Posts Tagged ‘Steve Fisher’

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.

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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.

 

San Diego State has a better football program than it does a basketball program.

Repeat that sentence 10 times without smirking.

Then bust out in howling laughter.

Hard to believe such a thing is true but it is with Rocky Long’s team just one victory away from matching the school record for wins.

The football Aztecs (10-3) have won nine consecutive games and defeated Air Force in last Saturday’s Mountain West championship game. They will meet Cincinnati (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.

They won all eight of their regular-season conference games by double digits. That is one hard feat.

And they nearly swept the conference’s major awards – and that is a super, duper hard feat.

Junior running back Donnel Pumphrey (1,554 rushing yards, 19 total touchdowns) was the Offensive Player of the Year, junior cornerback Damontae Kazee (seven interceptions) was the Defensive Player of the Year, sophomore Rashaad Penny (30.6 average on kickoff returns, two touchdowns) was the Special Teams Player of the Year and Long was named the Coach of the Year.

Long had to work some major magic after a 1-3 start that included a home loss to South Alabama. Not Nick Saban’s Alabama, something called South Alabama.

But he got the team turned around and now it is rolling.

Surely rolling better than during the eight years I was at practice every day covering a dogmeat program. Never once did San Diego State have a winning record with me patrolling the premises.

In fact, the last time the football Aztecs were better than the basketball Aztecs was because the hoopsters didn’t win a single conference game. That would be Steve Fisher’s first season as coach in 1999-2000.

But things haven’t started well for Fab Five Fish this season.

His team didn’t look like any of the recent hard-nosed squads when they lost at Utah. But worse, they had cupcake San Diego Christian up next and only won by 10.

That is the type of team the Aztecs have been beating by 30, 40 or 50 points over the past six to seven seasons.

Then they lost at home to Little Rock, scoring just 43 points. Losing to Little Rock – Little Rock! – anywhere is not good.

The beat down that occurred against West Virginia was even more alarming. Sure, the Mountaineers have a better program but who would expect them to drub the Aztecs by a score of 72-50 on a neutral floor?

And Sunday we got another reminder that these Aztecs aren’t all that solid. They trailed San Diego – known as USD locally – by 21 points in the well-hyped Petco Park contest and lost 53-48.

The Aztecs had beaten the Toreros nine straight times.

And yeah, Kansas is on the docket for Dec. 22. Not Little Kansas but real Kansas.

Real mad Kansas as coach Bill Self hasn’t forgotten losing at home to San Diego State two seasons ago.

Going to be a real big losing margin unless something changes quickly.

The Aztecs (6-4) could help themselves immensely by beating the Jayhawks. That would be a victory that would stand out come March in case San Diego State should be on the NCAA tournament bubble.

And as of right now, that sounds about right. There will surely be five or six upcoming defeats in conference play and San Diego State may have to win the Mountain West conference tourney to be part of the NCAA tournament.

Right now, these Aztecs are NIT material. And that is a fact.

Freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley (12.8) is the lone player averaging in double digits. Senior forward Winston Shepard (9.1) is once again underperforming and sophomore forward Malik Pope (6.1) has to be frustrating the tar out of Fisher.

I sat in on practices dozens of times a season during Fisher’s first eight seasons as coach. You always knew who he felt wasn’t giving the proper effort or didn’t have the right focus.

Something tells me Pope – who actually considered leaving for the NBA after his underwhelming freshman season – is the recipient of many exasperated comments.

Pope is supposed to be a shooter, right? Check this out – he’s shooting 29.2 percent from the field.

Repeat – 29.2 percent.

And NBA scouts think he’s a draftable player? He wouldn’t get selected in the Top 5 picks at the local YMCA based on that kind of misfiring.

The authorities would come take away his shooting license.

So there you go, it is the basketball program that is playing second fiddle.

Could it be the start of a trend? Probably not.

But I used to cover 20-point basketball losses with regularity. Those Aztecs hoopsters were annually among the worst teams in the nations.

Nobody foresaw that change coming.

So who knows whether another changing of the campus guard is about to occur.

