San Diego State coach Steve Fisher's real masterpiece

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher's real masterpiece

February 11th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher gives signals to his team during the second half of a 73-58 victory over Nevada in a NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in San Diego.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Despite winning both an NCAA and an NIT championship, reaching the Final Four on two other occasions and winning 487 games in less than 23 full seasons as a head coach, San Diego State's Steve Fisher is yet to reach college basketball's Hall of Fame.

All that could change, however, if the 68-year-old's fifth-ranked Aztecs keep playing as they have to date this winter.

Heading into tonight's Mountain West Conference game at Wyoming, SDSU has won 19 straight since an early-season home loss to No. 2 Arizona. Two more would set a school record for consecutive victories.

"It's we, not me," Fisher said after reaching his 300th Aztecs victory on Feb. 1. "[But] I might go after 400 before I get out of here. I feel good, and when I get teams like this, it makes it fun."

Twenty-five years ago, Fisher became one of the most unexpectedly fun stories in college basketball history. Promoted from Michigan assistant to head coach on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament after athletic director Bo Schembechler learned Bill Frieder was leaving for Arizona State as soon as the season ended -- Schembechler famously declared, "A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man," despite Frieder being a UM grad -- Fisher guided the Wolverines to the national championship.

Two years later he signed the most famous recruiting class ever -- Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber -- who will forever be known as the Fab Five despite losing in the NCAA title games in 1992 and 1993.

But by 1997 Fisher's program was involved in an off-court scandal involving a rogue booster, and the coach was fired.

Yet as good as his run was with the Maize and Blue, Fisher's 15 years in Southern California have become his masterpiece. Hired in the spring of 1999 after SDSU won just four games during the 1998-99 season, he took the Aztecs to their first NCAA berth in 17 years in 1992.

San Diego State now has won at least 20 games for the past nine years, and this season's victory at Kansas -- the Jayhawks' first nonconference home loss in 68 games over eight seasons -- sent a message that the Aztecs are capable of reaching the Elite Eight or beyond for the first time ever.

"We have not seen that kind of length and size," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said after a home loss to the Aztecs last month. "Coach Fisher's done an unbelievable job with that program. That's a great team."

Said Marquette coach Buzz Williams after falling to SDSU in the Wooden Classic "They are relentless. They had 14 points on the offensive glass then had 14 points on transition, 17 points from the free-throw line. Those are really, really good numbers. They play a lot of guys that put a lot of pressure on you and stress you out defensively on the full court."

They are so good defensively that they rank third nationally in points allowed (56.6 ppg), third in field-goal-percentage defense (.371) and seventh in 3-point defense (.279).

"They beat us on toughness plays, and they killed us on the glass down the stretch," Kansas coach Bill Self said after his loss to the Aztecs. "They were more athletic than us and more physical than us."

Fisher has assembled plenty of athletes. Ten Aztecs average 11 or more minutes a game. Seven players are 6-foot-7 or taller, and all are long and lean. Though their schedule is ranked the nation's 95th toughest at the moment, their average margin of victory is nearly 17 points.

The key to SDSU's success may be its least athletic starter, though: senior point guard Xavier Thames, a transfer from Washington State.

Averaging 18.1 points, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals, the 6-3, 195-pounder isn't without stats, yet Fisher's praise goes far beyond that.

"X is not going to beat the elite point guards in a foot race or a high jump contest, but he's going to beat most of them with his brains and his ability to make important plays," Fisher said. "He's unafraid, and he makes plays that allow you to be successful."

And when Thames misses, 6-8 senior forward Josh Davis is there to maintain his average of 11 rebounds a game.

But if the Aztecs are asked the key to their team, their answer always begins and ends with Fisher.

"Our coach never gets rattled," forward Winston Shepard said after the Kansas win. "He's always even-keeled, whether we're up 20 or it's a close game. After every timeout, he tell us to take a good thought out there."

Thanks to Fisher, those good thoughts may now realistically include a trip to the Final Four, which surely one day would place him in the Hall of Fame.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.