Aztecs end remarkable regular season, begin postseason against New Mexico State

Photo by Monica Linzmeier, Photo Editor

Photo by Monica Linzmeier, Photo Editor

by Terence Chin

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Wow! How do you begin writing a season recap of something so remarkable and historic—something magical that no one saw coming, but probably only head coach Steve Fisher and the rest of his team believed.

To break it down just a little bit, after losing former player Jamaal Franklin last year to the NBA along with key players DeShawn Stephens, Chase Tapley and James Rahon to graduation, who thought a team with just two seniors and two returning starters would finish the college basketball season ranked by the Associated Press at No. 8 in the nation? Who thought the conference title game would come down to the last game of the season in our own home at Viejas Arena to see senior guard Xavier Thames cutting down pieces of the net to chants of “MVP!”

However, losing key players was the ultimate reason why conference media doubted this team, picking them to finish fourth in the Mountain West. But after four straight NCAA tournament appearances and finishing the season with an astounding 29-4 (16-2 MW) overall record, the entire country has their eyes on how far the best men’s basketball program in California can go.

As we approach the March Madness tournament for the fifth straight season, school will be closed, but the Aztecs will be playing. Better believe that San Diego State basketball is on the map.

As we take it back to how it all started from the beginning of the preseason, we saw SDSU’s first real test against No. 3 University of Arizona Wildcats. Although the Aztecs fell short to Arizona, the then No. 5 team in the nation at the time, the game showed promise for what SDSU could achieve and become. Losing to the Wildcats only helped the Aztecs go on an outrageous 20-game winning streak, including wins against ranked schools at the time, which included Marquette University, Creighton University and the mighty University of Kansas Jayhawks.

Yes, they captured the MWC regular season championship title. But in case you weren’t watching earlier this season, let’s not forget how the Aztecs defeated two ranked opponents at the time, Creighton and Marquette, to win the DirecTV Wooden Legacy tournament during our Thanksgiving break. Shortly after, SDSU won the crosstown rivalry game on the road against the University of San Diego, and also came back in the second half of a game to defeat a respectable Pac-12 school, the University of Washington.

Then, four games later something spectacular happened. If you were following the Aztecs on national TV rather than watching the NFL playoffs, a historical win took place. SDSU defeated the Kansas Jayhawks on the road, which hasn’t been done by any non-conference team since 2006. After 68 straight wins against non-conference opponents, the Aztecs did it. They pulled out a victory at arguably one of the toughest college basketball arenas in the nation for visiting teams to win at, the Allen Fieldhouse.

We didn’t know what to expect from a team losing three starters and a ton of veteran leadership. But before the season started, when asked about the identity and personality of this year’s team, sophomore forward Winston Shepard was all business.

[quote]“This year, people come in and do their job, work hard, practice and listen to what Coach has to say,” Shepard said. “So I definitely think we’re going to see a hardworking team and a team that’s playing with a chip on their shoulder.”[/quote]

Indeed, you couldn’t argue with what Shepard told us about this year’s team before the season started. As just a sophomore, Shepard’s season statistics show the improvement he’s made to his game this season from five points per game as a freshman to averaging 12 points and five rebounds per game, being the second leading scorer behind Thames.

After a dominating senior night performance by Thames who recorded 23 points and five steals leading SDSU to a victory against the University of New Mexico, Aztec fans stormed the court in joy to celebrate winning the conference title. The X-Factor had a breakout year, earning himself the MW Player of the Year award. But better yet, coach Fisher won the MW Coach of the Year, while senior forward Josh Davis won MW Newcomer of the Year and junior forward Dwayne Polee II won MW Sixth Man of the Year.

As the Aztecs took almost all of the MWC honors, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise although many thought this would be a transition year having just two returning starters. Once again, as SDSU was picked to finish fourth in the conference and while the national media left this team out of the preseason top-25 rankings, little did they know that this team would surprise everyone with an awe-inspiring season for all Aztec basketball fans.

How much further SDSU can surprise teams will be displayed on the national stage of the NCAA tournament starting this Thursday when the No. 4 seed Aztecs play against No. 13 seed New Mexico State in Spokane, Wash. If you didn’t see this remarkable season coming (I’ll admit I didn’t), just take it as a testament to a national powerhouse basketball program building on Montezuma Mesa.

Photo by Monica Linzmeier, photo editor

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