SAN DIEGO (AP) – Oh, what Steve Fisher has wrought at San Diego State.
Sixteen seasons after Fisher took over one of the worst programs in the country, expectations are at an all-time high as the No. 16 Aztecs get set to open the season Friday night against Cal State-Northridge.
Viejas Arena – with a raucous student section dubbed “The Show” – is sold out for the entire season for the third straight year.
The Aztecs have their highest preseason ranking in The Associated Press poll, and although Fisher says there’s “a great deal more uncertainty this year than last year,” he thinks his team will be good again.
The fans want nothing less than a deeper run than last season, when the Aztecs reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in four seasons before losing to Arizona.
“Ultimately that’s what we aspire to,” Fisher said. “We want to win a national championship. You can’t do that if you don’t get to the Final Four. It used to be laughable for people. Now they’re laughing with joy, saying, ‘It’s going to happen.’
“Many of them don’t realize how hard it is just to get into the tournament, much less win a game, much less get past the Sweet 16. We want to do something we haven’t done, which is get beyond the Sweet 16, which gets you one step closer. Ultimately we want to win a national championship. East to say. Very, very hard to do.”
Fisher won the national championship with Michigan in 1989 after he was promoted to interim head coach when athletic director Bo Schembechler found out on the eve of the tournament that Bill Frieder had accepted the Arizona State job.
He also coached the Wolverines to the title game in 1992 and ’93, but those appearances were vacated following the Ed Martin scandal.
The Aztecs, who were 31-5 last season, will be looking to extend their school record to six straight NCAA tournament appearances.
They return starters Skylar Spencer, Winston Shepard and JJ O’Brien, and welcome the 6-foot-9 Angelo Chol, who sat out a year after transferring from Arizona. Fisher also welcomes a freshman class that includes point guards Trey Kell and Kevin Zabo, and big men Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham.
Fans have been salivating over Fisher’s recruiting class ever since it was announced. Shepard said the class is “better than what people know, because Trey Kell and Zabo are probably much better than people think.”
However, Pope only recently began doing “live” work in practice and probably won’t play in the first week or two. He broke a leg during his junior season in high school, reinjured it a year ago and hasn’t played since. Cheatham might not be ready to play until around Jan. 1 after having surgery on a broken foot in early September.
The Aztecs’ biggest loss was point guard Xavier Thames, the Mountain West Conference player of the year who led SDSU with 17.6 points and 3.2 assists per game. Fisher plans to rotate a handful of players at point guard, including senior Aqeel Quinn, Kell and Zabo.
“We’ve got great confidence in both of them,” Fisher said of the two freshmen. “Trey, I know better because I’ve watched him play for two, three years, always playing off the ball and scoring. But the thing about Trey is he’s a very cerebral player who’s very instinctive at this point. He’s transitioned pretty good there. And Zabo’s been a point guard his whole life.”
The Aztecs also lost their top rebounder, Josh Davis.
“There’s a great deal more uncertainty this year than last year,” Fisher said. “The general public didn’t realize that. I knew how good Josh was going to be and he was the only newcomer who had to be fit. Now we’ve got a lot of new guys that are going to be playing, in a critical spot, with the point position. … We’ve got depth, we’ve got talent and we’re going to have a good team. How good I don’t know.”
Cal State-Northridge went 17-18 last season, the closest it has come to finishing at .500 or better since going 17-14 in 2008-09.
The Matadors have lost their last seven against ranked opponents, the most recent an 88-76 defeat at No. 12 Washington on Dec. 6, 2009.