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SDSU basketball coach looks back on historic season

 April 13, 2023 at 1:00 PM PDT

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. This past Saturday , fans celebrated San Diego State's men's basketball team at Snapdragon Stadium after a historic run to the National College championship game. The team received keys to the city from Mayor Todd Gloria as a red carpet was rolled out to welcome them and congratulate them on an incredible NCAA tournament run. Aztecs assistant coach Chris Acker spoke with KPBS Midday Edition producer Andrew Bracken about the celebration and the season to remember.

S2: On Saturday , the team got a chance to be celebrated by its fans in San Diego after that historic season.

S3: You know that that was a remarkable feeling , getting up to Snapdragon Stadium and seeing the amount of fans that were there , seeing all of the support and everybody back and everything that we had gotten done this season. It's hard when you're planning a season and then when you lose your last game to kind of relish in the success you've had. But being around that many fans and having the administration put all of that together in 72 hours , just let you know how special our run actually was.

S2: And you've been in basketball both as a player and a coach for for many years , I'm guessing most of your life. Absolutely.

S3: And I think the most unique factor about this team is that when one guy was struggling , it was the epitome of the next man up. So you always had a different leading scorer. You always had a different guy that you could depend on to make a big shot. And it was always timely. But you know , the huddles and in in timeouts , the conversations they would have in the locker room were all about winning. And so to me , that's what made it the most special team I've been a part of , just because of the resiliency that they showed every day in practice and obviously every game we played in.

S2: And on that resiliency , I mean , one thing head coach Brian Dutcher talks a lot about is the culture of SDSU basketball.

S3: I mean , the reality of it is , is , you know , we we play a special brand of basketball in terms of our approach from a defensive standpoint. And , you know , people talk all the time how we can go on stretches without scoring , but our defense keeps us in games , our ability to rebound , the basketball keeps us in games. And that goes all the way back to when Steve Fisher was the head coach and I used to watch Aztec basketball games before I became a coach here. Just just the fact that nothing that's happening on the offensive end will affect what we're doing and will affect the outcome of a game. We're always going to be locked in and have a chance to win the game at the end because of our commitment on the defensive end.


S3: When you make a mistake , coaches always tell you , Well , keep playing , get to the next play , you miss a shot , don't hang your head , hold your follow through. The next one will go in and we take that same approach on the defensive end where , you know , if there's a mistake , we're always asking another guy to cover for him. You know , we rely heavily on our length and our athleticism , but again , there's no perfect defensive game. There's always adjustments that will be made. And just the fact that , you know , we rely on our intelligence on the defensive end to take teams out of what they're trying to do for us to have a chance to win the game.

S2: And you've been part of SDSU basketball program since 2019 , I believe.

S3: 2019 , 2020. Yep.

S2: So that's probably around the time that a lot of these players on this year's squad , you know , came to join SDSU.

S3: It's been extremely exciting to see their process. And I think , you know , myself , but our entire program , we try to focus on being process oriented and seeing things through. And so I've seen the highs and the lows of each individual on this team. And like you said , when they first got here , there was a lot of things that they were trying to figure out as players and , you know , but to have the core group in Adam Seco , Aguilera , Nathan Mendoza , Matt Bradley , Lamont Butler , Keesha Johnson , having that core guys with with me the entire time that I've been here , I feel blessed and somewhat spoiled in the sense that I've been able to watch their matriculation and watch their growth , especially in this current climate with how guys are transferring. We've been fortunate enough to not to have really good players leave our program and go play for other places.

S2: So during March Madness this year , a lot of SDSU tournament games involved comebacks , some after being down , you know , double digits , several points as a.

S3: And so usually if we're down , you know , a lot of times it can be from what the other team is doing , but it can also be us not doing what we need to do at an elite level. And so making adjustments mentally , emotionally and energy wise throughout the course of a game sometimes can be the biggest factor in us coming back in a game. It's not necessarily X's and O's all the time. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to perform on the defensive end like we do. And sometimes , you know , guys can feel like they're tired or guys can feel like they want to play more. And so you're dealing with those internal battles when you're getting subbed out of a game or you're dealing with , you know , a coach yelling at you about a defensive assignment that you missed. And so it's constantly been about no matter what the score is , we got to find a way to win the basketball game. And whether that is an and change that we have to make or it's , you know , a substitution that we have to make or whether it's just the guys locking in on each other and saying , hey , we got to play better. It seemed to be the theme this entire year and it worked out for us in a big way game in and game out throughout the tournament.

S2: So I think for most San Diego State fans , the defining moment of this season was , I'd say it's a moment that's probably seared into San Diego sports history at this point. It was LaMonte Butler's Buzzer Beater in the Final Four to send the Aztecs to the national championship.


