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SDSU's Coach Fisher Aims For Another Winning Basketball Season

Matt Hoffman / KPBS
Steve Fisher meets with KPBS Producer Club members at the Fowler Athletics Center, May 6, 2014.

The gray-haired, bespectacled gentleman cleared his throat, looked around the room and reached for the microphone.

"Is everybody ready?'' Steve Fisher asked.

Oh, we're ready.

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This snapshot of the 69-year-old men’s basketball coach is from a recent media briefing. But if he were posing the same question to eager San Diego State University fans, Fisher would hear a resounding, "Yes!"

Aztecs hoops are back.

SDSU, ranked 17th nationally, hosts No. 25 Utah at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Viejas Arena, and the game will air on ESPN. Hopes are high for the Aztecs this year, coming off another very good season.

Last year, Fisher’s Aztecs produced a 30-win campaign and their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth. They won the Mountain West regular-season title and didn't turn in their gear for the season until after their second Sweet 16 appearance in four years.

The Aztecs, under Fisher, are one of seven teams in the country to advance to five consecutive NCAA tournaments and win at least 23 games in each of those seasons.

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That run morphed Viejas Arena into a sold-out, red-and-black nut house whenever SDSU laces up its sneakers.

"We’ve been really good at home, and the crowd has been such a huge part of our success,” Fisher said.

This year, three starters return to the team — forwards Winston Shepard, JJ O'Brien and Skylar Spencer. Also back is high-flying forward Dwayne Polee II and sharpshooter Matt Shrigley.

The key newcomers are guard Trey Kell, from San Diego’s St. Augustine High, and forward Angelo Chol, another local from San Diego’s Hoover High who transferred from Arizona.

The 6-foot-10 Malik Pope is SDSU's first five-star recruit. Other freshmen moving the needle are forward Zylan Cheatham and guard Kevin Zabo.

"I like our team,'' Fisher said. "And they like each other.''

They also no doubt like their coach, a modest Midwesterner not far removed from his high school instructor roots. He's called "coach," but "teacher" is a more appropriate moniker. That his classroom seats 12,414 spectators is just part of the gig.

"I probably could have stayed in the high school ranks my entire career and been happy,'' said Fisher, a two-time national coach of the year. "I coached basketball and taught math and that was fine with me.''

But he’s a gifted a college basketball coach and last month received the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching award — named after the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year period.

He’s the 17th recipient of the award, which according to its website, “recognizes the lifetime achievement of coaches.”

“When selecting the individual, the Wooden Award Committee considers a coach’s character, success rate on the court, graduating rate of student athletes, his coaching philosophy and his identification with the goals of the John R. Wooden Award.”

Fisher said that Wooden “epitomizes what we all should aspire to be as people.''

"He exemplifies the qualities that a father should have, a friend should have, a teacher should have,'' he said.

The Aztecs are fortunate to have Fisher.

And, ready or not, Fisher's 16th season at SDSU might be his sweetest.

Corrected: January 28, 2023 at 12:35 PM PST
Jay Paris is a freelance sports columnist. Contact him at jparis8@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jparis_sports.