The email came across saying “Malik Pope to return to #AztecMBB for 2015-16 season” and I didn’t know whether to laugh a little or laugh a lot.

Like was Pope considering foregoing his eligibility to become an electrician? Was he going to concentrate on his studies in hopes of someday becoming the head of San Diego State’s music department? Or did he think about going to Rome to see what it takes to become a real Pope.

He surely couldn’t have been entertaining the possibility of entering the NBA Draft, right?

Every year around this time, 15 to 20 players who shouldn’t be departing college do so and two years later they wonder why they are playing in Belgium. Or why they’re on their way to being D-League lifers, which places them about two notches above YMCA veteran.

Pope averaged a whole 5.1 points while coming off the bench for the Aztecs. Remember, that is for a team that couldn’t score and desperately needed a player who could score.

The 6-foot-10 Pope has promise – so do most of those other players who depart school early and never make it in the NBA – so this assessment over his decision doesn’t mean he can’t play. He displayed on a couple occasions that he has ability and could develop into a difference-maker.

But reaching double digits a measly four times in 31 games played doesn’t make you NBA ready. What it shows is you aren’t close to being ready to play against grown men for a living and you need to get back in the gym and improve your game.

Pope has been injury-prone so playing a full college campaign next season will be telling. The Aztecs need him to be a double-digit scorer and he certainly should be able to average between 12 and 15 points per game.

My favorite part of the press release is this quote from Steve Fisher.

“After a long discussion with Malik and his family, and after receiving feedback from the NBA office, Malik has decided to return to San Diego State for his sophomore season,” Fisher said.

It was a LONG discussion? Shouldn’t have lasted more than five minutes.

Because Malik Pope isn’t close to being ready to be an NBA player.

Excuse me while I laugh some more.

San Diego State has produced a signature basketball player and nothing seems more surreal than a product of the Aztecs’ program having the label of “NBA Finals MVP” affixed to his name.

Kawhi Leonard will be forever be referred to as the 2014 MVP after winning the honors for leading the San Antonio Spurs to a five-game series win over the Miami Heat. Leonard was sensational over the final three games of the series as San Antonio routed LeBron James and friends. (see stellar recap here – http://cbpost.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NBA/results/2013-2014/recap882694.html).

If the world ends tomorrow, we’ll all know the reason: The creator of the universe can’t fathom this scenario of a San Diego State player being MVP of the finals and shuts down all the planets in response.

I covered San Diego State’s program for 13 seasons and I was an expert at writing about 20-point losses. Few players were actually good, even fewer people attended games and nobody cared the school had a hoops program.

Things eventually got better after Steve Fisher arrived as coach but I still only covered two NCAA tournament games – both losses – over the next eight seasons before being promoted to the NFL beat.

San Diego State finally won an NCAA tournament game in 2011 – yep, with Leonard on the team – and he already had crafted the second-best career in program history in just two seasons before departing for the NBA and landing with the Spurs.

In just three NBA seasons, he has already supplanted Michael Cage – the four-year San Diego State superstar who remains the best player in program history – as the best Aztecs’ player on the NBA level.

Cage won an NBA rebounding crown in the early portion of his 15-year NBA career in easily making the most impact of any player produced by the school. But now, at age 22, Leonard has surpassed him and given the Aztecs the type of marquee product that can deeply aid recruiting.

In the early part of Fisher’s tenure, he attempted to recruit high-level players by bringing up the “Fab Five” players he coached at Michigan. He had nothing to sell at San Diego State other than a vision so it made sense that he was tapping into his past.

With the Aztecs not part of an elite conference, they will always have trouble getting the best of the best recruits – even a local high school All-American like Chase Budinger didn’t give them a sniff – and what happened in these NBA Finals will be a big help.

San Diego State will always be able to point out that it produced a player who was named NBA Finals MVP. Kind of hard for outsiders and other coaches to ridicule that fact.

The cool thing is Leonard is just scratching his potential. When veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire sometime in the near future – and Tony Parker follows suit later this decade – Leonard is going to be the next San Antonio superstar. He is only going to get better as he improves his game.

