Posts Tagged ‘Randy Holcomb’

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.

Just think of all the really bad San Diego State basketball teams I covered over the years.

Picture the horrible teams under Jim Brandenburg and the terrible teams put together by Fred Trenkle.

Remember all those junior-college guys and high school guys that had no business being on the roster? Guys pinching themselves that they were actually part of a Division I program.

Oh yeah, we can’t forget Steve Fisher’s first season as San Diego State coach. You know, when he didn’t win a single conference game.

After that season, junior-college star Randy Holcomb orally committed to the Aztecs and during a phone conversation, he asked me to tell him exactly how bad it was.

I told him I was an expert at writing 20-loss stories. He responded that his junior-college team would have routed the Aztecs.

So think of all that and then let it sink in that San Diego State gave its worst performance as a Division I program on Sunday. Yes, the worst.

Worst ever.

Washington punished the Aztecs 49-36 and the putrid 36 points are San Diego State’s fewest since turning Division I in 1969. (see stellar recap here – http://cbpost.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/ncaab-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NCAAB/results/2014-2015/recap889200.html)

Yeah, the No. 13 team in the nation – the Aztecs ought to free fall down the rankings on Monday – just gave a scoring effort worse than all the bad teams in program history.

San Diego State shot 20.4 percent and let’s just say it was a good thing that its last shot – a 3-pointer by Matt Shrigley – went through the nylon or otherwise the Aztecs shoot less than 20 percent.

That’s a pretty low percentage for scholarship players. A collection of cooks, bus drivers and welders might be able to do that.

These Aztecs missed their first 10 shots, were 5-for-30 at halftime and 7-for-47 late in the game en route to the program’s worst shooting percentage since 1996. (Naturally, a team coached by Trenkle). Oh yeah, the starting five was 4-of-36.

Repeat … FOUR OF THIRTY-SIX.

“Our offense was bad and that’s the only way you could put it, and they had a lot to do with that,” Fisher said afterwards. “We had a lot to do with that also. They gave us nothing easy until the very end.”

The previous low for a San Diego State team was 38 points in 1999 — an 86-38 loss at Utah. The next morning, Trenkle announced his resignation. Fisher gets to keep on working.

The scary part is that this San Diego State team has already shot less than 25 percent twice this season in eight games – the other in a win over Cal State Bakersfield (24.6).

Overall, the Aztecs are shooting 39.3 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point range. Forward Winston Shepard, with a skimpy 10.3 average, is the only player averaging double digits.

Unless freshman Trey Kell (7.8) emerges as a bona fide threat, San Diego State might go the entire season without a go-to player.

Playing stellar defense is great and will win the Aztecs numerous conference games. Could win them the conference tournament too.

But here is one fact that always holds true: If you can’t score points, you can’t advance far during March Madness.

Right now, these Aztecs struggle to score and don’t shoot well.

And also are the unhappy owners of the most inept scoring performance in 45 years as a Division I program.

Remember how surreal it felt when San Diego State advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament two years ago?

I used to cover that program when avoiding 20 losses was the season’s big goal and was one of two San Diego writers in attendance when the Aztecs folded under the pressure of the 2006 NCAA tournament and blew a last-minute lead against Indiana.

So it was certainly a weird sight to see a program that had never won a single NCAA tournament game prior to March, 2011 being part of college basketball’s big boys.

Now there is another truly strange thing going on and it involves the NBA Finals. A former San Diego State player is one of the most pivotal players in the series and has frustrated the game’s best player through the first three games.

Former Aztecs star Kawhi Leonard has pestered four-time MVP LeBron James on defense while grabbing 10 or more rebounds in each of the games as the San Antonio Spurs take a 2-1 lead into Thursday’s Game 4 against the Miami Heat. (see stellar Game 4 preview here — http://newsok.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-preview.aspx?page=/data/NBA/matchups/g5_preview_2.html)

The 21-year-old Leonard has tenaciously guarded James and his long arms have made it tough for James to shed his pressure and find space to operate. The best basketball player in the world has yet to score 20 points in the NBA Finals and is averaging just 16.7 points and shooting 38.9 percent from the field.

