All the motivational tricks that Jim Brandenburg has learned in 30 years as a basketball coach have been exhausted.
His San Diego State team is down to its last regular-season game tonight (6:30 PST) against Texas El Paso, and the last-place Aztecs are a downtrodden group.
It has been a season of one setback after another for the Aztecs, the lastest the loss of junior guard Michael Best for “medical reasons,” and to have to end the season on the road against a team that has beaten them eight times in a row has not brightened their mood.
Just two months ago, SDSU was at the top of the Western Athletic Conference standings; now, they are assured of their second last-place finish in three seasons.
Where once Brandenburg was trying to motivate his team toward a championship drive, he is left to encourage them to play for pride.
“Kind of reverse psychology,” Brandenburg said.
But the patient hasn’t been responding.
The Aztecs have lost four consecutive conference games and 11 of their past 15 games overall. Their recent difficulties have only added to the futility of their record on the road. SDSU (12-15, 4-11) has lost eight consecutive road games and 25 of their past 26 WAC games outside of San Diego, including the past 11 in a row. To make matter worse, Texas El Paso (21-6, 10-5) has won all 17 of its games at the Special Events Center.
Fighting that streak would be enough for the Aztecs at full strength, but the loss of Best, and the earlier suspension of guard Bryan Williams after his arrest for petty theft, has complicated the assignment. The Aztecs are left with two scholarship guards--juniors Rodney Jones and Tony Ross.
If the situation sounds familiar, it is. The Aztecs finished last season with only two scholarship guards--Ross and Williams. But unlike last season, when they had Williams’ ballhandling ability, neither Jones nor Ross are seasoned at running the offense. Both had their difficulties at New Mexico.
Ross scored 17 points but was five of 13, committed two turnovers and had no assists. Jones was held without a point as he missed all five of his shots. Their difficulties contributed to the Aztecs’ failure to slow down the pace of the game against New Mexico.
“It’s very hard without seasoned guards to get in offense and stay in offense for a long period of time,” Brandenburg said. “What we have to do now is keep stressing that a lot of personal pride goes into our work, and we have to play like that in the game.”