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Sports Update: March Madness Hits San Diego

Audio

Aired 3/19/10

The Aztecs' men's and women's basketball teams will both be playing in the "big dance" this year. We talk to Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton about SDSU's chances in both NCAA basketball tournaments. And, we discuss the Padres chances of winning the National League West in 2010.

Audio

Aired 3/19/10

The Aztecs' men's and women's basketball teams will both be playing in the "big dance" this year. We talk to Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton about SDSU's chances in both NCAA basketball tournaments. And, we discuss the Padres chances of winning the National League West in 2010.

Marcus Slaughter #42 hugs Brandon Heath #1 and John Sharper #15 of the San Diego State University Aztecs after defeating the Wyoming Cowboys 69-64 in the championship of the Mountain West Conference Basketball Tournament on March 11, 2006 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
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Above: Marcus Slaughter #42 hugs Brandon Heath #1 and John Sharper #15 of the San Diego State University Aztecs after defeating the Wyoming Cowboys 69-64 in the championship of the Mountain West Conference Basketball Tournament on March 11, 2006 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Speaking of that NCAA tournament, tonight is the game SDSU basketball fans have been waiting for for a long time. The Aztecs play the Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA tournament. But that's not all, the Aztec women are also part of March Madness. They play the Texas Longhorns in a match-up on Sunday. Joining us to talk about what he calls a farewell to Aztec mediocrity is my guest, Lee ‘Hacksaw’ Hamilton. He’s sports talk show host on XX1090, and a sports columnist for SDNN.com. And, welcome, Lee.

LEE ‘HACKSAW’ HAMILTON (Sports Talk Show Host): Good morning. Have you filled out your March Madness brackets?

CAVANAUGH: I’m kind of learning how to do that. I can’t say that I’ve got it filled out yet, no.

HAMILTON: Well, I will tell you, March Madness and college basketball, this is a very interesting three weeks. It’s really become an eclectic part of springtime for sports fans across America. And they start playing games early in the day and they play all day into the night, and they start with a field of 64 and they knock that thing down to the final four in Indianapolis a couple of weeks from now and the Aztecs are hoping to start that trip late tonight in Providence.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, what can you tell us about the Aztecs men’s basketball team? It sounds like what we’ve got is a really talented young team.

HAMILTON: Young, I think, is the keyword. I don’t think anybody could’ve expected this team to be this good. When they opened camp in October, they were tremendously young. They have only one senior on the team. They had a couple of really bright young freshmen, they had some transfers that had come into the program. In all honesty, I don’t think that Steve Fisher, the basketball coach, really knew what he had when the season started. And it was a rather rocky start to the season. They got bushwhacked by St. Mary’s, which is also in the NCAA tournament. It was a struggle to grow as a team. They lost a poor game to Pacific, they lost a game to Wyoming. Just, you know, it wasn’t going well, and the team just stayed with it. And he kind of coached them into being a really, really good team and, collectively, they got better and better to the point where they got to the end of the season and they were beating ranked teams and they were hanging tough…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HAMILTON: …with virtually everybody they played. And then for them to go into Las Vegas a weekend ago and win the Mountain West Conference Tournament was a great accomplishment because they had to beat a tremendous New Mexico team that was nationally ranked, and then they had to beat Las Vegas in Las Vegas with the whole arena filled with UNLV Las Vegas fans.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HAMILTON: So, I mean, they really accomplished an phenomenal amount and so see how they’ve grown and collectively come together, a credit to the coaching staff. They’ve really brought this team together as a unit.

CAVANAUGH: Because SDSU’s men’s basketball has had something of a troubled history.

HAMILTON: Well, it’s been a long run. In fact, on my talk show all yesterday afternoon and last night, I asked the question, historically, do you know San Diego State has never won an NCAA tournament game?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

HAMILTON: Never, in modern day basketball, ever since they became Division One back in the 1970s. First with Tim Vesey, who was a good coach, then with a dynamic guy like Smokey Gaines. They always had good individual players, they had guys who went on to – to go play in the NBA. Then I was stunned, I went back and looked at all the litany of really good names that have worn San Diego State colors from the Michael Cages of the world to where we are right now, which is absolutely amazing. I think what happened in years gone by, they, unfortunately, when they had good teams, they were lining up in a smaller NCAA tournament. This tournament’s not always been 64. At one point it was 32, another time it was 28. And they’ve have to wind up and they’d play UCLA, which was loaded with future NBA superstars, or they’d play UNLV, coached by Jerry Tarkanian, that had a lot of really good NBA-type players. So they always kind of got in the crosshairs of talented teams loaded with guys who’d go on to play pro basketball. But that being said, they also went through some really bad times after the Tim Vesey, Smokey Gaines era. They made some mistakes in hires. They hired Jim Brandenburg from Wyoming. I thought that was going to work and it did not. Then they got – hired a younger coach, Tony Fuller, who came from Pac 10 pedigree and he got overwhelmed and then they hired a junior college coach who had great heart but just could never put it together, Fred Trenkle. So they went through a span of about, I would say, maybe 10 to 12 years of really poor basketball. And then they picked up Steve Fisher from – who had been at Michigan and had great success and, boy, he has found a home and has he done a great, great job.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us about today’s match-up. The Tennessee Volunteers, could this be their – the first time that the Aztecs team actually wins in the NCAA?

