Clinched regular season Mountain West title with three games remaining, have two seniors set a record for most regular season conference wins in conference history and set a conference record with an 11-game win streak this season to open conference play.
The San Diego State men’s basketball team built up quite the resume this season, yet didn’t receive an at-large bid, snapping its streak of six-straight NCAA tournament appearances.
“I thought we had an excellent season,” senior forward Winston Shepard said after the loss in the championship to Fresno State. “I think we’re definitely one of the best teams in the country. I don’t think this is a team that many people would want to play. So this is the hard part.”
A one-point loss to Fresno State and a three-point loss to Boise State were the only blemishes on a 16-2 conference record before SDSU lost in the conference tournament championship to Fresno State and lost out on the opportunity for an automatic tournament bid for the third year in a row.
The pluses and minuses for SDSU read:
•MW regular season champions by three-game margin
•Win over Cal (who was selected as a four seed in the NCAA tournament)
•Close losses to current No. 1 Kansas and No. 12 Utah
•Losses to Arkansas-Little Rock (RPI 45) and Grand Canyon (RPI 92)
•Major loss to USD at Petco Park (RPI 301)
SDSU needed the benefit of the doubt to get in the tournament, but Joe Lunardi of ESPN’s bracketology picked the Aztecs to play University of Michigan in the 11-seed play-in game before the brackets were announced.
Sophomore forward Malik Pope said Wednesday, March 9, before the team played in the MW Tournament that he didn’t pay too much attention to the people who said the conference tournament was a must-win.
“I wouldn’t say it bothered (us) I would say it energized us and made us realize that even a good team shouldn’t be awarded (a tournament bid),” Pope said. “We use that as energy and motivation to come out and show who’s the best. That’s the reason why we have the best players and the best team in the conference.”
Much has been made about the MW being a weak conference, which downgraded the Aztecs’ accomplishments this season.
“I don’t have to defend the league,” head coach Steve Fisher said in a March 4 press conference. “This is good basketball. People who play us know that and have great respect for the Mountain West Conference.”
Fresno State ended up as the only team to make the Big Dance from the MW, marking the first time that’s happened since 2001 and only the second time ever since the league’s creation in 1999.
“We’re not a one-bid league as a rule. We’ve had as many as four or five in the tournament at one time,” Fisher said March 12 after the loss to Fresno State. “That’s what we should be. … You have to have teams that are good, schedule with thoughtfulness and then win some of those.”
Fresno State is in the tournament as a 14 seed and will play three seed Utah Thursday, March 17.
SDSU had an RPI of 41 entering Selection Sunday and teams with higher RPIs were chosen as 11 seeds for at-large bids: Tulsa (RPI 58), Michigan (RPI 56), Vanderbilt (63) and Wichita State (RPI 47).
The Aztecs play next in the NIT as a two seed. They’ll host Indiana Purdue University-Fort Wayne Tuesday, March 15 at 7 p.m.