The basketball world has taken notice of Leonard’s strong play. He was invited to USA Basketball’s summer minicamp in July on Wednesday and national media columnists are using a lot of bandwidth to profile him despite his disdain for lengthy interviews.

“I’m studying my team concepts and just buying into our game plan,” was Leonard’s most insightful comment during Wednesday’s interview session. “That’s all I’m doing — playing hard.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likely wasn’t stretching the truth too much when he pretty much made it clear he might not recognize Leonard’s voice.

“Kawhi has never spoken to me,” Popovich said with his best deadpan delivery. “So I don’t really know what his level of confidence is, but watching him play, it seems he has no problem in that area. He just plays and goes home.”

Leonard is averaging 11 points and 12 rebounds in the NBA Finals to follow up a solid second NBA season. He is a good fit with the Spurs, who feature the businesslike trio of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, possible Hall of Famer Tony Parker and longtime standout Manu Ginobili.

He also is on his way to becoming the most accomplished NBA player in San Diego State history. Of course, his lone competition is Michael Cage, the former NBA rebounding champion who played 15 professional seasons.

In fact, Leonard in 2011 was the first San Diego State player to even be drafted by an NBA team since Randy Holcomb in 2002. Holcomb’s NBA career lasted all of four games and 11 minutes – and he scored two total points.

Someday, Leonard will pass Cage as San Diego State’s top-ever NBA player but for now he’s known as the only Aztec to play in the NBA Finals. And he’s just two San Antonio wins away from becoming famous for being the player that turned King James into Count James on the NBA’s biggest stage.

Probably not a surprise that the first San Diego State player to make an impact in the NBA Finals is the same player who was the star of the school’s lone Sweet 16 team two years ago.

There’s nothing surreal about Kawhi Leonard’s skills. Those are for real.

I kept hearing over recent weeks that Kawhi Leonard’s draft stock has been dropping.

Wasn’t a total surprise to hear such stuff. Despite all the positive attributes to his game, the San Diego State standout doesn’t have the outside shot that most 6-foot-7 NBA players have and he didn’t elevate his game to a higher level during the program’s rare visit to the NCAA tournament.

When Leonard declared for the draft, he was seen as a player who would be selected between the 15th to 20th picks and he was hoping to move into the Top 10 through his workout performances.

The NBA draft is about to commence and I spent the hour before it reading everything I can find about Leonard. I see stuff that he might go as high as the sixth overall pick and there are several mock drafts that have him in the Top 10.

So where is this stuff about his stock dropping coming from?

Going from a mid-first round projection to a Top 10 selection is not a downward spiral.

Regardless, Leonard will be San Diego State’s initial first-round pick since school legend Michael Cage in 1984 and the first Aztecs player to hear his name in the draft since Randy Holcomb went late in the second round in 2002.

His rebounding prowess alone – he had 23 double-doubles last season – will assure Leonard will be a solid NBA contributor. The guess is figuring out how much he can help a team early in his career and then seeing if his scoring abilities improve as he further develops his game.

In a perfect situation, Leonard would have remained in school one more season. He turns 20 early next week and he would have been a preseason All-American if he had returned for the 2011-12 campaign.

He helped the Aztecs to a school-best 34-3 record and the first two NCAA victories in program history so his place in school history is secure. Cage is easily the school’s best-ever player and Leonard is right there in the discussion for second-best despite only playing two seasons at the school.

But this is a weak draft so it made sense that Leonard waved good-bye to text books and hello to large paychecks.

The draft will start soon and it will be interesting to see which team selects Leonard, a player of great promise who works hard and should be a good citizen.

Some other draft thoughts:

–The Cleveland Cavaliers have the first and fourth overall picks in the draft and the scuttlebutt is that the franchise will pick point guard Kyrie Irving of Duke with the top pick. Irving played just 11 college games. If I were running the Cavs, I would take Arizona forward Derrick Williams with the first pick and then take Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight with the fourth pick.

–The biggest area of intrigue is whether the Utah Jazz will take BYU star Jimmer Fredette with the 12th overall selection. The franchise is under a lot of local pressure to do so and can you imagine the uproar if the Jazz pass on Fredette and he becomes a big star elsewhere? The other concern is what if you pick him and his defense isn’t up to par and he becomes a major bust?

