Friday, February 4, 2011
With one national championship under his belt, Coach Steve Fisher hopes to drive his San Diego State basketball team deep into the NCAA tournament.
Steve Fisher stands on the floor of Viejas Arena, arms crossed, watching his player’s hustle up and down the court. The floor is awash in light, but the rows of seats that rise from the court are dark and empty. Fisher’s voice echoes through the building when he decides to jump in and teach.
“Put some effort into it men.” Fisher yells at his squad. “Put some energy into it. Let’s go get the ball.”
The players pick up the tempo. Fisher watches patiently and then jumps in again: “You gotta' hit him B. C.” B. C. is Brian Carlwell, easily the biggest man on the floor at 6-feet-11 and 300 pounds. “Don’t let that ball come over your head.”
Fisher is teaching the lessons that he hopes will keep the team at the top of the basketball world, and keep the Aztecs running with the major powers like Duke, Ohio State, and Kansas.
This season is unprecedented on Montezuma Mesa: It began with 20 straight wins; a national ranking that peaked in the top five; and more home sellouts this season than the school has had combined since the 12,414 seat Viejas Arena opened in 1997.
“It’s just grown beyond anything that we could’ve ever imagined.” said Mike May of San Diego State’s Athletic Department. He said it is amazing to watch.
“In athletics, it’s very tangible. You see rankings. You see polls. There’s a winner. There’s a loser. It’s binary.” May said, “ So it’s very easy to see and judge how you do. And I think people have a tremendous sense of pride and loyalty at San Diego State. And it’s great to show that in front of the entire nation.”
The national spotlight is focused on San Diego in large part because of a coach who came here 12 years ago.
Steve Fisher won a national championship at Michigan in 1989, but he landed in San Diego after an uncomfortable departure from Ann Arbor. Rumblings about a booster’s ties to star player Chris Webber got Fisher fired in 1997. He took a year off, spent a year in professional basketball and then arrived in San Diego.
Fisher said this was clearly a rebuilding job. “Here the goal was to create an awareness and a perception that this was first, Division 1 basketball.”
Fisher’s first team won only five games and he dismissed half the squad after the season. The coach wanted quality players capable of competing.
The strategy began paying dividends in short order and the team qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2002. “When we went to the tournament our first year, I said I could be elected mayor here.” Fisher said, “If you just make the tournament back at Michigan, they’re gonna fire you.”
The expectations may be different but Fisher’s recipe for success is the same: Find athletic, talented basketball players. Teach them how to work together. And play stifling defense.
Those are lessons Senior Billy White hears every time he laces up his shoes and hits the practice floor. White stands at 6-foot 8 and is one of the team’s “Bigs,” those tall gifted players that earn their keep close to the basket. White listens to his coach because Fisher has already been at the top.
“He always tells us, don’t let this get to our heads. Stay humble.” White said, “If you guys want it to stay like this, you guys have to keep winning. In order to win, you got to put in hard work in practice.”
Senior Malcolm Thomas grew up in San Diego but went north to Pepperdine after high school. When Pepperdine’s coach lost his job, Malcolm came home. He didn’t expect to be playing on such a successful team, but he said the success has been earned.
“I feel like we belong. I feel like we work hard," he said. "And I feel like we deserve all the attention that we’re getting. We play really hard every game and we’re going to continue that and we have a great coach, in coach Fisher.”
Fisher said he wants the team to enjoy what they have accomplished. He knows how difficult it is to achieve and he knows this season is still a work in progress.
“We still have never won an NCAA tournament game, so that’s one of our goals -- to get into the tournament and then win in the tournament. We’ve gotten in three times before and got knocked out in the first round.
The tournament looms large even though the event is more than a month away. Fisher is one of 11 active coaches who’ve won a national championship and with his 66th birthday coming up, he has an idea about a gift.
“March 24th.” Fisher said. “I want to be playing on my birthday, so if we’re doing that we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
San Diego State still has a handful of games at home, including another game against Brigham Young University soon. The Cougars handed the Aztecs their first loss of the season when the teams played last month, a game hyped at the greatest showdown in Utah hoops history.
And unlike the practice court, where Steve Fisher’s voice booms through the darkened arena, there will be no empty seats when a raucous home crowd backs the Aztecs for the BYU rematch on Feb. 26.