And the timing of Leonard claiming MVP honors on Father’s day is also significant as his father was murdered more than six years ago.

Pretty good story for a pretty good – and getting better – player. And now someone San Diego State can forever point to as a basketball legend.

As I tweeted seconds after Connecticut defeated Kentucky in Monday’s national championship game:

“John Calipari loses! … The rest of humanity wins!”

My social-media feed displayed comments all night long showing that very few people wanted to see the Wildcats win the national crown so there were a lot of happy folks when UConn prevailed.

Senior point guard Shabazz Napier scored 22 points and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four as the Huskies notched a 60-54 victory over freshman-laden Kentucky to win their second national title in four seasons.

I made fun of Wildcats coach John Calipari on these pages just one day earlier so I will keep it short and sweet this time: It is quite fun to see the shady, egotistical coach get to leave the building as the loser.

And think, the guy helped make me a winner on Saturday. Kentucky’s last-second victory over Wisconsin – courtesy of Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer – made me the winner of the bracket pool I was in.

Seems my loyalty changed pretty fast once the Wildcats and Calipari were of no use to me.

So while I was one of the big winners of March Madness and Calipari was the biggest loser of the tournament, there were certainly other winners and losers over the past three weeks.

Let’s take a look at some:

 

WINNERS

KEVIN OLLIE – The Connecticut coach wins the national title in his second season as coach and is the first coach to win it all in his first NCAA tournament since Steve Fisher with Michigan in 1989. The Huskies are a lot harder to hate with him running the program as opposed to irascible Jim Calhoun.

DAYTON – The Flyers went to the Elite Eight – with two of the victories coming against Ohio State and Syracuse – and were able to retain coach Archie Miller as opposed to a major program luring him away. I also need to thank the Flyers as well as I had them reaching the Sweet 16 and that stroke of genius won me the pool.

MERCER – Kind of funny what can happen when a small-time program gets to play Duke on a neutral court and not in Cameron Indoor Stadium with hand-picked referees. The 14th-seeded Bears’ 78-71 victory over the third-seeded Blue Devils was one of the highlights of the entire tournament.

ALLIE LAFORCE – The CBS sideline announcer had the best tournament of any media member and has landed a promotion to the network’s lead college football announcing team with Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson. The 25-year-old blonde isn’t just easy on the eyes, she’s a former college basketball player who knows her stuff and asks the proper questions and isn’t a sideshow like overrated and often scatter-brained Erin Andrews.

JOHHNY DAWKINS – The Stanford coach was firmly on the hot seat and in danger of being fired if the Cardinal didn’t reach the NCAA tournament. After beating New Mexico and Kansas to reach the Sweet 16, he can rest easy and continue to make a solid living in the Bay Area.

 

LOSERS

COACH K – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suffered an embarrassing upset in the school’s first game for the second time in three years – remember when the No. 2 Blue Devils became one of the few schools to ever lose to a 15 seed when Lehigh beat them in the 2012 tourney? What has become clear is Coach K needs to adjust to the one-and-done era and get his freshmen more battle-tested and, you know, play road games on other people’s courts prior to the start of ACC play.

NEW MEXICO – So perhaps it wasn’t all Steve Alford’s fault for that 2013 tourney loss to Harvard. Craig Neal couldn’t get a victory either as the vastly overrated Lobos continued their annual failures in the one tournament that matters.

STEVE MASIELLO – The Rick Pitino protégé guided Manhattan to the NCAA tournament and tried to cash in his success for a better gig but his hiring as coach at South Florida was overruled when the school conducted a background check and determined he didn’t have a degree. He now is on unpaid leave at Manhattan and will be reinstated as coach once he earns his degree but his ethics will forever carry this stain.

MARK GOTTFRIED – The North Carolina State coach had a 14-point lead over Saint Louis with five minutes to play in regulation and blew the lead and lost the game in overtime. The Billikens scored 21 points in the final 3:01 in regulation as the Wolfpack appeared to have never seen a fullcourt press before or seldom practice free throws (9-of-20 over the final 3:09 of regulation) in an embarrassing collapse.