HAMILTON: I think there’s potential for this to happen. I will tell you Tennessee is kind of schizo. They’ve had a lot of problems this season with players. They had to suspend a player. They had three arrests early in the season. They’re gifted. I mean, they play in the Southeastern Conference, which is about as bigtime as you can get in college athletics. This team beat Kansas early in the year. Kansas is the number one team in the country right now. This team beat Kentucky, which is also a number one seed in the tournament, early in the year. But they haven’t played as well lately. In fact, they got smoked last weekend by Kentucky in the SEC championship game, losing by 29. So I – at this point, I don’t really know where Tennessee is from a, quote, team standpoint. The challenges for San Diego State: very young. The kids have never played in this level of tournament. Kawai Leonard is a great freshman. D.J. Gay is a veteran guard. Billy White is a veteran forward. But it’s a predominantly – still a very young Aztec basketball team and they’ve never been in the tournament, and I think that’s going to be a challenge. But that being said, I’m optimistic because they did not cave in in the middle of the season when things were rough. They did not, obviously, get intimidated playing in the Mountain West Conference tournament when everybody in the stands – they were playing not only New Mexico and Vegas, they were playing the fans, too. They did not fall apart there, so because this is a neutral site game in Providence and this game is not in Knoxville on the UT campus, I think they got a legitimate chance to pull off a win here. Now a lot of things have to happen, and they’re playing great athletes in the Southeastern Conference. They really recruit great athletes. So this will be a challenge but can it be done? It sure can, and that’s what March Madness is all about. The first – first weekend of March Madness, the Thursday, Friday games, the upsets come in droves. So, hey, why not San Diego State?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. The Aztecs meet Tennessee at 6:45 our time. It’ll be broadcast on Channel 8, our local CBS affiliate. Let’s move on to the Aztec women now because in contrast to what you were saying about the men’s team, the women’s team is more experienced. They’ve actually played in the Big Dance before. Do you think the experience on the women’s team could be an advantage for SDSU?

HAMILTON: Oh, tremendous. And Beth Burns is a fine coach. You know, she had success at San Diego State. She left, she went to Ohio State as head coach, had some success then left. Then she was an assistant at Stanford, and then they brought her back home. And she’s a very good recruiter. She’s a very good end game coach. What has transpired on the – with the Lady Aztecs is a little bit different. They recruited a lot of hometown talent about three years ago and they’ve played all these kids, Quenese Davis, Coco Davis, Paris Johnson, Jéne Morris, you know, for the most part, these are all local San Diego kids and they’ve been together two and three years. And I recall when Beth first got here, came back a couple of years ago, they had a very good start to the season and everybody was so excited. Then there was a home game at Cox Arena against national power Connecticut, and it was really going to be a litmus test as to how far along the program has come. And it was such excitement and Connecticut came in here and just killed them.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HAMILTON: Of course, Connecticut kills everybody. Connecticut, the Lady Huskies, have won 72 in a row.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HAMILTON: I mean, it’s a phenomenal accomplishment what their women’s basketball program has been. But the point I’m making is that Beth has had all these young kids play together and all those kids, for the most part, they got smoked by Yukon, are still playing, and I think you’re correct, Maureen, that experience will speak volumes. Won’t be an easy game. You know, on the weekend they go to Austin, Texas to play the, you know, the University of Texas Lady Longhorns and this is a tough tournament but they’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of athleticism, and they play wicked defense. Holy cow, on the weekend, on Sunday when they came back and they beat Utah, they held Utah, the Lady Utes, without a basket for ten and a half minutes. Without a basket. So pretty good basketball team that Beth has, too.

CAVANAUGH: Aztec women play the University of Texas Sunday, and that game is at 4:00 p.m. I’m wondering, overall, Lee, what does this mean for SDSU and actually for San Diego to have both the Aztecs men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA basketball tournament?

