SAN DIEGO - Just over three years ago, the San Diego State basketball team appeared to have reached its zenith.
After a start of 26-0, the Aztecs had a 30-2 record. They were ranked sixth by the Associated Press and expected to be seeded at No. They were on their way to fulfilling the vision shared by Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher. The two men, whose brilliant construction turned around a program known for its chronic underachievement for decades.
The 2019-20 tournament had to be cancelled due to the pandemic of coronavirus. Everyone returned home scared and sad.
Dutcher, the Aztecs head coach, is currently in his sixth year after spending 27 years as Fisher's assistant at Michigan and San Diego State. The Aztecs' head coach, Dutcher, said recently that 'just having a chance to compete would have meant a lot to these guys.'
San Diego State is one of those schools that rarely gets a second chance at a dream. This is why its success in the N.C.A.A. tournament this year was so remarkable. The tournament is both inspiring and remarkable. The Aztecs don't take anything for granted.
San Diego State, which will face Florida Atlantic on Saturday in Houston in a semifinal national, is not only the first Mountain West Conference to reach this stage, but it is also in its first Final Four.
The school never advanced past the 16th round before it stunned top-seeded Alabama, and then beat Creighton by a narrow margin last weekend. Three of the team's key players are still playing, including Adam Seiko at guard and Nathan Mensah (forward) and Aguek Arop (defender). They all play because of N.C.A.A. rules. The pandemic rules allow those affected to have an additional season of eligibility.
Seiko replied, 'It is a blessing.' It's a real blessing.
San Diego State's growing pains are also felt by those who have ties to the school. San Diego State has only won one national championship -- in men's basketball in 1973. Then, budget cuts eliminated the sport in 2001.
In the 1960s, the football program was able to enjoy some success with Air Coryell - the high-powered offensive passing of Coach Don Coryell who will be inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August - and briefly again in the early 1990s when Marshall Faulk became a star. Basketball, on the other hand, had mostly been lost in the wilderness.
The effort wasn't lacking. San Diego State hired Jim Brandenburg as Wyoming's coach after the Cowboys defeated U.C.L.A. In 1987, Brandenburg led the Cowboys to a round-of-16 appearance. Brandenburg was dismissed after his fifth season.
When Jerry Tarkanian was exiled from college basketball due to a dispute with the N.C.A.A., the Aztecs considered hiring him. He was hired by the Aztecs in early 1990s but they rejected him because he was controversial.
Michael Cage played 15 seasons of N.B.A. in the N.B.A. from 1980 to 1984. This week, Cage said that he is now a broadcaster with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Cage said: "There is no more proud alumni than I am right now." When I arrived, the coaching staff did not even have offices. There were trailers just across the street.
In the 1980s, and 1990s, some Aztecs home games were played in Peterson Gym. This was an on-campus facility that was basically a glorified school. In December 1992, a 22nd-ranked U.N.L.V. Coach Rollie massimino and his team of rock stars rolled into the Sub-Division I Structure in front 3,538 spectators.
The rest of the schedule for the home games was unveiled at the sports arena in the city.
Cage, who was the highest-ranking N.B.A. player, said, "I had to travel almost a half hour for my home games." Cage, the highest N.B.A. draft pick (No. San Diego State was the No. 14 pick in 1984. We didn't even have a practice area, just Peterson Gym. I spent most of my time shooting outside after practice because someone else had to go into the gym.
Viejas Arena was opened in 1997 and gave the program a home on campus comparable to other Division I teams. Fisher and Dutcher arrived in 1997, partly because they could utilize the facilities, including a practice gymnasium, to their advantage in recruiting. The Aztecs played only three N.C.A.A. tournaments at that time. The Aztecs had only played in three N.C.A.A. tournaments over the past 30 years. Fisher's team had a 5-23 record and was winless in Mountain West.
Dutcher is now the assistant or head coach of 21 of the 24 tournament games of the program, including all 10 victories.
Tony Gwynn was the Baseball Hall of Famer who played for the Aztecs from 1977-81. Gwynn, a point guard for the Aztecs from 1977 to 1981, is the school’s career assist leader (590). He also coaches the baseball team.
Tony Gwynn Jr. said, 'Completely separate universes.' He played baseball at the school for his dad from 2000 to 2003 and is now the Padres radio analyst following a career in the major league. I remember Coach Dutcher personally inviting students to games and walking around the campus. It felt like he was always on campus.
The Aztecs believed they could do more, even with Leonard, and a packed arena with a boisterous student section. The Aztecs lost a game they believed was winnable to Connecticut in round 16 of the 2011 tournament, in front of an enthusiastic crowd in Anaheim. The game was decided by two technical fouls against San Diego State. One of them was against Leonard. UConn was the winner of the national championship that year.
UConn is in Houston to play Miami in the other semi-final on Saturday. For now, the Aztecs' focus is on a Florida Atlantic team that is 35-3.
"That's like asking people about our 30-2-1 team: "Do they look like an Power 5 Conference team?" Dutcher explained. Dutcher said. You have to respect them for this.
San Diego State is tied for third place in Division I with 31 victories. Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, San Diego State's 82.9 winning percentage is third behind Gonzaga.
In four games of this tournament, the Aztecs have held opponents to a 17 percent shooting percentage from 3-point range (16 out of 94).
Gwynn Jr. referred to the two 30-win seasons the team had in the past four years as a testament to Coach Fisher and Coach Dutcher's culture at S.D.S.U. These seasons are rare, even for the blue-bloods.
The Final Four bound Aztecs, who had rarely packed the Peterson Gym in the past, were welcomed by students and well wishers on their return from the South Regional, held in Louisville, Ky. at 1 am Monday. Lamont Butler, Darrion Trammell and the other guards who made the winning free-throw in the regional final, against Creighton spoke about their trip to the beach and getting congratulatory messages. Cage has been excused from broadcasting two Thunder games this weekend in order to attend the Final Four. He said that he heard more Aztecs supporters this week than he ever has before.
Dutcher believes that the basketball program is now the 'front-door' of a "great university."
Dutcher stated that 'we can't claim that going to the Final Four was the end of the world'. It's just the beginning. Now we need to find a solution to win two matches and hang the championship banner.