For all the sell-outs at Viejas Arena and all the lofty expectations set upon Steve Fisher and his program, let us all remember that those two NCAA Tournament wins came a little over 400 miles away in Tucson, Ariz.
And for all the swagger that the team’s stars carries themselves with when they walk onto the court on any given night, let us all remember that that SDSU basketball team had a NBA first-round draft pick who was also named the California Mr. Basketball coming out of high school.
This is not 2011. This is not the same team that broke records and brought new heights to Montezuma Mesa.
No, the team that steps onto the Wells Fargo Center court in Philadelphia on Friday night to play Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Tournament is not that team.
But this current team is trying to live up to the long shadow that team casts on Aztecs basketball and trying to build on the success that was found two seasons ago.
“We won our first-ever NCAA game two years ago, and we got to the Sweet 16, and I was very, very proud of every team we've had. That team was good enough to win a national championship,” SDSU head coach Steve Fisher said at a press conference in Philadelphia. “From 10 years ago to say that about San Diego State, people would laugh at you. But we were. We were good enough, didn't quite do it.
“So now when you win a game, everybody thinks it's a divine right to be there and you're supposed to win a game. So expectations are high, and now they're high with our fan base, and I think that's the way it should be. But you can't allow that to eat you up with pressure if you're a player or a coach, you've got to—you have your own expectations.”
Playing as the seven seed against the 10 seed, the expectation is at least to make it to Sunday, and to not repeat the fortune the team had last season when they travel to Columbus, Ohio only to be upset by North Carolina State.
It was a long flight back from Ohio. The same circumstance faces the Aztecs (22-10) on Friday night in Philadelphia, and that flight back to San Diego is much longer, especially if it happens Saturday after a loss and not Monday after a victory.
“We don't want to go all the way out there and just play in one game and come home,” senior Chase Tapley said. “We want to do everything to go the full length of the two-game tournament then go onto the next city."
Getting to the third round of the tournament may not have to do much with effort but with matchups, and the Sooners (20-11) may present a matchup problem for San Diego State.
Oklahoma is led by 6-foot-8, forward Romero Osby. The senior currently leads the Sooners with 15.8 points per game while averaging 7 rebounds per game.
But Osby has been a terror on the blocks as of late. In his last eight games, Osby has raised his scoring clip to 21.5 points per game, including a 31-point outburst in an overtime loss to Texas a month ago.
Needless to say, the way Osby goes, Oklahoma goes. In the Sooners 11 losses, Osby is averaging just 12.9 points per game. Take out his 31-point performance against the Longhorns, and he’s averaging just 11 points per game in losses.
Osby did not score a single point in the final 10 minutes of Oklahoma’s Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to Iowa State.
“ 'Ro' has been so consistent,” coach Lon Kruger told The Tulsa World. “He's the one guy that hasn't taken a possession off all year. He's a guy that's finished and been there, and someone the other guys look to for leadership and strength. We're putting so much on 'Ro' right now.”
And it’s the matchup that SDSU might have been dreading all year, even if Oklahoma isn’t as big inside as some of the other teams San Diego State has played this year.
The Aztecs are coming off a 60-50 loss in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals to New Mexico—a much bigger Lobos team that dominated the paint.
In addition to Osby’s size is former Mountain West product Amath M’Baye. M’Baye is listed at 6-foot-9 and patrols the paint with Osby. M’Baye is averaging 10.1 points per game and was named to the All Big 12 Third Team.
Could this be another version of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, the duo that put up 31 points against SDSU’s bigs last week, although a slimmer version?
“It’s like N.C. State was in the tournament last year,” SDSU associate head coach Brian Dutcher told the Union-Tribune about last week’s loss to New Mexico, “the exact kind of team we don’t want to see.”
If there’s one thing that is leaning towards San Diego State’s favor it is experience. This will be SDSU’s fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the longest stretch in school history.
And maybe that will be enough of an edge to get them to Sunday.
“This is the biggest stage of them all, so when the lights are on, I guess you want to feel like you're playing your best basketball,” Tapley said. “Experience, yeah, it's going to come in a factor, but like I said, it's going to be the team who makes the right plays at the right time that's going to be successful. We've just got to have that.”
It also depends on what experience you call back to. Will the Aztecs mirror their Sweet Sixteen run from two years ago or will they be taking an early trip back to the Mesa just like all the other years?