SAN DIEGO (AP) — With Steve Fisher’s coaching career winding down, the San Diego State Aztecs are focused on getting back to the NCAA Tournament after taking an unexpected detour to the NIT last season.
Heading into his 18th season at SDSU, Fisher has built the program to the point that fans expect nothing less than an NCAA appearance. The Aztecs made the NCAA field six straight seasons, including their first two Sweet 16 appearances, before the streak ended last season.
Although they won the Mountain West Conference regular-season title, they missed out on an automatic NCAA berth when they lost to Fresno State in the conference tournament championship game. Relegated to the NIT, they made it all the way to Madison Square Garden before losing to George Washington in the semifinals to finish 28-10.
There was a time when it would be a big accomplishment for the Aztecs to make the NIT.
No more. If it’s not the NCAAs, no one’s happy.
"There are expectations. They’re ours, also. We expect to be there," said Fisher, whose Aztecs open at Viejas Arena on Friday night against San Diego. "Talking about it and doing it, we’ve gone six straight years. So we’re like the fans. We expect to be there and we’re disappointed when we’ve not there. We’re talented enough to get there and yet you’ve got to prove it on the court. Hopefully we will do that also."
Fisher, 71, is under contract through next season while his long-time assistant, Brian Dutcher, remains the associate head coach/head coach in waiting. As always, Fisher said he and his wife, Angie, will decide at the end of this season if he’ll return next year.
The Aztecs players appreciate how Fisher has built up the program.
"It just shows the progress the program has made," sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley said. "Before Coach Fish got here, this wasn’t really a school people considered a school to be in the tournament. That just shows the progress we’ve made and all the work that the coaches and players have put into the program.
"I can say that we will be back in the tournament this year," Hemsley said. "The NIT isn’t something that we will see in our near future. We’re a different team. This is a different journey and the NIT isn’t really an option or anything that we’ve even thought about."
The Aztecs were picked to win the MWC in the annual preseason poll, and received votes in The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.
Hemsley, junior guard Trey Kell and sophomore forward Zylan Cheatham are the returning starters. Also back are junior forward Malik Pope, senior forward Matt Shrigley and senior guard Dakarai Allen. Kell is the leading returning scorer, having averaged 12.6 points while earning all-MWC first-team honors.
The Aztecs lost some height when Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol and Winston Shepard graduated.
They do welcome 6-10, 240-pound senior center Valentine Izundu, who is eligible after transferring from Washington State after earning his degree.
The Aztecs will also look for contributions from 6-9 forward Jalen McDaniels, picked as the Mountain West Co-Freshman of the Year along with Utah State’s Koby McEwen, and Montaque Gill-Caesar, a 6-6 transfer from Missouri who was named the league’s preseason newcomer of the year.
The Aztecs were too inconsistent last year, hurting themselves with losses to crosstown rival San Diego, Little Rock and Grand Canyon.
What’s going to be different this year, Hemsley said, is "our intensity and the fun we have with each other. I think that’s all it is. I think we’ll prove ourselves very early and I think we’ll be very consistent. I don’t think inconsistency is going to be something that we’re going to have to worry about this year.
"Inconsistency was something that we did deal with last year," he added. "With this team, that’s where we grew up. That’s not really something that the fans or anyone watching us will see this year."
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