The San Diego State Aztecs are back in the Sweet 16 this year after knocking off the North Dakota State Bison in the Round of 32. It's the second time in four years they've advanced this far, and represents another milestone in Steve Fisher's coaching career.
In the conversation of all-time coaching greats, Fisher isn't always mentioned in the same breath as Coach K, Pitino, Boeheim or Williams, but he has seen consistent success over a long and distinguished career, and has taken the Aztecs to unprecedented heights in the 21st century. It's little surprise he has done so well in San Diego, given his record of success at the University of Michigan.
Michigan and the Fab Five
Fisher first joined the Wolverines as an assistant in 1982. He was promoted as an interim coach to replace Bill Frieder in 1989, partially due to his Michigan ties (and Bo Schembechler's insistence on hiring a "Michigan Man"). Fisher showed his prowess almost immediately, leading the Wolverines to an NCAA championship and earning the permanent position.
But it wasn't until 1991 when Fisher truly cemented his legacy, landing one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King combined to form the "Fab Five," which went to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament two years in a row. They lost both times, to Duke and North Carolina, respectively. After that run, the Fab Five split up. Webber went to the NBA following his sophomore season, and Howard and Rose followed a year later. The group's two-year run would become a part of Michigan lore.
Unfortunately, Fisher's run at Michigan came to an unceremonious end. He was fired in 1997 for his role in the Ed Martin scandal. Martin, a prominent booster, was revealed to be making payments to the players in exchange for free tickets. The program went on probation, vacated its Final Four appearances, stripped players of their individual awards and disassociated from them until 2013.
Building San Diego State
The NCAA eventually cleared Fisher of wrongdoing, but the fallout threatened to end his college career. He went to the NBA for one year, taking an assistant job with the Sacramento Kings for the 1998-99 season. After one year, he took a job with San Diego State. The Aztecs were making a move from the WAC to the newly formed Mountain West and wanted a big-name hire to go along with it, but they hadn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1985. Fisher could have easily used the position as a mere placeholder until a bigger program came calling. Instead, he stuck around.
Just like he did at Michigan, Fisher found quick success. In his third year, the Aztecs won the Mountain West Tournament and finally got back to the Big Dance. They have since become a mid-major powerhouse, winning the conference regular season title four times and taking the tournament title three times.
San Diego State's big breakthrough came in the 2010-11 season, when freshman Jamaal Franklin and sophomore Kawhi Leonard led the Aztecs to their best season yet. They finished No. 6 in the final AP poll, and earned a No. 2 seed and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. Leonard left for the NBA Draft, but Fisher had another promising player in Xavier Thames, who transferred from Washington State. The next season, the Aztecs earned an at-large bid, giving them a third-straight NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in programhistory. They dropped their first game to N.C. State.
San Diego State wasn't the only program competing for Mountain West supremacy. The New Mexico Lobos have risen to national prominence alongside the Aztecs, and both teams have had some memorable games. San Diego State had a bit of a down year in 2012-13, finishing 9-7 in conference play, and it lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West Tournament for the second straight year. Still, the resume was good enough for another at-large bid. Fisher's crew got the No. 7 seed and bagged just its third tournament win in history, knocking off the Oklahoma Sooners. It fell in the next round to Florida Gulf Coast, a.k.a "Dunk City," but the short run was a successful sendoff for Franklin, who went to the NBA Draft after the season.
This year was another banner year for the Aztecs. They rose as high as No. 5 in the AP poll, but once again lost to the Lobos in the conference tournament and had to settle for an at-large bid, getting a No. 4 seed. They sweated out an overtime win over the New Mexico State Aggies but blew open the doors in the third round, dismantling the North Dakota State Bison, 63-44, to get back to the Sweet 16.
The Aztecs face their toughest test yet on Thursday, taking on Aaron Gordon and the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats. The good news is that the game is in Anaheim, giving fans the chance to make a short drive from San Diego.
The matchup could be the biggest of Fisher's San Diego State tenure. The program was an afterthought when he took over, and 15 years later he has the Aztecs on the doorstep of their first Elite Eight appearance. Win or lose, the program has come a long way.