SAN DIEGO (AP) After an impressive turnaround in coach Steve Fisher”s second season, San Diego State thinks it”s ready for another major leap.
The Aztecs are talking about playing in the postseason for the first time in nearly two decades.
The NIT would make them happy. The NCAAs would make them ecstatic. But whatever the acronym, their goal is to play meaningful games in March.
“If we don”t make a tournament at the end of the season, we”ll all be disappointed,” Fisher said.
It”s a lofty goal, for sure, for a school with a sad-sack hoops history. The Aztecs have had just one winning season and one at .500 last year”s 14-14 since last reaching the NCAAs in 1985. San Diego State is 0-4 in the postseason, including three NCAA berths and one NIT.
But expectations have changed dramatically under Fisher, who coached Michigan to three Final Fours and won the 1989 national championship.
“We”re a better team than we were last year. We went from survival mode to competitive mode to where this year our battle cry is, “Expect to win,” said Fisher, whose team has experience, depth and versatility.
Under Fisher, San Diego State is looking more and more like a basketball school.
The most anticipated season in school history starts Friday night against Northern Iowa in the Red Raider Classic at Texas Tech.
If San Diego State and Texas Tech both win Friday, the Aztecs will play Bob Knight”s new team in the championship game Saturday night. It would be a matchup of former Big Ten coaches who”ve won national titles.
Fisher”s influence also landed the Aztecs a game at Duke on Dec. 29, their first against a reigning national champion in 26 years.
The Aztecs welcome high-profile transfers Tony Bland from Syracuse and Brandon Smith from Michigan, who sat out last season under NCAA rules. Smith is expected to miss the first 2-3 games following arthroscopic knee surgery.
Bland, a guard, started for the Syracuse team that reached the NCAA regionals in 2000. He and Smith, a 6-foot-7 swingman, both played for 20-win teams. They”re used to big, noisy crowds, which should help when they hit the road in the Mountain West Conference in places like Albuquerque and Laramie.
Bland and Smith give the Aztecs credibility without scoring a point or clearing a rebound.
“They”re used to winning,” said Fisher, who recruited Smith to Michigan before being fired as Wolverines coach just before the 1997-98 season started. “That has added to the atmosphere in practice.”
Fisher also signed guard Tommy Johnson, the Los Angeles high school player of the year and 6-9, 241-pound junior college transfer Mike Mackell, who gives the Aztecs a legitimate low-post player.
Last season, San Diego State turned heads by going from 5-23 in Fisher”s first year to 14-14. The Aztecs ended losing streaks of 17 games overall, 17 conference games and 30 road games.
The highlight was a 21-point home win over Oklahoma State. Still, after going 10-3 in non-conference games, San Diego State was just 4-14 in the Mountain West, which sent only Brigham Young to the NCAA Tournament.
The next step would be playing in March.
“I don”t want to drop back from where we were,” said Fisher, who made nine straight postseason trips at Michigan and won the NIT his final season.
“We were .500 last year, which was the second non-losing season in 16 years. So we”re not used to success. And yet, the kids that we now have in this program, I do think are.”
That”s where Bland and Smith come in, to mix with returning players such as guard Deandre Moore and forwards Randy Holcomb the team”s leading scorer and rebounder last year Myron Epps and Chris Walton, the youngest son of Bill Walton.
“The biggest thing is, Brandon and myself are winners,” Bland said. “We”ve been in programs that have been to the tournament and are accustomed to winning. When you add that to other players that want to win but just don”t know how to win, then you have a team full of winners.”
Bland has two years of eligibility left. Smith has just one, but felt transferring was worth it simply to play for Fisher.
Despite hurting his knee, starting San Diego State”s first exhibition “was probably the most enjoyable experience in five years of playing,” said Smith, who finally got to play for Fisher.