BIG 12 CONFERENCE – We had it jammed down our throats all season over how good the Big 12 was and the league went just 6-7 in the NCAA tournament despite Baylor being a surprise Sweet 16 team. Iowa State also reached the Sweet 16 but not a single team from the so-called best league in the country reached the Elite Eight and schools like Kansas (second-game loss) and Oklahoma (opening loss) were huge disappointments.

San Diego State’s loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16 can be summed up this simply:

winston.shepard.ballhandlerJohnson was scoreless over the first 37-plus minutes of the game but the easy basket after Shepard’s ill-timed turnover turned his night around. The Pac-12 Player of the Year was 0-of-10 shooting prior to the gift basket and ended up scoring 15 points in the final 2:46 as Arizona pulled out a 70-64 victory.

The Wildcats move on to Saturday’s West regional final against Wisconsin while the Aztecs get to head back down Interstate 5 lamenting that an eight-point second-half lead slipped away. (see stellar game recap — http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/ncaab-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NCAAB/results/2013-2014/recap882324.html)

San Diego State finishes the campaign with a stellar 31-5 record – the second-best mark in school history – but the celebration over a strong season will begin sometime next week.

In the aftermath of a stinging defeat, players and coaches wonder what they could have done to change the outcome and pundits assess where the blame goes.

The Aztecs led for the first 12-plus minutes of the second half before Arizona took its first lead. The momentum had shifted to the Wildcats but San Diego State was just a 3-pointer away from tying the score before the ghost of Brandon Heath emerged.

Heath is the former guard who carelessly dribbled the ball off his own calf when the Aztecs had the lead in the final half-minute of the 2006 NCAA tournament against Indiana. The Hoosiers stole the game and San Diego State would wait another five years to win its first-ever NCAA tournament game.

Shepard’s miscue set the tone for what happened down the stretch. T.J. McConnell stole the ball and the play ended with Johnson’s first basket of the night. He then hit a 3-pointer with 1:50 to play and with his mind no longer clogged up about his poor shooting night, Johnson made 10 consecutive free throws over the final 90 seconds to thwart the Aztecs’ attempt at reaching the Elite Eight for the first time ever.

Obviously, the loss isn’t to be solely pinned on Shepard. San Diego State allowed Arizona to shoot 61.9 percent from the field in the second half and had just three assists all night while shooting 38.9 percent.

Then there is also this huge factor: The top-seeded Wildcats are, well, pretty good themselves.

Arizona is a program used to playing in the Sweet 16 and other big games and the Wildcats picked up their level of play in the latter part of the contest.

Aztecs coach Steve Fisher is trying to get San Diego State’s program to that level – and hard losses like Thursday’s contest is often part of the process.

“We’re newbies to this stage – we’ve only been to the Sweet 16 twice,” Fisher said in the postgame press conference. “And we want more.”

The Aztecs will take another shot next season and it will have to be done without the services of do-everything guard Xavier Thames and rebounding dynamo Josh Davis. But several key players will be back and a highly regarded recruiting class is also on its way.

So we will see next March whether lessons are learned. Remember, the team the Aztecs lost to in the 2011 Sweet 16 went on to win the NCAA tournament. If Arizona joins Connecticut in cutting down the nets, it makes the final game of the 2013-14 season just a little bit less painful when it is recalled years down the line.

Regardless, 30-win seasons sure beat all those 20-loss campaigns San Diego State was once known for.

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.

On one hand, I am surprised that I needed to update this list after the opening game of the San Diego State football season.

On the other hand, I’m not. These are the Aztecs we’re talking about.

If you know your San Diego State history, there is nothing shocking about the Aztecs laying an egg on an athletic field or court. This is the school that went to one measly bowl game – a now-defunct one at that – with Marshall Faulk on the roster and finally won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in 2011.

If you can’t take advantage of having a once-in-a-generation player like Faulk in your program, then it stuns nobody when you do what the Aztecs did in their 2013 football season opener.

San Diego State lost to an FCS school named Eastern Illinois. Check that, they got CLOBBERED by the lower-level school. At home.

