Whenever 70-year-old basketball coach Steve Fisher retires at San Diego State, you can bet a statue of his likeness will stand outside Viejas Arena for decades to come.
Fisher is San Diego State basketball. Before his arrival on Montezuma Mesa in 1999, the Aztecs were perennial punching bags. The transformation of San Diego State from bottom-feeder into a perennial NCAA Tournament is among the more remarkable turnarounds in college basketball history.
The coming season is the decade anniversary of San Diego State first arriving on the national scene, when Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar led the Aztecs to 24 wins and the Big Dance.
After 10 years of winning, the next step for Fisher to truly cement his legacy — and perhaps command the praise his tenure at San Diego State deserves — is in taking the Aztecs to the Final Four.
The 2015-’16 season might well be when that finally happens. Fisher returns plenty of experience from a lineup that ranked fourth nationally in adjusted defense a season ago, per KenPom.com.
The Aztec offense struggled at times in the team’s run to the Round of 32 last year. However, explosive forward Zylan Cheatham joining the lineup in the coming season promises to add firepower.
Cheatham also adds more length to what is already one of the longest collective rosters in the nation. With wings that go between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8, like Winston Shepard and Matt Shrigley, San Diego State has one of the biggest perimeters in college basketball.
The continued progress of promising big man Malik Pope should give the Aztecs a one-two punch on the low post with star Skylar Spencer. Altogether, the Aztecs have the physical makeup of a Final Four caliber bunch.
San Diego State’s been close a couple times in the last half-decade. The 2010-’11 team entered the NCAA Tournament ranked in the Top 10 nationally and was the West Region’s No. 2 seed.
It made the Sweet 16, but ran into a buzz saw named Kemba Walker on UConn’s way to a national championship.
Three years later back in Anaheim, a short jaunt north on the 5 from San Diego, the Aztecs again bowed out in the Sweet 16 — but not before leading top-seed Arizona for all but the final few minutes.
The 2014 loss to Arizona ostensibly served as an indicator of where San Diego State is in the college basketball landscape. It’s close to the upper echelon — oh so close — but not quite there.
Not yet, anyway.
San Diego State is still something of a little brother to other Western programs like Arizona and UCLA, or even Gonzaga. All have more established histories of success, though the Zags are still seeking that first Final Four appearance, much like San Diego State.
Getting to that promised land before Gonzaga would elevate State above the Zags on the national, and put the Aztecs on more equal footing with its Pac-12 brethren — especially if neither the Bruins nor Wildcats make the Final Four in 2016.
Gaining such clout is significant, as it ensures San Diego State’s basketball identity is more than just its creator, Fisher. The head coach is among the oldest in the game and his retirement nears.
He’s built an infrastructure that would allow his successor to thrive. When one talented leaves, like when Shepard graduates after this season, Fisher has a replacement like Missouri transfer Montaque Gill-Caesar ready to step in.
Whereas Viejas Arena was once a fine place for an undergrad to get homework completed, it’s now one of the most difficult places to score a ticket to in America’s Finest City.
The Aztecs are flourishing because Fisher’s entrenched San Diego State in the deep recruiting pools of California. It’s also gaining a reputation nationally that reaching a Final Four would expand out exponentially.