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What Will It Take For SDSU To Win Tonight At BYU?

What Will It Take For SDSU To Win Tonight At BYU?
The SDSU Men's Basketball team is currently 20-0, and ranked No. 4 in the nation. This is, by far, the best basketball season the Aztecs men's basketball team has ever had. So, what's the secret behind SDSU's success this season? We speak to U-T sports reporter Mark Zeigler about the Aztecs success this season, and their game tonight against ninth ranked BYU Cougars.

The SDSU Men's Basketball team is currently 20-0, and ranked No. 4 in the nation. This is, by far, the best basketball season the Aztecs men's basketball team has ever had. So, what's the secret behind SDSU's success this season? We speak to U-T sports reporter Mark Zeigler about the Aztecs success this season, and their game tonight against ninth ranked BYU Cougars.


Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Mark joins us today from Provo, Utah


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Can a college basketball game be too big? If your answer is yes, you may be thinking about want to's match up between the Aztecs and BYU. Of the event has been dubbed the biggest game in mountain west conference existence. Certainly in the history of SDSU's men's basketball. But for all the heat this game is generating, will it shed any light on how the Aztecs might holdup in an NCAA tournament play? Joining me now to discuss tonight's humongous game of destiny for the SDSU Aztecs is my guest, Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. He joins us from Provo Utah, mark, good morning.

ZEIGLER: Good morning, how are you?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm doing just great, thanks for being with us.

ZEIGLER: Glad to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, if our listeners would like to add a question, a comment or a shout out for tonight's gale, you can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So mark, why is tonight's game being billed as the biggest game in the mountain west conference's existence?


ZEIGLER: Well, the mountain west conference has been around for only 12 years, and it's a very good conference this year. But for the first new years, it really only had 1 or 2 good teams, and nothing of sort of the national prominence that San Diego state and BYU are at right now. Both are ranked in the top ten, San Diego is number four, BYU is number ten -- excuse me, number nine. And that's out of 345 division one teams of so it's quite an accomplishment for the league to have two teams of that caliber. So I think it's new for the league to have that kind of exposure, are and that kind of big game. And for San Diego state, it's a biggest game because, what else is the biggest game? This is a school that really doesn't have much basketball tradition, has never won a game in the NCAA tournament, only won a handful of sort of big league titles, and so it is uncharted waters for them as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what's been the secret to the Aztecs' success this season as far as you're concerned? They are 20 and O, and ranged 24th of that's pretty amazing.

ZEIGLER: Yeah, there's a lot of different reasons they're good, but if you're gonna point to one, it would have to be they have a lot of seniors. College basketball these days has gotten a lot younger because the best players from the best team go to the NBA at a young age, often after their freshman year or their sophomore years in college, and so these teams keep getting younger and younger and younger, and the best players generally aren't seniors.

A. Well, San Diego state's been able to keep together a group out of some transfers and they have a half dozen forth year players or seniors on the team who have been around, know the league, understand what it's like to be in hostile road environments, and nay have a great composure. This is a team that doesn't panic. They have been behind quite a bit in the 50 halves of games, it's within amaze, and they just don't panic. They don't look at the score board, they don't play the score board. They just keep playing their game. And eventually they put together a big run and put away the team and win. And as many times as they've been behind in the first half, the latest they've trailed at a game is with seven and a half minutes to go, which is a remarkable feet considering they've already played 20 games. So this is it a team that's -- it's definitely a second half team, but it's a very, very poised and veteran team.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark, looking beyond the game tonight, do you see that senior experience, so many seniors on this Aztec team helping the Aztec when is they get into postseason play.

ZEIGLER: Well, you'd think it would. The one sort of asterisk that's hanging out there, and it's in the back of everyone's mind, and I know they're gonna get sick of hearing about it, and they probably cooperate to talk about it, but it's that this school has never won an NCAA tournament game. It's been sex times and they've never won. And that first game is gonna be really hard because of that because everybody in the media is gonna be reminding them. So I think what's -- what they're playing for right now, look, they're in the tournament, they're 20 and O, it would take an absolutely catastrophic crash for them not to make it. But what they're playing for now is their seating in the tournament. And the defense between getting the number two or a number three seat and maybe a 5 or 6 seat is huge in term it is of the caliber of an opponent you'll play. If they're a number two seat, they'll be playing a much lesser opponent with maybe even their became that they could probably beat. But if they're down there at the number five or the number six, and they have to play very good team from a power conference, and they have this sort of bugaboo of not winning an NCAA tournament game hanging over their head, it could be very, very hard. There'll be a lot of pressure. So they key for them is to get out of the first game. And once they get out of that first game, I think they could do some things because of the type of team they have, the experience, the size, the athleticism, the balance in scoring all those things come into play more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with mark Zeigler, he is a sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. He's in Provo Utah for tonight's game between the Aztecs and BYU. And we're asking you to join the conversation, if you'd like. Of 1-888-895-5727. One of the reasons I understand that this is such a big game against B, why U is that even though the Aztecs, you know, win lose ratio is tremendous this season, it's not that tremendous against B, why U.

