SPOKANE, Wash. — For those who don’t remember San Diego State’s last appearance on the March Madness stage, the Aztecs say "Thank you."
It was ugly: An 81-71 loss to upstart Florida Gulf Coast last year that made "Dunk City" a national sensation and sent San Diego State back to the drawing board — and back there right away.
"We started working out," sophomore Winston Shepard said. "Not too many guys took a break. I went back and worked out over the summer. My teammates were doing the exact same thing."
The Aztecs (29-4) lost four key players off that team, including Jamaal Franklin to the NBA. But the hard work, combined with coach Steve Fisher’s innate sense for keeping his program moving forward, helped San Diego State win the Mountain West regular-season title and land back in the tournament again.
The fourth-seeded Aztecs make their fifth straight NCAA appearance Thursday in a West region game against No. 13 New Mexico State (26-9).
Given all the departures, San Diego State was picked as a middle-of-the-road team in the Mountain West. But thanks in large part to the blossoming of Xavier Thames (16.8 points per game) — a senior who was originally recruited to San Diego State, chose Washington State instead, but ended up transferring to Fisher’s program after all — the Aztecs turned out better than that.
Thames is one of six transfer players — they come from Tulane, Utah, Virginia and elsewhere — who see regular time for the Aztecs. Fisher said whatever stigma that once existed for programs that recruit outside the high school ranks has pretty much been drowned out in an era of one-and-done players and superstar coaches.
"I think we’ll continue to take transfers," Fisher said. "But we have turned a lot of transfers down who wanted to come because we didn’t think they would be a good fit. You can’t just take the highest-rated transfer on the market and say we’re going to win. … Nobody wants to take somebody else’s problems."
The matchup against the Aggies pits Fisher against Marvin Menzies, who was on Fisher’s first staff at SDSU back in 1999.
Aerick Sanders, a member of Fisher’s first team, is an assistant for Menzies.
Like his old boss, Menzies often takes the nontraditional route to build his roster. Daniel Mullings, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, is from Toronto. So are New Mexico State’s 7-foot-plus, 330-pound-plus brothers, Sim and Tanveer Bhullar. Tshilidzi Nephawe is from South Africa. In all, seven Aggies are from somewhere other than the United States.
"It was a niche we knew we needed," Menzies said. "We knew we had to kind of reinvent our paradigm a little bit."
Here are five things to watch when New Mexico State plays San Diego State:
THAMES VS. MULLINGS: A pair of all-conference shooting guards who each average 16.8 points a game.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY: The Mountain West Conference spent much of the 2012-13 season ranked as arguably the best in the nation. It sent five teams to the tournament, and they combined to win two games. This year, the conference came back to earth. It’s just San Diego State and New Mexico. The Lobos, who beat the Aztecs in the conference title game, play Stanford on Friday.
THE BIG FELLAS: When Menzies arrived at New Mexico State, he used an up-and-down style he learned as an assistant for Rick Pitino at Louisville. Now that he’s got a 7-foot-5 center (Sim Bhullar) and a 6-10 forward (Nephawe), it’s more about set plays and kicking the ball out off of double teams.
NO MILLER: One of the ugliest episodes of the college basketball season is costing the Aggies one of their key players, guard K.C. Ross-Miller. Miller is off the team after hurling the ball at a Utah Valley player after a loss there last month. That triggered a brawl involving New Mexico State players and Utah Valley State fans who stormed the court. Ross-Miller was originally suspended for two games; later, the school said he wouldn’t play the rest of the season. The Aggies are 5-0 since he was kicked off the team.
FISHER TO STAY: The 68-year-old Aztecs coach, now 25 years removed from his national title at Michigan, said he plans to stay at least through next season, when his current contract runs out. Waiting in the wings is his longtime assistant, Brian Dutcher, whose official title is Associate Head Coach-Head Coach In Waiting. "I promised him it won’t be as long as Boeheim’s assistants have to wait before he takes over," Fisher said of the Syracuse coach, now in his 38th year.