HAMILTON: Well, I was with Dr. Stephen Weber on Sunday during the selection Sunday show, and we sat together and talked. I think it’s the greatest day in the history of Aztec basketball. For both the men and the women to raise the championship trophy in their left hand and have the airline tickets to go to the Big Dance in their right hand, that’s something you never, ever forget. So it’s special. And what – I think what’s happened in the big picture is that Steve Fisher and Beth Burns have now set a level of expectation and what they do is, they recruit off their past successes and it just continues to grow the program in which good kids want to come here, get an education, and want to play here. And now that they’ve set a bar high for what is expected in the basketball program, and they’ve done a magnificent job. And I think the next in line is this football program with what Brady Hoke is going to do and it takes longer to turn a football program because in basketball you only need one or two to flip it. Football, obviously, you need good recruiting classes on top of good recruiting classes. But it’s huge. It is just huge. And what Cox Arena, Viejas Arena has become, it’s just amazing to see them on game nights and see the fans that show up in the stands with their faces painted. That’s what college basketball has become. It’s an event. It’s a destination point. It’s a feel-good story. So winning – winning sure does make that stuff happen.

CAVANAUGH: It does. Well, as hard as it is to leave Aztec basketball, I want to ask you a couple of questions about the Padres because spring is in the air. Our thoughts turn to baseball, and I’m wondering how’s that shaping up? What appears to be the major strengths and weaknesses of the Padres this season?

HAMILTON: Well, I just came back from the Cactus League. I spent all last week there doing my talk show on Double X.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HAMILTON: I will tell you that it’s a good young team. I think right now their pitching staff is growing by leaps and bounds. You know, they had a miserable middle of the season last year. At one point they had lost 20 of 24 and they were going down the drain and what they did was, in August, they committed to play all their kids, and their kids got much more competitive. And they wound up going 37 and 25 down the stretch, which is a pretty good accomplishment considering how young they were. Well, what they’ve got now is all those young players have that experience under their belt, they’ve gone into the marketplace, they’ve added another veteran pitcher in Jon Garland to go with their top two pitchers, Chris Young and Kevin Correia. They’re very deep in the bullpen. I think they’re going to be more than competitive if the front end of their pitching rotation holds up, if there are no injuries. So I think it’s a feel-good story for the Padres. Now the division is tough. San Francisco’s good and Colorado’s got big bats and you’ve still got the Dodgers and Arizona. But I really believe that the Padres have taken a step forward and I think the biggest question will be what happens with Adrian Gonzalez, the power-hitting first baseman and his contract. Do they keep him? Are they forced to trade him? Although they do own him for two more years before they have to make a deal or make a decision on a big money contract. But that question is still looming very much over the head of everybody. But I’m interested to see if they can build on the way they finished up last season and, so far, based on what I saw in the Cactus League, it’s very positive.

CAVANAUGH: And, Lee, finally, tell us a little bit about the Chargers trade with the Seattle Seahawks.

HAMILTON: Well, they made a trade last night that, as a sports talk show host, I will – I view it as a ripoff.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

HAMILTON: They traded one of their back-up quarterbacks, a good kid, Charlie Whitehurst. He’s never played, been here three, four years, a good young player. They traded him to Seattle and what they did was, San Diego traded the quarterback and the 60th pick in the draft for Seattle’s second round pick, which is at number 40, and a future pick. And what this allows them to do is it allows San Diego, which has got some holes in its roster, to have a late first round pick and a fairly early second round pick to really fill some holes. I – It was a brilliant move. If I’m up in Seattle today in the Pacific Northwest, in addition to being anguished because of the rain, I think I’d be anguished about the fact you traded a high second round draft pick for a kid quarterback that’s never played in the league. So I think from the Chargers’ standpoint, this was a really good deal. And, of course, it’s been a real off season of controversy, the lousy finish to the season with the playoff loss to the Jets. All the problems off the field with Antonio Cromartie and other players, and then the very criticized release of LaDainian Tomlinson. So this is the first piece of good news the Chargers have had since we talked back in January. So I thought it was a pretty nice acquisition.

CAVANAUGH: Lee, we’ve got to end it there but thanks so much for talking with us.

HAMILTON: Maureen, make sure you get your brackets right. We’ll talk to you again.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. I want to tell everyone, you know, if you want to see President Barack Obama pick his bracket teams, pick his bracket, whatever it’s called, you can go on – there’s an ESPN video on YouTube. The video is called “Baracketology 2010.” And remember, the Aztec men’s basketball team play the Tennessee Volunteers at 6:45 tonight and it’s going to be broadcast on Channel 8. If you’d like to comment on what you hear on These Days, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Now, coming up, we’ll talk about the 21st century version of free love, called polyamory. That’s next on These Days on KPBS.

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