SDSU opens season against Steve Fisher’s alma matter, Illinois State

by Ryan Posner, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s been more than 45 years since San Diego State men’s basketball head coach Steve Fisher played his last game for Illinois State.

It’s been 15 years since he coached against his alma matter, when he beat the Redbirds as the head coach of University of Michigan in the first round of the 1990 NCAA tournament.

The long-time SDSU coach will get another chance to face the school where he spent his collegiate playing days when the Aztecs open the season against the Redbirds on Friday at Viejas Arena.

Illinois State is coming off one of its best seasons in program history under fourth-year head coach Dan Muller.

The Redbirds went 22-13 last season, including a win against then-No. 8 Wichita State University in the Missouri Valley championships. They ended up losing to Northern Iowa University in the final.

Similar to SDSU’s exhibition against Cal State San Marcos, Illinois State took down Division II Southern Indiana 88-81 last Sunday in its first game action of the year.

“They’re a team that can put points on the board,” Fisher said. “I believe that they’re trying to play a little faster like we would like to. They’re playing more zone and they’re full-court pressing.”

What to watch for

  • Sophomore forward Malik Pope was unable to play in the team’s exhibition on Nov. 2 due to a knee injury that he suffered in practice. The 6-foot-10 forward will be ready to go Friday, though, and is expected to be in the starting lineup. “Malik’s knee is fine,” Fisher said. “We were a little bit scared when it happened and we sat him out against San Marcos as precaution. If we had been playing against Illinois State, he would have played.”
  • Although SDSU has not played Illinois State since 1973, there will be a familiar face on the court for the Aztecs in the form of redshirt-junior forward Nick Banyard. Banyard played in 54 games over two seasons for University of New Mexico (2012-13, 2013-14) before transferring to Illinois State. He grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds in the exhibition against Southern Indiana, six more than any other play on the team. “I liked him as a player (at New Mexico), we watched him in high school,” Fisher said. “He’s athletic, he competes … he’s a good player.”
  • Before Fisher took over as head coach, the Aztecs struggled mightily against the MVC, going 4-25 before his arrival. Since Fisher took over, the Aztecs are 6-0 against MVC teams with their last win coming against Indiana State in 2012. Since SDSU started participating in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge in 2009, it is 3-1 with its only loss coming against Creighton University in 2011.

Matchup to watch

Freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley will have his hands full in his first official collegiate game as he will be matched up with junior guard Paris Lee of the Redbirds. Lee finished last season with 82 steals, which ranked him No. 9 nationally and No. 1 in the MVC. The 82 steals established a new single-season school record and led him to being placed on the MVC All-Defensive Team.

Although Hemsley lacks the experience that Lee has, he showed confidence and poise in the game against CSUSM, even though he was only 2-for-11 from the field.

Lee seems to have picked up right where he left off last season, collecting a team-high six steals in his team’s exhibition against Southern Indiana. Friday’s opener should provide Hemsley with a quality challenge in his first official game as an Aztec, while Lee should also be tested by the young point guard’s diverse skill set.