SAN DIEGO (AP) — Steve Fisher is living for the moment, just like his San Diego State Aztecs.
Although he already has a long basketball resume that features a national title at Michigan, Fisher is excited all these years later to have the Aztecs in the NCAA round of 16 for the first time.
As the No. 2-seeded Aztecs (34-2) prepare to meet the third-seeded UConn Huskies (28-9) on Thursday in Anaheim, Fisher could tell his players all sorts of stories from his many postseason coaching experiences.
The Wolverines won the national title under Fisher in 1989, when Bo Schembechler famously declared that “A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan” after Bill Frieder accepted the Arizona State job on the eve of the tournament.
When the Fab Five came along, the Wolverines reached consecutive national championship games, losing to Duke in 1992 and North Carolina in 1993. Michigan has vacated the records from both seasons because of forward Chris Webber’s involvement with booster Ed Martin.
In 1994, Michigan made it to the regional final before losing to eventual national champion Arkansas.
Stories galore, right?
“Not from me, no,” Fisher said. “I’m long past that era.”
A dozen seasons into his SDSU tenure, he’s helping to write a new chapter at a school with precious little hoops history, a Midwestern transplant leading a team laden with Californians.
Last Thursday, SDSU beat Northern Colorado for its first NCAA tournament victory in seven tries. Two days later, prior to a double-overtime victory against Temple, Fisher received a new lapel pin from tournament officials.
“As I said on Saturday, it’s been 17 years since I put a pin on for the second round. And it felt good,” he said.
What Fisher has accomplished at SDSU is remarkable. Hired in 1999, two years after he was fired at Michigan, he inherited a sad-sack program that won only four games the previous season. His first team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West and winless away from San Diego.
He did get the Aztecs to the NCAA tournament in his third season, ending the school’s 16-year postseason drought. But the 13th-seeded Aztecs were shipped to Chicago and were routed 93-64 by Illinois.
In 2003, SDSU got its first postseason victory, in the NIT. The Aztecs reached the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in 2009 before losing to Baylor.
Now they’re in the NCAAs in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, with their highest seed. They were No. 11 seeds in 2006, when they lost 87-83 to Indiana, and again last year, when they fell 62-59 to Tennessee.
“I feel great. I’m excited to be a part of it. I’m proud that I’m part of something that hasn’t happened before,” said Fisher, who turns 66 on Thursday. “We’ve had tremendous support starting with Steve Weber, our president, and everybody around with, ‘What can we do to make your job effective? What can we do? What do you need?’ They’ve gone out of their way to try to help. Now that we’ve won, and this year won to the degree that we have, we’ve got a lot more people that are involved, in the arena, in the support group, and that feels good, too.
“Everybody likes to be loved, and they’re loving this team right now. For me to be a part of it, it feels really good, for me, for the team, for everybody.”
The 34 victories are eight more than the previous school single-season record and the Aztecs were nationally ranked this year for the first time ever. Their highest ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 was No. 4, and they were sixth in the final poll.
Maybe that’s why Fisher doesn’t need to tell stories about his Michigan days.
“He doesn’t really talk too much about being there with another team,” said forward Tim Shelton, one of five SDSU seniors. “He’s always talking about us, us, us, what we can do. Last week we were in there after the game, he was like, ‘I haven’t been past the first round in like 17 years.’ He was like, ‘It feels good. It’s a new team, it’s a new experience for me, as well.’ He has a whole lot of confidence in us.
“He’s enjoying it. That’s just a credit to what he does, building up a program.”
Mountain West Conference rival BYU, which handed SDSU its only two losses, also advanced to the regionals. Despite the rivalry, Fisher and BYU coach Dave Rose have a mutual respect.
“I think what he’s been able to do with that program, for that university, their students, the community, I’m really happy for him,” Rose said. “He’s a great coach and he had great success early in his career and then kind of just went off to do his own thing. Now he’s kind of got them back in the national spotlight and I’m really happy for him.”
Fisher and Rose will be pulling for each other.
“It’s kind of pleasing for our team and our staff that San Diego State is in the Sweet 16 because we know how good they are,” Rose said. “It’s nice to be able to show the rest of the country how good the teams in our league are.”
Fisher said it helped that the Aztecs were in the NCAAs last year, and mentioned that they’re not just happy to have made it this far.
After finally beating Jimmer Fredette and BYU to win the Mountain West Conference tournament, SDSU will have to try to slow down UConn guard Kemba Walker. If the Aztecs win, they’ll play the Duke-Arizona winner for a berth in the Final Four.
“I’m hoping that I have to fret and scheme and game-plan for another two weeks,” Fisher said.