With San Diego State's 63-57 victory at Las Vegas just finished Saturday night, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said, "It's fantastic to be 25-1. We have a special team."
Few coaches know special better than the 65-year-old Fisher. Named interim coach of the Michigan Wolverines at the start of the 1989 NCAA tournament when Bill Frieder was fired for having already accepted the Arizona State job, Fisher promptly guided the Maize and Blue to an unlikely national championship.
Three years later he assembled the most precocious team in the history of March Madness. His Fab Five class of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose reached the NCAA title game as both freshmen and sophomores before gradually going their separate ways.
But then a recruiting scandal centered on that class forced Fisher out of the Michigan job in 1997. Two years later he dusted himself off and accepted the San Diego State job, despite knowing that school had suffered through 13 losing seasons in the previous 14 winters.
"When you get fired, you go through all the emotions," Fisher said. "Anger, self-pity, worrying about what's going to be next. Then you get up and move on."
But moving the Aztecs up the Mountain West Conference standings would take some work. Or as his old boss and longtime friend Frieder told USA Today in December, "There were too many Division II players [on the Aztecs], and you're a Division I program. There was a lot of apathy. The crowds had dwindled to nothing, maybe 1,500."
To combat all that, Fisher literally gave away tickets as he reached SDSU's Viejas Arena on game nights during his first season.
"It's the hottest ticket in town now," he said earlier this year, with sellouts commonplace in the 12,414-seat structure.
Sparked by a five-man senior class that barely lost to Tennessee in the opening round of last year's NCAA tourney, the Aztecs have risen to No. 6 in the latest Associated Press poll. Their loss came at No. 7 Brigham Young when national player of the year candidate Jimmer Fredette lit them up for 43 points.
"They're a Sweet 16, Elite Eight team if they get the right draw, get a couple of breaks and stay healthy," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said after the Aztecs defeated his team 83-69. "They're dynamite."
Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer -- whose team lost 96-57 to SDSU before he was fired last week -- went Marshall one better.
"I was an assistant in this league when Utah went to the Final Four in 1998. It all depends on the seed, but they're better than them," Schroyer said of the Aztecs. "When they make perimeter shots, I don't know if anyone in the country can beat them."
Fisher's ultimate star is 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who leads the team in both scoring (14.8) and rebounding (10.6). Yet senior guard D.J. Gay (12.3 ppg, 3.4 assists), 6-9 senior forward Malcolm Thomas (10.9 ppg, 8.1 rebs, 2.2 blocks) and 6-8 senior forward Billy White (9.9 ppg, 3.6 rebs, 2.1 assists) are the glue on a team in which 10 of the 13 players hail from California.
"Defensively, they're terrific," noted ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, mindful that the Aztecs hold their opponents to 58.5 ppg. "On a given night they can beat anybody in the country."
On a given night last March in the NCAA tourney they failed to beat Tennessee, losing 62-59. It was the Aztecs' sixth loss in six NCAA games. But it didn't keep UT post player Brian Williams from being impressed with SDSU.
"That was the best team we played all of last year in my opinion, especially in the NCAA tournament," Williams told this newspaper at the close of Monday's practice.
"That was the toughest team from top to bottom, most physical. Sky's the limit for them this year."
When it comes to the NCAA tourney, Fisher already has been to the moon and back. At the close of that 1989 tourney title he found himself at the White House, though Michigan was yet to name him its permanent coach.
"I'm sitting between Bob Hope and Audrey Hepburn," Fisher told USA Today last fall, "and Bob Hope comes up to me and says, 'Steve Fisher, the Walter Mitty of college basketball.' We ended up spending an hour with the Bushes before the dinner. We went on a walk with them after the dinner with Millie the dog. ... Three weeks before that, half of Ann Arbor didn't know who we were."
Hope and Hepburn have since died and another generation of Bushes no longer resides in the White House, but if the Aztecs remain a special team for six more weeks, Fisher just might make a return visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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