–What is Butler star Shelvin Mack doing in this draft? He could have been one of the biggest and brightest stars in college basketball next season and he’s rated nothing better than a second-round pick. With a lockout rating as a possibility, there are several players like Mack that made major mistakes in entering the draft.

San Diego State will be holding a public celebration for its men’s basketball program on Monday, the latest unlikely occurrence associated with a school-best 34-3 record.

Celebrating anything to do with Aztecs’ basketball would have been scoffed at 11 years ago this month when Steve Fisher’s first San Diego State squad didn’t even win a single Mountain West Conference game. Fisher was so disturbed he spent the latter part of March chasing off several of the leftover players he had inherited from Fred Trenkle’s tenure.

When highly coveted Randy Holcomb elected to join the Aztecs in the spring of 2000, he asked me for a scouting report. Holcomb wanted to know how bad the situation was and he got the point when I told him that I was highly proficient in writing 20-point loss stories. Holcomb had his own doozy to drop on me – he said his junior-college team would have routed San Diego State.

As you may know, it’s not good when a junior-college squad has more talent than a Division I program. Holcomb is the only San Diego State player to be selected in the NBA draft during Fisher’s 12 seasons at the school and was the team’s star player when the Aztecs stunningly reached the NCAA tournament in 2002.

During that initial phone conversation, Holcomb assured me the losing was going to stop. Not sure if he or I was more surprised that his final college game occurred at the United Center in his hometown of Chicago in the NCAA tourney.

A guy like Holcomb wouldn’t recognize the atmosphere and buzz associated with the current Aztecs. San Diego State now regularly sells out games and won NCAA tournament games this March for the first time in school history.

Reaching the Sweet 16 this season is easily the biggest accomplishment in program history. Remember, the Aztecs were never previously ranked prior to this season and reached as high as No. 4 in the rankings during their season-opening 20-game winning streak.

Most intelligent Aztecs fans know there was nothing to be ashamed of in losing to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. The Huskies have an elite player in Kemba Walker – he scored 36 points – and got a surprise effort from freshman Jeremy Lamb (24 points) and certainly deserved the 74-67 victory. UConn then beat a solid Arizona squad – there’s no way San Diego State would have defeated Arizona – to reach the Final Four.

One thing that jumped out at me during the Sweet 16 game was that the Aztecs actually had more talent than UConn. Never thought I’d live to see the day when any San Diego State team had better players than any good Big East team.

Point guard D.J. Gay scored 16 points in his final game and is one of the three senior starters – center Malcolm Thomas and forward Billy White are the others – who will be hard to replace. Only time will tell whether sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard has also played his last game at San Diego State.

Leonard surely didn’t step up his game in the NCAA tournament and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the Sweet 16 stage. The fact that he didn’t elevate his game – like Butler’s Gordon Hayward did in the 2010 NCAA tournament – should be a pretty telling sign to him and his family that he needs another season at the college level.

One thing I’ve been saying for months is that players like Leonard – guys with high potential who aren’t fully rounded yet for the pro game – shouldn’t even consider leaving after this season because of the very real possibility of an NBA lockout.

You might notice that the NFL is currently experiencing a work stoppage. Well, it’s always been considered much more likely that the NBA wouldn’t be playing games this fall than the NFL. In fact, the NBA locking out players and trying to fix its issues is a much smarter move than the recent one instigated by greedy NFL owners.

The labor stuff will sort itself out but it will be much better for Leonard’s present and future for him to be playing college games next November instead of playing pick-up games against some random shirtless guys in a dusky gym somewhere while hoping there’s an NBA season.

Remember, we’re talking about a second-team All-American here in Leonard, who is very much on his way to being recalled as the second-best player in program history behind dominating early 1980s star Michael Cage, a guy who spent 15 seasons in the NBA and once led the entire league in rebounding.

None of this is a knock on Leonard. He is going to be drafted and he is going to play in the NBA. He’d just be better served by staying put and being a college star for one more season.

And if he’s back, perhaps there’s another celebration next March. It’s hard to ever foresee 34-3 next to San Diego State’s name again but it no longer seems out of reach for the Aztecs to win NCAA tournament games.

That alone is reason for celebration.

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.