COACH AND PROGRAM
In the eight times Steve Fisher has returned at least four starters from the previous season, those teams won at least 21 games and all eight advanced to the postseason.
It should be nine in 2008-09 for Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs. Entering his 10th season in San Diego, Fisher returns all five starters, eight lettermen and 12 players who have won at least 20 games at a college program and advanced to the postseason.
The Aztecs return 96.3 percent of their points and 84.8 percent of their rebounds from last season’s squad that went 20-13 and advanced to the postseason for the third straight year — a first-round loss in the NIT to Florida.
San Diego State Aztecs
|Last Season||20-13 (.606)|
|Conference Record||9-7 (4th)|
|Coach||Steve Fisher (Illinois State ’67)|
|Record At School||147-130 (9 years)|
|Career Record||331-212 (17 years)|
|RPI Last 5 years||115-186-56-66-82|
“We have the nucleus of our team returning, and we’re confident we’re going to have a good team,” Fisher said. “I think experience is always helpful; however, experience doesn’t guarantee success.
“I like our team. I like the fact we have a whole lot of players, and competitive players returning. We’ve got a group of guys that are used to winning, and a group of guys that have started a whole lot of games at San Diego State.”
The team is led by 6-6 senior forward Lorrenzo Wade, who enters his third year of playing and fourth in the program. Wade played his freshman season at Louisville.
Wade (#31, 14.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.6 apg) was a first-team All-Mountain West pick last season, as well as a first team NABC selection. He also was a second-team All-District 13 choice. He is San Diego State’s top returner in scoring and assists.
“He has been a huge piece to the continued growth of our program,” Fisher said. “He’s as athletic a player as there is in the league. He’s extremely confident, intelligent and he’s a big-time player. I don’t want to single him out as the only dog we have in the show, but he’s significant. He carries himself in a fashion that he expects himself to be successful.”
Joining Wade in the frontcourt is 6-8 senior Ryan Amoroso (#43, 11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), another Division I transfer. He played his first two seasons at Marquette. Last season was his first with the Aztecs, and he earned third-team all-conference honors. Amoroso led the team in rebounding.
“He gave us a presence in the post that you have to have in our league,” Fisher said. “He’s physical and allowed us not to have to double-team someone every time the ball went into the post.”
Then there’s Billy White. All the 6-8 Las Vegas product (#32, 8.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) did last season was earn Freshman-of-the-Year honors in the conference. He earned the league’s player of the week award three times, becoming the first freshman in league history to accomplish that feat.
“Like Lorrenzo he’s a lefty, so he’s a little unorthodox, but he’s very long and athletic,” Fisher said. “What I appreciate about Billy is he doesn’t have a big ego. He’ll do exactly what you ask him to do. I remember watching him in high school and he loved to float around the perimeter, shoot jump shots and he took two or three three-pointers a game.
“We told him he was going to be a guy that scores in and around the basket for us last year. And that’s what he did. He made a lot of big plays for us. I knew he was athletic. I didn’t realize he was quite as athletic as he truly is. I knew he was a good person. He’s a great young guy that wants to win. He doesn’t care how many shots he gets. When you have guys like that who not only say it but live it, you have a chance.
“He’s hoping and we’re hoping he can expand his game a little bit. He’s worked very had on shooting the 15-footer, where last year we didn’t want him to do that.”
The frontcourt could be even better if the Aztecs get 6-5 senior Kyle Spain (#15, 13.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 apg) and 6-7 sophomore Tim Shelton (#24, 10.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) back.
Spain played in 20 games and started 19 last season but ran into some disciplinary problems and Fisher suspended him.
“As we speak we’re cautiously optimistic we’ll have him back,” Fisher said. “If he’s back, that adds to our credibility. He’s another guy that’s had a lot of starts for San Diego State .”
Shelton started three games and played in only four before he went down with a knee injury that required micro fracture surgery. In his limited action Shelton shot better than 50 percent from the field.
“Tim’s another big piece to what we’re trying to accomplish,” Fisher said. San Diego State experienced more injury problems at point guard, but it looks to have come out stronger for it.
Richie Williams (#3, 6.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.0 apg) returns for his senior season. The 5-10 San Diego native has played in 91 games and made 76 starts, but he missed five games last season with a wrist injury and a few others because of suspension.
That opened up opportunity for 6-0 D.J. Gay (#23, 5.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.7 apg), who played in all 33 games last season and made 26 starts as a freshman.
“You get a point guard that’s got some experience and you have confidence in, all of that is Richie Williams,” Fisher said.
“I don’t think D.J. thought he would start. When Richie went down, D.J. stepped in and did a great job. He was one of the leading scorers in California in high school and felt like he could make shots. He’s a scorer and finds ways to make baskets.
“He’s going to have a chance to take a big step forward coming off his freshman year and have a banner sophomore season.”
Gay could be used more as a scorer in the backcourt, which Fisher said the team lacked at the end of last season.
Others who could contribute to the scoring load include 6-3 senior Kelvin Davis (#40, 7.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg), who made the second-most three-pointers on the team last season (39) and started five games, and UW-Milwaukee transfer Jason Deutchman (20), a 6-6 sophomore.
Another guard, 6-4 senior Matt Thomas (#21, 2.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.1 apg) played in 29 games last season and is seeking a fifth-year of eligibility from the NCAA.
Bryan Horton (#10) is a 6-1 guard who red-shirted last season.
Fisher hopes the addition of 6-6 junior guard Tim Island (#2) also gives the Aztecs some much-needed scoring along the perimeter. Island played his freshman season at Long Beach State before he transferred to Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) Community College, where last year he averaged 16.1 points and tossed in 68 three-pointers. He’s already got some Division I threes to his credit, too, having made 13 of them in his lone season at Long Beach State.
“He can catch and shoot the basketball,” Fisher said. “There’s always a place for a guy that can make shots, and we believe Tim will make a lot of open jump shots for us over the next couple of years.”
Fisher also signed 6-8 forward Mehdi Cheriet (#42), who came from Arizona Western Community College and is originally from France.
“He’s 6-8 but has ball skills,” Fisher said. “He can face up and make an open jump shot. He knows how to play. He won’t be the greatest athlete on our team, but his intelligence, experience and maturity will add to what we have and what we are.”
The Aztecs also added a couple of late additions to the squad in 6-4 guard Bryce Smith and center Brian Carwell.
Smith averaged 11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals last season at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Carlwell, a 6-11 Illinois transfer, will sit out this season and be eligible in 2009-10. He will have two seasons to play at San Diego State after playing 29 career games with the Illini, averaging 1.5 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
If San Diego State can stay healthy, get Spain back from suspension and find some perimeter scoring, this could easily be the best team in the conference. Even if something falls through, there is still enough talent and experience for the Aztecs to make a run at the league title.
Fisher has been at San Diego State longer than he was at Michigan, where he won a national title in 1989 and took the Wolverines to the national title game in 1992 and 1993. He is also the elder statesman among MWC coaches.
That experience has taught him a thing or two. Despite all the upside his team has, Fisher knows nothing will come easy come conference time.
“I never worry about anybody other than our own team, but this is going to be a very good basketball league,” he said. “Some of the teams that weren’t as good last year, like Colorado State, will be a whole lot better.
“But teams that were good, like UNLV, New Mexico, BYU and Utah, return a lot of really good players. There’s a fine line between finishing first and fifth, and you’ve got to win close games, stay relatively healthy, catch a break — all of those things somebody in this league will do this year.
“This year one through nine will be as competitive as it has been and as good as it has been.”