ZEIGLER: Yeah, and you know, it's very hard for teams to come here because -- for a number of reasons. First of all, BYU traditionally has a very good team. It's culturally a lot different coming to Provo Utah. There's nowhere like it in the country. And it's also an altitude, and to me, that's the biggest factor. It's very hard for sea level teams to come up to altitude. And the Mountain West Conference is an altitude conference, there's six schools at 4500 feet or above. Going all the way up to 7200 feet at Wyoming. And for the sea level team, which is the San Diego state, the lowest team in the conference, obviously, it's very, very hard, they go up and down, up and down six different times during the year. And so to me, that's the biggest factor, playing in Provo, the Aztecs are 3 and 28 all time at the Marriott center, which is where B, why U plays its home games.


ZEIGLER: Also the Marriott center hold all those 23,000 people, and sometimes it's full sometimes it's not. It's been sold out for weeks for this game, and people here are just as hyped about it as people back in San Diego are. So it's gonna be a very, very tough atmosphere. You know, not just from the fans' standpoint, and the travel standpoint, but from the altitude standpoint. The final factor that make its very, very difficult, is that BYU is a fast break team. They love to run the ball up and down the floor. That's partly by design. Because they know teams are coming from sea level or lower elevations, and it's much harder when you're playing the team that's running up and down the floor than a team that's walking up and down the Court. You can catch your breath.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So mark, what will it take for the Aztecs to win tonight.

ZEIGLER: I'm not sure anybody in the country could win this game. And when I say, this could maybe be too big of a game, what I mean is it's almost is set up for the Aztecs because much of the country hasn't seen them play this year. They're in a conference that doesn't has a very good nation television contract, they're the west coast, their games start 7:00 or 7:30 in the west coast, that's 10:00 or 10:30 on the east coast, and so a lot of -- you know, college basketball is really an east coast centric sport, and a lot of the powers and the influential media people or the pole voters or fellow coaches don't get to see them play very much. Of they will probably watch them tonight and they're gonna be judging them in this environment where they're going into altitude against a team that runs, and it's a very unfair situation for the Aztecs. That said, I'm not sure there's any other team in the country better prepared to win up here than San Diego state because their players are veterans issue they have been to Provo, they know what to expect, they know a little bit about handling the altitude, they know how to catch their second wind. So if there's a team that could do it, it's San Diego state. I just think people need to understand that the chances are very slim that anybody's gonna win up here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, mark, in a recent UT article, you make the point that if the Aztecs don't win, they may slip farther down in the rankings than would generally happen with a team with this record just losing one game. Why is that?

ZEIGLER: Well, they just don't have sort of the cachet and the blue blood history they're not a Dow Jones stock so to speak in the college basketball world. And perception is reality in college basketball. Poles are basically just perception of it's a bunch of media members who may or may not see you play, and they kind of have their own little formulas in their minds about where teams should be slotted when they win or when they lose. Of and if a big east team, Syracuse loses to a pit, they might only fall 3 or 4 spots because pit is regarded as a very good team. San Diego state, I think a lot of voters are sold on them. But I think a lot of voters also really aren't sold on them. I think they play the soft schedule, which they haven't, and don't think much of the mountain west conference, which is wrong. It's a very good conference. But I think they're looking for an excuse to knock them down the poles of so I don't think they'll plummet to 20th, but I think instead of plummeting -- you're losing to number 19 on the Court [CHECK AUDIO] and you're a sea level team, you should probably only fall 2 or 3 spot, I think they'll fall more like 8 or 10 possibility.

CAVANAUGH: Just because of all the things you said, about the fact that they're just, you know, they basically haven't proved themselves to the east coast power house.

ZEIGLER: Yeah. And you know, a lot of that is the NCAA tournament. You have to do something to make noise in the NCAA tournament. So much in college basketball now is with the NCAA tournament. And the last 10 or 15 years has been this enormous shift to the tension of the tournament. And what you do in your legal doesn't really matter. People can't tell you who won league championships except the school that won it, probably. [CHECK AUDIO] they just care about what you do in the tournament. That's what people remember. And for the Aztecs, that's sort of an unfortunate situation because there's not much to remember.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a lot bit about coach Steve fisher and what kind of influence he has on this team.