S3: Timeout prior , I told the guys , I said , if we get a rebound , we're going to win the game. I don't know how it's going to get done , but we're going to win this game. And so when a quick block the shot and we outlet it it to Lamont and he was bringing the ball up the floor , there's a picture of Dave Velasquez and I standing there just watching him make the play. But on the release I know I said today , I said , that's good. And when you watch it back , seeing Micah Parrish move away from the basketball and not run towards the ball , it's why he had enough space to get the shot off. But in the moment I just had the utmost confidence that we were going to find a way to win that game.

S2: And yeah , that's a that's a moment again a lot of people won't forget. I've seen t shirts of it you know there's Yeah , you're going to be hearing about that play for a lot of years. So looking ahead a bit , San Diego State plays in the Mountain West Conference today , but there has been talk about it making a jump potentially to a major conference like the PAC 12.

S3: So for us , if we're in the Mountain West , if we're in the PAC 12 for the Big Ten , the Big 12 , whatever league we play in , our mentality is going to go out , is going to be to go out and find a way to win that game and move to the next game. And the ultimate goal will be to win the conference championship. So our approach and our mentality won't change based on the conference we're in. But you know , obviously the stakes are a lot higher. Planning a Power five conference , if that's potentially what's going to happen. So , you know , I just think it brings more recognition to what we're doing over here in San Diego as a program and how good we can be regardless of what situation we're in.

S2: So you alluded to this a little bit earlier , but college basketball has gone through some changes in recent years , one of which it's it's much easier for players to transfer from one school to another.

S3: So we always try to maintain having multiple young guys in our program that develop through the program. So when you look at our roster this year , you had Lamont Butler , Keesha Johnson , for example , who have been in the program since freshman , and now they've arrived and have become leaders of the program. And so that'll always be the the pillar of what we're trying to do here in San Diego State. The transfer portal has allowed us to really look at guys that can come in and impact winning and help us continue to , you know , compete at a national level. And so for us , we're fortunate enough with those freshmen guys that are developing in the program to be able to add guys that add value , that are great locker room guys and that bring a level of of commitment and hopefully prior success prior to getting here that will help us continue to win. We're never of the mindset that you just bring in any individual person to the program. It's got to fit. It's got to make sense. So we're very fortunate to be in that situation. But as far as the current climate in college basketball , I mean , you know , it's been very good for us , you know , and it's good , I think , for players to be able to figure out what makes the most sense for them and try to find their home , because that's all you're trying to look for as a student athlete and as a coach , you're trying to figure out a situation that makes sense for you and your family to where you can continue to thrive. And so we're trying to bring in guys that are trying to be professional basketball players but ultimately want to win college basketball games and make the run that we just made. And at the end of the day , try to win a national championship.

S2: A couple weeks ago , I spoke with San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist Bryce Miller during your tournament run. And he had some interesting things to say about just how special March Madness is and how unique that environment is.

S3: That was the only time I had ever won prior to this year , a game , an NCAA tournament. And we advanced to play. Maryland lost in the second round. And so I didn't get to experience at that time what it felt like to go home , repack and get on the road. Now , having gone through this entire process here with San Diego State , you first realize that this is the longest tournament in the world , but you also realize how special it is to continue to advance. And the NCAA does a tremendous job of making you feel like you've accomplished something as you continue to advance through the tournament. And when you win that Elite eight game and you're on your way to the Final Four , there's nothing like it. And I think it's a dream for all coaches. And when you arrive at the Final Four and you look at what they do behind the scenes to make you feel like , man , you really accomplished something , that this is the rarest thing in college basketball. It's really special to be a part of. And , you know , I was very thankful to bring my family and to see all of the coaches and their kids. It's an experience for not only you as an individual coach and not even just for your players. The entire city got behind us. Our families got behind us , and they were able to experience that. And I'm getting the chills just talking about it right now. But , you know , when you get in that environment and you step into that football stadium and you see it for the first time lit up with , you know , the fans there , when you're doing the open practices and everything , there's just there's nothing like it. And so it just they do a great job of making you feel like , you know , I never want to come to the Final Four again unless I'm playing in this event. So that's the best way I can sum it up.

S2: Chris Acker is an assistant coach with the San Diego State Aztecs men's basketball team. Chris , thanks so much for sharing a little bit about your historic season with us.

S3: I appreciate you guys having me on. And go Aztecs.

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San Diego State guard Lamont Butler practices for their Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 31, 2023, in Houston. San Diego State and Florida Atlantic play on Saturday.
Godofredo A. Vasquez
San Diego State guard Lamont Butler practices for their Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 31, 2023, in Houston. San Diego State and Florida Atlantic play on Saturday.

This past Saturday, fans celebrated San Diego State’s men's basketball team at Snapdragon Stadium after a historic run to the national college championship game. The team received keys to the city from Mayor Todd Gloria as a red carpet was rolled out to welcome them and congratulate them on an incredible NCAA tournament run.


Aztecs assistant coach Chris Acker