While SDSU football has had more than its fair share of “moral victories,” basketball (excluding a short stint in the mid-1980s) had just been generally awful to mediocre until the past few seasons. Consequently, there are only a small handful of games that make you wonder what would’ve happened had the ball bounced a different way or if the rim been more forgiving.
That list includes the MWC Championship game against Utah in 2009, the Sweet 16 game against UConn, the NCAA opener against Tennessee in 2010, or any of the losses last season — especially North Carolina State. But winning any of those games wouldn’t have advanced the program beyond where it currently is.
For a game to have that kind of impact, we will have to go back a few more years.
This week’s ‘What If’ game hardly counts as a moral victory. As far as I’m concerned, the ridiculous ending to this game set the basketball team back two years in coach Steve Fisher’s quest to bring San Diego State to the national stage:
March 16, 2006 — No. 6 Indiana 87, No. 11 San Diego State 83
The Hoosiers erased deficits of 10 points early in the second half and five points a bit later. Trailing 83-82 with 40 seconds left, Indiana’s Marshall Strickland harassed San Diego State’s Brandon Heath near the halfcourt line and the ball crossed into the backcourt. Thinking he couldn’t touch it lest he be called for a backcourt violation, Heath tried to shield Strickland from the ball. They both dove after it for a jump ball and Indiana got possession. After a timeout, the Hoosiers worked it to Vaden — sort of. He snagged a bad pass from Roderick Wilmont that got tipped into the air by Slaughter. Hobbling with a hurting left ankle that almost kept him out of this game, Vaden spotted up about a step behind the line and swished the 3, giving Indiana an 85-83 lead.
“Quickly Marty, to the DeLorean!”
Ian Eagle: Heath dribbles the ball hoping to add to the Aztec lead.
Jim Spanarkel: Going to want to run some shot clock off here unless you are looking for a 2-for-1.
Eagle: Heath drives the lane… the defense collapses… Heath dishes to Spain in the corner for three… IT’S GOOD!
Spanarkel: What a huge shot there by Spain! Makes it a two possession game.
Eagle: Have to think this will be Coach Davis’ last game here with Indiana …
The Aztecs picked up their first NCAA win in school history just three years after winning their first Division I postseason game (2003 vs UC Santa Barbara). The school’s fans celebrated by boozing up Salt Lake City like (and probably with) Jerry Sloan. But the team had to focus because it had just two days to prepare for a Gonzaga team led by Adam Morrison’s wispy dirtstache.
The Aztecs went on to beat Gonzaga by continuing their hot shooting streak (over 50 percent in the NCAA tourney) and monster play by forward Marcus Slaughter (23 points, 15 rebounds). They followed their first NCAA win with their first Sweet-16 appearance, becoming the cause of this iconic scene:
The Aztecs fell by 3 to eventual runner-up UCLA after clawing back from a 17 point first half deficit (an actual moral victory). The season was widely considered Aztec basketball’s “coming out party” and was surely a signal of things to come.
Aided by his stellar tournament showing (48 points, 32 rebounds) Slaughter was drafted late in the second round by the Pacers and traded to Memphis via Portland. He hung around the NBA for a few years before getting cut and spending the rest of career in Europe.
The next year the Aztecs replaced Slaughter with Jerome Habel and added Louisville transfer Lorrenzo Wade. Burgeoned by the previous year’s experience they took a 23-6 record into the MWC tournament and beat Colorado State, UNLV and BYU en route to another NCAA tournament bid. The 9 seeded Aztecs then upset Marquette before losing to North Carolina in the second round.
Recruiting got a boost from back to back tournament appearances leading Malcolm Thomas to eschew an offer from Pepperdine to come play for Steve Fisher the following year. The success that followed in the next few years led to a few other recruits starting their college careers at SDSU: Xavier Thames, Dwayne Polee and James Johnson. SDSU also picked up several top-100 recruits during this time frame (Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Stover, Jeff Withey) deepening the bench and raising the overall talent level.
With the better recruiting, The Aztecs returned to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 and made their first Final Four appearance the following year. That success resulted in four straight years of Cox/Viejas Arena sellouts.
Meanwhile the Pac-10, having invited six Big XII schools (Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado) in the summer of 2010, started looking around for other options should the core of the Big XII stay together. Upon discovering that the Pac-10 was looking at San Diego State as a fallback option (face it, their hoops could use a boost), Texas decided to jump at the Pac-10′s offer before the neighborhood went to shit.
Coupled with the concurrent (though slightly more moderate) success for SDSU football and women’s basketball, the Big XII — in full survival mode — came calling for the Aztecs that fall.
SDSU joins BYU, Utah and TCU in the new Big XII.