ZEIGLER: Well, you know, coach fisher sometimes is knocked by people who don't know him and don't know his program, as not being a really good Xs and Os coach. And that's really wrong. I sit in on all their practices, and I've seen him coach, and he's very, very good. But where I think he's at his best, I don't want to say controlling, but really guiding the mental psyche of his team. And he really has a good spot [CHECK AUDIO] if they're 20 and O are, or if they're 5 and 15. He really has their confidence level at high as they can be, but he really treads that line where they don't get too confidence, and so I think that -- that he really has a sort of profound effect on how the team performs because of that. And he's also done just a masterful job of not letting their heads get too big at 20 and 0. He's told them, look, this is great. Embrace. This doesn't happen everyday. It's never even happened to him, and he had some of the greatest college teams in history when he was at Michigan. But he's always told them, don't get too cocky, and don't strut too much around because you're only as good as your next win. So they've really embraced that, understood that, and I think that's made a big difference.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All of the Aztec home games, I hear, are sold out for the rest of the season. Can you describe the atmosphere? What the atmosphere has been like at Viejas arena lately.

ZEIGLER: Coach fisher said this, he said this is as good as any in the country. And you think well, he's just saying that. I've been around the country, I've seen other home crowds and other arenas in a variety of sports and a variety of conferences and he's right. It is as good, as loud, as enthusiastic as anywhere in the country. The only difference is the student section is just tremendous, they call it the Show, it's 3000 strong. And you know, it's very, very enthusiastic, and you can get under the skin of other teams quite well. But the one thing that has that you don't see yet is in other places where they've won a lot, the fans know exactly when to cheer, how to cheer, what to do on free throws, and they're very organized. San Diego State isn't that organized yet because haven't had this kind of success. It's just sort of this big, loud I don't want to say mess, but it's just this cauldron of noise, and it's not sort of synchronized. And there's something to be said for that too. And maybe teams in other places sort of expect when the crowd's gonna start cheering and when they're gonna be quiet. Here you just don't know. They could be cheering at any moment, and it just makes for a sort of electric atmosphere, and anyone who's been in those games knows what it's like, and the demand for tickets has just gone through the roof. Because anyone who's gone wants to go back. And it's sort of just feeding in on itself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Away on the other hand if that doesn't have something to do with just this over -- an idea of disbelief in town about what's happening to the Aztecs right now.

ZEIGLER: I think you're right. I don't think people were as prepared for this as maybe they should have been. Those people who follow the team, I knew they were gonna be good, maybe not this good, but very, very good. And last summer, I started telling people, along, if you want to go to games you might want to look at getting tickets now. And they're saying to me, are you crazy? I can walk up, I can weigh tickets any time I want. Friends always have tickets. They're always circulating. But the team knew they were gonna be very good, the coaches knew they were gonna be very good, the people around them knew they were gonna be very good, but I don't think the public at large in San Diego really paid that much attention to what type of season this would be. And it caught them a little off guard. I think the other thing that has been on, it almost has been too much in the other direction, people are starting to expect because this has been sort of a slow build over 12 seasons for Steve fisher, that they're gonna be good like this forever. And I think people need to understand and put this in perspective. This is the once in a lifetime team. The chances of this happening again are very, very remote. They might be building it up again, but they're losing a lot of players next year. They don't have the resources that other big time basketball schools do to reroute, and the teaching schools such as a practice facility, all those things really affect your team. And the chaps of it happening again are -- I don't want to say remote, but they're not great. So enjoy this while it's happening because it hasn't helped before, and it may not happen again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And finally, mark, tonight, you would say electric to the second half?

ZEIGLER: Well, for San Diego state, they've gotta hang in there in the beginning because the altitude really has its most acute effect right off the bat. And it's sort of a matter of getting used to. Players say they catch their second wind, it's more getting used to that sort of burning sensation in your lungs and pushing through it. And senior players seem to be better at it, pushing through it tend to be better at it than the younger players. But getting through those first 5 or 10 minutes still in tact is the key, and then getting to the second half and putting together one of their trademark runs at nine O ten O 12 O run and hanging on for dear life. Because I can't see them blowing out BYU at BYU, but I can see them winning. Of and it's a possibility but it's gonna be close.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark thank you so much.

ZEIGLER: My pressure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark Zeigler is at Provo Utah, he is sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Stay with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.