have only beaten one single-digit seed, which is partly why many national analysts have been naysayers and why some were picking North Dakota State to record an upset.

That perception changes if San Diego State knocks off an elite program like Arizona and is playing for a Final Four berth this Saturday.

The Aztecs are already riding guard Xavier Thames about as hard as humanly possible and sixth man Dwayne Polee II – how great is that “Trampolee” nickname? – has emerged as the team’s second-best player despite not receiving even one minute of action in the early-season loss to the Wildcats. But to beat Arizona, frontcourt players Josh Davis, JJ O’Brien, Skylar Spencer and inconsistent wing Winston Shepard all need to be in top form.

Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon is elevating his game at the right time of the year and guard Nick Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. But there will certainly be more pressure on the Wildcats as a few pundits have began pointing out that Arizona coach Sean Miller might be the best coach in the nation who hasn’t reached a Final Four.

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher and exceptional assistant Brian Dutcher have been on the big stage before but now need to come up with perhaps the best game plan of their careers. And then, of course, do it again two days later should the Aztecs upset the Wildcats.

But first things first – can San Diego State notch the biggest victory in program history?

The Aztecs have proven in recent seasons that they can play with the Wildcats. Beating them in the Sweet 16 would rank as an epic event.

So opportunity knocks.

Will there be an answer?

It is time for San Diego State to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Period.

When you earn a 4 seed in the 68-team field, it means the selection committee feels you are a Sweet 16 squad. So anything short of playing in the second week would be a huge failure.

A first-game loss to New Mexico State – coached by former Aztecs assistant Marvin Menzies – would rate as a huge disappointment. Losing in the round of 32 to either Oklahoma – a squad San Diego State defeated in last year’s tournament – or upstart North Dakota State would also rate as a subpar showing.

The school likes to boast about how its program is now among the best on the West Coast and this is the season to prove it. Even with all the accolades and honors over the past decade, San Diego State still only has three measly NCAA tournament wins in its history.

Repeat, three. Let that sink in – THREE.

Two of those three wins were in the same season when an NBA talent named Kawhi Leonard was on the roster and guided the Aztecs to the Sweet 16.

The other NCAA victory came last season but was followed up by something that is soooooooo San Diego State when it comes right down to it. The Aztecs were punked – and dunked – out of the building by 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast.

The four-team group San Diego State (29-4) is part of this season is easily manageable. Even though Menzies knows the thoughts of coach Steve Fisher and lead assistant Brian Dutcher like the back of his hand, his Aggies shouldn’t be able to defeat the Aztecs unless center Sim Bhullar – all 7-foot-5, 355 pounds of him – makes like “Man Mountain Mike” of wrestling fame and tramples each San Diego State player one at a time.

Barring that occurrence, I don’t see the 13thseeded Aggies having a realistic shot at the upset.

The fifth-seeded Sooners are better than they were last season but San Diego State should still get past them unless Oklahoma goes nuts from behind the 3-point line and the Aztecs fall into one of their patented ruts where they can’t score.

And I can tell you this from all the years I covered San Diego State’s basketball program – Fisher owns Sooners coach Lon Kruger. Fab Five Fish won 13 of the 18 head-to-head meetings when Kruger was UNLV’s coach.

North Dakota State isn’t a bad 12 seed but the squad would be mighty ecstatic just by beating Oklahoma and getting the program’s first-ever NCAA victory. Would the Bison and star player Taylor Braun be able to bounce back with a second premier performance two days later?

San Diego State fans are already salivating about the possibility of a rematch against top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim – one of the Aztecs’ four losses was to the Wildcats – but shouldn’t get too far ahead of themselves.

The focus needs to be on San Diego State — and standout guard Xavier Thames — taking care of business in Spokane first.

When you have a 3-9 overall record in your entire NCAA history – remember, it takes six wins to claim a national championship – the schools you face are not going to be intimidated. The Aztecs aren’t Arizona or Duke or Kansas or Louisville or Michigan State or even Villanova and opponents aren’t going to wilt at the sight of them.

I covered the first NCAA tournament game of the Fisher era in 2003 and the Aztecs didn’t even belong in the United Center with Illinois and were crushed 93-64.

I covered the second NCAA tourney game of the Fisher era in 2006 and the Aztecs fell apart in the final half-minute (or as the red-haired Union-Tribune reporter termed it to me immediately afterward – “they choked”). Indiana had no business winning the game but Brandon Heath – showing exactly why NBA scouts felt he didn’t have the ball-handling skills to play in their league – dribbled the ball off his own calf with San Diego State possessing the lead and the Hoosiers stole a victory.

It took four years after that for the Aztecs to get back to the NCAA tournament – thankfully I was no longer in the declining newspaper industry – and I remain surprised that San Diego State lost to Tennessee in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

Then came the Sweet 16 squad – the victories were over Northern Colorado and Temple – and there was no shame in losing to a Connecticut squad led by Kemba Walker that won the national title.

The following year (2012), I correctly predicted that San Diego State didn’t match up well with North Carolina State and the Aztecs proved me correct with a 14-point loss.

Then came last season’s win over Oklahoma and the loss to Florida Gulf Coast and now you can only wonder if San Diego State is ready to make its mark.

The Mountain West has been a huge disappointment in recent NCAA tournaments so the pressure is certainly on both San Diego State and New Mexico not to underachieve this season.

Two of San Diego State’s four losses this season were to the Lobos and the signature victory was a road win at Kansas. The Aztecs defeated certain national Player of the Year Doug McDermott and Creighton on a neutral court and were a stellar 14-3 away from home.

But none of this means anything when the NCAA tournament starts. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the shameless self-promoters at San Diego State fancy the school as one of the best programs in the nation.

Put it this way: The top programs in the country make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

Right now – in 2014 – it is simply time for San Diego State to step up or shut up.

Two victories should be a mere formality. Win three games and reach the Elite Eight and the program can brag all it wants.

Don’t make it out of Spokane unblemished and the season rates this way – a huge disappointment.

Period.