Adding to insult is they paid the Panthers $325,000 to make the trip West because they were supposed to be an easy season-opening victory.

You know, I thought Rocky Long was coaching the Aztecs now. Who let Chuck Long back on the sidelines?

Chuck Long will be forever known for losing to Cal Poly twice in three seasons and now Rocky takes his well-deserved spot on the list after the embarrassing 40-19 beat down suffered against Eastern Illinois.

Back in 2001, I was covering the program when the Aztecs pounded Eastern Illinois 40-7 during a three-win season that ended with coach Ted Tollner being fired.

The quarterback at Eastern Illinois was then an unknown chap named Tony Romo. I suppose you know who he is now but it felt a little odd back then when a rival reporter and I both wrote stories about Romo leading up to the game.

There weren’t any signs that night at Qualcomm Stadium that Romo was on his way to being a starting NFL quarterback and owner of a $108 million contract. Romo had very little chance to do anything offensively against San Diego State because he had lower-level talent all around him while going up against a Mountain West-caliber defense.

Aztecs running back Larry Ned rolled up 285 yards in three quarters of action and I realized why he looked like a modern-day Gale Sayers after the game when I was walking on the field.

The Eastern Illinois defensive backs were all practically the same size as me. And in case you’re not sure of my dimensions, let’s just say the chances of me tackling a college running back are on par with the odds that the Chargers will go undefeated this season.

Slimski and Nonesky.

So the “Dirty Dozen” I put together in 2009 is now growing to the “Unlucky 13” due to the Eastern Illinois debacle.

Some quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo carved up the Aztecs – could he also take the Romo undrafted free agent route to NFL riches? – as Eastern Illinois rolled up 533 yards of total offense.

The Aztecs committed five turnovers – quarterback Adam Dingwell threw four interceptions – in a horrific effort that is well-deserving of cracking the list.

And in case you figure things can’t worse for the Aztecs, check out who they play this Saturday:

The powerful Ohio State Buckeyes. Coached by Urban Meyer. Owners of the nation’s longest current winning streak of 13 games. And featuring Braxton Miller (fifth in 2012 Heisman Trophy balloting) at quarterback. (see stellar preview here – http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/football/ncaaf-preview.aspx?page=/data/NCAAF/matchups/g8_preview_155.html)

And as all longtime San Diego State fans know, ties count.

Here they are – the Unlucky 13:

1. Steve Fisher’s basketball team losing to Indiana in 2006 NCAA tournament despite having the lead and possessing the ball in the final half-minute.

2. Al Luginbill’s 1991 football team tying BYU 52-52 after leading by 28 points late third quarter with Holiday Bowl berth on the line.

3. Ted Tollner’s 1996 team losing to winless UNLV when Peter Holt’s field-goal attempt landed closer to the Las Vegas Strip than the uprights.

4. Chuck Long’s 2006 football team losing to FCS school Cal Poly.

5. Rocky Long’s 2013 squad getting steamrolled at home by FCS school Eastern Illinois.

6. Tom Craft’s 2002 team losing to Idaho, which had like one win in two seasons entering the game.

7. Steve Fisher’s basketball team leading UNLV by 10 points with less than 30 seconds left and losing game in OT.

8. BYU 63, San Diego State 14 in 1979 on ABC regional TV when Marc Wilson carved up the Aztecs and the outcome led to Claude Gilbert’s eventual firing.

9. The 31-31 tie with USC in 1992 when Marshall Faulk ran wild but Andy Trakas’ short field-goal attempt landed near Tierrasanta.

10. Chuck Long’s 2008 football team losing to Cal Poly – again.

11. Brady Hoke’s 2009 football team blowing 21-point fourth-quarter lead against Wyoming.

12. Al Luginbill’s 1992 football team losing shootout to Fresno State with Holiday Bowl berth on the line when Trent Dilfer throws TD pass with 14 seconds left.

13. Jim Dietz’s 2002 baseball team losing two games on final day of Mountain West tournament to BYU with NCAA berth on the line.